This is the second of a series of three posts dealing with the large megabeasts of Jewish folklore. Having spoken of Leviathan, current king of the sea and future meal and construction material, we now turn to its partner Behemoth, King of the Land Animals.
In God’s long monologue in the book of Job (presented in the previous post), Behemoth is mentioned along with Leviathan to show God’s greatness. In that passage, it is presented as a huge herbivore, with a strong, indomitable body. Unlike Leviathan, it is not especially dangerous – it lazes around swamps, and drinks from a river that ends up in its mouth. Also unlike Leviathan, Behemoth’s only mention is in the book of Job. Or maybe not.
See, this is where it gets tricky. Lexically speaking, Behemoth is the plural of Behemah, which means a land animal (usually domesticated). As such, the word itself appears numerous times in the Old Testament – sometimes it is clearly in the plural, and sometimes it is not as clear. For example, the beginning of Isaiah 30:6 can be read as “Beasts of the South”, or “Behemoth, who is in the south”. A similar phrase is found in Psalms 50:10: it can read “the cattle upon a thousand hills”, or “Behemoth, who dwells upon a thousand hills”. This second reading is entirely invisible to those who use translations of the Bible. It was certainly not invisible to the Jewish writers who used that last phrase as a basis for their description of Behemoth. The sources don’t describe what it looks like, but they dwell in length on what is really important: what does it eat, and when do we get to eat it. The first question is answered in Midrash Rabba, the great collection of exegetic texts on the Pentateuch composed in late antiquity and the early middle ages:
There is one beast that I created in my world, and no man can withstand the burden of feeding it. Which one is it? Behemoth, who dwells upon a thousand mountains (Psalsm 40). And Ben Lakish and Yohanan said: This is one beast, that grazes on a thousand mountain, and a thousand mountain grow for it all manners of food…. and that rabbi said, it is one beast that lies upon a thousand mountains, and a thousand mountains grow animals for it to eat every day… and where does it drink from? Ben Levi said, all the water that run in the Jordan river for 6 months it swallows in a single gulp. And where does it drink from? Bar Yohai claimed, that a river streams forth out of Eden by the name of Yuval… and from there it drinks. (Exodus Rabba)
And the Midrash Conen has this to say:
On the sixth day, He took water, dirt and light, and created Behemoth on the thousand mountains; a bull that grazes on a thousand mountains each day. And it plays each day in Eden before the Creator.
Now for the next question – when do we eat it? In some sources, the Feast of the Righteous (see previous post) will be a meal of Leviathan and another creature, called Shor HaBar, or the Great Ox. Since Leviathan is mentioned along with Behemoth in Job, this Shor HaBar is usually considered to be another name for Behemoth, which explains why it is often depicted as a huge bull. This means that Behemoth too will be eaten by the righteous. Don’t forget that the Feast is supposed to include entertainment as well as a hearty meal. Instead of hunting for Behemoth, he is usually given the fate of a gladiator in a deadly battle against Leviathan.
…in the World to Come, God will organize a feast for the righteous from Behemoth and Leviathan, and then there is will be no proper slaughter there. Know that Leviathan is a strange creature, and angels will fear it, for it is written, the mighty are afraid (Job 41:25), and if they throw iron spears at him, it feels as though it is hit by straws, for it is said, he esteemeth iron as straw (Job 41:27). And Behemoth is also a difficult creature, for it sits upon a thousand mountains…. and how come they can be slaughtered? But they will approach each other. Behemoth will come to Leviathan, and hold it with its horns and tear it, but Leviathan upon its death will hit Behemoth with its tail and kill it, and the righteous will approach and each will take his portion. (Midrash Tanhuma)
Or in another version:
Behemoth and Leviathan are the entertainment of the righteous in the World to Come [End of Days]. Everyone who did not watch pagan entertainment in this world, will see in the Next World how they are slaughtered. Behemoth will charge at Leviathan with its horns and rip it, and Leviathan will hit Behemoth with its fins and and butcher it. And the sages say, that this slaughter will produce Kosher meat. (Leviticus Rabba)
Just like Leviathan, should Behemoth reproduce, the world will be unable to contain its offsprings. If you remember, God solved Leviathan’s problem by killing the female and preserving it in salt. For Behemoth, however, the solution was simpler – he castrated the male. According to the Talmud (Baba Bathra, 74b), the female is preserved on ice for the Feast of the Righteous; according to Genesis Rabba, the female is still out there, but the castrated Behemoth simply has no will or means to reproduce.
Perhaps the most interesting commentary on Behemoth that I was able to find is in a Kabbalah book by the name of Shoshan Sodot (“The Lily of Secrets”), in paragraph 306. The section raises the claim that every day of the creation featured a certain duality: light and darkness on the first day, sun and moon on the fourth day, and so forth. According to the text, the dual creation of the sixth day was Man and Behemoth. The text doesn’t develop this idea further, so I’ll leave this as an exercise to my readers – what does that it mean exactly that our brother in Creation is a huge, hungry, and castrated bull, and why are we supposed to eat it eventually?