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What is the Behemoth?

November 3, 2017 | by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

Job 40:15-24 discusses the Behemoth – a massive, powerful beast. Someone suggested that this is a reference to the dinosaurs. Does the Talmud or commentators explain likewise?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

At the end of the Book of Job, God appears to Job to at last put his many questions of faith to rest. He describes His great power and control of the universe, helping Job understand that man, with his limited perspective and understanding, can never possibly question God’s ways.

One of the illustrations God gives is the Behemoth, a huge, massively-strong animal which only God can control, merely by looking at it (40:24). What is the identity of the Behemoth? Is it a creature which lives with us today?

The Hebrew word “Behemoth” (“bi-hai-MOAT”), in the literal sense is simply the plural form of the word “bi-hai-mah” = animal, often more specifically referring to domesticated animals. Based on this, one of the commentators understands the reference not to a specific beast, but to the animal kingdom in general. God’s message is thus that the great power and ferocity of the animal world is something far beyond Job’s control, and thus further demonstrates man’s limitations in the world’s grander scheme (Ramban).

Others have observed that many of the qualities of the Behemoth resemble those of the hippopotamus. It is a huge, powerful animal (of the land-dwellers second only to the elephant) which is herbivorous (vv. 15,20), spends time in the water (v. 23), sleeps in the shade (v. 22), and for the most part is not aggressive towards other animals (v. 20; ArtScroll, quoting from Feliks, The Animal World of the Bible).

By contrast, the Talmud (Bava Batra 74b) understands the Behemoth to be a creature unknown to man today, but one which will play a role in the Messianic Era. It identifies the Behemoth as a huge animal far too powerful for human interaction, which had it been allowed to mate, its population would have been too great for the world. At the End of Days, God will serve the female as part of a great feast for the righteous. Classic works also refer to this beast as the “wild ox” (“shor ha’bar”).

In this regard, the Behemoth relates closely to the Leviathan, which is mentioned in the Book of Job immediately after the Behemoth (40:25-41:26). That too is a fearsome beast – a water creature too huge and powerful for man to control, and which too will be served to the righteous at the Messianic feast. (The Sages actually state that the “great beasts” (“taninim ha’gedolim”) God created on the fifth day of creation were a pair of Leviathans. They were too large for the earth to be allowed to procreate, so God instead killed the female and preserved it for the final feast, while the male He let roam the seas (Talmud Bava Batra 74-75).)

The Midrash likewise talks of a colossal battle between the Behemoth and Leviathan at the End of Days, in which they will kill each other in preparation for the final feast (Vayikra Rabbah 13).

Needless to say, such fantastical descriptions allude to something far greater than a simple physical banquet. Some explain that the flesh of these animals represents the spiritual food the righteous will consume at the End of Days, and which will nourish their bodies to live eternally with their souls.

May we see each other at the feast!

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