The designation “Behemoth,” appearing at Job 40:15, has been variously viewed as (1) a derivative of an Egyptian word for “water ox,” (2) a word possibly of Assyrian origin meaning “monster,” and (3) an intensified plural of the Hebrew word behe·mahʹ (beast; domestic animal) that is understood to denote “great beast” or “huge beast.” In the Greek Septuagint the word the·riʹa (wild beasts) translates the Hebrew behe·mohthʹ. Evidently, though, a single animal is meant, as is indicated by the fact that the description given of Behemoth is not that of several creatures but of only one, generally considered to be the hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius). In fact, a number of Bible translations (AT, La, Ro, NW, JB, RS) use the word “hippopotamus” in the main text or in footnotes to identify the creature referred to by God.
The hippopotamus is a huge, thick-skinned, almost hairless mammal that frequents rivers, lakes, and swamps. It is noted for its short legs, huge jaws, and large head, which is said to weigh up to a ton. So great is the power in its jaw and teeth that one bite can pierce the armor of a crocodile. Full grown it may be 4 to 5 m (12 to 15 ft) long and may weigh up to 3,600 kg (8,000 lb). An amphibious creature, the hippopotamus, in spite of its prodigious size, can move relatively fast both in and out of water. It feeds on soft water plants, grass, reeds, and bushes, each day taking more than 90 kg (200 lb) of greenery into its 150- to 190-L (40 to 50 gal) stomach.
The skin of the hide, especially that of the belly, is extremely tough, hence able to withstand bumping and scraping as the hippopotamus drags its low body over sticks and stones of riverbeds. The nostrils are strategically located at the tip of the snout, and the eyes are high up on the front of the head, enabling the hippopotamus both to breathe and to see while it is almost completely submerged. The ears and valvelike nostrils close when it submerges. Even while sleeping, when the carbon dioxide in the blood reaches a certain level, the animal automatically surfaces for fresh air and then submerges again.
At one time the hippopotamus was found in most of the large lakes and rivers of Africa, but, as a result of man’s hunting, it has disappeared from many regions and is said to be unknown N of the cataract at Khartoum, Sudan. In ancient times the hippopotamus may even have frequented the Jordan. In fact, it is reported that tusks and bones of this creature have been found in various parts of Palestine.
The description in the 40th chapter of the book of Job offers a vivid word picture of this huge mammal, Behemoth. It is described as being herbivorous. (Vs 15) The sources of its tremendous power and energy are noted to be in the hips and in the tendons of its belly, that is, the muscles of its back and those of its belly. (Vs 16) The tail of Behemoth is like a cedar. Since the tail of a hippopotamus is fairly short, measuring about 46 to 51 cm (18 to 20 in.), this is likely to be understood as meaning that the animal can set its thick tail rigidly upright or swing it about like a tree. “The sinews of its thighs are interwoven,” so that the fiber and tendons of muscles of its thighs are twisted together and braided like powerful cables. (Vs 17) The bones of its legs are as strong as “tubes of copper,” thus being able to support the great weight of the body. The bones and ribs are like wrought-iron rods. (Vs 18) The Behemoth’s immense consumption of food is alluded to (vs 20), and mention is made of its relaxing under the thorny lotus trees or concealing itself in a swampy place, beneath the shade of the poplars. (Vss 21, 22) Even when a river overflows its banks, this creature does not panic, for it can still keep its head above the level of water and swim against the force of the deluge. (Vs 23) Jehovah asked Job: ‘Since Behemoth is so mighty and formidably equipped, would a man have the hardihood to try to confront it before its eyes and try to pierce its nose with a hook?’—Vs 24.