In His description of behemoth, God states emphatically that the creature “moves his tail like a cedar” (Job 40:17). Yet many commentators have insisted that behemoth is to be identified as either the elephant, or more likely, the hippopotamus (cf. the NIV footnote at Job 40:15: “Possibly the hippopotamus or the elephant”). Since both of these animals have farcically tiny tails, the comparison of behemoth’s tail with a cedar must be explained in some way.
One explanation is to claim that the term “tail” (zah-nahv) refers to a general appendage and so may refer to an elephant’s “trunk” (e.g., Harris’ note in Harris, et al., 1980, 1:246). Of course, this position logically surrenders the view that behemoth was a hippopotamus. In either case, however, no linguistic evidence supports this speculation, as Hebrew lexicographers uniformly define the word as the “tail” of an animal (Brown, et al., 1906, p. 275; Holladay, 1988, p. 90; Davidson, 1850, p. 240; Gesenius, 1847, p. 248; Hebrew-English…, n.d., p. 75). Further, a simple perusal of the use of the term elsewhere in the Old Testament confirms this definition. Occurring 11 times in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament (Wigram, 1890, p. 389), the word is used one time to refer to the tail of a snake (Exodus 4:4), 3 times in Judges 15:4 to refer to fox tails, 4 times in a figurative sense to refer to persons of lower rank in society in contrast to the “head,” i.e., persons of higher rank (Deuteronomy 28:13,44; Isaiah 9:14; 19:15; see Barnes, 1847, 1:197-198,336-337), one time in a figurative sense to indicate the contemptible, lying prophet in contrast with “the elder and honorable” (Isaiah 9:15), and once in Isaiah 7:4 to refer figuratively to King Rezin of Syria and King Pekah of Israel as the tail ends of smoking firebrands (wooden pokers—Gesenius, p. 18). The final occurrence is the reference to the tail of behemoth in Job. Obviously, like the foxes of Judges 15 and the snake of Exodus 4, the tail of behemoth refers to the animal’s literal tail.
Another explanation suggests that only a branch of the cedar is being compared to behemoth’s tail. On the face of such a suggestion, it is difficult to believe that God would call Job’s attention to the tail of the hippopotamus, as if the tail had an important message to convey to Job. In essence, God would be saying to Job: “The behemoth is such an amazing creature—it has a tail like a twig!” Since the context of Job 40 indicates God’s words were intended to impress Job with his inability to control/manage the animal kingdom, such a comparison is meaningless, if not ludicrous….
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