Behemoth

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Clockwise from left: Behemoth (on earth), Ziz (in sky), and Leviathan (under sea).

Behemoth (/bɪˈhməθ, ˈbə-/; Hebrew: בהמות‎, behemot) is a mythological beast from the biblical Book of Job, apparently a form of the primeval chaos-monster defeated by God at the beginning of creation; he is paired with the other chaos-monster, Leviathan, and according to later Jewish tradition both would become food for the righteous at the end-time.[1] Metaphorically, the name has come to be used for any extremely large or powerful entity.

Etymology[edit]

The Hebrew word behemoth has the same form as the plural of the Hebrew noun בהמה behemah meaning 'beast', suggesting an augmentative meaning 'great beast'. However, some theorize that the word might originate from an Egyptian word of the form p-ehe-mau 'water-ox', altered by folk etymology in Hebrew to resemble behemah.[2]

Biblical Description[edit]

Behemoth and Leviathan, watercolour by William Blake from his Illustrations of the Book of Job.

Behemoth is mentioned in a speech from the mouth of God in chapter 40 of the Book of Job, a primeval creature created by God and so powerful that only God can overcome him:[3]

15 Behold, Behemoth, which I made as I made you; he eats grass like an ox.
16 Behold, his strength in his loins, and his power in the muscles of his belly.
17 He makes his tail stiff like a cedar; the sinews of his thighs are knit together.
18 His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like bars of iron.
19 He is the first of the works of God; let him who made him bring near his sword!
20 For the mountains yield food for him where all the wild beasts play.
21 Under the lotus plants he lies, in the shelter of the reeds and in the marsh.
22 For his shade the lotus trees cover him; the willows of the brook surround him.
23 Behold, if the river is turbulent he is not frightened; he is confident though Jordan rushes against his mouth.
24 Can one take him by his eyes, or pierce his nose with a snare? (Job 40:15-25, ESV)

The passage pairs Behemoth with the sea-monster Leviathan, both composite mythical creatures with enormous strength which humans like Job could not hope to control, yet both reduced to the status of divine pets.[1]

Later interpretations[edit]

In Jewish apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, such as the 2nd century BCE Book of Enoch (60:7–10), Behemoth is the unconquerable male land-monster, living in an invisible desert east of the Garden of Eden, as Leviathan is the primeval female sea-monster, dwelling in "the Abyss", and Ziz the primordial sky-monster. Similarly, in the most ancient section of the Second Book of Esdras (6:47–52), written around 100 CE (3:1), the two are described as inhabiting the mountains and the seas, respectively, after being separated from each another, due to the sea's insufficiency to contain them both. Likewise, in the contemporary Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch (29:4), it is stated that Behemoth will come forth from his seclusion on land, and Leviathan out of the sea, and the two gigantic monsters, created on the fifth day, will serve as food for the elect, who will survive in the days of the Messiah.[4]

A Jewish rabbinic legend describes a great battle which will take place between them at the end of time: "they will interlock with one another and engage in combat, with his horns the Behemoth will gore with strength, the fish [Leviathan] will leap to meet him with his fins, with power. Their Creator will approach them with his mighty sword [and slay them both];" then, "from the beautiful skin of the Leviathan, God will construct canopies to shelter the righteous, who will eat the meat of the Behemoth and the Leviathan amid great joy and merriment." In the Haggadah, Behemoth's strength reaches its peak on the summer solstice of every solar year (around 21 June). At this time of year, Behemoth lets out a loud roar that makes all animals tremble with fear, and thus renders them less ferocious for a whole year. As a result, weak animals live in safety away from the reach of wild animals. This mythical phenomenon is shown as an example of divine mercy and goodness. Without Behemoth's roar, traditions narrate, animals would grow more wild and ferocious, and hence go around butchering each other and humans.[5]

Modern interpretations of Behemoth tend to fall into three categories: (1) he is an animal of the natural world, most often the hippopotamus, although the elephant, the crocodile and the water buffalo have been suggested; (2) he was an invention of the poet who wrote the Book of Job; (3) he is a mythical chaos-beast like Leviathan but not to be identified with him.[6]

Literary references[edit]

The 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes named the Long Parliament 'Behemoth' in his book Behemoth. It accompanies his book of political theory that draws on the lessons of English Civil War, the rather more famous Leviathan.

The Behemoth is also mentioned in the opera, Nixon in China, composed by John Adams, and written by Alice Goodman. At the beginning of the first act, the chorus sings "The people are the heroes now, Behemoth pulls the peasants' plow" several times.[7]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ a b Coogan 2004, p. 33.
  2. ^ "behemoth, n.". OED Online. Retrieved September 29, 2020.
  3. ^ Dell 2004, p. 362.
  4. ^ Hirsch, Emil G.; Kohler, Kaufmann; Schechter, Solomon; Broydé, Isaac. "Leviathan and Behemoth". Jewish Encyclopedia.
  5. ^ Ginzberg 2006, p. 43-49.
  6. ^ Uehlinger 1999, p. 166-167.
  7. ^ "Nixon in China Libretto | Adams". Opera-Arias.com. 1972-02-21. Retrieved 2014-02-04.

Bibliography[edit]