Mark 1:12-13 (NRSV)
12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Job 40:15-24 (INL)
15Behold! Behemoth! My creation (like you)—he grazes like cattle.
16Behold! There is strength in his loins, power in his stomach.
17His stump hangs like cedar; sinewed stones interlock.
18His bones? Tunnels of bronze.
His limbs? Bars of iron.
19Foremost of God’s marvels! Monarch of dry lands!
20Indeed the mountains bring him tribute; all the wild beasts rejoice.
21He lounges beneath the brambles, lies among stalks of the marsh.
22The shade trees cover him in shadow; willows of the wadi surround him.
23When the river breaks forth, no fear in his face;
Though Jordan comes against him; his confidence remains.
24Can you capture Behemoth with hooks?
Can you pierce his nose with a snare?
Last week our family was driving home from somewhere, and we had two vehicles. My son, Grady, asked if he could ride with me. It had been a long day, I was tired, and I knew my son well. So I said, you can ride with me, but only on one condition: You can’t ask any questions for the whole trip. It was only a five minute trip home, but apparently if you want to drive a ten-year-old boy crazy, that’s the way to do it. He would start to say something, then stop himself before it turned into a question, then try to rephrase it as a statement, and then finally give up in frustration. The silence lasted about five seconds before the whole process repeated itself again. Two minutes in and I thought his head was about to explode. So many questions in the wide world, and so few answers.
Too Many Questions
Job–the central character in the Book of Job–spends about 35 chapters (the vast majority of the book) asking questions. Unlike Grady’s questions, Job’s are not driven by curiosity, but rather personal tragedy–the loss of fortune, his property, his children, his health. Over and over again, he asks God the questions, “Why?” and “Why me?” and “What have I done to deserve this?” and “Where were you when I was suffering?” and “Where are you now?”
Job’s friends try to answer his questions. Their answers are good answers. They are good friends, as I pointed out in last year’s sermon series on Job. The problem is that Job’s questions were never directed at them, and so their answers cannot satisfy him. His questions were directed at God.
Finally in chapter 38, God shows up, just as Job had requested. Only, God doesn’t answer any of Job’s questions. Instead, he starts to ask his own questions of Job. Job had asked God “Where were you when I was suffering?” and now God asks Job “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” God doesn’t stop there, however. He asks Job 61 questions before stopping, and waiting for Job’s response. So what does Job do? He asks God another question. And then God asks him 27 more questions. It’s almost comical.
God never does answer any of Job’s questions, and of course Job is incapable of answering God’s questions. It’s like eventually they just come to a stalemate, an unspoken agreement not to ask each other any more questions. This is probably a bit disappointing for those who have read all the way through 42 chapters of Job hoping to get a good answer to the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It’s good to remember that in life there are no easy, simple answers to the most difficult questions…not even in the Bible. What we find instead is a God who, while he doesn’t always do what we want him to, does show up and does engage with us. Often he turns our questions back on us like a mirror, and helps us to see ourselves, and our world differently. Sometimes he helps us see, in hindsight, that we were asking the wrong questions all along.
What Exactly is Behemoth?
One of God’s questions bring us to our first monster: Behemoth. In Job 40:15-23, God describes this formidable, awe-inspiring creature, and then in verse 24 essentially asks the question, “Can he be captured or tamed?”
Behemoth has fascinated readers of the Bible for centuries, so the first thing I’d like to do is walk us through a little history of interpretation.
In the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament that predates the time of Christ, chapters 40 and 41 are spliced together and taken to describe one single monster. So in many early illustrated manuscripts, you get something like this: (Note that “Beheviathan” is already associated here with Satan & evil.)
In several Jewish Apocalyptic Books dating from around the same period (Enoch, Esdras, Baruch) Behemoth appears as one of three monsters, probably derived from Babylonian Mythology: Behemoth (land), Leviathan (sea), and Ziz (air). At the end of time, the monsters will fight each other, before God ultimately kills them and uses them to provide food for the righteous at the heavenly banquet.
The Liber Floridus (book of flowers) is an 11th century Medieval Encyclopedia where Behemoth makes an appearance as the beast ridden by the the Antichrist in the Book of Revelation.
However, Behemoth is not always portrayed as a vehicle for evil. In a church in Asinou, Cyprus, Behemoth appears on a mural (along with Leviathan) as the steed for a Saint (probably John the apostle).
In the late middle ages and reformation, Behemoth began to be interpreted more often as an actual creature, and less a mythical one. Aquinas and Calvin both thought the passage described an Elephant.
Probably the most famous depiction of Behemoth (and Leviathan) is from Romantic poet and artist William Blake, who was throughout his life obsessed with the Book of Job, and illustrated it in several different mediums. Here, Behemoth is William Pitt (Prime Minister), while Leviathan is Admiral Horatio Nelson (Navy).
Modern naturalistic interpretations of Behemoth generally point to the hippopotamus:
And, of course, most recently a few Fundamentalist Christians point to dinosaurs:
Asking the Wrong Questions
I said earlier that Behemoth has fascinated readers for centuries, but most of that fascination seems to be centered on the question “What WAS Behemoth?” Mythical monster? Historical creature? It’s a great question, but God doesn’t answer it any more than he answers any of Job’s questions. Perhaps there is no answer. Perhaps, when it comes to Behemoth, we’ve been asking the wrong question altogether.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson went on a camping trip. After a good meal, they lay down for the night and went to sleep. Some hours later Holmes woke up, nudged his faithful friend and said, “Watson, I want you to look up at the sky and tell me what you see.” Watson said, “I see millions and millions of stars.” Sherlock said, “And what does that tell you?”
After a minute or so of pondering Watson said, “Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three in the morning. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Metereologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day today. What does it tell you, Sherlock?” Holmes was silent for about 30 seconds and said, “It tells me, Watson, that someone has stolen our tent!”
In all our excitement about monsters, it’s easy to get distracted from the main story. It’s easy to forget that God is speaking to Job here, and that Job has some pretty serious concerns, none of which are about dinosaurs or hippopotami, or the end of the world. And unlike some interpreters, I don’t think God is just showing off here: “Look what amazing things I made! I’m God and you’re an insignificant mortal!”
No doubt God makes some pretty crazy things; things that terrify us, things we don’t understand. But if there’s any clue to understanding Behemoth in the Book of Job, I think it’s right there in the first line of our passage: Behold, Behemoth! I created him, just like I created you. In English as well as in Hebrew, that phrase can mean “I created him and I also created you” or it can mean “I created him similar to you.” God meets Job’s questions with more questions, and I think here he’s using Behemoth to hold up a mirror to Job.
When God shows up, Job is in a pretty bad state. He’s lost everything. He’s sitting on a pile of ashes (or a dung heap), covered in sores, mired in grief. He is weak. He is vulnerable. And God says to Job, you are strong. I made you like I made Behemoth, foremost of my creations. I didn’t create you to be free from pain and suffering, but I created you to withstand it. When the river rises up against you, you have nothing to fear. Behemoth cannot be tamed, cannot be brought down with hooks and snares…and neither can you.
The Monster At the End of This Book
There is a book that I loved as a child, and my own children have all loved it, too. It is a Sesame Street book called “The Monster at the End of This Book, Starring Loveable, Furry, Old Grover.” If you’ve never read it, the premise is simple: Grover (a muppet-monster) reads the title page of the book and becomes terrified of the monster it promises at the end. He builds all sorts of barriers and hinderances, and pleads with the reader not to turn the pages.
I think we’re like Grover sometimes. We’re so terrified of the monsters and the monstrosities in the world that we decide not to turn any more pages. We build walls for ourselves and try to hide. But despite our protests, the pages of our days keeps turning, and when we get to the end we realize our story–all the trials and all the triumphs–have been in the capable hands of a great, heavenly author. We are the only monster at the end of the book, but like Grover, we are loveable. Like Behemoth, we are strong. And like Job, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.