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Don’t Eat That Bird, part 2! — Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study IX

October 16, 2016

This Week’s Lesson – Don’t Eat That Bird! Part 2
The ground begins to shift beneath our feet

Eurasian Black or Cinerous Vulture Aegypius monarchus (Wikimedia Commons)

Eurasian Black Vulture or Cinerous Vulture Aegypius monarchus
(Juan LacruzWikimedia 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

Last time we looked at the owls and their noteworthy domination of this list, comprising eight of the nineteen listed birds, excluding the bat. This peculiar preponderance led me to check the footnotes in my New English Bible, where I found evidence for the translator(s) uncertainty, indicated by the following possible substitutions: eagle for griffon-vulture, ossifrage for bearded vulture, raven for crow, and heron for stork. These uncertainties are quite understandable to the experienced birder.

Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus, Haifa, Israel (Wikimedia Commons)

Juvenile Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus, Haifa, Israel
(Avi AmielWikimedia Commons)

The griffon-vulture, or Eurasian Vulture, or Eurasian Griffon as it is currently known, is superficially like an eagle. A very large carnivore, soaring on wide, flat wings, it is resident from northern India to Spain, including Palestine, where it nests in cliffside colonies. Many raptor species breeding in Eurasia, including Eurasian Griffons, migrate through Palestine to their wintering grounds in southern Egypt, Sudan, and across sub-Saharan Africa. [Israel is famous for springtime raptor migrations.] The Israelites would have been quite familiar with them. It’s not only translators who have a problem differentiating vultures from eagles, as the Wikipedia Commons title for the above Griffon Vulture photo is “An eagle near Haifa.” All Old-World vultures have a long, drooping neck, unlike any eagle, which have thick, short necks. This difference is quite obvious, even at great distances. [The short necks of the seven species of New World Vultures do not droop, one reason why they were recently classified into their own family, Cathartidae.] All vultures, with one exception, are exclusively carnivorous, eating only animals they have found already dead. (The exception is the Palm-nut Vulture of sub-Saharan Africa. Guess what it eats.) This habit is quite disgusting to most people. But consider this: when was the last time you ate a live animal? I prefer my food to have stopped thrashing about, at the very least, thank you.

Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus; Catalan, Pyrenees, Spain (Francesco Veronisi - Wiki Commons)

Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus; Catalan, Pyrenees, Spain
(Francesco VeronesiWiki Commons)

Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus (Wikimedia Commons)

Bearded Vulture (Ossifrage) Gypaetus barbatus, swallowing a big bone
(Francesco VeronesiWiki Commons)

Ossifrage (from Latin for “bone” + “break”is an archaic name for Bearded Vulture, also known as Lammergeier (German for “lamb vulture”). This unusual vulture ranges from South Africa to southern France to western China. For millennia, Tibetan and western Chinese “bonebreakers” relied upon vultures to eat the flesh of their corpses, and the “ossifrage” to carry away and devour the bones of their dead. In the Palestine area, they currently nest in Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Arabia. They have the curious dining preference of carrying bones to great heights, dropping them on rocks, and then descending to eat both shattered bone and marrow. This seems like an odd way to get a meal, but they’re the only bird doing this, so they have the niche to themselves. At some unidentifiable time past, by the way, the fresh-fish-eating Osprey was confused with and misnamed for this bird. The name “Osprey” derives from “ossifrage.” Needless to say, Ospreys do not swallow large bones.

You need never be confused again (Camara Miller - Highline Online)

You need never be confused again
(Camara Miller – Highline Online)

Ravens are very closely related to crows, and share the genus Corvus. Indeed, ravens could be simply considered large crows, or crows small ravens. This genus has been very successful, and its 42 species have spread worldwide, excepting South and Central America, from its ancient Australasian origin. They are very intelligent and social, and a crow family may stay together many years. Omnivorous, they eat all kinds of plant and animal matter. They particularly love road kills and garbage. There are four species than likely lived in ancient Palestine, as discussed in lesson five: Jackdaw, Hooded Crow, Common Raven and Brown-necked Raven. The various jays, magpies and choughs, although also in the family Corvidae, are less likely to be confused with either raven or crow.

Purple Heron Ardea purpurea, Nagarhole NP, India (Yathin S Krishnappa Wiki Commons)

Purple Heron Ardea purpurea, Nagarhole NP, India (Yathin KrishnappaWiki Commons)

Herons are easily mistaken for storks, although they are only distantly related. They are an example of convergent evolution: similar living situations cause unrelated animals to evolve similar body styles and habits. Both are long-necked, long-legged wading birds. Of the 19 stork species only the Wood Stork lives in North America. The Black Stork and White Stork migrate through Palestine in spring and fall, but nest no closer than central Turkey. Storks eat many snails and other invertebrates, food items also forbidden to the Israelites. The White Stork is famous for nesting on chimneys and rooftops all across Europe. It was considered a sign of good fortune and especially good fertility, for a stork to nest on your rooftop; this gave rise to the popular image of the stork carrying a human baby in its bill. Herons are world-wide, and also eat many invertebrates, amphibians and other fare forbidden to the Israelites. In Palestine, herons are represented by Gray Heron (Ardea cinerea) Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) and Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), the same species we have in America.Storks: White Ciconia ciconia, with nesting material, Bingenheimer Reid, Germany (Christina Zientek) Black Ciconia nigra (Marek Szczepanek - Wiki Commons)

White Stork – Ciconia ciconia, with nesting material, Bingenheimer Reid, Germany (Christina Zientek) // Black Stork – Ciconia nigra (Marek Szczepanek)  (Both from Wiki Commons)

But these small notations did not satisfy my curiosity. I decided to check a little further, and see how this passage might read in another translation of the Bible. What I found was pretty interesting, with far-reaching ramifications.

Black Kite Milvus migrans, Upper Galilee (Artemy Voikhansky - Wiki Commons)

Black Kite Milvus migrans, Upper Galilee, Israel
(Artemy VoikhanskyWiki Commons)

This is as good a time as any to cite, in passing, the verses immediately following those cited above. If you don’t understand why, check the picture below.
All teeming winged creatures that go on four legs shall be vermin to you, except those which have legs jointed above their feet for leaping on the ground. Of these you may eat every kind of great locust, every kind of long-headed locust, every kind of green locust, and every king of desert locust. Every other teeming winged creature that has four legs you shall regard as vermin…  Leviticus 11:20-23

I hope you didn’t need me to point out that “teeming winged creatures,” aka insects, have six legs, not four, but if you did, there it is. The deity’s editor slips up again. Pegasus and a few griffons are the only creatures I know of with wings and four legs, and they don’t exist anyway.

Desert Locust Schistocerca gregaria, laying eggs, Mauritania<br/>(Christiaan Kooyman - Wiki Commons)

Desert Locust Schistocerca gregaria, laying eggs, Mauritania
(Christiaan KooymanWiki Commons)

To get you ready for our next lesson, here’s the translation from the Masoretic Text. Compare it to the version from the New English Bible, cited at the top.
And these ye shall have in detestation among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are a detestable thing; the great vulture, and the bearded vulture, and the ospray; and the kite, and the falcon after its kinds; every raven after its kinds; and the ostrich, and the night-hawk, and the sea-mew, and the hawk after its kinds; and the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl; and the horned owl, and the pelican, and the carrion-vulture; and the stork, and the heron after its kinds, and the hoopoe, and the bat. Leviticus 10:13-19

Bible Factoid #9 – Seeing “Red”

Did Moses lead the Children of Israel across a sea of red or a sea of reed?  This argument has long raged well out of sight of the average Christian.

Exodus 13:18, original 1611 King James Version (OriginalBibles pg. 149)

Exodus 13:18, original 1611 King James Version (OriginalBibles pg. 149)

The Changing Translation of ס֜וּףsup” as “reed” or “red”
The word ס֜וּףsup” (or “suph”) occurs 28 times in the Jewish scriptures. The first book, Genesis, does not use it, instead using the adjective אַדְמוֹנִ֔י ad-mo-nee, translated as “red” or “ruddy,” three times, first in Genesis 25:25 in reference to Abraham’s grandson Esau.

ס֜וּף sup first appears in reference to baby Moses, floating in his tiny boat among the reeds.
So she got a rush basket for him [baby Moses], made it watertight with clay and tar, laid him in it, and put it among the reeds (בַּסּ֖וּף – bas-sup “in/among the reeds”) by the banks of the Nile. Exodus 2:3 NEB
She [Pharoh’s daughter] noticed the basket among the reeds (הַסּ֔וּף – has-sup “the reeds”) and sent her slave-girl for it. Exo 2:5 NEB

Sinai Exodus routes and mountains (

Egypt, Sinai, Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba, north end of the Red Sea (

At Exodus 10:19, the first mention of the “sea of red,” the translation changes.
The Lord changed the wind into a westerly gale, which carried the locusts away and swept them into the Red Sea (יָ֣מָּה – yah-mah “into the sea” + סּ֑וּף – sup “”red). Exo 10:19 NEB

Exodus 10:19, original 1611 King James Version (OriginalBibles pg. 145)

Exodus 10:19, original 1611 King James Version (OriginalBibles pg. 145)

The Red Sea is next mentioned in connection to the Israelites fleeing Egypt, crossing the water and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army.

So God made them go round by way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea (יַם־yam “of the sea” + ס֑וּף sup “red”); and the fifth generation of Israelites departed from Egypt. Exo 13:18 New English Bible (NEB 1976)
The chariots of Pharaoh and his army he has cast into the sea; the flower of his officers are engulfed in the Red Sea
(בְיַם־ – be-yam “sea” + סֽוּף׃ – sup “in the red”). The watery abyss has covered them, they sank into the depths like a stone. Exo 15:4-5 (NEB)

NEB footnotes Exo 13:18: “Red Sea: literally ‘Sea of Reeds,’ and hence a shallow papyrus marsh on the border of Egypt. The Red Sea is the name of the Gulf of Elath, much further east.” ff. pg 69. [I’m not sure the Elath part is correct. Elath is now Eilat, the city at the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba, the northeastern extension of the Red Sea which borders the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula. The Red Sea’s northwestern extension, the Gulf of Suez, lies between mainland Egypt and the Sinai west coast. Unfortunately, the NEB gives no further explanation.]

From this point through Jeremiah 49:21, whenever סּ֑וּף – sup modifies יַם־yam “sea,” it is translated as “red.”

The very last use of ס֔וּף – sup defines it as “weeds,” far closer to “reed” than to “red” in meaning:
The water about me rose up to my neck; the ocean was closing over me. Weeds (ס֖וּף – sup “the weeds”) twined about my head in the troughs of the mountains;… Jonah 2:5

Most of Suez Canal, Great Bitter Lake midway (Bible Journey)

Suez Canal, Great Bitter Lake midway, Gulf of Suez at bottom (Bible Journey)

Summarizing the ס֔וּף – sup translation problem:
1. ס֔וּף – sup occurs twenty-eight times, always classified as a noun; in the twenty-four occurrences where it modifies יַם־yam“sea” it is translated as “red.”
2. When it does not modify יַם־yam“sea,” it is translated as “reeds” (Exo 2:3 & 2:5); “reeds,” “rushes” or “flags;” (Isaiah 19:6), or “weeds” Jon 2:5)
3. If translation erred – intentionally or unintentionally – at the first usage of “red,” (Exo 10:19), probability is high that in all subsequent usage in the same context, “the __ sea,” would be similarly mistranslated.
4. Scholars’ commentaries on these verses usually indicate that “reed” or “weed” is correct, not “red”: Exo 2:3, Exo 10:19, Exo 13:18.

The Red Sea
Egypt’s current capital, Cairo, is ninety miles from the Gulf of Suez. Thebes, the capital around 1300 BCE, was one hundred miles from the Red Sea. That’s a very long way for locusts to be blown, as Exo 10:19 claims, using the first translation of ס֔וּף – sup as “red.” Crops were

Great Bitter Lake & Suez Canal, Ismalia at north end (Bible Journey)

Great Bitter Lake & Suez Canal; Ismalia (city) at north end of lake (Bible Journey)

grown primarily  in the fertile alluvial soil of the Nile delta; the ancient “store-cities” of Pithom and Per-Rameses built by the Israelites (Exo 1:11) were nearby. From either Pithom (some say Tell el-Maskhusa, nine miles west of Ismaliya on the Suez Canal) or Per-Rameses (Qantir), it is thirty miles to the large lakes now bisected by the Suez Canal. Scattered lakes and ponds abound throughout the area. These distances are far more reasonable for the blowing of locusts. The fastest route to and through the Sinai would be through this area, and opportunities would abound for losing potential pursuers among the marshlands, lakes and wadis.

Papyrus on the Nile (Zev Radovan)

Papyrus on the Nile (Bible Land Pictures – Zev Radovan)

In ancient Egypt, papyrus (גֹּ֔מֶאgo-me) (reeds) were abundant along the Nile and in the delta, and harvested for both domestic and export use. People can travel and avoid detection among beds of towering papyrus. Water levels in shallow marshes can fluctuate, strong winds can raise waves. Whether one’s neighborhood consists of buildings, fences and alleys, or of wadis, marshes and reeds, there are always “locals” who know the fast and surreptitious routes. Moses, living east of Egypt, and his brother Aaron, living within Egypt, may have been such people. They could lead people on foot safely, quickly and secretly through areas which would mire horses and wheeled vehicles. Moses knew the Sinai – the water holes, the edible plants, when the Common Quail came through in the millions. In this scenario, Moses is less the God-struck prophet freeing his people and binding them to God, than the wily Mexican-style coyote, leading people, perhaps repeatedly, across a border to “the promised land,” and a better life of freedom and prosperity.

Nile Delta in ancient Egypt

Nile Delta, ancient Egypt – Per-Rameses circled red, Pithom circled blue
(Ancient Near East – Just the Facts)

Whether “Israelites” ever lived in Egypt, fled Egypt for elsewhere, or were pursued by troops cannot be settled here. But the “Sea of Red” is too wide (150 miles) to be crossed in a few days, let alone a few hours, and too far from the hard-labor slaves located in the delta. But a “sea of reeds” near the delta fits what few details Exodus gives without forcing us to swallow unlikely translations which necessitate miracles.

The Septuagint (LXX)
According to numerous sources, such as Bible Archeology:
The “Red Sea” phrase came into the account with the third century BC translation of the Old Testament into Greek. Called the Septuagint (abbreviated as LXX), its translators made yam suph (“Sea of Reeds”) into [ἐρυθρὰν θάλασσαν] eruthrá thálassē (“Red Sea”). The Latin Vulgate followed their lead with mari Rubro (“Red Sea”) and most English versions continued that tradition.

The number of websites discussing this problem are legion. The reasons to choose “reed” seem rational and reasonable. The reasons to choose “red” are based on tradition and a faith-based need for miracles.

Additional sites arguing for “reed”:                  Additional sites arguing for “red”:
Christianity – Stack Exchange                            Orthodox Union
Ancient Near East – Just the Facts                    Religion Today
The Bible Journey                               United Church of God – Beyond Today

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 Raven & The Bar-Abbas Mystery
Part VI – The Humble Hoopoe & Catching “Forty” Winks
Part VII – The Wise Hoopoe & On “On”
Part VIII –Don’t Eat That Bird! Part 1 & Of “Of”
Part X – Don’t Eat that Bird! The Last Bite & The Problems of Translation
[Chuck Almdale]


Additional Sources:
1. Birds of Europe. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterström, D., Grant, P.J. (1999) Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
2. Dictionary of American Bird Names. Choate, Ernest A. (1985) Harvard Common Press, Boston.
3. Handbook of Birds of the World (HBW), Vol. 2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. eds. (1994) Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Vultures – Pgs 125-129.
4. Holy Scriptures: According to the Masoretic Text. (1955) The Jewish Publication Society of America. Philadelphia.
5. 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

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. An invaluable tool. Almost a “one-stop-shopping” bible research site.  A very useful site.



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