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behemoth

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Behemoth

N or ADJ

 

  • A great beast that God describes in the Bible (Job 40), Behemoth is something like a bad-ass hippo.
  • Speakers today use behemoth to describe any kind of ginormous entity—especially huge and powerful organizations like Google or the NSA.
  • The word originates from Hebrew, possibly based on the Egyptian word for hippopotamus.
  • Sounds like: buh-HEE-moth (IPA: /bəˈhimɑθ/ (US), /bəˈhimɒθ/ (Brit.))
  • Note: some speakers have stress on the first syllable, like BEE-huh-moth (IPA: /ˈbihəmɑθ/ (US) or /ˈbihəmɒθ/ (Brit.))

Behemoth in the Bible

God gestures to the creature Behemoth

by William Blake, from Behemoth and Leviathan

  • In Chapter 40 of the Book of Job, God describes a gigantic creature that He calls Behemoth. This creature has mythical properties, but is, as Dr. Dexterous noted earlier, a lot like a hippo. Behemoth:
    • Feeds on grass like an ox;
    • Has great strength in its loins, and great power in its belly;
    • Lies under the lotus plants, hidden among the reeds of the marsh;
    • Is not alarmed by a raging river—it could stand secure in, say, the Jordon river.
  • God brings up this great creature by way of demonstrating just how powerful He is: “if I can create an awesome beast like that,” God basically tells Job, “I must be very mighty indeed!”

Hebrew Language Origins

etymolgy diagram for behemoth

Hebrew origins of “behemoth”

  • Behemoth is Hebrew for great beast. But to understand the structure of the word, you need to know a curious background fact about ancient Hebrew: Hebrew speakers back then could use the plural of a noun to mean not just actual plural, but also—applied to a single entity—big or great.
  • For example, the Hebrew word for mountain is har. If you pluralize har, that becomes harim. Harim can mean mountains, of course; but it can also mean (talking about one mountain) big mountain, or great mountain.

    har - harim - harim - two plurals for Hebrew "mountain"

    Two meanings for Hebrew plural of “mountain”

  • Now, the Hebrew word for beast is b’hemah (sometimes transliterated as bēhēmā). And if you pluralize b’hemah, that becomes b’hemoth. Given how Hebrew speakers used their plurals, b’hemoth can therefore mean either (a) beasts (actual plural) or (b) great beast. The latter is the Hebrew origin of behemoth—or at least part of the story.

    Illustration of two meanings for b'hemoth:  true plural, and one great

    Two meanings for plural of Hebrew word for “beast”

The Egyptian Connection

Illustration of Egyptian p-ehe-mau, possible source for Hebrew b'hemoth

Possible Egyptian source behind b’hemoth

  • The ancient Egyptian word for hippopotamus was p-ehe-mau (literally water-ox).

    Egyptian word for "hippo" p-ehe-mau

    Egyptian hippo

  • The Egyptian word is not directly related to Hebrew for “great beast”, but the words sound quite similar, and describe similar creatures. Maybe that’s just a coincidence, but many linguists think p-ehe-mau is the true source of behemoth.
  • Under this theory, some ancient Hebrew scribe misheard the unfamiliar Egyptian name for hippo, p-ehe-mau and thought they were hearing the Hebrew word for “great beast”—which would have made sense in the context.
  • This is rather like what happens when you mis-hear and re-analyze song-lyrics—in other words, a Mondegreen.

Behemoth’s Buddy: Leviathan

  • Right after he talks about Behemoth, God brings up another, similarly ginormous, creature: Leviathan.
  • Leviathan is also huge and powerful evidence of God’s creative power—but Leviathan looks like a sea-serpent, rather than a hippo.

    Blake's drawing of the Leviathan sea-creature

    Blake’s Leviathan

Sources

  • Feliks, Jehuda, and Theodor H. Gaster. “Behemoth.” Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 263. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 25 July 2013.
  • “The New International Version (NIV) Bible.” New International Version (NIV) Bible. Biblica, n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2013. <http://www.biblica.com/niv/>. (Job 40 is here).
  • “Online Etymology Dictionary.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2013. <http://etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0>. (Behmoth entry is here).
  • “Oxford Dictionary of English.”, Second Edition, Revised, Soanes, Catherine and Angus Stevenson eds.
  • “Oxford English Dictionary.”, Oxford University Press

The phrase “Bunker-busting behemoth” in Cartoon 2 is based on an article from FoxNews.com, May 23 2013 (here).

The text in Cartoon 3 is based on New York Times article on translation apps from May 2 2013 (here).

Images of Blake’s Behemoth and Leviathan are public domain images, taken from Wikimedia Commons. The original is in the Tate museum in London (Tate’s info on the piece is here).

The image of the NSA building is also a public domain image from Wikimedia Commons—though the NSA doesn’t actually have “NSA” written in huge white letters on their building.

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