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Don’t Eat That Bird! — Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study VIII

October 9, 2016

This Week’s Lesson – Don’t Eat That Bird!

We now begin a look at the birds considered unclean and not to be eaten by the children of Israel.

Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus - Seedskadee NWR, WY (Tom Koerner - Wikimedia Commons)

Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus – Seedskadee NWR, WY
(Tom Koerner – Wikimedia Commons)

These are the birds that you shall regard as vermin, and for this reason they shall not be eaten: the griffon-vulture, the black vulture, and the bearded vulture; the kite and every kind of falcon; every kind of crow, the desert-owl, the short-eared owl, the long-eared owl, and every kind of hawk; the tawny owl, the fisher-owl, and the screech-owl; the little owl, the horned owl, the osprey, the stork, every kind of cormorant, the hoopoe, and the bat.
Leviticus 11:13-19  New English Bible

Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus (Wikimedia Commons)

Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier) Gypaetus barbatus scarfs down a big bone (Francesco Veronesi, Italy – Wikimedia Commons)

My first impression of this list is that I wouldn’t want to eat any of these birds myself. Some of their dietary habits are rather repugnant. If you are what you eat, I don’t want to eat them! Others I am quite fond of and – as with most people – I refrain from eating my friends. While the rationale, if any, behind these biblical dietary injunctions is not really well understood, and theologians and scholars have argued about them for millennia, it seems that these bird’s choices in cuisine are as good a reason as any for putting them off-limits. If something eats garbage, dung, or dead and rotting insect-infested meat, you might be wise to leave it alone.

Long-eared Owl Asio otus, USFWS Mountain-Prairie (Nicole Hornslein - Wikimedia Commons)

Long-eared Owl Asio otus, USFWS Mountain-Prairie
(Nicole Hornslein – Wikimedia Commons)

The second thing that strikes me about this list of forbidden flying food, is what an odd assortment of birds it is. In total, twenty species or families are named. The bat, of course, is not a bird (so we’ll ignore it.) It’s not that the infinite deity, or even

Tawny Owl Strix aluco Beldibi, Marmaris Mugla, Turkey (Nottsexminer - Wikimedia Commons)

Tawny Owl Strix aluco; Beldibi, Marmaris Mugla, Turkey (Nottsexminer – Wikimedia Commons)

the ancient Israelites, goofed up and mistook it for a bird – no feathers, for starters – but that their word עוֹף oph meant “flying creatures,” excepting insects which were pestiferous and plentiful enough to warrant their own names.

Of the nineteen remaining named birds, eight are owls. As of October 1, 2016, there are 10,514 avian species in the world, of which 228 are owls, or 2.2% of the total. Yet owls comprise 42% of the deity’s Do Not Eat list. This seems peculiar. I can’t think of any owl I’d wish to eat; their eating habits are all pretty much the same; why didn’t the deity just say “every kind of owl” and be done with it, as was done with falcons, hawks and cormorants? Does this mean it’s OK to eat those owls not named? That doesn’t seem reasonable.

Ten owl species live in our target area of Israel and environs. In current phylogenetic order they are: Barn Owl Tyto tyto; European Scops-Owl Otus scops; Pallid Scops-Owl Otus brucei; Eurasian Eagle-Owl Bubo bubo; Brown Fish-Owl Ketupa zeylonensis; Little Owl Athene noctua; Tawny Owl Strix aluco; Desert Owl Strix hadorami; Long-eared Owl  Asio otus; and Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus. Our Unclean Birds list totals eight. Assuming that the English names given in my bible translation are valid – a very big assumption – the Little, Tawny, Long-eared and Short-eared Owls match. Of seven species of Fish-Owl, the Brown is the only one in the area. The “horned” owl has to be Eagle Owl; it has large horns and is the largest owl in the area, impossible to overlook. The “screech” owl is likely the Scops-Owl, a small widespread owl closely related to screech owls; the European O. scops is widespread and common, whereas the range of the Pallid O. brucei is farther east, only occasionally reaching Israel. They are very similar in appearance.

Desert Owl Strix hadorami, Israel (Thomas Krumenacker - Science News)

Desert Owl Strix hadorami, Israel
AKA Desert Tawny Owl, formerly known as Hume’s Owl, Strix butleri
(Thomas KrumenackerScience News)

The “desert owl” is problematic, although there actually is a Desert Owl Strix hadorami, also called Desert Tawny Owl. Its predecessor species, Hume’s Owl Strix butleri, was split in 2015 when the widespread form was recognized as different from the Omani Owl, endemic to Oman. The widespread form became S. hadorami, the Omani form became Omani Owl, retaining S. butleri. However, because Desert Owl closely resembles Tawny Owl S. aluco, it’s likely the ancient Israelites saw them as the same bird. This leaves Barn Owl Tyto tyto – a scattered and widespread resident throughout the region – as the possible “desert” owl.

Barn Owls are relatively large, often noisy, nest and roost in both trees and human-build structures, and delight in devouring small rodents noxious to humans and their crops. It seems unlikely they would not be noticed.

Barn Owl Tyto tyto; (Jurgen, Sandesneben, Germany - Wikipedia)

Barn Owl Tyto tyto, possibly the biblical “desert” owl;
(Jurgen, Sandesneben, Germany – Wikipedia)

If we accept the above analysis – taking Barn Owl as “desert” owl, and eliminating the Pallid Scops-Owl and Desert Owl as too similar, respectively, to European Scops-Owl and Tawny Owl, for ancient Israelites – who lacked binoculars – to distinguish, we are left with a total of eight owls in the area. Eight owls available, eight owls individually labeled “unclean.” Which returns us to the unanswerable question: why not just say “every kind of owl” and be done with it? The deity works in mysterious ways, apparently without an editor.

Brown Fish Owl Ketupa zeylonensis; Corbett NP, Uttarakhand, India (Koshy Kosny - Wikimedia Commons)

Brown Fish Owl Ketupa zeylonensis;
Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand, India
Their feet are specially adapted to catching slippery fish
(Koshy Kosny – Wikimedia Commons)

To single out owls like this as unclean is a bit unfair. This worldwide family of birds has a lot of charisma – even many non-birders admire and appreciate owls, and owls are very useful to humans. Except for the seven Old-World species of fishing-owls, they feed primarily on small rodents and large insects which in turn prey on our crops, infest our buildings, and carry diseases like bubonic plague. Because their extremely large night-adapted eyes are fixed immovably in the skull, they need to move their head to look around. As a result, they evolved the ability to rotate their head as much as 270 degrees to either side, for a total rotation of 540°. Barn Owls can hear a mouse rustling in the grass over 100 yards away. Because one ear hole is slightly higher on the skull than the other, Barn Owls can locate such faint sounds in three dimensions, and can find and seize that mouse in absolute pitch darkness. (Humans are good at locating sounds to either side (horizontal axis), but locate sounds on the vertical axis only with difficulty.) From thirty yards away, the Great Gray Owls of the far north can hear the movement of voles beneath two feet of snow. These are abilities unique in the world of birds.

Brown Fish Owl Ketupa zeylonensis; Tamil Nadu, India (D Momaya - Wikimedia Commons)

Brown Fish Owl Ketupa zeylonensis; Tamil Nadu, India
The “fisher” owl (D Momaya – Wikimedia Commons)

On the other hand, divine removal from humanity’s menu was, for Owls, fortuitous. It obviates the typical fate befalling animals we find edible: either eaten into extinction or enslaved to feed humanity. Perhaps the deity was really protecting a wonderful family of birds, rather than saving humans from possible illness. Now there’s a thought!

Fantastick Madg & Lakshmi with her owl (dd)

Fanatick Madg (British Museum) &
Hindu Goddess of fortune Lakshmi with her owl (Wikipedia)

Because most owls are nocturnal, they are often feared. Night is the time of evil spirits in many cultures, when ghosts, demons, and “things that go bump in the night” roam about, killing and devouring us, or infesting our bodies with their evil

Athenian tetradrachm, 499 BCE (sngcop)

Athenian tetradrachm, 454-404 BCE; goddess Athena and her wisdom-owl who sees into the darkness of men’s souls
(WikipediaClassical Numismatic Group)

powers. Owls have been thought to be a witch’s demonic “familiar”, abettors in their nefarious deeds. Even today, there are people in America who believe a “hoot-owl” call to be an omen of death.  Out in the country, particularly in the south, there is an owl calling

Eurasian Scops Owl Otus scops, Kuwait (Samera Al Kalifah - Kuwait

Eurasian Scops Owl Otus scops; Kuwait
The “screech” owl (Samera Al Kalifah – Kuwait

within earshot just about everywhere, throughout the year. Owls call, people die, but assuming that one causes or predicts the other is an example of the common logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin – “after this, therefore because of this”).

God’s injunction against owls reminds me of a famous and mostly-true story about JBS Haldane, British biologist of the middle 20th century, which goes something like this:

Reverend Whoozit: Will you tell me, Professor Haldane, what your study of nature has taught you about the mind of God?

Dr. Haldane: Certainly. God is inordinately fond of beetles.

Little Owl Athene noctua, Warsaw, Poland (Artur Mikolajewski - Wikimedia Commons)

Three Little Owls Athene noctua, in a rain gutter; Warsaw, Poland
(Artur Mikolajewski – Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists now estimate that perhaps half of all the 10-30 million species of animal life on earth are beetles, so Haldane was by no means merely being flippant. Consider for a moment: if variety is the spice of life, and repetition is boring, what are we to make of 5-15 million members of the beetle family versus 10,500 of birds and less than 5000 species of mammals. Perhaps we can modify Haldane’s observation with the deity’s injunction, and say:

God is inordinately fond of beetles and abhorrent of owls.

But perhaps I’m overstating the case. It’s food for thought.

Eurasian Eagle Owl Bubo bubo, Zdarsle vrchy, Czech (Martin Mecnarowski - Wikimedia Commons)

Eurasian Eagle Owl Bubo bubo – The “horned” owl
Zdarsle vrchy, Czechoslovakia
(Martin MecnarowskiWikimedia Commons)

Bible Factoid #8: Of “Of”
“Of” is another of those irritating prepositions with numerous senses. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry for “of” covers six pages, with sixty-two senses grouped into seventeen branches. Although the phrase annoys a great many sincere and devout Christians, it is currently fashionable to speak of the Bible (combined Jewish and Christian scriptures) as the “Word of God,” as if God himself hoisted His mighty pen and inscribed the words in eternal ink.  But with sixty-two possibilities, what does “of” really mean?

The phrase “word of God” appears forty-eight times in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. None of the authors of the eighty-one books comprising the Christian Bible would have used this phrase to refer to their own writings or those by another, or to a not-yet-existing collection of such works. At least, none did. They wrote about God, or what they felt God was saying to them, but lacked the impudence to suggest that God actually wrote the words they penned. Those who feel inspired by God – witness the mystics of all major religions –  always insist how ineffable is the experience, how meager their ability to express it. Their writings are God-inspired, perhaps; God-written, no.

The eternal question: who wrote either the Bible or the Book of Love (A: The Monotones wrote #2)

Two eternal questions: Who wrote the Bible or the Book of Love (The Monotones wrote #2:
– Photo:

In their various usages, “Word of God” refers to something spoken by a human about their deity, or a spiritual word “spoken” or “thought” by that deity, most often when it has entered into someone’s mind. For example:

But the word of God came unto Shemaiah the man of God, saying… 1 Kings 12:22
…as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God… Luke 5:1
…and they spake the word of God with boldness… Acts 4:30
But the word of God grew and multiplied… Acts 12:24
Now when the apostles…heard that Samaria had received the word of God… Acts 8:14
…and his name is called The Word of God. Revelation 19:13

If “of” in “Word of God” carried the same sense as in “John of London” or “Duke of Earl,” then we would mean the “word” from “God” or the “word” that lives or resides in “God.” But consider this.

The King James Version of the Christian Bible was published in 1611, when English usage was significantly different than it is today. Then it was common to say something like, “You are returned from London. Have you brought any word of my brother?” In this sense, “of” means “concerning” or “about.”

The appropriate OED sense for this usage is:
Branch VIII: Indicating the subject-matter of thought, feeling or action, i.e. that about which it is exercised.
26. In sense: Concerning, about, with regard to, in reference to.

Some examples:
1542 Udall – Of these games is afore mentioned.
1590 Spenser – To sing of knights and ladies gentle.
1697 Dryden – The learned Leaches…shake their Head, desponding of their Art.
1859 Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities
2010 The Economist – Recession…[has] put paid to most thoughts of further EU enlargement.

The proper interpretation of “reading the word of God” is “reading about God,” or “reading words about God,” without the implication that God somehow wrote the words you are reading. Again: Inspired by, perhaps; written by, no.

Part I – What About That Dove? & The Flood of the Gilgamesh
Part II – Sandgrouse or Quail? & YHVH [יְהוָ֖ה] [Yahweh]
Part III – Junglefowl in Judea! & New Testament Koine Greek
Part IV – Birds that Sow, Reap and Store & Whence Jesus (Ἰησοῦς)
Part V – The Friendly Ravens & The Bar-Abbas Mystery
Part VI – The Humble Hoopoe & Catching “Forty” Winks
Part VII – The Wise Hoopoe & On “On”
Part IX – Don’t Eat that Bird! Part 2 & Seeing “Red”
Part X – Don’t Eat that Bird! The Last Bite & The Problems of Translation

Next installment: More on birds too nasty to eat, when the ground shifts beneath our feet.
[Chuck Almdale]

Additional Sources:
1. Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Terres, John K. (1980) Alfred A. Knopf, New York. Pgs 664-673.
2. Birds of Europe. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterström, D., Grant, P.J. (1999) Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. – Owls, Pgs 206-214.
3. New English Bible with the Apocrypha, The, Oxford Study Edition. Sandmel, Samuel, Suggs, M. Jack, Tkacik, Arnold J.; eds. (1976) Oxford University Press, New York
4. Oxford English Dictionary. (1971) Oxford University Press, New York

Links With Notes:
Tree of Life  To navigate Tree Of Life, click binoculars icon in upper right corner, enter bird name and press “next hit” until you get to your bird.
Cornel Lab of Ornithology Clements Downloadable Checklist of Birds of the World, updated August, 2016. An invaluable tool. Almost a “one-stop-shopping” research site for the bible. Watch out for the occasional fundamentalist bias.

One Comment
  1. December 1, 2016 8:04 pm

    Gorgeous photos. Love them all. I just got a bunch of vultures today. They are not usually the type of bird I post, but I think I will because they are a critical part of the ecosystem and are hard to get close up.


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