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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

09 February 2007

Some Biblical Beasts

When Christians use real (the butterfly) and imagined (the phoenix) creatures to illustrate Scripture truth, they follow a pattern established by God in His Word. Not only did the Lord create animals, He also used them to depict some of His commands and promises.

UnicornSome of these animals’ names are unfamiliar to modern scholars. According to various early English translations of the Bible, the unicorn is mentioned some nine to eleven times. Yet if you read a more recent translation, you’ll not find a single unicorn in your Bible. That’s because we don’t know anymore what a certain ancient Hebrew word meant.

According to scholars at the time of the Authorized (King James) Version of Scripture, the context fit their notion of what a unicorn must be, an animal most people now would call imaginary or mythological. Moderns normally render the word as wild bull or some type of antelope (compare Isaiah 34:7 in the KJV and the ESV).

Two other creatures, behemoth (Job 40:15-24) and leviathan (Job 41), give translators similar problems. Some Bibles transliterate these words while others attempt to translate them into one or another modern animals.

BehemothFor behemoth, when translators venture an opinion, I see hippopotamus used most often. God’s words to Job indicate a vegetarian animal that is tremendously strong, living among water plants and able to resist swiftly running water. I could go along with using the hippo in this context, except that God also says “he makes his tail stiff like the cedar (v. 17)”; this isn’t how one normally depicts a hippo.

The cedars of Job’s time were long and strong. Neither the hippo nor the elephant (another guess of some translators) has a tail like this. So what is it? Is God using picture language? Perhaps — but not likely. After all, with the exception of these two creatures, the illustrations God uses in these concluding chapters are well known to modern readers. Perhaps He’s speaking of a creature alive at Job’s time but no longer on earth. The picture in Job 40 is consistent with any number of large, plant-eating dinosaurs. The only problem is that many scientists tell us that no dinosaurs existed when man began walking the earth. Of course, this is no real problem, since God tells us that these scientists are wrong. Man was formed within hours or days of all the land, air, and sea dwelling creatures.

LeviathanLeviathan similarly troubles translators. Most either transliterate the Hebrew or render it as a crocodile. This still leaves us with a few problems. Granted, crocs are hard to catch or to kill and certainly have powerful jaws and sharp teeth (cf. Job 41:1-14). However, unless God is exaggerating tremendously, they don’t have scales on their backs like “rows of shields” and their sneezes don’t “flash forth light”; their mouths don’t produce “flaming torches” nor do their noses pour out “smoke, as from a boiling pot. (vv. 18-20)”

In case you’re still thinking that leviathan is just a crocodile with a good press agent, how do we then explain verse 21: “His breath kindles coals, and a flame comes forth from his mouth”? The rest of the chapter talks about a strong, fearless, and fear-provoking creature whose passing sets the waters in turmoil. While we don’t have any definitive living or fossil evidence, it seems that the closest animal to this description is the dragon.

No, I can’t prove dragons true; however, since Scripture mentions them so often and there’s been no contrary evidence provided, I doubt that any readers can prove them false. The destructive ferocity of these legendary beasts matches the furious war the devil continually wages against God and His people. In Ezekiel 29:3 and 32:2, the Lord compares Egypt’s pharaoah to a dragon. This beast He promises to destroy. The image of evil, idol-worshiping Egypt as dragon was transferred in Jewish thought to the devil. Egypt would stand for any earthly oppressor and the dragon became the sign of the spiritual oppressor.

St GeorgeLater Jews and, subsequently, the Christian Church used Babylon as a code word for any anti-Christian government or nation, particularly Rome. The dragon’s symbolic role likewise continued. In Revelation, John sees this terrible creature in full might and fury (see Revelation 12; 13:2, and 16:12-16), yet also cast down from heaven (Revelation 12) and seized and restrained by the Lord’s angel: “And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. (Revelation 20:2-3)”

With such passages, God makes clear the awesome strength, unending hatred, and vile resentment possessed by the dragon. Yet even more so, He shows that this beast will ultimately fail; indeed, he is already judged by Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.

For more on this final creature, please see what I wrote about Biblical Dragons.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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