As part of God’s challenge to Job, he mentioned behemoth and leviathan as two creatures that only He, not Job, could subdue.
Behemoth was a strong, unconquerable herbivore that was just as happy on land as in freshwater:
Job 40:19, 24 It is a prime example of God’s handiwork,and only its Creator can threaten it. … No one can catch it off guard or put a ring in its nose and lead it away.
Leviathan is described as a fire-breathing dragon or serpent:
Job 41:14-21 Who could pry open its jaws? For its teeth are terrible! The scales on its back are like rows of shields tightly sealed together. … Its breath would kindle coals, for flames shoot from its mouth.v
So what were these creatures?
The short answer is that there is nothing alive now or in the known fossil record that matches these descriptions. Theories include:
- The dinosaur theory: they’re as-yet-undiscovered dinosaurs (or plesiosaurs, or other ‘saurs—the differences matter to taxonomists).
- The alive-now theory: behemoth is a hippopotamus or an elephant (ignoring the tree-like tail) and leviathan is a whale or crocodile (ignoring the fire-breathing, and scales in the case of the whale).
- The God-was-just-making-a-point-theory: They were both popular mythological creatures of the times. God was using well-known imagery to make the point that Job couldn’t tame these monsters, but God could.
(See: Behemoth and Leviathan–Creatures of Controversy)
The problem with the dinosaur theory is that no one has found a fossil that matches the descriptions in the text. That said, I’ve never seen a theory for whether a fire-generating organ could be fossilised, let alone what this fossil might look like. The electric eel and firefly both give off light, albeit on a much smaller scale than described here (and without smoke).
The problem with the alive-now theory is that there is no living animal that fits the descriptions in the text.
The problem with the God-was-just-making-a-point theory is that is takes a text that’s loaded with imagery and makes it even more imageric (if that were a word). Even worse, all the other animals were real, so God’s argument for His power might well collapse if He started invoking imaginary creatures, unless Job believed they were real.
In defence of the God-was-just-making-a-point theory, there are old middle eastern scripts that do refer to behemoth and leviathan-like creatures. The creatures were uncontrollable, demonic in the broader sense of the word, and usually the enemy of humanity. Maybe Job believed they were real.
It would be like God using popular imagery from our times to make a point about His power. What would it be? The point was that God could control the creature that was the strongest anyone could ever imagine, which had:
Job 41:33 Nothing on earth is its equal
It was well-understood imagery in the ancient middle east. Asaph, in his psalms of grief, saw God as powerful enough to crush leviathan:
Psalm 74:13-14 You split the sea by your strength
and smashed the heads of the sea monsters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan
and let the desert animals eat him.
Leviathan as Satan
But we can take the imagery one step further for leviathan, as God says:
Job 41:34 Of all the creatures, it is the proudest.
This brings leviathan up as a symbol of Satan, who started off this whole disaster for Job out of the proud idea that people worshipped God only for His benefits.
Satan is described as a dragon (or serpent) in Revelation 12:9, and whose judgement is also prophesied by Isaiah:
Isaiah 24:1 In that day the Lord will take his terrible, swift sword and punish Leviathan, the swiftly moving serpent, the coiling, writhing serpent. He will kill the dragon of the sea.
(That day is when Israel is restored, the Lord comes down from heaven, and the earth gives up its dead.)
The conclusion? God is powerful
So in the end, God was indeed making a point, regardless of whether the creatures were physical animals, mythological monsters, or in the case of leviathan symbolic of Satan. The point was that God is more powerful than these creatures, more powerful than any myth, and more powerful than Satan.