This blog gains its name from the book Steele's Answers published in 1912. It began as an effort to blog through that book, posting each of the Questions and Answers in the book in the order in which they appeared. I started this on Dec. 10, 2011. I completed blogging from that book on July 11, 2015. Along the way, I began to also post snippets from Dr. Steele's other writings — and from some other holiness writers of his times. Since then, I have begun adding material from his Bible commentaries. I also re-blog many of the old posts.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Leviticus 11:9-20 - Fish and Birds

"9 These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat. 10 And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you: 11 They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination. 12 Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you. 13 And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray, 14 And the vulture, and the kite after his kind; 15 Every raven after his kind; 16 And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind, 17 And the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl, 18 And the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle, 19 And the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat. 20  All fowls that creep, going upon all four, shall be an abomination unto you" — Leviticus 11:9-20 KJV.


No species of fish are here mentioned; the possession of both fins and scales is the line of demarcation between the clean and the unclean. It excludes from the table of the Hebrew all the eel genera, or snake-like fishes, whose scales are very minute and slimy; all the genus silurus, the scaleless fishes found in the inland waters of Europe, all the amphibious saurians, like the alligators, being finless, and all shellfish, whether testaceous, as the oyster, or crustaceous, as the lobster, since they have neither scales nor fins. Numa forbade the Romans offering scaleless fishes in sacrifice. The modern Egyptians regard them as unwholesome.


In the case of fowls no general principle of classification is laid down, but twenty unclean species are specified. From an inspection of the list we discover that it is composed almost exclusively of birds of prey, never eaten by civilized man. Thus Mosaism did but sanction by legislative enactment that which the instinct of cultivated man has, in all ages, approved. The passerine birds, game and poultry groups, the duck tribe, and most of the waders, except only the herons and storks, were clean. It will be found that in the Authorized Version many of them have been translated erroneously. This results from the fact that they are found only in the catalogue given in Leviticus and repeated in Deuteronomy. Thus practically many of them are cases of only once mentioned terms. In these cases the translator must resort to the meaning of the radical form from which the term was derived, to its cognate in the kindred languages, to the most ancient versions, and to the opinions of the wisest Jewish rabbins. After all his care he may fall into a mistake which advancing scholarship and research may expose. Since birds, insects, and the smaller animals are quite permanent in their habitat, the studies of modern ornithologists and entomologists throw much light upon this subject. Unclean birds and insects which are now abundant in Palestine and the Sinaitic Peninsula would naturally find a place in the catalogue, while those not now found in those regions would be omitted. Of the twenty names in this catalogue of unclean birds nine are found only in the catalogues and seven are improperly rendered in the Authorized Version.

We can harmonize the twenty-one species named in Deuteronomy 14:12-18, “by assuming a slight error of transcription. The Hebrew daah and raah, vulture and glede, differ only in their initial letters דּ and ר . On this hypothesis, if we drop the superfluous daah (omitted in the Samaritan, the Septuagint, and several MSS.) rendered vulture, the discrepancy vanishes.” — Haley.

13. The eagle — The Hebrew נֶּ֙שֶׁר֙ here denotes a particular species of the falconidae, namely, the griffon or great vulture, as distinguished from other raptorial birds of the same genus. Four kinds of eagles have been observed in Palestine — the golden, the spotted, the imperial, and the ospray. The eagle is large, strong, swift, fierce, and rapacious. His cry is the terror of every wing. His eye is large, dark, and piercing; his sight keen and directly at the sun; his beak powerful and hooked; his wings are broad and powerful; and his claws long and sharp. The ossifrage — The English term signifies the bone-breaker, the Hebrew פֶּ֔רֶס, the breaker. This bird is spoken of only here and in the parallel passage Deuteronomy 14:12. His habits are indicated by his name, for not only does he push kids and lambs, and even men, off the rocks, but he takes the bones of animals denuded of their flesh by other birds of prey high up into the air, and lets them fall upon a stone to crack, and render more digestible for even his enormous powers of deglutition. “I have repeatedly watched a pair of Lammergeirs, which had an eyrie close to our camp, pass and repass in front of our tents for hours at a time, invariably dropping something upon a smooth ledge of rocks hard by. For several days we imagined that these were sticks they were carrying to their nest; for prompt as we were in endeavouring to reach the spot first, the birds swooped down like lightning and seized their quarry again. At length we caught a serpent writhing and dislocated, which we had taken for a stick, and found that our imagined stones were tortoises, which had to be dropped a dozen times before the shell was sufficiently shattered.” — Tristram. The ospray — The Hebrew עָזְנִיָּֽה׃. It is difficult to identify this bird. Some think that the fish-eating haliaeetus is intended, others, the melanaeetus, or black eagle of Aristotle; while other writers identify the ospray with the hatiaeetus albicilla, or white tailed sea-eagle. Tristram suggests that it is the very abundant circaetos gallicus, which feeds upon reptiles.

14. The vulture — The Hebrew דָּאָ֔ה is found only here. Since the parallel word in Deuteronomy 14:13 is דַּיָּ֖ה, milvius in the Vulgate, some Hebraists regard this as the black kite, but we are inclined to sustain the accuracy of the Authorized Version. The griffon vulture is universally distributed in all the mountainous and rocky districts of Palestine. Its favourite breeding places are between Jerusalem and Jericho and all around the Dead Sea. By a peculiar instinct it follows armies, vast numbers having congregated in the Crimea in the Russian war, although previously they had been rarely seen in that peninsula. Job 28:7, note.

The kite — Hebrew אַיָּ֖ה, translated vulture in Job 28:7, and kite in the only other passage, Deuteronomy 14:13. Of all the birds of prey this has the keenest vision. See reference in Job. Its habitat is near to cities, and its food is moles, rats, mice, frogs, the young of game birds, offal, and dead birds. Pigeons associate with him without harm. This bird was common in London in the seventeenth century.

15. Every raven — This bird derives his name in Hebrew from his blackness. It is allied to the crow, which is after his kind, only smaller. It abides in solitary valleys. Proverbs 30:17. Since it feeds on carrion it is very unclean.

16. The owl — This is the ostrich, literally, the daughter of the howl, from its doleful cry. It is correctly translated in Lamentations 4:3. It is the largest of all known birds, and the swiftest of all cursorial animals. To capture one costs the lives of two horses. Its strength and voracity are enormous. From its habits of indiscriminately gulping down almost anything, even glass or stone, it is obviously unclean. Its cry by night, Tristram says, resembles the hoarse lowing of an ox in pain; others compare it to the roar of the lion. The nighthawk — The Hebrew הַתַּחְמָ֖ס, found only in Deuteronomy 14:15 and Isaiah 34:11, cannot with certainty be identified. The conjectures are, that it is the male ostrich, the swallow, and the owl. As the Seventy and the Vulgate agree in the last named bird, and since it is very common, with Tristram we adopt it as the true rendering.

The cuckoo —
There is no authority for this translation. The שָּׁ֑חַף, leanness, is supposed to be a bird of the genus gull, probably the stormy petrel, commonly called Mother Carey’s chicken, which abounds in the Levant. The hawk — There are in Palestine several species of the falcon, most of which are summer visitors from the South. See Job 39:26. The smaller species are the kestrel and hobby. Of the larger kinds, the falco sacer is the most magnificent.

17. The little owl — Hebrew כּ֥וֹס. The Authorized Version is evidently correct, though Bochart argues that כּ֥וֹס means pouch, and hence that the pelican is intended. But Psalm 102:6 decides that it is an owl of some kind. The little owl, to which species Tristram assigns כּ֥וֹס, is by far the most abundant of all owls in Palestine. He is a grotesque and comical-looking little bird. The cormorant — Hebrew שָּׁלָ֖ךְ. Since it occurs only here and in the parallel passage, Deuteronomy 14:17, it is difficult to identify. The Seventy render it by καταρράκτην, the plunger, which Furst says is a species of pelican, which precipitates itself from high crags into the water after fish. The cormorant is, however, closely allied to the pelican, being of the same family group, so that our translators were not far astray. The common cormorant is very common on the coast, and comes up the Kishon, visiting also the Sea of Galilee.

The great owl —
Hebrew יַּנְשֽׁוּף. Aside from the two catalogues of unclean birds, it is named but once, in Isaiah 34:11, in the prophetic desolation of Edom. The Chaldee and Syriac are in favour of some kind of owl, but the Seventy and Vulgate have ἶβιν, Ibis religiosa, the sacred bird of Egypt. “But the passage in Isaiah plainly puts this interpretation out of the question, for the ibis is strictly a bird of the reedy marshes and mud flats, the very last to be thought of among the ruins of Petra.” It is doubtless the Egyptian eagle-owl, a large and noble-looking bird, that is signified in these passages, found in great numbers in the rock tombs of Petra. Tristram thinks that it is the Egyptian eagle owl.

18. The swan — Hebrew תִּנְשֶׁ֥מֶת. It is found only in the two catalogues. The Samaritan version sustains the Seventy in rendering it πορφυρίωνα, Vulgate, porphyrio ibis, the purple water-hen. Tristram thinks that these versions are right. Furst insists that it is an owl, perhaps the screech-owl; Onkelos, the horn-owl; the Jerusalem Targum favours the owl; the Syriac, the night owl, which is followed by Rashi and Kimchi. The weight of authority is for the owl of some species. It is not probable that the swan was sufficiently known to the Israelites to obtain a place in this list, nor is it an unclean bird.

The pelican —
It derives its Hebrew name, קָּאָ֖ת, from vomiting the shells and fish it has stored in its capacious pouch, to feed its young, or to enable it to fly when suddenly alarmed. It abides in the swamps of the desert and on the sea-shore. The gier eagle — Hebrew רָחָֽם. It occurs only in the catalogues, and is identical in reality as it is in name with the רָחָֽם of the Arabs, the Egyptian vulture, or Pharaoh’s hen, which, according to Tristram, is common in Palestine, and breeds prolifically in the valley of the Kedron. It is an efficient scavenger.

19. The stork — Its Hebrew name, חֲסִידָ֔ה, signifies kindness, of which it has been in all ages the type. The white stork is one of the largest and most conspicuous of land birds, with jet black wings and bright red beak and legs. It devours all kinds of offal. Both white and black storks abound in Palestine, arriving in the latter part of March, and, year after year and generation after generation, occupying the old nest. The heron — Hebrew אֲנָפָ֖ה. It occurs only in the two catalogues, and hence it is quite uncertain what bird or genus is intended, since the words after her kind are subjoined. The Hebrew radical signifies “to snort in anger.” Hence Furst says it is the parrot. The Arabic version renders it a kind of eagle; the Seventy call it the sandpiper. The swallow has been suggested. The point on which Hebraists agree is, that it is not the heron. Tristram insists that it is the heron. The lapwing — Hebrew, דּוּכִיפַ֖ת, mountain-cock. It is found only in the catalogues. The Sadducees believed it to be the common fowl, which they refused to eat.

Commentators generally agree with the Seventy and Vulgate that the hoopoe is intended, called by AEschylus “the bird of the rocks,” which answers well to the Hebrew name. Its appearance is so remarkable that it cannot fail to attract notice wherever seen. The Arabs have a superstitious regard for it, and use it in their charms. The bat — The Hebrew עֲטַלֵּֽף indicates a night-bird. Although in modern natural history the bat is not a bird, but a true quadruped or mammal, in Hebrew oph, “fowls,” literally a wing, might be applied to any winged creature. Many travellers have noticed the immense number of bats that are found in the East, especially in caverns and dilapidated idol temples.


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