Does the Bible Mention Dinosaurs?

Dear Reader,

My high schooler this year is studying biology. The main curriculum I have for him, DIVE Biology, is a Christian one and takes a 6-day creationist approach. I am okay with this but I want him to also get an idea of what other people belive about the origins of the earth and its creatures. My own view on the topic is still  — if you will pardon the word choice — evolving; you can read my many posts on the creation/evolution topic here. So to supplement the video portion of the DIVE curriculum, I am not using their internet textbook nor one of the other many textbooks they recommend but am instead providing him with a selection of reading materials I have chosen. On the subject of evolution specifically, I had him read Paul Fleisher’s book Evolution . If you have never looked at them, Fleisher has some wonderful thin volumes on a number of science topics. He does a great job of taking tough concepts and making them accessible. Not all of them are as controversial as evolution so even if you don’t agree with him on this issue, you might want to check his books out. At any rate, Fleisher represented the main stream science view. Wanting to also give the other end of the spectrum its say, I then had him read Ken Ham’s The Great Dinosaur Mystery Solved! If you don’t already know, Ken Ham is the big guy behind the Young Earth Creationist group Answers in Genesis. Now the particular volume we used is not one of Ham’s most recent so I can’t say that it represents his best, most current effort, but I already owned it so it was what we went with.

One of the main tenets of Ham’s book is that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans. This, of course, is based on their view that all land creatures, including people, were created on the same 24-hour day. There are a number of arguments made to support this position. There is the theological one that sin and death could not have occurred before the fall and therefore before humanity existed — I have thoughts on this but won’t take time to elucidate them here; I have touched on this topic previously in this post. There is the scientific argument that human and dinosaur bones have been found close together. I am not able to evaluate the scientific arguments myself. One group says one thing; the opposing one says the opposite; I don’t have the expertise to say who is right. Then there is the biblical argument — that the Bible itself seems to mention dinosaurs. Now this is an area in which I feel a little more competent. In case you haven’t heard me mention it before, I studied biblical Hebrew in college and grad school and was ABD (all but dissertation) in a Ph.D. program when I quit due to an overabundance of babies.  So when my son came to me for his narrations and told me that Ham’s book said that the Bible mentions dinosaurs, I had to pull out my Hebrew concordance and start looking up references.

Ham starts with the assertion that when people in the past have spoken of dragons they were really talking about dinosaurs. I have no problem with this point. Dragons as they are usually depicted are quite a bit like the larger dinosaurs. I don’t think it is by any means necessary to believe this — dragons could be entirely fictional, but it does make sense to say that if people in, say, ancient China had seen a large dinosaur, they would have called it a dragon. I would point out, however, that in all cultures that I know anything about it seems that dragons were a rarity. The stories never seem to have a colony of dragons living on the other side of the mountain; they are always rare beasts and quite to be feared. Because of this, I would find it a lot more plausible to believe that an isolated dinosaur or two survived and was seen by men than that humans and dinosaurs always coexisted. But the number of cultures which have dragon stories does at least make one think there must have been real creatures people saw which inspired them. And personally, I kind of like the idea that there are Nessie-like holdouts out there surviving way past their peers.

So if other cultures mention dinosaur-like creatures, what about the Bible? Does the Old Testament contain any references to creatures that could be dinosaurs? Ham says yes:

“It is highly interesting to note that the word ‘dragon’ (Hebrew: tannim) appears in the Old Testament at least 21 times. . . . There are passages in the Bible about dragons that lived on the land . . . Biblical creationists believe these were references to what we now call dinosaurs. There are also passages in the Bible about dragons that lived in the sea.” (p. 39)

In his end notes on this section, Ham cites Henry M. Morris who says that ” ‘Dragons, for example (Hebrew tannim) are mentioned at least 25 times in the Old Testament'” (p. 140) as well as two other authors who say that tannim meaning dragons appears 21 times.

This is the point at which the concordance comes out. There are three words I can think of which could be taken to refer to dragons or the like in the Old Testament. They are (pardon my Hebrew): tannin, behemoth, and leviathan. As far as I can find (and it’s possible I am missing some references though I tried to be thorough), tannin occurs fourteen times, behemoth referring to some sort of extraordinary beast occurs once and leviathan occurs six times. If you are counting, that is a total of twenty-one occurrences. I cannot find that tannin alone occurs 21 times, and certainly not the 25 Morris cites, but the three terms together do give us the 21 number which Ham cites.  Let’s look at each of the terms in turn.

I’ll start with behemoth since it only occurs once referring to some sort of extra-ordinary creature. The word behemoth actually occurs quite frequently in the Old Testament. It is the plural form (-ot being the feminine plural ending in Hebrew) of the noun behemah which means beast. It is a common noun, occurring more than 150 times in the Old Testament and usually referring to the beasts of the field (as opposed to domesticated animals). The plural form behemoth occurs around 15 times. An example would be Job 12:7:

“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you.” (ESV)

The one reference in which behemoth seems to refer to more than just the usual beasts comes later in the book of Job in chapter 40. Here we find:

“Behold, Behemoth, which I made as I made you; he eats grass like an ox.” (Job 40:15; ESV)

It certainly sounds like God is here speaking of one beast, not of the beasts in general. As the passage continues, we learn that Behemoth eats grass, is strong and muscular, and has limbs like iron. He lives among reeds and lotus plants, presumably in or near the water. We are also told that he is not afraid of turbulent waters and that he is untameable by men. One phrase of which much has been made is found in verse 17: “He makes his tail stiff like a cedar.” This has been used to say that Behemoth had a huge, stiff tail; he has thus been connected with the larger, plant-eating dinosaurs like Apatosaurus. I do not think we need take the verse this way, however. It says not that his tail is large like a cedar but that it is stiff like one. One of my old professors said that Behemoth was a hippopotamus and I have to say the description does sound a lot like one to me — a herbivore that lives by the water and is yet quite vicious and dangerous to people, all of that could describe a hippo. If anything I am more intrigued by verse 19 which tells us that Behemoth is “the first of the works of God.” It makes me think rather that there were creatures who were prehistoric, who came early on in the history of creation. If all land animals were created on the same day, what does it mean to say this one was “first”?

This passage describing Behemoth is followed immediately by the best description we have of another extraordinary creature, Leviathan. In Job 41 we read:

“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord?” (Job 41:1; ESV)

The following verses go no to tell us that Leviathan, like Behemoth, is untameable. He is strong and has fearsome teeth. In addition, “his back is made of rows of shields” (v.15) and he breathes fire (vv. 18-21). This certainly sounds like a dragon. But again, he seems to be a singular, unique creature, not one of a species. If people really lived alongside dinosaurs, surely they would be aware of more than one of them. There is also the problem that dinosaurs did not breathe fire. If we are to take away that one detail, this passage could describe a dinosaur, but then again it could also describe a crocodile.

The other passages referring to Leviathan add only a few more details. Isaiah 27:1 calls him a “fiery” and “twisting serpent.” Psalm 104:26 says that he plays in the sea. It is hard to know if this is his sole habitation or if he only enters the water sometimes. Again this could refer to a crocodile. I do not know if the large land dinosaurs spent time in the water as well. Lastly, we have Psalm 74. Verses 12-17 of this psalm seem to refer to God’s creative act. They speak of dividing the sea and establishing the heavenly lights. In the midst of this we are told that God also “crushed the heads of Leviathan” and “gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness” (v. 14). This makes it sound as if there was again one Leviathan, albeit with multiple heads, who was destroyed by God in the early stages of creation.

What are we to do with all this information? I still find myself fairly uncertain about what to think of Behemoth and Leviathan. Here are the things I think we can say:

  • They are each spoken of as unique, individual creatures, not as members of a larger species. That is, there is no indication that anyone was aware of there ever having been more than one of them.
  • Though God talks as if Job should be familiar with them, they are also placed, by Job 40 in the case of Behemoth and Psalm 74 in the case of Leviathan, in the early history of creation.
  • The only detail about Behemoth that makes it sound unlike creatures we know is this reference to its tail. I do think, however, that this need not refer to an extraordinary long tail but could mean simply that its tail is stiff like a cedar.
  • Job tells us that Leviathan breathes fire. If we are going to take the Bible at its most literal, I would think this is a problem for everyone, no matter their theory of creation. Dinosaurs did not breathe fire anymore than the other animals we know. (Or perhaps Ham thinks they did based on this passage?)
  • Both animals seem to spend at least some time in the water.

This last detail is not as insignificant as it may sound. Israel’s neighbors all had creation myths in which their god had to defeat the Sea (big “S” because it is personified) or a sea monster in order to form the world as we know it. Though Genesis 1 and 2 do not relate such a battle, we find remnants of this idea elsewhere in the Bible, including in the section of Psalm 74 discussed above. The Sea represented chaos and danger to the Israelites (they were not big beach-goers) and therefore was the antithesis of God’s orderly creation. And in the end times when all is perfect again, we are told there will be no more sea.

The last term we need to look at is tannin. The first thing we need to note is that Ham, and apparently the sources he quotes, speak of tannim, but the Hebrew word is with an -n, tannin. There are two very similar words actually. The noun tan means a jackal. Its plural would be tannim (-im being the masculine plural ending). This looks very like the word tannin which is our subject here. The plural of tannin is similarly tanninim. Ham and his sources seem confused by the similarities between these two nouns. Morris, as quoted by Ham in his endnotes, reads tannin in Malachi 1:3, taking  the verse to say that the mountains of Edom “have been laid ‘waste for the dragons of the wilderness'” (p. 140). This is a misreading of this verse. The Hebrew speaks of the tannot of the wilderness. This -ot is again the feminine plural ending; there is no reason not to think it is a plural form of the word jackal. Further supporting this reading, this is not the only place in which the jackals of the wilderness are used in such a context. An example would be Jeremiah 9:11 in which God says,

“‘I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals and I will make the cities of Judah a desolationwithout inhabitant.” (ESV)

My point here is that not all the supposed references to dragons even reflect the word in question, tannin. First we must eliminate those which are really forms of tan, jackal.

Having done so, we are left with 14 uses of the word tannin. These remaining references may be divided into three groups: those which seem to refer to large water animals collectively, those which seem to refer to snake-like creatures, and those which seem, like Behemoth and Leviathan, to refer to an extraordinary creature or creatures.

Let us begin at the beginning, with Genesis 1. Genesis 1:21 says that “God created the great  tanninim and every swarming living being with which the waters abound according to their kind and  all the winged birds according to their kind, and God saw that it was good” (my translation). We learn from this verse that the tanninim are large and that they live in the water. They are distinguished from the swarming creatures which also live in the water; these appear to be quite small things. The word for “swarming things” is also used to refer to insects those these are water-swarmers. Psalm 148 also treats the tanninim as a group of animals:

“Praise the Lord from the earth, tanninim and all deeps.” (my translation)

The association with the deeps seems to indicate that these are again water animals. Later in the psalm the beasts, birds and swarmers (same word as in Genesis 1:21 by the way) are also told to praise the Lord. What I take away from these two passages is that the tanninim are large, aquatic and not necessarily unusual; that is, they are listed along with other ordinary groups of animals (eg. birds).

There are other passages in which tannin seems to refer to a snake or snake-like creature. Most notable among these is Exodus 7:9 in which Moses’ staff becomes a tannin (see also verses 10 and 12). Of course, tradition says that the staff became a serpent and I see no reason to doubt that this is so. It is certainly a logical thing for a long wooden rod to become if it is going to become any animal at all. The connection with snakes is made clear in Deuteronomy 32:33 which the ESV translates as: “their wine is the poison of serpents (tannin) and the cruel venom of asps.” Similarly, Psalm 91:13 also uses tannin in parallel with adder.

Finally, we are left with those verses in which tannin might refer to an extraordinary creature. In Ezekiel 32:2 God says to Pharaoh, “‘You consider yourself a lion of the nations, but you are like a tannin in the seas; you burst forth in your rivers,
trouble the waters with your feet, and foul their rivers'” (ESV). There is no inherent reason to suppose an unusual creature is here meant, however elsewhere in Ezekiel, Pharaoh is told:

“‘Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt,the great tannin that lies in the midst of his streams, that says, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.’I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales; and I will draw you up out of the midst of your streams, with all the fish of your streams that stick to your scales.'” (Ezek. 29:3-4; ESV)

This is again, then, like Behemoth and Leviathan, a water creature and one that may be scaly. Also like those two, there are a few references to tannin which make it sound like a prehistoric creature God defeated. Indeed, there are two passages in which Leviathan and tannin are used side by sidse. Psalm 74:13, in the verse before it mentions Leviathan, says:

“You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the tanninim (note the plural) on the waters.” (ESV)

And Isaiah 27 reads:

“On that day the LORD will visit His hard, great and strong sword upon Leviathan, the fleeing serpent, and upon Leviathan, the twisting serpent, and He will kill the tannin which is in the sea.” (my translation)

The reference to prehistoric times we find in Isaiah 51:9 which reads:

“Arise, arise, put on strength, O arm of the LORD,

Arise as in the days of old, the ancient generations,

Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces, who pierced tannin?” (my translation)

These are all the significant uses of the word tannin. The other ones I have found are brief and do not add much to our understanding of the word; they include Jeremiah 51:34, Job 7:12, and Nehemiah 2:13.

What then, can we say about tannin in the Old Testament? In some passages it seems to be a snake-like creature. In others, it seems to refer to a class of large water animals. And like Leviathan and Behemoth, it seems to be either a singular animal God once defeated or perhaps (noting the plural in Psalm 74) a group of animals.

So does the Bible mention dinosaurs? You can draw your own conclusions. Personally, Leviathan sounds a lot like a dragon to me, but not like a dinosaur which does not breathe fire. All three of the extraordinary creatures mentioned, Leviathan, Behemoth and Tannin, live at least partially in the water. I see not indication that Bible people were aware of large land animals like the larger dinosaurs nor of there being many of these creatures, whatever they were, in existence. Finally, God’s defeat of these creatures seems to have happened in the distant past and is tied to creation. If anything, I would think we could say from this that there were extraordinary and large creatures who existed early on in creation (implying a long process of creation) but that God has since killed them off.

What do you thin? Have I convinced you?

Nebby

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2 responses to this post.

  1. […] me. The whole topic led to a number of good in-the-car-type discussions and also led me to write this post on the evidence (or lack thereof) of dinosaurs in the […]

    Reply

  2. […] context, and try to discern what the text actually has to say. I have done this, for example, on dinosaurs and on the glory of God.  Today’s topic is authority in the church. Second caveat: I am not […]

    Reply

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