Lions and crocodiles and monkeys, oh my!
If you were asked to name a book that mentions lions, cheetahs, crocodiles, hippos and hyenas, your thoughts might turn to Tarzan or some other such exotic tale. Bears, jackals, monkeys and panthers are the domain of The Jungle Book. Yet all these animals are also found in the Bible.
There are around a hundred different types of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes and invertebrates mentioned in the Bible. It’s difficult to give a precise number because there are several words that may be synonyms for the same creature, or with which it is not entirely clear if they are even referring to animals.
Since the setting of the Bible is the Promised Land and its environs, the animals described in the Bible are those that were native to that region. Thus, there is no mention of pandas, penguins or polar bears in the Bible. There are some exceptions, however; monkeys and peacocks from India appear in the Bible. The reason for this is that they were shipped in to adorn King Solomon’s palace (1 Kings 10:22). There is also a possible reference to the giraffe (Deuteronomy 14:5), which was likewise sometimes exported from Africa and shipped internationally as gifts. Aside from such exceptions, the animals of the Bible are those from the region of Israel.
One cannot read a modern book on the fauna of Israel, however, to gain an understanding of Biblical wildlife. There are several species that live in the modern State of Israel that are non-native species and did not live there in Biblical times; they thus do not appear in the Bible. Mynah birds, nutria (beaver-like rodents) and the ubiquitous brown rat are plentiful in Israel today, but they did not live there during Biblical times.
Conversely, there are many other species mentioned in the Bible that lived in Biblical lands but subsequently have disappeared from the area. These include hippopotami (Job 40:15–25), crocodiles (Ezekiel 29:3–6), hartebeest (Deuteronomy 14:4), cheetahs (Habakkuk 1:8), bears (2 Kings 2:24) and lions (mentioned on over 150 occasions!). Some other such animals have been bred in captivity and were subsequently released back into the wild, such as ostriches (Lamentations 4:3), Mesopotamian fallow deer (Genesis 49:21) and the magnificent oryx antelope (Deuteronomy 14:5).
Because the Land of Israel bridges Europe, Africa and Asia, it was home to a unique combination of animals. It was the northernmost part of the range of many African animals, such as crocodiles and hippopotami; it was the southeastern part of the range of many European animals, such as fallow deer and wolves; and it was the westernmost part of the range of many Asian animals, such as the Asiatic cheetah. In addition, due to its location on the eastern side of the Mediterranean, it is part of the migration route for countless birds passing between Europe and Africa. Thus, the combination of animals found in the Bible is a unique combination that would not be found anywhere else in the world.
Since particular species are limited to particular regions of the world, historically people who did not live in Biblical lands were not familiar with the animals of the Bible. Consequently, they transposed the names of Biblical animals to their local equivalents. Thus, the zvi of the Bible (Proverbs 6:5) is the gazelle, but in Europe, where there were no gazelles, the name zvi was transferred to the deer. The shu’al, a species of which Samson captured 300 and tied fire-brands to their tails (Judges 15:4), was identified in Europe as a fox, leading Bible critics such as Voltaire to mock the notion that it would be possible to find 300 members of such a solitary loner as the fox. However, as other verses indicate, the shu’al of Scripture is actually the jackal (see Psalm 63:11), a relative of the fox that gathers in large packs. Yet because there are no jackals in Europe, people there had long transposed the name shu’al to the fox.
At the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Israel, the complex zoogeography of the Bible is fascinatingly reflected in the reactions of the visitors to the animals on exhibit. American visitors are familiar with bears and wolves, but they tend to confuse the crocodile with the alligator. European visitors are familiar with the fallow deer but are often mystified by the mongoose. South African visitors are very familiar with many of the animals on exhibit, including the hyrax (the Biblical “coney” or “rock badger” of Psalm 104:18, an animal that bewilders people from Europe and America, but which is well known to those who have been to Cape Town), but they have never seen bears or wolves. And while everyone is familiar with the lion, cheetah and hippopotamus, it comes as a shock to realize that these creatures used to roam wild in the Promised Land—at a time when the country was much more densely covered in forests and swamps. Perhaps the Bible can indeed be referred to as The Jungle Book.
Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin is the Director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, Israel (www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org). He is also the author of numerous books on religion and the natural sciences, including The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom (2015).
The Animals Went in Two by Two, According to Babylonian Ark Tablet
The Enduring Symbolism of Doves
Did Camels Exist in Biblical Times?
Camel Domestication History Challenges Biblical Narrative
What Does the New Testament Say About Dogs?
No, No, Bad Dog: Dogs in the Hebrew Bible
Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on December 13, 2016.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.
Dig into the illuminating world of the Bible with a BAS All-Access membership. Combine a one-year tablet and print subscription to BAR with membership in the BAS Library to start your journey into the ancient past today!Subscribe Today
One would hope climate scientists would cooperate with biologists to determine what habitats the Biblical animals required. That may help illuminate what may be different then from now climate-wise.
From what I read in the Bible ,King Solomon had animals brought in for the first known Zoo.Correct me if I am wrong ,but I believe that is what he did. Also God uses animals for Alegoric reasons like when He says a land will be desolate of the happiness ,joy and blessings it once had ,and then be filled with Jackals ,and Ostriches and such forever ,god is using a parable in these statements. Today the Islamic terrorists are like Jackals ,they attack one Christian or Jew or anyone who they want omitted from their life they can lay some religious blame on ,then twenty men and boys attack like a pack of Jackals and all as viscious. The women God calls Ostriches for they have a child/an Ostrich lays its egg and has no concern for it and will step on it ,killing it with no regards/an Islamic woman straps a bomb to her sons chest and sends him into a group of people ,not concerned about him dying.Also Unicorns were Rhinocerouses as you will find if you look in Websters or any other dictionary. The might and power of the Rhino is why God referred Ephraim and Manassee to the Rhino/Unicorn and though some have two horns , one is smaller than the other ,why one son would be greater ,or mightier than his brother between Josephs sons.Many people think it the same using an Ox in place of the original writings where Unicorn was used , but an Oxen has equal size Horns whereas the Rhino has either one ,or one large and one smaller. Also there is a photo online of a Rhino that has been put back together (its bones that were found) and a 6 foot tall man can walk under it without bending his head. A lot of animals were once much larger than today. But Let us Bless Jesus and our Father God ,Creator of all things and all life.
Is this list of a hundred or so animals available to the public?
Actually, jackals do congregate in large packs. See David W. MacDonald, “The Flexible Social System of the Golden Jackal, Canis aureus,” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology Vol. 5, No. 1 (1979), pp. 17–38, and Constantin-François Volney, Travels through Syria and Egypt, in the years 1783, 1784, and 1785 (London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1787), vol. 1, p. 321.
“The shu’al, a species of which Samson captured 300 and tied fire-brands to their tails (Judges 15:4), was identified in Europe as a fox, leading Bible critics such as Voltaire to mock the notion that it would be possible to find 300 members of such a solitary loner as the fox. However, as other verses indicate, the shu’al of Scripture is actually the jackal (see Psalm 63:11), a relative of the fox that gathers in large packs. Yet because there are no jackals in Europe, people there had long transposed the name shu’al to the fox.”
Sorry, but Jackals are also loners as well though a male and femal pair may forage together, they are not pack animals. Perhaps it was some animal that does not exist anymore but 300 Jackals would have had to have been a tall order from the Egytpians for that volume.
Jackals are mean and ornery like Coyotes and Samson would have really had tunnel vision to focus on caging and tying fire brands, say with hemp to the tale of any animal. Did he do this at once or did he just wait until he came across one and then set it up as a crop burner. Maybe these 300 Shauls whatever they were were released over a period of time as he could catch them.
Links to Google translate didn’t work, so here are original URLs:
There are still believed to be a (literal) handful of Arabian leopards in the Judean and Negev deserts, while Sinai leopards, Asiatic cheetahs, Syrian brown bears, Nile crocodiles, and Arabian ostriches only disappeared in the last century, some being completely extinct.
Brief discussion of those who worked to document the wildlife before it disappeared .
Image gallery of Schmitz’s collection, now at Tel Aviv University
Dear Rabbi Dr Natan Silfkin
Thank you for your article, I enjoyed reading it. However, just one mistake. The animal God referred to and recorded in Job 40:17 could not have been a hippopotamus as the verse states that it has a tail which sways like a cedar. The tail of the hippopotamus is very small. May I suggest that God was referring to a saurodian dinosaur. We have been told that dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, but this is just an evolutionist’s lie. Red blood cells and soft tissue have been found in over 30 dinosaur bones; they could only have died out a few hundred years ago. You may like to go to my website to read more:http://www.adefenceofthebible.com/2016/06/16/when-did-the-dinosaurs-die-out/.
Swaying LIKE a cedar isn’t the same thing as being as LARGE as a cedar. It’s the swaying movement a cedar tree makes in a wind that resembles the tail’s swaying movement. The text doesn’t say that the tail was as large as a cedar tree.