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.



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