BIRD LORE IN THE BIBLE
Birds are a special class of creatures. Being neither beast nor fish, still they were somehow linked with aquatic species in the Bible, for together with fish they emerged (or evolved) from the waters on the fifth day of Creation. This is attested by various translations of the pertinent passage in Genesis (1:20):
...Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. King James Version
...Yishratzu hammayim sheretz nephesh chaiyh v’owph y’owpheph al cha’aretz al peyniy raqiya ha shamayim. Hebrew Text
...Let swarm the waters (with) swarms (having) soul-life and fowl flying upon the earth, upon the face of the firmament of the heavens. Translation from Hebrew
...Exagageto to hudata herpeta psychon zoson kai peteina petomena epi tes ges kata to stereoma tou ouranou. Greek Septuagint
...Let the waters bring forth reptiles having life and winged creatures flying above the earth under the firmament of heaven. Translation from Greek
...Producant aquæ reptile animæ viventis et volatile super terram sub firmamento cæli. Latin Vulgate
...Let the waters bring forth the creeping creature having life and winged over the earth under the firmament of heaven. Translation from Latin*
Evidently the ancients assumed a kinship between birds and fish from their observance of water fowl. To this rationale the Jewish philosopher Philo added his observation that fish and birds are related because both are “swim-mers” - one in water and the other in the air. Philo, who lived contemporary with New Testament times, summarized the learned opinion of his day:
Next, He created the species of birds as being akin to the species of aquatic animals, for they are each of them swimmers... De Opificio Mundi, XX
The Book of Second Esdras, written about 70 A.D., said: “On the fifth Day you commanded the seventh part, where the water had been gathered together, to bring forth living creatures, birds and fishes, and so it was done.”**
*Modern translations often obscure the aquatic origin of birds, viz.: “...Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens” (Revised Standard Version).
**The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by James H. Charlesworth (p. 536)
The Anchor Bible adds yet another argument, that fish and birds are both classed as “swarmers:”
The creation of the fifth day was deemed to comprise creatures (Heb. nephesh) that might appear in swarms (sheretz) in the water, on the ground, or in the air. But their ultimate breeding place was traced to the waters, since land creatures come under the sixth day.
Another Bible commentary brings the argument up to date with the statement that “scientists now admit that Moses was right in assigning the origin of birds to the water, as their structure is closer to reptilian than mammalian, and they reproduce by eggs.”* This observation erroneously equates aquatic reptiles with fish, as did the author of Genesis. Thus it would appear that the ancients are at least partially vindicated in their oftentimes false logic, for it is generally accepted that birds did, in fact, evolve from those very ancient reptiles, the dinosaurs.
In summary, the ancient arguments for the kinship of fishes and birds are: 1) water fowl behave like fish, 2) birds can be said to “swim” in the air like fish, 3) both birds and fish move in “swarms” (flocks or schools), and 4) birds lay eggs like fish. To these arguments modern science has added still another: birds are directly descended from flying reptiles, which evolved from fish.
The ancients did not classify animal life according to systematic zoological conventions. Thus the common Hebrew word for birds is used in the Bible in a very broad and unscientific way to include more than just avian species. The list of non-kosher birds in Leviticus, chapter eleven, even includes a flying mammal, a bat. Such a zoological classification as this might lead one to speculate as to what the ancient categorizers would have done with flying squirrels or pterodactyls.
In this same chapter of Leviticus, even an insect becomes a “bird,” for locusts are designated therein as “fowls that creep.” This identification is corroborated as follows. During the reign of Ptolemy II of Egypt a court official named Aristeas recorded what the Jewish high priest had to say about kosher fowl: “For all the birds that we use for food are tame and distinguished by their cleanliness, feeding on various kinds of grain and seeds, such as for instance pigeons, doves, locusts, partridges, geese, and others of this class” (Letter of Aristeas 6:27). Thus locusts, classed as edible fowl, were an acceptable item on the kosher menu of the Jews.
*The International Standard Bible Encyclopædia, edited by James Orr, Eerdmans, 1955, article: “Birds.” (Note: The five classes of animals are fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The first four groupings are alike in that they all generally reproduce by laying eggs. The evolutionary sequence is: fish, to amphibian, to reptile, to bird. So birds and fish are only distantly related.)
From all the above it may be concluded that the term “birds” in the Bible could mean flying fish, flying mammals, and flying insects. Furthermore, a mythical creature, the cockatrice, described in the Bible as a “flying fiery serpent” (i.e., a spitting cobra with wings), might possibly have been fitted into the avian class as well.* This classification would, in fact, be in good accord with the recent premise that birds come from dinosaurs. Such fossil skeletons as those of the archæopterix prove that the bones now combined in the tip of the bird’s wing were once claws.
The Bible also borrows the wings of birds and gives them to angels, to cherubs (winged human-headed bulls),** to seraphs (winged human-headed serpents),*** and even to Yahweh Himself.
Yahweh recompense you for what you have done,
And a full reward be given you by Yahweh, the God of Israel,
under whose wings you have come to take refuge.
Let me dwell in Thy tent forever.
Oh, let me be safe under the shelter of Thy wings.
...He will cover you with His pinions,
And under His wings you will find refuge...
Thus, in the Bible, first Yahweh and then His benevolent Holy Spirit came to be winged. In fact, God’s Spirit sometimes assumed the physical form of a dove, just as did the old Canaanite love goddess Astarte.**** The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove (or a water bird) nested upon the cosmic egg from which the world was hatched, for the creation narrative says that the Spirit “brooded” (KJV “moved upon”) the primordial cosmic sea. This concept is directly analogous to the legend of the Egyptian creator god Geb who, in the form of a goose, laid the cosmic egg on the primordial waters. This idea is illustrated by the Greek letter Omega (W), which is the symbolic picture of the cosmic egg cracked open at the bottom.
*The cockatrice was a legendary birdlike serpent hatched from a cock’s egg (known among the Greeks as a basilisk) and mentioned in the Bible in Isa. 11:8, 14:29, 30:6, 59:5, Jer. 8:17.
**The cherub was a winged andro-sphinx with the body of a bull. Ezekiel said the creature had hooves (1:7). Thus, unlike the Egyptian sphinx with a lion’s body, the Mesopotamian sphinx was bovine. Colossal images of these mythical winged bulls guarded gates and palaces in Babylon and Nineveh.
***The seraph was both a fiery serpent (Num. 21:6) and an angelic being associated with fire and sinuous smoke (Isa. 6:2,4). Snake worship among the Hebrews was represented by the wily serpent of Eden and the brazen snake erected on a pole by Moses.
****The stork legend about the origin of babies comes from the ancient belief that a woman was impregnated by the visit of Astarte in the form of a dove. For this same reason, Easter rabbits - Astarte’s rabbits - are said to lay eggs. Also, in modern-day Palestine, the Arabic word hamama, “my dove,” is a common expression for the male sexual member.
In Egyptian tomb paintings the soul is depicted as a small bird (sparrow) perched near the mummy of the deceased. This concept of the Egyptian bennu-bird is reflected in the biblical passage “our soul is escaped as a bird...” (Ps. 124:7) and in the Spirit-dove analogy. Also the bennu-bird concept is the source of the legend of the phœnix, the bird that lives forever.
In the Bible one writer postulates taking “the wings of morning” (i.e., the pinions of Aurora, the goddess of dawn) and flying to the far edge of the cosmic sea.* This idea in the Bible, like others previously discussed, shows that the ancient Hebrews were aware of the mythical beliefs of surrounding nations and that the colorful notions of the gentiles were sometimes appropriated and used in expressing otherwise unexpressable concepts, as well as explaining unusual physical phenomena.**
Birds were especially important to ancient peoples because they provided omens of the future, and so a special class of priests evolved, called augurs, who specialized in bird lore. This came about because when ancient men looked to the heavens for guidance, they saw therein three things to guide them: stellar arrangements, weather changes, and the flying formations of birds. Perhaps this divinatory power was the reason that a bird - or flying demon - was said to be able to whisper its message into the ear of King Solomon.
Even in your thought do not curse the king,
Nor in your bedchamber curse the rich,
For a bird of the air will carry your voice,
Or some winged creature will tell the matter.
Josephus reports that when the impious king Agrippa had delivered his vainglorious speech, an owl lit on a rope over his head, and he was immediately stricken with a fatal illness.*** The parallel Bible account says that an angel of the Lord (in bird form?) killed the haughty king (Acts 12:23). In ancient Mesopotamia the owl was seen from two points of view - as alternately wise or evil. As the bird of wisdom (zu-bird) it was perched in the divine Tree of the love goddess Inanna. This was the Sumerian Tree of Life, which became the Hebrew’s Tree of Knowledge, where the bird of wisdom was replaced by the wise, serpentine seraph.**** As the bird of evil, the owl
**Like that of the Jews, the aviary of the classical pagan world was stocked with all kinds of airborne creatures: griffins, harpies, furies, gorgons, winged horses, and flying dragons, etc. The belief in flying monsters was a very common fiction, no doubt because a dreaded creature with wings was all the more terrifying.
***Antiquities of the Jews, XIX:8:2
****With the Hebrews it was the serpent, not the owl, that was the most cunning of creatures (Gen. 3:1, Matt. 10:16).
was associated with Lilitu (Sumer. lil: wind, air, demon), a female demon who became the Hebrew harpy Lilith, the first wife of Adam. This primeval female, because of insubordination to her husband, was transformed into an owl-like creature, “the terror of the night” (Ps. 91:5) or “the night hag” (Isa. 34:14). Although with the Greeks the owl stood for wisdom (being associated with the wise goddess Athena), it is likely that in the story of Agrippa’s demise, the owl was a manifestation of Lilith, a type of the death angel.
Bird lore is to be found in the beliefs of all mankind,* and the reason for this should be obvious. So swift is their flight, birds can easily outdis- tance any other living creature, and this capability must have appeared mira-culous to early human beings. Also, ancient peoples saw that birds have their place in the heavens, in the airy realms of spirits and stars. Besides this, they perceived that no other animal inhabits every region of the universe: the earth, the sky, and the sea. The eagle might brush the stars with his wings, and the bat might descend into the caverns of the Underworld, there to commune with awful night creatures and with the foul denizens of Hades.
Today birds are respected as wonderful friends of mankind, because with their voracious appetites they continually save the whole world from being innundated by insects and vermin. But it is their soaring flight and melodious song that touches the heart, and from Bible times to this day they have been accounted as one of the chief blessings of God upon His creation.
Richard L. Atkins
*In European (Germanic) mythology, the wisdom of both birds and serpents is revealed in the epic tale of Siegfried, who could understand the twitterings of birds after he tasted dragon (serpent) blood. The hero’s life was saved when he heeded the sage advice of the birds.