Mountains and molehills
A response to Ben Stanhope on behemoth
It has been some time since my original article responding to liberal scholarship on behemoth was published, and Ben Stanhope—the YouTuber/blogger whose views were specifically addressed there—has perhaps unsurprisingly posted a reply on his own website. As I see it, there is far too little engagement between young- and old-earth Christians as it is, so by all means I will count this dialogue as a good development. Any time we can take steps to break through the internet’s echo chamber, I suggest we should do so.
I think a helpful way of addressing our differences will be to tackle the most important ones first—those are the mountains. Ironically, the purported main subject of our disagreement, that is, the identity and nature of ‘Behemoth’, is not among the mountains. It resides among the molehills of our disagreements. The identity of Behemoth really makes no difference to either of our biblical views. Rather, it is our differing views that are chiefly responsible for our differences in interpretation here. If we deal with the underlying major differences, then our disagreement about Behemoth will be a light matter indeed.
Is the Bible true, or is it a myth?
Stanhope has taken an obviously tongue-in-cheek tone in response to my claim that his theology is liberal, as if this were somehow supposed to be a controversial point.
In this usage, I’m inferring the semantic range of liberal circumscribes everyone who isn’t a Young Earth creationist.
Good to know.1
In point of fact, yes, Stanhope’s theology is liberal, with liberal being defined as “regarding many traditional beliefs as dispensable, invalidated by modern thought, or liable to change”.2 In this case, young earth creationism3 is the “traditional belief” (held by the entire Christian church universally up until the so-called Enlightenment), and modern theological reinterpretations and Darwinian evolutionism represent the “modern thought”.
But many old-earthers are not liberal about other aspects of biblical doctrine. So, despite Stanhope’s insinuation, we would normally reserve the term ‘liberal’ for those who abandon more than biblical young-earth teachings. E.g. we have pointed out that schemes like day-age and gap theories were invented by otherwise conservative exegetes to try to preserve biblical authority while capitulating on long ages. The outright liberals were often happy to admit that Genesis teaches six normal-length creation days, a young earth, and a global Flood, but was just wrong.
So, let me bring another element here to seal the case for Stanhope’s liberalism: the fact that he apparently denies biblical inerrancy outright, and possibly the doctrine of inspiration along with it. What makes me say this?
… Creation.com’s authors typically ignore the obvious fact that the genealogies in Genesis are mathematically contrived and often evidently symbolic (e.g. Enoch’s death at 365 years old or Lamech at 777. Here’s a fancy pants paper on the topic for the uninitiated). They therefore whip out their calculators in front of a J Mac and typically tally up a date for the Global Flood to around 2350 BC—Bishop Ussher style.
Stanhope’s mention of Archbishop Ussher is rather ironic in light of his view that the ages of some of the Patriarchs are “contrived” is supposed to be obvious4. It wasn’t obvious to Bishop Ussher, and it’s not obvious outside the scope of liberal circles, let the reader be assured of that! The ages are given as part of a historical narrative, and most interpreters (prior to the rise of secularism and the belief in long ages of prehistory) took them as straightforward history. Ussher was just one of a huge number of scholars who calculated a creation date in the same ball park (~4000 BC from the Hebrew, ~5500 BC from the Greek). The fact that the numbers appear to have some symbolic significance is evidence only of God’s providential power over all things, including the length of our lives. Was it not Job who stated,
Since [man’s] days are determined,
and the number of his months is with you,
and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass … (Job 14:5)
Indeed, symbolic numbers are found throughout the history of the Bible, including in the New Testament. I wonder, on the same basis does Stanhope also deny the historicity of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, since that number is repeated often throughout the Bible? What about the three days that Jesus spent in the tomb?
A recent article by Dr Carter has made huge strides in showing that in fact, these numbers are not contrived at all. Rather, they fit a mathematical pattern that would have been impossible to forge or fake in ancient times without modern knowledge of exponential math.
The Bible is unique
I agree with Stanhope’s statement that our interpretive philosophy is the biggest difference between us.
What I’m doing is not “Waltonian.” It’s how all ancient literature analysis works.5
Actually, this is precisely his problem. Stanhope is viewing the Bible as if it were just another member of a generic group we’ll call “all ancient literature”. It isn’t. The Bible claims a special place for itself, over and above all other literature. In that aspect, the Bible is not unique: lots of literature claims a special status. The Bible is unique in that it both claims to be unique, and proves it by displaying supernatural insight into the human condition, the world around us, and to the events unfolding in history, past present and future.
The Bible openly interacts with its surrounding culture so richly that a person simply can’t be literate in academic Bible study or archeology without encountering that fact regularly. We have to read the Bible through the lens of “extra-biblical sources” and “pagan literature” because the biblical authors openly make references to these, indigenously shared in their culture, and spoke a cognate language to them. If your theology doesn’t let you to go with the biblical authors to these sources, then your theology is trying to be more holy than the Bible and is getting in your way of understanding it.
The fact that the Bible interacts with surrounding cultures is no evidence against its uniqueness. Most of that interaction is negative: ‘don’t be like them!’ God inspired the biblical authors with a unique message and a uniquely accurate view of history—supernaturally. If you don’t believe that, then I’m sorry to say, you neither understand nor believe the Bible.
It is also no evidence against the Bible’s unique status that it cites pagan literature. I am making reference to Stanhope here; does that mean we agree? Obviously not. I do understand that they spoke a cognate language, but that is a tricky business. Sometimes cognate words take on different meanings—especially over many centuries of time. Sometimes we may encounter false cognates as well. Asserting on the basis of literature that is 1) not God-inspired and 2) from many centuries later than the Biblical text, that a certain word in Hebrew must mean the same as a cognate in a different language, is very shaky hermeneutics. Stanhope is presenting a shaky argument as if it were the only reasonable view to hold.
This isn’t just theoretic ivory tower hair splitting either. If creationists had bothered to read the Baal Cycle, one of the most famous ancient Near Eastern texts, they wouldn’t have embarrassed themselves for decades and invited the world to mock the Bible through their claim that fire breathing dragons used to literally exist alongside brachiosauruses in the biblical period.
Wait, so now we need to read more ancient pagan literature just to understand what God meant in the Bible? Why didn’t God just tell the Jews to add the Baal Cycle to their canon, if that’s the case? Stanhope is the one actually mocking the Bible by accusing the Bible of being on the same level as the Baal Cycle. He also claims that God couldn’t have possibly meant anything else by the term leviathan than what the pagans did. Creation.com just so happens to have an article referencing this exact topic.
Using this same hermeneutical approach consistently, one would have to argue that John 1:1’s use of the term logos implies that the Bible fully endorses ancient Greek philosophy. But see The incarnate Word for the real origins of John’s logos theology.
In reality, God frequently interacts with people by referencing ideas they may be familiar with, but providing a more truthful and accurate insight than the pagan literature. That is what Paul did at Mars Hill:
For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:23)
I’m sorry if the Bible’s mention of ‘fire-breathing dragons’ is an embarrassment to liberals like Stanhope. One wonders: does it also embarrass them that the Bible records that Elisha caused an axe head to float? That people were raised supernaturally from the dead? That Jesus walked on water? Compared to many of the strange, miraculous things the Bible records, a fire breathing dragon is pretty tame in my view. The question is, are you willing to believe God’s word when it says something, or are you going to reinterpret it to remove any connotations or meanings that make you feel embarrassed or uncomfortable?
In the words of another one of these articles: “all civilizations discovered by archaeology must fit into the last 4,285 years” (since the Flood would have obliterated and reset all material culture before then). As your benevolent tour guide, it behooves me to point out that c. 2300 BC isn’t exactly Pleistocenic pre-history. It’s some eight centuries after the conventional date range of the King Narmer Pallette documenting early Egyptian writing. Their calculation barrels straight through the conventional date of the Sixth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom and violates Pharaonic chronology no matter how you dice it.
Not to keep beating a dead horse here, but apparently, it’s “frankly ridiculous” to believe the Bible’s history if it contradicts non-inspired pagan history, or the modern prevailing attempts to reconstruct it. This boils down to an issue of authority, doesn’t it? There are a lot of issues with the current state of Egyptian history, and I certainly wouldn’t put that on par with God’s inspired word.
Really though, why no horns?
Stanhope did quite a lot of posturing in his response (an implicit argument from personal incredulity), but he has done very little to actually respond to the challenges I posed in my article, and he glossed over many glaring issues, like the horns. He attempted to make much of the fact that sauropods (typically) had long necks; this was supposed to be an argument that this could not have been Behemoth.
Yet, he ignored my response that we cannot know the mind of God, and therefore we cannot know what God would choose to highlight about Behemoth’s anatomy. It is a weak argument from silence. God had thematic reasons for highlighting the features he did, and those may not have included the need to mention the long neck.
Also, there is an undoubted living animal with a long neck: a giraffe. If the account had compared the neck instead of the tail to a cedar, then it would have been reasonable to assume that Behemoth was a giraffe. But the comparison was to the tail, and no land animals besides dinosaurs had massive tails.
This really does cut both ways, though. A super-bull should have some super horns, right? Why weren’t they mentioned? If Stanhope’s no-long-neck argument is valid, then my no-horns argument is valid by exactly the same token.
Mythology versus history
The clearly supernatural and mythic status of the chaos dragon implies that his literary twin Behemoth isn’t a natural animal either. (There I go, interpreting the Bible with the Bible—like a lib).
Interpreting the Bible with the Bible is not, sadly, what Stanhope is doing here. Instead, he is ripping verses out of context from a completely different time period and different author, with a different purpose, to mangle the interpretation of a text that shows no internal signs of being mythology.
None of the other things God mentions in His discourse with Job are mythological. The creatures in Job 38–39 are all known animals and not particularly controversial. And even more importantly, they couldn’t be, otherwise God’s whole point is undermined. In context, God is clearly listing out aspects of His creation for the purpose of aweing Job. You would have to be deliberately blinding yourself to overlook this. To suddenly switch, mid conversation, from talking about real things to talking about fantasy, would be nothing short of confusing and nonsensical. This is perhaps the single greatest problem with Stanhope’s view of the text.
God chooses to use the words behemoth and leviathan to describe two living things that were around in Job’s day. Regardless of what they were, it makes no sense in the context of the passage to suggest they were not real. The fact that nothing alive today displays those characteristics does nothing to remove the intended meaning of the text. Neither does the fact that other cultures happened to use the same (or similar) words in different times, places, and contexts to describe mythological creatures.
This calls to mind a similar kind of confusion that surrounds the use of the word unicorn in many translations of the bible. The fact that a translation of the ancient Hebrew term רְאֵם (re’em) has, over time, come to be associated with a mythical and legendary supernatural creature, by no means implies that the original animal referred to in the Hebrew language was a mythical creature. The book of Job, being the oldest in the Bible and possibly the oldest surviving piece of literature in the world, likely predates even the ancient legends that it purportedly makes reference to.
Post-script: the Septuagint does not support Stanhope’s theory
It is ironic that Stanhope, in his response to our original article, decided to bring up the Septuagint (LXX) in support of his mythical interpretation. It is my view that there are certain situations in biblical exegesis wherein the LXX can provide helpful elucidation on the original intended reading or meaning of certain contested passages in the Old Testament. This is not a wholesale endorsement of the LXX, or its extended timeline of history which exceeds the length of years stated in the Masoretic Hebrew.
Stanhope chooses to bring the LXX into the debate on account of a variant reading found for Job 40:20 (40:15 in LXX):
“And when he has gone up to a steep mountain, he causes joy to the quadrupeds in the deep.” (LXX, English translation)
Stanhope expresses confusion about the meaning here,6 but since the Greek term for “the deep” used here is Tartaros (Tartarus), he thus concludes that the reference is obviously mythological. But is it really? For example, 2 Peter 2:4 also references a place called “Tartarus” as a real place of angelic confinement. It is curious as to what that might mean in reference to four-footed animals or “quadrupeds”, but the mere mention of the word need not indicate mythology. As the English translation states, this term here may simply mean “the deep”, as in very low places or perhaps caverns.
In terms of the intended meaning of the verse, however, it seems clear; these animals in low places are happy when Behemoth goes up to a high place, because that gets Behemoth further away from themselves, and they are afraid of it! This LXX reading, in my opinion, is more internally coherent than the Masoretic reading, and may be evidence for a later corruption in the Masoretic text on this verse.
Further investigation into the LXX in Job 40 causes Stanhope’s thesis to unravel further. Much of his time is spent arguing from the etymological origin of the Hebrew word “Behemoth”, yet the Greek word found here is Thēría, which is a plural for wild beasts (singular thēríon), matching the plural form Behemoth (singular behema). With another great dose of irony, thēríon happens to be the base word for our modern term, “Theropod”. Unlike Behemoth, there is no particular etymological link to “cattle” to be found in the word Thēria.
Even more strikingly, Stanhope’s claim that the Hebrew word pachad (thigh) is intended as a euphemism for testicles falls flat in the LXX, since no corresponding Greek word for thigh is used here at all. Instead only the sinews (neura in the Greek, usually means “nerves”) are mentioned. If pachad is supposed to be an important key to interpreting the euphemism here, why did the Jews who translated this verse into Greek sometime in the centuries before Christ apparently not know it?
References and notes
- Stanhope, B. Creation.com disagrees with me about behemoth’s penis, Pixels and Papyrus, bstanhope.com, 14 Apr 2021. Return to text.
- Oxford Languages. (n.d.). liberal (theology). Google.com Return to text.
- Young earth creation, or simply, biblical creation, is the belief that God literally created the world and life in a supernatural way, and that this act occurred thousands, not millions or billions, of years ago, in accordance with the scriptural record. Return to text.
- It is also worth noting that Stanhope’s cited article here is based upon the debunked JEDP hypothesis, which he by implication seems to be endorsing. So, he denies the Mosaic authorship of Genesis (affirmed by Jesus in John 5:46–47), yet he’s not a liberal? Return to text.
- Stanhope, B., Behemoth’s tail isn’t about his tail. It’s about his penis (part 2), Pixels and Papyrus, bstanhope.com, 20 Apr 2021. Return to text.
- Stanhope merely quips, “I love how weird the Bible is.” Return to text.
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