Animals Named in the Bible – Part 4
The Rest of the Zoo
Leviticus 11:1-6, Deuteronomy 14:7, Hares are unclean because they do not divide the hoof (8/9/17)
Leviticus 11:1-6, Deuteronomy 14:7, Hares
Deuteronomy 14:1-6, “Antelope”
Psalms 42:1-11; Jeremiah 14:5, Harts and hinds
Numbers 21:1-10, Snakes
Leviticus 11:29-31, Lizards
Psalms 58:1-11, Snails
1 Samuel 6:1-18, “Mouse”
Exodus 8:1-15, Frogs
Proverbs 30:15-31, Leeches. Ew!
Job 7:1-12, “Whale”
1 Kings 10:1-23, Ivory was as rare as elephants’ teeth
Numbers 11:4-6, 21-22; Matthew 17:24-27, “Fish”
Proverbs 23:31-32; Isaiah 59:5; Psalms 74:13-14; Jeremiah 50:39, Basilisk, cockatrice, dragon, faun
Isaiah 34:14; Genesis 1:21; Psalms 29, Lamia, satyr, sea monster, unicorn
More Animals Named in the Bible
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Clean vs. unclean is not the same as clean vs. dirty. “Clean” means “ritually acceptable.” “Unclean” means “ritually unacceptable.” Things or people that are clean may come before God; things or people that are unclean cannot. Some things, like water (I’m pretty sure) are always clean, and some things, like dead bodies, are always unclean. Other things, like a person, may be clean or unclean, depending on the circumstances.
Animals that have a cloven hoof (that is, a hoof with two parts) and
chew the cud are clean. They are acceptable for food, and in many cases, as sacrifices. If an animal either
doesn’t have a cloven hoof or
doesn’t chew the cud, it’s unclean. It cannot be eaten or used as a sacrifice.
So why am I telling you this? Because some nit-picky persons say that it’s a mistake to say that hares chew the cud. True, strictly speaking, they don’t (even though they appear to). Nevertheless, there’s no question about their feet: they do not have a cloven hoot (or any hoof). Therefore they are unclean whether or not they chew the cud.
The laws of clean and unclean are extremely complicated. At the Council of Jerusalem, the Church decided that they are too complicated for Gentiles, and Gentile converts do not need to bother with them in order to be saved (see Acts 15:19).
Deuteronomy 14:1-6, The Middle East is home to many kinds of antelope. (7/3/17)
“These are the beasts which ye shall eat: the ox, the sheep, and the goat, the hart, and the roebuck, and the fallow deer, and the wild goat, and the pygarg, and the wild ox, and the chamois.” (Deut. 14:4-5, King James Version)
Sometimes an animal is only mentioned once in the Bible, like the dishon
(Greek). Consequently, nobody really knows exactly which animal Moses was referring to. We know it wasn’t any of the common animals, because we know their
names. We know it was clean, because it’s in a list of animals that you can eat. Therefore it must be some kind of cloven-hoofed, cud-chewing, wild animal. “So,” the translators say to themselves, “what’s a clean Middle Eastern antelopey kind of thing that we don’t know the Hebrew name of?” and they choose one.
The various English translations have dishon, pygarg, ibex, wild goat, mountain goat, and unicorn (with a note that says, “rhinoceros”!). You can tell from the list that the Middle East is home to many kinds of antelopes, goats, deer, and other beautiful creatures.
Psalms 42:1-11; Jeremiah 14:5, Harts and hinds are a type of deer. (8/10/17)
Psalm 42 compares our longing for God to the longing of the deer for water. Harts and hinds are names for deer, but both words have fallen out of everyday usage. I had to go back to the King James Version to find these two beautiful examples. Overall, though, I think it’s more important to read a translation where we understand all the words than to read one that has a few beautiful images. That’s why I keep urging you to get a good, modern translation with footnotes.
Numbers 21:1-10, The Middle East is home to many kinds of snakes. (9/4/17)
Psalms 42:1 To the Chief Musician. Maschil; for the sons of Korah.
As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
Jeremiah 14:5 Yea, the hind also calved in the field, and forsook it, because there was no grass.
I read a lot of fantasy novels, so I tend to think of serpents as including both snakes and dragons; however, in real life serpent
. The snakes that are inclined to bite people give the rest a bad name, and most of the biblical references to snakes – real or figurative – are negative. Just as we say someone that we don’t trust is a “snake in the grass,” serpent
is sometimes used to refer to an untrustworthy or violent person (e.g., Genesis 49:17, Psalms 58:4, and Psalms 140:3). At least once, however, Jesus referred to serpents positively, when he told us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
Leviticus 11:29-31, There are lots of lizards, and they are all unclean. (8/22/17)
Translations vary on what animals they put in verses 29-30. Don’t worry about this, for two reasons. First, just as in English, various Hebrew animal names can stand for the same animal, and the same name can stand for various animals. Whatever translation you use, it’s almost certainly going to have at least one name that doesn’t agree with whatever you call that animal in your language.
But second, it doesn’t matter, because the rule of thumb is clear: If you are Jewish or a Jewish Christian, don’t eat any small four-legged animal that crawls around in the dirt, and you will be fine. Probably there are small, four-legged animals that aren’t named and that are therefore clean, but this will only be an issue if you are starving. Stick to goats, sheep, and cattle and you will be fine.
For Gentile Christians, the rule is even simpler: The laws of clean vs. unclean are too hard for you to understand, so don’t eat blood or meat sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:28-29), and you will be fine.
I was once in a conversation with a Jewish friend and several other grad students about why Jews are allowed to eat some things and not others. He maintained that the explanation is very simple: God said so. That’s really the only explanation that makes sense, he thought, and it should be good enough.
Psalms 58:1-11, Snails sleep in the summer in the Middle East, not in the winter. (9/5/17)
If you think there’s no humor in the Bible, compare the hymn tune for this psalm, “Do Not Destroy,” to the content. Gallows humor, or maybe irony, but humor, nevertheless.
Snails are only mentioned twice in the Bible. In Psalms 58:8 the word for snail
(used only once) comes from the word for flowing
, and it melts
, like the trail a snail leaves, so it certainly seems to be talking about snails. In Leviticus 11:30, the King James Version and Jubilee Bibles translate a different Hebrew word (also used only once) as snails
, and that word is in a list of lizards; most translations put some other kind of lizard in that verse, and not snails.
This gives me a great opportunity to remind you of several important Bible-study hints. You should read at least one modern translation with study notes. You should read more than one translation (King James is fine as your first, if you’ve been reading it all your life). And you should pray for translators, who have to make some really hard calls when a word is only used once.
1 Samuel 6:1-18, “Mouse” is probably a general name for about 25 different animals. (8/24/17)
If you don’t like to read about nasty diseases, skip to the scripture!
I used to think that bubonic plague was a disease of the Middle Ages, gone and not grieved. Then I moved to New Mexico, where I learned that the plague is alive and well and living in the American Southwest, in addition to Africa, Asia, and Europe, not to mention most of the American West. The disease brought upon the land of the Philistines after they captured the ark of the LORD has every appearance of being bubonic plague. It is associated with “mice,” which is sometimes translated “rats” and could be a general term for just about any small furry animal. The plague is transmitted by certain fleas on small furry animals, and we see mice or rats in the story of the ark. One of the main symptoms of the plague is infected, enlarged, and painful lymph nodes, which certainly could be described as “tumors.”
We learn two valuable lessons from today’s scripture passage. First, don’t handle small, furry, wild animals. Second, treat the God of Israel and the ark of the LORD with respect.
Reader’s Question: Wow! This reading was really over my head. I don't get it beyond the part about the fleas, small furry animals, and bubonic plague. The ark? Hooking up and sacrificing the cows?
Exodus 8:1-15, Frogs are only mentioned in connection with the Egyptian plague. (8/16/17)
What kid doesn’t like to catch frogs on a summer day? What mom likes it when the frogs escape inside the house? The moms in Egypt – not to mention the dads and the Pharaoh – had way
too many frogs on their hands, their beds, and their kitchen appliances. Pharaoh’s magicians made the situation worse by calling up even more
frogs! Finally the LORD, acting through Moses and Aaron, got rid of all the live frogs, which left messy piles of dead frogs everywhere. Apparently the children of Israel had enough of frogs, because aside from Psalms 78 and 105, which summarize this story, we see no frogs in the Bible other than here in Exodus.
Proverbs 30:15-31, Leeches. Ew! (8/17/17)
Leeches are worms best known for the species that latch onto a victim and suck blood. Ew! The writer of Proverbs declares that leeches only have two things to say: “Give!” and “Give!” He lumps them in with four other insatiable items.
I have heard this section of Proverbs called “riddles” (as in, “Name four things that never say, ‘Enough’”). Probably the most famous riddle of the Bible is Samson’s: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness” (Judges 14:14). The riddle in Ezekiel 17:9-10 is the punch line of a dark allegory about Babylon and the ruler of Judah. Another meaning for the word translated “riddle” is “dark saying.” Clearly biblical riddles are not meant to be amusing.
Job 7:1-12, “Whale” probably includes, or even means, all large marine mammal. (9/8/17)
We hear a lot about “the patience of Job,” but all I can figure out is that the people who use that expression have never read the book of Job.
Job never even makes a pretence of suffering in silence (vs. 9), and toward the end of the book he starts demanding that God answer all his questions.
One new thing I’ve noticed while we’ve been doing this study of animals in the Bible is that Job
(along with Leviticus) is populated with a lot more animals than most books. Some of the animals can’t be identified with certainty, however. Tanneen
, translated “whale” in this verse in the Modern Kings James Version, is also translated sea monster
in other versions. All of these make sense here, because Job mentions the animal in connection with the sea. For this same Hebrew word, Aaron’s rod becomes a snake
in the modern King James Version (MKJV) and serpent
in many other translations, which makes sense because both rods and snakes are long and skinny. In Nehemiah 2:13 and Jeremiah 9:11, translations vary among (mostly) dragon
and (once) snake
in the name of a well. I think a good, multipurpose word that would fit all the occurrences is beast.
Translators try to give us a beast that fits the context, which is part of their job.
1 Kings 10:1-23, Ivory was as rare as elephants’ teeth. (7/25/17)
As near as I can tell, there are no elephants in the Bible, which makes sense to me, because elephants don’t seem to have ranged into Egypt, let alone Palestine. Ivory had to be imported from somewhere.
It’s not clear where the ivory, not to mention the accompanying apes and peacocks, was coming from, because we do not know for sure where Ophir was. Assorted scholars, theologians, explorers, and writers have speculated that it was in Africa or Asia (which have the advantage that there are elephants, apes, and peacocks in both places), Australia, or even the Americas. Personally, I’d rule out Australia and the Americas, because neither had elephants or peacocks.
I’m interested that the ivory, apes, and peacocks arrived by ship
from the port of Tarshish, another place whose location is lost in antiquity. (Scholars don’t seem to doubt the existence of Sheba, Ophir, or Tarshish, by the way – they just can’t agree on where they might have been.)
Before the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, a sea voyage to India would have been possible, although a trip to a port in northern Africa would have been easier and safer. Either way, ivory was a luxury item, far beyond the means of the common man in Solomon’s kingdom.
Numbers 11:4-6, 21-22; Matthew 17:24-27, The Hebrews were born in the desert, so all fish look alike to them. (7/26/17)
We’ve seen that the Bible has specific names for quite a number of different kinds of antelope, goats, and birds of prey. In contrast, there are only three names for fish: one in Hebrew, and two in Greek. These are “fish,” “fish,” and “little fish.”
Proverbs 23:31-32; Isaiah 59:5; Psalms 74:13-14; Jeremiah 50:39, Some mythical names are used for animals that can’t be identified, especially in older translations: e.g., basilisk, cockatrice, dragon, faun. (9/13/17)
By this time, if you’ve been paying attention, you are completely on board with the idea that translating an animal name that appears only once or a few times is difficult. For one thing, you – the translator – might not know what it means. For another thing, you – still the translator – might know for a fact that your readers have never even heard of, or can imagine, the real animal. So what you do is, you stick in the name of an animal they have
heard of that kind of gives them the right idea for the context.
For this reason, some translations (typically older ones, but notice the date on the Jubilee Bible) have mythological animals in them. Do not be fooled into thinking that these are real just because they are named in a Bible!
- The “basilisk” is a mythological reptile that can kill with a glance; the Hebrew word probably means a poisonous snake.
- The “cockatrice” is a mythological hybrid between a rooster (or cock) and a serpent, which also kills with a glance; same Hebrew word as above, different translation.
- The “dragon” is a large mythological serpent, often winged or intelligent; the Hebrew words translated dragon probably refer to large, dangerous beasts, maybe whales, or dangerous beasts unknown to the readers, like jackals.
- The “faun” is a mythological half human–half goat; the Hebrew word means howler, and is more recently translated wolf, jackal, or hyena.
Check to see what your paper Bible has. If you see “basilisk,” “cockatrice,” “dragon,” or “faun,” I encourage you to get a second, modern translation with footnotes.
Isaiah 34:14; Genesis 1:21; Psalms 29, Some mythical names are used for animals that can’t be identified, especially in older translations: e.g., lamia and satyr, sea monster, or unicorn. (9/14/17)
Aside from the Bible and commentaries, I do very little serious reading; mostly I read murder mysteries and fantasy novels. Consequently I’m familiar with most of the animals we read about yesterday and today, because these mythical beasts are alive and well and living in the minds of fantasy novelists.
Nevertheless, the “lamia” is a new one on me, and I had to look it up. It turns out to be a mythological serpent with the head and breasts of a woman, not to mention nasty eating habits. The Hebrew word is only used once, but it comes from the word for “night,” and various translations have for example, night monster, night creature, night bird, night animals,
and screech owl
Satyrs are mythological part-goat/part human creatures that live in forests, similar to the fauns we read about yesterday, although the Hebrew word here means hairy
This Hebrew word is used 59 times, and strangely enough, the King James Version (KJV) almost always translates it either goat
or kid (of the goats)
. A couple of times (referring to Esau) the KJV uses hairy
, and that makes sense, too. Then three times the KJV translates either satyrs
in verses where goats
would make perfect sense (Isaiah 13:21, 34:14; 2 Ch. 11:15). What’s up with that?
Even if you read serious literature, you know what sea monsters and unicorns are. The Hebrew for sea monster is the same word we’ve seen before for whale
, and the unicorn is probably some species of wild ox or antelope.
More Animals Named in the Bible
Animals Named in the Bible – Part 1 Animals Named in the Bible – Part 2
Animals Named in the Bible – Part 3
Animals Named in the Bible – Part 4
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