Friday, November 20, 2020

On Vultures' Wings

Exodus 19:4 is a familiar verse. It is also the subject of the devotional Hymn "On Eagles' Wings" composed by Michael Joncas - Wikipedia(On Eagle's Wings) [1].

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself.

Griffon Vulture in Flight
Some translations say "carried you on eagles' wings", I like that image. Note that Ex 19:4 reads eagles plural, not one giant eagle. Being an American, I always pictured the Bald Eagle in this verse. Commentaries, written by Americans or Europeans, probably imagined some majestic eagle as well. And they write many lessons about how eagles care for their young, how they teach them to fly and so forth. But Bible scholars no longer think this verse refers to the eagle, but really refers to the vulture.

If you like this (or not), check out my other articles at the
Between The Ears BLOG INDEX, with titles and summaries.

According to HaAretz [2], this is a problem in translation. "The first translators of the Bible from Hebrew and Aramaic, the Greek translators that created the Septuagint, got it wrong and wrote a’etos, which is the Greek word for eagle." That error has continued to this day. All of the 28 translations on BibleHub(Ex 19:4) [3] translate this as eagle, so why do scholars say it means vulture?

Again from HaAretz [2].

It all began when the Reverend Henry Tristram, a Bible scholar and ornithologist, traveled to the Holy Land in the 1860s. In a book he published in 1867, Tristram wrote that the biblical nesher was not an eagle but a vulture. This was picked up by the Israel Aharoni, a highly influential zoologist working in Palestine in the early 20th century. In his 1923 book Torat Hachai (“Zoology”) he announced the flip and suggested that the word nesher be reinstated to its biblical use, and used to refer to the vulture.

Bible scholar AND ornithologist? Apparently, this caused quite an argument in the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which eventually accepted the ornithology argument over linguistic or poetic ones.

Let's look at some of the technical details, then explore what we can learn from this.

"Bald" Griffon Vulture

Eagle is translated from the Hebrew word nesher - Cambridge Commentary [4], and is used 26 times in the Old Testament - Strong's(H5404) [5]. One reference to note is Micah 1:16 which mentions "baldness as an eagle", which must refer to the Griffon Vulture. It is not actually bald, but has a white downy covering on its head and neck. American Bald Eagles aren't bald either, they have white head feathers.

As an American, I view the eagle as majestic, but not the vulture. It turns out that this is a cultural thing. In the ancient world of the Middle East, the Griffon Vulture was seen as the king of birds. Indeed, it was seen as a symbol of royalty - Biblical Natural History [6]. The Griffon Vulture is actually an amazing bird. 

Griffon Vultures 

  • have remarkable eyesight
  • can spot its prey from three kilometres away
  • have binocular vision
  • are the highest flying bird (37,000 feet! [6])
  • have a wing span of 9 feet or more

So if the word vulture bothers you, think of them as raptors or birds of prey.

Text and Context

One lesson that I see from this change in translating nesher is that we can't entirely escape our own biases or the translator's biases when reading the Bible. It was written thousands of years ago by and for a people who spoke a different language, and had a different history and culture. I don't think that translating nesher as eagle instead of vulture is going to cause a problem for anyone, but learning that fact reminded me I still view parts of the Bible through my modern American lens. Just like the way I misunderstood the symbolism of the Crimson Grub Worm [7]. So, in addition to historical, linguistic, and cultural context, I have to add zoological context. 

A better question to explore is why did God use this image to describe deliverance from Egypt? Because the eagle (vulture) is unclean to eat and a bird of prey. J Vernon McGee [8] says it is not a symbol of God. Sue Nelson (womanofnoblecharacter) [9] says the opposite "The image of God as an eagle (vulture) is found throughout the Bible". The Bible appears to agree with Sue Nelson.

Deu 32:11 Like an eagle (vulture) that stirs up its nest, That hovers over its young, He spread His wings and caught them, He carried them on His pinions.
12 The LORD alone guided him, And there was no foreign god with him.

Symbolism Of Vultures

"Venue" of vultures
EnglishGrammarHere [10]

What lessons can we see in the symbolism of a vulture picturing God? We can see the vulture as a sign of strength, embodied in the opening quote where God carried Israel on vultures' wings. I have to point out that despite the word picture of being carried on the wings of a vulture, Israel walked out of Egypt. So the word "carried" isn't literal here. Many commentaries speak of God caring for Israel the way that eagles care for their young (and I assume Griffon Vultures as well), emphasizing supremacy, strength and protection [9]. They build nests where no other birds can reach them. They fiercely protect their chicks. They provide all their food. And teach them to fly.



When they teach them to fly, both parents are involved in the training program. As the little one takes off from that dizzy height and attempts to follow its parent in flight, the eagle (vulture) swoops beneath it and bears the little fellow on its wings when he seems exhausted. [8]


Photographer/Artist Zvi Suchet [11] wrote
"I can imagine the vulture’s expansive outstretched
wings lovingly sheltering the children of God."

One other trait of vultures that has symbolic meaning is that vultures feed on carrion, that is feed on the dead. That doesn't normally sound like a characteristic of God, but the picture symbolizes that He brings life from death - Beth Tikkun(2Tim 2) [12]. And this is the hope of our resurrection, that God will bring us from death to life. The Bible records that believers will be strong, swift, and tireless like the nesher. "Yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles (vultures), They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary" - Is 40:31. This analogy does break down however, for example, we don't expect God to actually eat carcasses. "Now He is not the God of the dead but of the living; for all live to Him" - Luke 20:38.


We see many lessons when we consider the vulture in Scripture. Whether nesher is translated as vulture, eagle, or raptor doesn't really make a lot of difference. But it does alert us that we approach the Bible from our own background, and sometimes we need to strive to see it through the eyes of the authors as much as we can. We also see the symbolism that so many parts of creation point us to some aspect of God, the vulture in this case teaching us of the supremacy, strength, and protection of our God.

More trivia from English Grammar Here [9].
  • Cast of vultures. "The corpse was inspected by a cast of vultures."
  • Kettle of vultures. If you see a group of vultures that flying in the sky. You should call them a kettle of vultures.
  • Committee of vultures. To describe a group of vultures as a committee, they should be landed.
  • Wake of vultures. When you see a group of vultures that are feeding you call them a wake of vultures.
  • Venue of vultures.  Unlike the word, “kettle”, “venue” is used when a group of vultures not flying.



Sunday, November 8, 2020

A Tale Of Two Natures

Consider this short story from the book of Exodus. It takes place after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. The Amalekites come to make war with them. 

Israel at war with Amalek
at Rephidim

Ex 17:8 Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Rephidim. 9 So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose men for us and go out, fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” 10 Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 So it came about when Moses held his hand up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand down, Amalek prevailed. 12 But Moses’ hands were heavy. Then they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other. Thus his hands were steady until the sun set. 13 So Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.

If you like this (or not), check out my other articles at the
Between The Ears BLOG INDEX, with titles and summaries.

On the surface, it's a simple piece of history as Israel entered the wilderness. They clearly were not welcomed to the neighborhood.  But if we dig deeper, we can see more meanings. We are told that the stories from the Old Testament are examples for us.

1 Cor 10:11 Now these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.

The word translated "examples" is typikos, rendered in Young's Literal Translation as "types" - BibleHub [1]. Type means an impression or mark, or in the religious sense a pattern, model, or foreshadowing - Strongs(G5179) [2]. The Bible is telling us to look deeper, see the pattern. So let's do that.

The territory of Amalek is not near Rephidim [3]
First, let's look at the historical context. As I said above, Israel had crossed the Red Sea, they were in the desert on the way to the promised land. As if ten plagues and parting the Red Sea were not enough, right before the war with Amalek, God caused manna to cover the ground every night and water to come out of a rock, enough water for two million people plus livestock. Then came Amalek. Maybe they just didn't want to share the land (it appears that Amalek went out of his way to make war against Israel, that is, they didn't live nearby), maybe they wanted the water; the Bible doesn't say. 

This is Israel's first fight. In Egypt, they were never told to fight. Their most aggressive act was to plunder the Egyptians for valuables, which the Egyptians were happy to give if it meant rid of Israel. At the Red Sea, again God fought the battle for them, all they had to do was walk to the other side. After receiving water from a rock at Rephidim, Amalek attacked, and Moses told Joshua to choose men to fight. Why didn't God overthrow Amalek like the Egyptians? One answer is that Israel had to start taking responsibility, they had to take the reins of their own future. "When means of help are put within our reach, God expects us to use them. What man can do for himself, God will not work miracles to do for him" - J. Orr [4].  Just like a child needs to learn how to be a responsible adult - they learn little by little from their parents with jobs where they can succeed or fail safely. (Disclaimer: I never had kids, but I think that's a fair statement.) Moses was on the hill, picturing the fact that God was still in the picture for Israel. Like a parent, God was watching over them. 

Another reason why God allowed the Amalek attack was a bit of punishment for Israel. Yes God gave them water out of a rock right before this, but only after the people complained first - Moses thought they were ready to stone him.

Another reason was to show Israel that fighting their battles was both a physical AND spiritual effort. Joshua led the army, but Moses went up on the hilltop. Moses is the spiritual leader of the nation, Joshua the physical leader. They both had roles to play - Spurgeon [5]. It is an expression of faith and works. All nations are like ancient Israel, battling between good and evil. War with Amalek shows that the battle is both carnal and spiritual. It doesn't mean that God abandoned Israel during their battle (punishment), He was still there helping their efforts, pictured by Moses on the hilltop. I think the parallels with modern America are especially strong. As a country, we are fighting a national battle of good versus evil, and our future depends on the choices we make now. The country's problems cannot be solved by purely physical (political) means. Are there enough people holding our leaders hands up to prevail against our Amalek?

We as individuals are also like ancient Israel, we have two natures and have to fight on a personal level, "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life" - 1 Jn 2:16. And it takes physical effort as well as spiritual effort. And this battle takes place "Between The Ears". There is a continual battle between the flesh and the spirit.

Gal 5:17  For the desire of the flesh is against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, in order to keep you from doing whatever you want.

Aaron and Hur

Moses supported by 
Aaron and Hur

Let's dig deeper by exploring who is represented by the people in this passage. Who or what do Aaron and Hur picture? These are the men who held up Moses' arms. 

Aaron is the older brother of Moses. The name Aaron is unique in the Bible, there is no one else named Aaron. His name is probably derived from the word for light or mountain - [6]. So one interpretation could be God's messenger who brings light.  Aaron became High Priest, and one of the jobs of the priesthood is to teach God's ways. 

Mal 2:7 For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.

Hur's ancestry is unclear. Jewish tradition says Hur was the son of Miriam, Moses's older sister, but the Bible doesn't record it. Hur may have been the grandfather of Bezalel, principal creator of the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant - Wiki(Hur) [7]. If Hur was the nephew of Moses, then the three of them would be related, all of one family, whatever that may mean. The name Hur comes from a word meaning heat - [8]. Chuck Missler(Exodus #7) [9] says that Hur means light. 

I don't see a definitive interpretation of Aaron and Hur according to the meaning of their Hebrew names. I see some possibilities. For example, both names seem to involve light. This fits well with the golden Menorah in the Tabernacle, the only source of light in the Holy Place, and it fits well with Aaron representing the priesthood teaching the people from the word. These verses amplify that.

Psa_43:3 Send out Your light and Your truth
they shall lead me;
They shall bring me to Your holy hill
And to Your tabernacles.

Psa_44:3 For by their own sword they did not possess the land,
And their own arm did not save them,
But Your right hand and Your arm and the light of Your presence,
For You favored them.

Psa_119:105 Your word is a lamp to my feet
And a light to my path.

Pro_6:23 For the commandment is a lamp and the Law is light;
And rebukes for discipline are the way of life

Another interpretation is that Aaron and Hur represent the basic tools of spiritual warfare - prayer and study. Prayer and study picture a two way street, God speaks with us when we study His word, we speak with Him when we pray; and on a more personal level, He is involved with our lives, speaking to us through circumstances - like winning the battle with our own Amaleks. We pray on the mountaintop, and win the battle on the plain.


What about the meaning of the name Amalek? "The Amalekites were thus either known as the Nippers or as the Lickers" - [10]. Look at the way they fought with Israel. One might say that they "nipped" at their heels.

Deu 25:17  Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you came out of Egypt, 18 how he confronted you on the way and attacked among you all the stragglers at your rear when you were tired and weary; and he did not fear God.

Others say that Amalek is derived from amal, which means to toil, or wear down, implying that the Enemy wears us down so we give up making intercession - Axel Sipparch [11].

After the war with Amalek, Moses records two somewhat contradictory things - Amalek is to be blotted out, yet Israel will continually be at war with them.

Ex 17:14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this in a book as a memorial and recite it to Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” 15 Moses built an altar and named it The Lord is My Banner; 16 and he said, “The Lord has sworn; the Lord will have war against Amalek from generation to generation.”

The good news is eventually Amalek will be completely defeated, meaning eventually in the kingdom of God. We will overcome, not in the flesh, but in the spirit. The bad news is that this was a fight Israel would keep having, and so will we, in the flesh. In other words, until the kingdom comes, we will have Satan to deal with. One reason that Amalek would always trouble Israel is because Israel didn't deal with them when they were told to. King Saul was told to utterly destroy Amalek; he mostly did, but didn't finish the job. You can read the story in 1Kings 15. Descendants of Amalek keep showing up in Israel's history, nipping at their heels. Haman, the villain of the book of Esther, was descended from Agag, the king spared by Saul, and Agag was a descendant of Amalek. See the Scroll of Esther [12].

Amalek in Hebrew, "blotted" out

Other Typology

Notice that this war occurred after they received water. Water is a Bible symbol of the Holy Spirit, which believers receive at baptism. Because our baptism is like Israel passing through the sea, some say that is when the battle actually begins. Remember, Israel did not fight in Egypt. Only after deliverance from Pharoah, and baptism in the sea (the birth of the nation Israel) did Amalek make war with them. "And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea 1Co_10:2". 

Even Joshua's sword has symbolism. It says he overcame Amalek with the edge of the sword. And this is the word of God, tying it all back to Aaron the priest.

Eph 6:17  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: 


This simple story of Israel warring with Amalek has much meaning under the surface; meaning for nations, meaning for individuals. The typology of the war with Amalek is rich with symbolism for us today. We all have to fight the Amalek within us, and this story shows us the battle is both physical and spiritual. As a church or as a nation, we win as long as we hold up the arms of our leaders. As individuals, we win as long as we amplify our physical efforts with the spiritual tools of prayer and Bible study.