Job and the Dinosaurs

When the topic of ' dinosaurs in the Bible' comes up, it inevitably leads to discussions of Job 40 and 41. Taking it as some literal narrative with God dealing with fire-breathing dragons is not only a shallow reading of the text, but robs it of its important philosophical and theological ideas and lessons (regardless of one's religion or lack thereof).

Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless noted.

Introduction and background
The Book of Job has uncertain authorship (though the author is almost certainly an Israelite) and cannot be precisely dated, though it is believed to be exilic or post-exilic (the dates run from the 7th century to the 4th century BC and sometimes a bit later). Some conjecture that Job's suffering is meant to symbolize that of the exile.

As for Job, there is a reference in Ezekiel ( 14:14, 20), along with Noah and Daniel (possibly not the Daniel of the book), noting his "righteousness" or "uprightness." While this might suggest a pre-exilic (Ezekiel recieved his calling as a prophet around 593 BC and prophesied as late as 571 BC) it might also only refer to an original telling (probably oral) of the story. It is generally thought that the story is based on earlier narratives and the writing, itself, dates later, starting from the 6th century BC. The book appears to be informed with a background in the Mesopotamian and Canaanite religious ideas and traditions (which will become important later). Job is not only of theological value and deeply philosophical, it is complex and highly poetic; sometimes considered in the ranks of some of the greatest works of literature of the ancient world.

Another thing to make note of is that God is not absent, impotent, nor unaware of evil and suffering. He is also involved on a personal level as much as He is on the cosmic as all-powerful creator. From the introduction to Job in The New Oxford Annotated Bible:

In the poetic language of the book, God is at work in the universe, even "to bring rain on a land where no one lives" (38:26) and God is fully aware of evil (personified by the monsters Behemoth and Leviathan, 40:15—41:34). At the same time the LORD cares for Job so much that he reveals himself personally and shares with him the vision of cosmic responsibilities.
In other local (Mesopotamia and Canaan) religions, with whom the Hebrews would have been familiar, the "gods appeared as divine creators and rulers of the cosmos, with human beings as subjects. Majestic in wisdom and power, they acted at times beneficently and at times with inscrutable arbitrariness" (Harper Collins Bible Dictionary). Later, they formed beliefs about more personal, paternal gods, as did the Hebrews. The trouble is when you have caring, compassionate, omnipotent creator-deities is that it calls into question the "problem of evil" and undeserved suffering. Other area religions tended to eventually return to the view of the gods as "inscrutably arbitrary cosmic rulers" (HCBD). The people of Israel worked to explain the nature of such things, preserving their vision of God. Job is a work that deals with such things. These things are the context with which to view it.

Behemoth is described as the first of God's creations (40:19) and, among other things, has great strength and power; a creature against whom "only its Maker can approach it with a sword." The New Jerusalem Bible suggests a slightly different reading of the line and the following one ("Where the mountains yield food for it where all the wild animals play," NRSV) as "His Maker threatened him with the sword, forbidding him from mountain regions and all the wild animals that play there," arguing it to work better with the Hebrew in context. It still suggests the same thing, which is the power of the creator over this creature (the Tanakh seems to favor the same as the NRSV). Further to suggest not only the formidability of the beast but God's power over it: "Can one take it with hooks or pierce its nose with a snare?" (40:24). Can one? The answer found in Job is that the creator can.

Of course it is the description of the creature that some think suggests (or "proves") it is a dinosaur. It talks of the great strength and the strong bones and limbs ("are tubes of bronze" and "like bars of iron," 40:18). The key part that seems to capture the imagination is in line 17. This seems to often be misread as meaning it describes his tail as looking like a cedar. Let's view some of the translations of the line, though:

It makes its tail stiff like a cedar (NRSV)

His tail is as stiff as a cedar (NJB)

He makes his tail stand up like a cedar (Tanakh)

He bends his tail like a cedar (New American Standard Bible)

He moveth his tail like a cedar (King James Bible)

It is clear that not one of these suggest that it is as long (or tall, as it were) as a cedar, thick as a cedar, nor literally as hard as one. If someone swings his fist "like a hammer" or has muscles "coiled like steel springs" one can hardly take that to describe something other than a flesh and blood person. This is analogous.

Generally, scholars try to match this animal with various known ones. A hippopotamus, probably being the most common, in some ways resembles it. Like the Behemoth, they are large, spend much of their time in the water ("lies, in the covert of the reeds and in the marsh" and "even if the river is turbulent, it is not frightened; it is confident though the Jordan rushes against its mouth," 40:21, 23), and is a vegetarian ("it eats grass like an ox" 40:15). Also, hippos have been known to be aggressive toward humans, capsizing boats and even biting people.

That said, even if the hippo was the original source for the description in Job, Behemoth is far more than a simple creature. "Behemoth is not a mere hippopotamus but a primeval monster (v. 19), a mythical symbol of chaos and evil" (NOAB). From the NJB (note the other possible matches):

"[Behemoth] is the plural form of the word meaning 'beast,' 'cattle.' The plural form may perhaps indicate the typical 'beast' or 'brute,' hence any sort of monster. Behemoth has often been identified with the elephant, or with the mythical buffalo mentioned in the Ugaritic texts. Here, however, Behemoth is the hippopotamus, as symbol of brute force, controlled by God but beyond human power to tame.
A beast resembling the evil and chaos of the world, things that only the creator can control. But the key is that He can control it. That is part of the message being sent Job. Despite the fierceness of this creature, He can tame it, put a ring through its nose ("pierce its nose with a snare" 40:24) and make it in the words of the Oxford Companion to the Bible a "divine pet."

Another interesting thing is the sexual component to the beast—Behemoth being "celebrated for reproductive organs" (HCBD). It has been suggested by some translators that the tail in question was euphemistically used as a stand in for the creature's prodigious phallus. Regardless, we are told that "its strength is in its loins." And sexual excess would go hand in hand with the ideas of chaos and would reflect beliefs held by the Israelites (the need to control and tame excessive desire, in the way that God is able to with the beast).

Leviathan is usually proffered as some sort of reptilian sea monster like the ichthyosaur or plesiosaur (technically neither are true dinosaurs) or whatever is being claimed to be the Loch Ness monster these days.

The description is far more extensive than Behemoth. It is clearly a frightening sea-beast of some sort.

There is terror all around its teeth. Its back is made shields in rows, shut up closely as with a seal. One is so near to another that no air can come between them. They are joined one to another; they clasp each other and cannot be separated. Its sneezes flash forth light, and its eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. From its mouth go flaming torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of its nostrils comes smoke, as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. Its breath kindles coals, and a flame comes out of its mouth. In its neck abides strength, and terror dances before it. The folds of its flesh cling together; it is firmly cast and immovable. Its heart is as hard as stone, as hard as the lower millstone. When it raises itself up the gods are afraid; at the crashing they are beside themselves. Though the sword reaches it, it does not avail, nor does the spear, the dart, or the javelin. It counts iron as straw, and bronze as rotten wood. The arrow cannot make it flee; slingstones, for it, are turned to chaff. Clubs are counted as chaff; it laughs at the rattle of javelins. Its underparts are like sharp potsherds; it spreads itself like a threshing sledge on the mire. It makes the deep boil like a pot; it makes the sea like a pot of ointment. I leaves a shining wake behind it; one would think the deep to be white-haired. On earth it has no equal, a creature without fear. It surveys everything that is lofty; it is king over all that are proud. (41:14-34)
Not only is it heavily armored, huge, and strong, Leviathan appears to breathe fire, as well. After the similarities of size and armor and (assumed) ferocity between dinosaurs and it are mentioned, generally one hears that this "real" creature was the basis for the widespread myths concerning dragons, suggesting that to be some sort of corroborating evidence for its existence (one could argue that the biblical "story" corroborates dino-dragon myths from other cultures as "true," as well). If challenged, the infamous bombardier beetle is often (incorrectly) evoked as contemporary analogue and "proof" fire-breathing creatures once existed (the weak form of the argument is that it proves 'they could have').

While often identified as some sort of extreme version of the crocodile, like Behemoth, it is more of a vessel through which theological ideas flow. From the NJB footnote,

the name, in its strict sense, indicates a monster of primeval chaos, 3:8 believed to be still living in the ocean. Here it is used of the crocodile, though description bears traces of the primeval monster which Yahweh subdued, see 7:12 and which symbolised all powers hostile to God.

[3:8: "Let those curse it who curse the Sea, those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan"; Job is cursing the day and night of his birth, asking for "cursers who control the sea...and Leviathan..., the monsters of the deep, that personify chaos," (NOAB)]
[7:12: "Am I the Sea, or some sea monster, that you should keep me under guard?" (NJB), Job addressing God]

More importantly to understanding Leviathan are the numerous references to how difficult it is to harm or control it. This is similar to Behemoth, only on a much larger scale. Again, it has to do with the creator-God who has ultimate mastery over his vast creation and his ability to subdue chaos.

This is where other mythologies of the region are helpful to elucidate. In Ugaritic mythos, a similar creature (or the same, being borrowed) was "one of the primeval sea monsters who battles against Baal on the side of Mot (the god of the underworld) and who is ultimately defeated" (HCBD). Also: "in the Babylonian cosmogonies Tiamath (the Sea) co-operated in the birth of the gods and was then conquered and subdued by one of their number. The imagination of the people, or of poets, seized on this story: Yahweh became the conqueror who then set Chaos in order and ever after held the Sea and its monsters in control" (NJB). It is clear from the description that the only power able to subjugate and control such a "creature" is the God of Job.

The waters—the sea—as well as the monster within them represent this chaos that exists and will be tamed by God. One should recall the opening of Genesis, where the earth "was a formless void and darkness covered face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters" (1:2). After creating light, day, and night, he first makes a "dome" that separates "the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome [which became "sky"]" (1:7), then gathers the waters "into one place, and [lets] the dry land appear" (1:9). So here, in the creation narrative, God is separating the land—the earth (where His people will live)—from the void and darkness of chaos that was there with the primeval waters. He tames and controls that chaos.

Unlike Behemoth, Leviathan is mentioned throughout the Old Testament. References that also suggest the above reading. In the prophecies of Isaiah, one finds that "on that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea" (27:1). When God triumphs over evil, he does so by subduing and conquering the beast of chaos. In a footnote, the NJB adds "the text here is influenced by one of the Ras-Shamra poems (14th century BC) which reads: 'You will crush Leviathan the fleeing serpent, you will consume the twisting serpent, the mighty one with seven heads." Psalm 74 includes "You divided the sea with your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan..." (13-14). More imagery of God's power over the forces of chaos and evil. It further goes on to suggest (through line 17) that this was done in the process of the creation act(s).

The mention of being multi-headed (as is Tiamat and also the Ugaritic Lothan—note the similarity to "Leviathan," it's thought to be a linguistic variant) is interesting as the concept and imagery appear much later in Revelation as "a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns" (12:3). Once again, this creature of manifest chaos and evil must be conquered. Later in 13:1, one finds "a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads." The beast is captured in chapter 19 and "thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur" (20). Finally "then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more" (21:1)—with the final capture and destruction of chaos personified (not only the "beast" but the "sea"), the heavens and earth can be renewed.

Now of course, while Revelation is apocalyptic literature and the events and figures described are allegorical and symbolic of primarily contemporaneous history for the writer and its originally intended readers, it shows that the strength of the symbolism has carried through from the Old Testament to the New with its resonance intact.

The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, 1996
The New Jerusalem Bible, 1985
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 1994
The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993
Tanakh, 1985 (The Jewish Publication Society)
Quotes from the King James Version and New American Standard Bible from online sources