25 Sep 2019 • From the Clergy
Eleven years ago, during a group discussion at theological college, we somehow ended up talking about famous fish of the Bible. Given the lack of contenders in this category (the fish in Jonah notwithstanding), it mystifies me now how we got into this topic, what we were meant to be discussing, or how we kept going for so long. I certainly never imagined that more than a decade later, I would be writing a magazine piece about animals of the Bible.
The theme began as a joke, a way of me basically writing the clerical equivalent of the ‘what I did this summer’ assignment that used to greet my return to primary school each September.
Yet as we were light-heartedly looking into how many animals might feature into the Bible, we stumbled across ostriches. Again, how we got there is a little hazy, but it turned out that there are ten mentions of ostriches in the Old Testament (which I suspect is not a widely known fact).
What intrigued me was the context in which these references are found. Leaving aside the two mentions in the dietary code in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (for reference, ostriches are not to be eaten, so I am already in trouble as I like an ostrich burger), the other eight references are in Job (two), Isaiah (three), Jeremiah, Lamentations and Micah. In all these cases, ostriches are portrayed as slightly sinister creatures. They are found in the company of jackals and hyenas, as scavengers and signs of desolation in abandoned places.
There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of scholarly literature on ostriches in the Biblical world, or indeed the ancient world in general, so I remain unenlightened about why this might be so. But it is clear that there was a very different perception of ostriches in ancient times. Our metaphors revolve around them burying their heads in the sand, being large and slightly stupid birds trying to hide. In the Old Testament, their association with jackals and hyenas indicates that people’s understanding was very different.
What struck me was that although animals might seem quite a banal Biblical topic, the example of the ostrich shows how much we might fail to understand when we project our world view and ideas back into the Biblical world. Because we are so familiar with so much of the language, we tend to overlook what it might tell us.
Today, for example, lions are found no further north than Ethiopia, some way south of the Biblical world. However, there are 190 mentions of lions and lionesses in the Bible, a reminder that in ancient times, these big cats had a far wider distribution and were common enough in the Near East to feature frequently in Biblical imagery. Some well-known phrases come from the Bible, but in unfamiliar contexts; we talk about a leopard changing its spots, but the full passage from Jeremiah 13:23 is rather uncomfortable today.
Look at Leviticus 11 and see if you can actually identify all the animals you can and cannot eat (good luck with the rock badger), or imagine why anyone might ever even consider eating a hoopoe or a bat. This is a world which is at once familiar yet subtly different.
These humble animals therefore serve as a reminder of how carefully we need to engage with the Bible when we read it. However familiar we may think we are with the text, we can always find new things or passages which suddenly strike us in a different way. We have to try to clear away our presuppositions and cultural biases, to find a way into a world which was fundamentally different.
If we take everything at face value, ignore the differences and try to simply apply 2,500-year-old words to today, then we are treating the Bible as nothing more than a dead text or historical curiosity.
But if we really read with it, engage with it and look beneath its words into that other world, then perhaps we are beginning to let God speak to us through it and show us what it can mean to us today.