Another Bible animal
BEHEMOTH from Job 40: 15ff
Look at Behemoth,
which I made just as I made you;
it eats grass like an ox.
Its strength is in its loins,
and its power in the muscles of its belly.
It makes its tail stiff like a cedar;
the sinews of its thighs are knit together.
Its bones are tubes of bronze,
its limbs like bars of iron.
“It is the first of the great acts of God—
only its Maker can approach it with the sword,
Forbidding it the mountain regions
where all the wild animals play.
Under the lotus plants it lies,
in the covert of the reeds and in the marsh.
The lotus trees cover it for shade;
the willows of the wadi surround it.
Even if the river is turbulent, it is not frightened;
it is confident though Jordan rushes against its mouth.
Can one take it with hooks
or pierce its nose with a snare?
Although there have been various interpretations, most modern translations agree that these verses refer to the hippopotamus, which is not now resident in Israel, but may have been in biblical times. The picture given is exaggerated but accurate. Peoples who live near the hippo regard it as the most dangerous they may encounter. It is extremely and unpredictably territorial, which means that people who work the rivers where it dwells are often at risk and many are killed every year.
What is it it doing here in the book of Job?
Job has been questioning the wisdom of God, who retaliates by asking Job to take a fresh look at creation, pointing to creatures and processes which are common enough but beyond the wit of humanity. Job is asked to explain them, which of course he can’t. He is being forced to notice the hugeness of God’s responsibilities and the mystery of God’s purposes, many of which are nothing to do with humanity: what about the wild goats or the wild asses who are barely known to humanity, yet prosper under the wisdom of God?
And what about the hippopotamus, behemoth, what is it for, why does it graze like a cow yet behave as fiercely as a lion? It just is so. Like the goat, the wild ass, the ostrich, or the Pleiades, they exist and are just so, in the creative evolution of the universe guided by God’s wisdom. Job has (rightly in my view) questioned God’s justice, and now God is saying, “And your point is?”
The author does not claim to to understand fully the processes of creation. Rather he/she has looked at them with care, accepting them as mysteries in plain sight. Look, its strength is in its loins and its power in the muscles of its belly! How does that contribute to human welfare? Yet the one wisdom encompasses both animals, human and hippo, “which I made, just as I made you.” Job has been making the human mistake of thinking that reality stops at the edge of his attention, and that his own being stops at the edge of his skin. Now he begins to understand that his being is continuous with the rest of creation which is itself vaster and stranger than he had imagined. Job’s identity includes that of the hippo, which helps him see not only his comparative smallness, but also the wild power of the creative spirit which has made him, or rather, is still making him, through all his loss and suffering.
At a time when it is clear that human beings are a greater threat to the hippo than it is to us, this and other passages from Job 38-42 can open our eyes to the splendid “just so” of our fellow creatures in their wonderful variety and unity with us in the creative wisdom of God.