In this section of the book of Job (38:1–41:34), God is explaining that his heavenly perspective is infinitely greater that Job’s very limited view of things, prompting Job to confess, “I have uttered what I did not understand” (42:3a).1 The point of chaps. 40-41 is that God is mightier than the greatest land creature and sea creature imaginable. It is debated, however, whether the behemoth (40:15) and the leviathan (3:8; 41:1) are actual animals known to the people of Job’s day, or fictitious creatures imagined by the people of Job’s day.2
Earlier in the discourse real animals are alluded to (38:39–39:30), but much more space is given to these two. God created all land creatures and sea creatures (Gen. 1:21, 24-25), yet symbolic imagery drawn from God’s creation is employed throughout scripture, including the book of Job (e.g. 3:9; 4:7-10; 5:22-23; 6:5; 9:9, 26; 12:7-8; 13:28; 14:2, 7-9, 18-19; 19:10; 20:14-17; 24:5-8; etc.).
The Hebrew term בְ֭הֵמוֹת [behēmôt] in Job 40:15a is plural, giving intensive force to how this magnificent beast is described. Some commentators, unconvinced by anti-theistic evolutionary theories, have identified the creature as the brontosaurus. Other suggestions include the elephant or the buffalo, while the more popular proposal is the hippopotamus, whose “tail like a cedar” is understood to be a euphemistic allusion to genitalia. God, who created it along with man, is much more capable than any of Job’s fellow humans of overpowering this mighty creature (vv. 15b, 19).
The term לִוְיָתָ֣ן [liwyātān] is typically a poetic expression. If it is a mythical sea monster, the point is that God is greater than the strongest and fiercest invention of the human imagination. It would be comparable to saying to a child, “God is stronger than Superman!” This does not suggest Superman is real but the imagery is something the child is familiar with and can understand. The leviathan could also be a fictitious serpentine sea creature that is emblematic of evil forces (cp. Psa. 74:13-14; Isa. 27:1), similar to the metaphoric depictions of the Roman Empire as a seven-headed sea beast and Satan as a seven-headed dragon (Rev. 13:1-8; 12:3-9). If the leviathan is a literal animal (cf. Psa. 104:24-26), the whale or more likely the crocodile could be in view, although hyperbolic poetic imagery is involved in the description. Some have suggested an aquatic, dinosaur-like reptile. Whatever the leviathan is supposed to be, God is so much greater!
While human curiosity may prefer more definitive answers, we often miss the forest for the trees. The purpose of mentioning the behemoth and the leviathan in the biblical text is to demonstrate, by comparison, how incredibly awesome God is. No doubt Job more clearly understood the allusions than we do, so if we are “without knowledge,” it is a helpful reminder of the essential message of the book of Job (cf. 42:2-3). There are many things we do not understand, but God does. He is far superior to all he has created. He is in control, so let us therefore be humble, submissive, trusting, and grateful.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Unless noted otherwise, scripture quotations are from the NKJV.
2 “Realistic, detailed descriptions keep the portrait from becoming purely mythical. Nevertheless, into the factual description the author skillfully blends fanciful metaphors drawn from mythic accounts of monsters in order that these beasts may represent both mighty terrestrial creatures and cosmic forces” (J. E. Hartley, The Book of Job 521-22).
Related articles: On the dating of the book of Job, see Matthew J. Phillips, Development of the Ancient Israelite Belief in Satan as a Schema for Dating OT Passages, M.A. Thesis (Charles Town, WV: American Public University System, 2015): 86-88 <Link>.
Image credit: https://www.themorgan.org/collection/William-Blakes-World/32