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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary


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Animals populate the biblical world, giving life and interest to many biblical episodes. We do not always have the specific information we would like about these characters of the Bible.

Mammals A mammal is defined as any class of higher vertebrates including humans and all other animals that nourish their young with milk secreted by mammary glands and have their skin more or less covered with hair.” Numerous kinds of animals that fall into this category are mentioned in the Bible. Those mentioned in the New Testament, as a general rule, can be identified with a high degree of certainty. Those in the Old Testament are not as easy to identify. Disagreement exists among scholars in regard to the identification of certain animals in the Old Testament.

Domestic The people of Scripture tamed many animals for use in food production, military endeavors, and transportation.

1. ASS The ass or donkey was a common beast of burden in biblical times and was similar to donkeys of today but larger. This animal appears more than 120 times in Bible.

Centuries before the age of the patriarchs, the ass had been domesticated in Western Asia. They appear in Mesopotamia (onager) and Egypt three thousand years before Christ. The Nubian wild ass of Egypt has been identified as the ass of Palestine and the Bible. A larger animal than the European ass of today, this animal was used for riding (Numbers 22:21; Judges 5:10 ), as a beast of burden (1 Samuel 16:20 ), and for agricultural work (Deuteronomy 22:10 ). When the Israelites returned to Palestine from the Babylonian captivity, they brought with them 6,720 asses (Ezra 2:67 ), about six times the number of horses and camels they possessed. While some people used the ass for food, this animal was considered unclean by the Israelites and thus considered unacceptable to eat. The ass was covered by the Sabbath rest regulations, and the firstborn was redeemed (Exodus 13:13 ). While the horse was the primary mount for the warrior, the ass was used by those who traveled in peace. Jesus' choice of an ass as His riding animal for His triumphal entry into Jerusalem symbolized His role as the Prince of Peace (Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 21:1-5 ). Before the twentieth century, ass caravans crossed the Sahara Desert, traveling between Morocco and the Red Sea.

2. CAMEL A camel is a large, hump-backed ruminant (chews cud) of Asia and Africa. It was used to transport burdens or passengers.

The camel has been called the “ship of the desert,” being a primary mode of transportation for taking goods and people across dry, hot terrain. Recent discoveries show it was domesticated before 2000 B.C. When camels were introduced into Palestine is a matter of ongoing debate. Since this animal has the capacity to store several days' supply of water in its stomach, it is ideally suited for such work. In addition, the storage of fat in its hump makes it possible for the camel to subsist on little food when taking a desert journey. They were counted among the riches of Job (Job 1:3 ). Camel hair was used for tents and for clothes (Mark 1:6 ).

3. CATTLE Cattle are domesticated quadrupeds used as livestock. In the Bible, the term commonly refers to all domesticated animals.

Ox, bull, calf, and cow are among the names for cattle in the Bible. Sheep, goats, and other domesticated animals are also included under the designation of cattle (Genesis 1:24; John 4:12 ). The land of Goshen, where the Hebrews settled during the time of Joseph, was rich in cattle. From bones found at Megiddo, one archaeologist has identified cattle in ancient Israel as the present small Beiruti race, while another has identified five types of cattle of Gezer. Cattle were valued for sacrifices, for food, and as work animals (Deuteronomy 25:4; Luke 14:19 ). They were divided into clean and unclean classifications (Leviticus 5:2 ) and were covered by the law of firstlings and Sabbath rest (Exodus 13:12; Exodus 20:12 ). Bullocks and calves were used for sacrifices. Possession of considerable livestock was a sign of wealth (Genesis 13:2; 1 Samuel 25:2 ).

4. COW Cow designates domestic bovine animals, especially the female.

Cows are mentioned in relation to giving birth and nurturing calves (Leviticus 22:27-28; 1 Samuel 6:7 ). They were among the cattle gift that Jacob offered to Esau (Genesis 32:15 ). Amos called the wealthy, selfish women of Samaria “cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1 ), referring to the area that was well known for raising cows (Deuteronomy 32:14 ). See Cattle above.

5. DOG The dog was a scavenger animal that often ran wild. They were sometimes kept as house pets. In Mark 7:27 , Jesus probably was referring to the small dogs that people kept as pets. Some dogs evidently were used to herd sheep (Job 30:1 ). See below Wild Dogs .

6. DONKEY See Ass above.

7. GOAT A goat was a hollow-horned ruminant with long, floppy ears, usually covered with long, black hair. Sometimes, they were speckled.

One type of goat mentioned in the Bible has been identified as the Syrian or Mamber goat. Domesticated long before the biblical era, the goat in biblical times probably had long ears and backward-curving horns. Both male and female had horns. The most common color was black. It was a prominent source of food; the male also was used for sacrifices (Leviticus 22:27 ). A goat (called a scapegoat) was selected at random once a year on the Day of Atonement to bear symbolically the sins of the nation of Israel (Leviticus 16:10-22 ). The skin of the goat was used to make garments, musical instruments, and water bottles; goat hair was woven into fabrics (Exodus 26:7 ). Goats are extremely destructive to vegetation and thereby contribute to erosion, as they tear plants out of the soil. Some of the earliest drawings available depict goats eating on trees. Sheep nd goats grazed in the same pasture, but it was necessary to separate the herds because the male goat was often hostile toward the sheep (Matthew 25:32 ). Today, goats are found in colors of black, gray, brown, white, and a variety of patterns and mixtures. See Ibex below.

8. HORSE A horse was a solid-hoofed animal that was used for riding, as a war animal, and for transporting goods.

Evidence indicates that the horse was introduced into the Middle East two thousand years before Christ. These animals evidently were brought to the area from Persia by the Hyksos warriors who invaded Egypt. It is believed that the horse originally came from Central Asia. The horse is mentioned more than 150 times in the Bible, with the earliest reference being found in Genesis 47:17 . However, there is no indication that the horse was in common use in Israel until the time of David and Solomon. The number of horses owned by Solomon was as many as twelve thousand. They were used to draw chariots (1 Kings 4:26; 1 Kings 10:26 ). Since the Mosaic law forbade the breeding of horses, Solomon imported horses from Egypt (Deuteronomy 17:16; 2 Chronicles 1:16 ). Likely, because of the superiority of the horse for warfare, this law was later ignored. The ruins of Solomon's well-known horse stables at ancient Megiddo are today marked as an historical and archeological site.

9. MULE A mule was the result of cross-breeding of a female horse and a male ass.

Since the Mosaic law forbade cross-breeding (Leviticus 19:19 ), the Israelites imported mules (Ezekiel 27:14 ). They were used as war animals, for riding, and for carrying burdens (2 Kings 5:17 ). They were especially good for moving heavy burdens in mountainous areas, being better than the horse, ass, or camel. During David's reign, mules, along with horses, were a popular riding animal for royalty (1 Kings 1:33 ).

10. OX An ox is a large domesticated bovine. In the Old Testament it was extremely valuable as a work animal.

An important animal in the economy of Israel, oxen were essential for farm work. They were often yoked in pairs to do farm work and were used to transport burdens. Permitted as food, they were also offered as sacrifices (Deuteronomy 14:4-6; Leviticus 17:3-4 ). See Cattle above; Wild Ox below.

11. SHEEP A sheep is a stocky animal, larger than a goat, but has no beard.

A prominent animal in the sacrificial system of Israel, sheep are first mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 4:2 where Abel is identified as a keeper of sheep. They were the primary wealth of pastoral people. The sheep found in the Bible usually are the broad-tailed variety. The tail, weighing as much as fifteen pounds, was sometimes offered as a sacrifice ( Exodus 29:22; Leviticus 3:9 ). Of this species only the male had horns; females of other species did have horns. Rams' horns were used as trumpets (Joshua 6:44 ) and as oil containers (1 Samuel 16:1 ). Sheep were also a source for food and clothing. The Bible contains hundreds of references to sheep. Often, they are referred to as small cattle.

12. SWINE Swine are stout-bodied animals that have a large snout and thick skin.

The swine of the Bible, in most instances, probably were the wild pig, still common in Palestine. While Canaanite pagans kept herds of swine, the Mosaic law classified this animal as “unclean” and thus forbade the eating of its flesh (Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8 ). Isaiah condemned the eating of swine, dogs, and mice (Isaiah 65:4; Isaiah 66:3 ,Isaiah 66:3,66:17 ). One who tended swine was barred from the Temple. A scavenger in ancient times, this animal became a symbol for baseness and paganism (Matthew 7:6 ). The fact that the prodigal son resorted to tending swine points to the extreme humiliation he experienced. Interestingly, Hezir, a proper Jewish name, is the same word as that translated swines(1 Chronicles 24:15; Nehemiah 10:20 ).

Wild Wild animals provided food and sport, and were feared by biblical people.

1. ANTELOPE A fleet-footed animal with horns and about the size of a donkey, the antelope has a mane on the underside of its neck that makes it look like a large goat.

The pygarg (KJV), found in a list of animals in Deuteronomy 14:5 , has not been identified with certainty but is considered by a number of scholars to be an antelope. Pygarg literally means “white rump” and is the Greek name for a kind of antelope. This animal has been connected with one that is native to North Africa. It has grayish-white hinder parts with a white patch on the forehead and twisted and ringed horns that point upward and backward. It also has been identified with the Arabian Oryx, an antelope of Iraq that has long horns stretching backward.

2. APE An ape is a large, semi-erect primate.

Apes are mentioned only twice in the Old Testament and are not described. The ape was not native to the Holy Land, but the Israelites were familiar with it. Some types were kept as pets. They were among the gifts that the navy of Hiram brought to Solomon (1 Kings 10:22; 2 Chronicles 9:21 ).

3. BADGER The badger is a burrowing mammal, largest of the weasel family.

Disagreement exists about the translation of badger's skin in Exodus 25:5; Exodus 26:14 (badger, KJV; goat, RSV; sea cows, NIV; porpoise, NAS; fine leather, TEV, NRSV). This animal has also been identified as the rock hyrax or coney. See Coney below.

4. BAT A bat is a quadruped with wings that nurses its offspring.

The Hebrew word translated bat is the generic name for many species of this mammal found in Palestine. Although the bat is listed among unclean birds in the Bible (Leviticus 11:19 ), it belongs to the mammals, because it nurses its young. They live in caves. Modern zoologists have cited at least twenty different species in the area of Palestine.

5. BEAR The bear is a large, heavy mammal with long, thick, shaggy hair. It eats insects, fruit, and flesh.

The bear of the Bible has been identified with a high degree of certainty as the Syrian bear. They may grow as high as six feet and weigh as much as five hundred pounds. In biblical times the bear was a threat to vineyards and to herds of sheep and goats (1 Samuel 17:34-35 ). The two largest and strongest beasts of prey—the bear and the lion—are often listed together in the Bible (1 Samuel 17:37 ). A narrative about Elisha recorded in the Bible pictures the ferocity of the bear (2 Kings 2:23-24 ). Within the last century the Syrian bear has disappeared from the Holy Land, with the last bear being killed in Galilee just before World War II. It still survives in Syria, Persia, and Turkey.

6. BEHEMOTH A large beast.

Described in detail in Job 40:15-24 , this animal has been variously identified as an elephant, hippopotamus, and the water buffalo, with the hippopotamus the more likely. Identification as a hippopotamus is based on the description in Job 40:1 of its size and strength, where it lived, and its manner of eating. The modern Hebrew word for the animal means beast or cattle . In Leviticus 11:2 the word translated beasts (KJV) is translated animals in the NIV.

7. BOAR A boar is a male swine (wild pig).

The boar was considered unclean by the Israelites. A menace to crops, it is mentioned only once in the Bible (Psalm 80:13 ). See Swine above.

8. CONEY The coney resembles a rabbit in size and color. The badger of Exodus 25:5; Exodus 26:14 has been identified by some scholars as the Syrian coney. See Badger above. It lives in rocky areas from the Dead Sea Valley to Mt. Hermon. The design of its feet helps the coney keep footing on slippery rocks.

9. DEER The deer is an antlered animal (all male and some female have antlers) with two large and two small hooves. It is believed that three species of deer lived in Palestine in Bible times: red, fallow, and roe. The red deer seems to be the one most easily identified and probably was the specie in the list of daily provisions for Solomon's table (1 Kings 4:23 ). The hart is the male red deer (Psalm 42:1 ), and the hind, the female (Job 39:1 ). The fallow deer, a small specie with especially large horns, is native to the Middle East and still survives in northern parts of that area. The tribe of Naphtali is described as “a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns” (Genesis 49:21 ). Certain characteristics of deer are noted in the Bible in the form of similes (Proverbs 5:19; Isaiah 35:6; Habakkuk 3:19 ).

10. DOG The dog was a scavenger animal that ran wild and was sometimes kept as a house pet. The dog in Bible times was considered an unclean animal. No specific breed has been identified. Dogs ran wild in village streets, often in packs (Psalm 22:16-21; Psalm 59:6 ). The term “dog” was a designation for the wicked (Isaiah 56:10-11 ). Jews contemptuously called Gentiles, “dogs.”

11. DUGONG The dugong is an aquatic mammal; the male has tusk-like teeth. The skin of the dugong is mentioned as a covering for the tabernacle (Exodus 25:5; KJV has badger's skins NAS, porpoise; NIV, sea cows; RSV, goat; NRSV, fine leather).

12. ELEPHANT While elephants are not specifically referred to in the Bible, ivory is mentioned in connection with King Solomon. Ivory was among the riches he imported (1 Kings 10:22 ).

13. GAZELLE The gazelle is a fleet-footed animal noted for its attractive eyes. See Deuteronomy 12:15 ,Deuteronomy 12:15,12:22 ).

14. HARE The hare is a long-eared animal that is a close relative of the rabbit. The hare was classed as unclean (Leviticus 11:6; Deuteronomy 14:7 ) and were forbidden for Israelites to eat.

15. HIPPOPOTAMUS See Behemoth above.

16. HYENA The hyena is a striped scavenger that looks like a fox. The Hebrew word for hyena is found in the Bible as a geographical name (1 Samuel 13:18 , Valley of Hyenas) and as the name of a town (Zeboim, Nehemiah 11:34 ). Once numerous in Palestine, the hyena appears only at night. Because of its scavenger activity of digging up graves, the hyena was a repulsive animal in the ancient world. They were easily tamed, and the Egyptians kept them as pets.

17. IBEX The ibex resembles a goat. The ibex has been identified as the wild goat of the Bible (1 Samuel 24:2; Psalm 104:18 ). The Nubian Ibex is found today in the area of Ein Gedi, an oasis near the Dead Sea.

18. JACKAL The jackal is a flesh-eating animal that resembles a fox. The same Hebrew word is translated both “jackal” and “fox.” (In Judges 15:4 , NEB has jackals; NIV has foxes.) In Micah 1:8 and Isaiah 34:13 another Hebrew word is translated as “jackals” (KJV, dragon; NEB, wolf). The animals look similar, with the jackal having a broader head and shorter nose and ears than the fox. In temperament they are quite different. A noisy animal, the jackal is characterized by a nightly wailing. The jackal is a scavenger, while the fox is not. In contrast to the solitary character of the fox, the jackal is gregarious, but a place they haunt, humans have deserted ( Isaiah 13:22; Jeremiah 10:22 ).(Luke 10:22).(13:32 refers to the cunning and crafty nature of the fox.

19. LEOPARD The leopard is a large cat with yellow fur with black spots that form patterns. This animal was one of the most dangerous both to animals and human beings. Known for its gracefulness and speed, it was common in Palestine in Old Testament times, especially in the forests of Lebanon, but is seldom found there now. Five were killed around Jerusalem just before World War II, and one was killed in Southern Palestine near Beersheba soon after the war. The leopard still survives in Israel and is protected by the government. Two locations suggest habitats of leopards—Beth-nimrah.(“leopards' house,” Numbers 32:36 ) and “waters of Nimrim” (“waters of leopards,” Isaiah 15:6; Jeremiah 48:34 ). In Hosea 13:7 , the lurking, noiseless movement of the leopard symbolizes God's wrath. Isaiah illustrated the serene peace of God's kingdom as creating the seemingly impossible occurrence of a leopard lying down with the goat (Isaiah 11:6 ). Some translate Habakkuk 1:8 as cheetah.

20. LION The lion is a large, swift-moving cat. The male has a heavy mane. Mentioned approximately 135 times in the Old Testament, the lion is the proverbial symbol for strength (Judges 14:18 ). In Palestine, lions seemed to prefer the vegetation of the Jordan valley (Jeremiah 49:19 ). The Bible describes the lion as powerful and daring (Proverbs 30:30 ) and distinguished by a terrifying roar (Isaiah 5:29 ). It was a sign of the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:9; Revelation 5:5 ). David defended his father's flock against lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:34-35 ). One of the most well-known stories in the Bible is about a young man being cast into a den of lions (Daniel 6:16-23 ). Since untamed lions were put in pits, it is possible that Daniel was cast into such a pit. Lions were kept as pets by pharaohs. The Hebrews seemed to make closer distinctions than does English in the lion family, since five unrelated Hebrew words are translated, “lion.” They have disappeared from Palestine, with the last one killed near Megiddo in the thirteenth century.

21. MOLE The mole is a large rodent, gray in color. In Leviticus 11:30 some translate the Hebrew word as chameleon (NIV, NAS, RSV). Others translate, “mole” in Leviticus 11:29 (NAS, NEB), or in Isaiah 2:20 (NAS, RSV, KJV) See Rodent below.

22. MOUSE A mouse is a rodent with a pointed snout. As such it is unclean (Leviticus 11:29 ). Mice were apparently feared as carriers of the plague (1 Samuel 6:4 ). See Rodent below.

23. OX The wild ox was a large beast that is believed to be the ancestor of domestic cattle. It symbolized ferocious strength. The Hebrew word translated unicorn in Numbers 23:22 (KJV) has been identified as the word for wild ox (NAS, NIV, RSV). Compare Psalm 22:21; Psalm 92:10 . See Ox above.

24. PORCUPINE The porcupine or hedgehog is a large rodent that has stiff, sharp bristles mixed with its hair. Disagreement exists about the translation of the Hebrew word. Some feel porcupine is the correct translation. Others have various translations (NIV, owl; KJV, bittern; NEB, bustard).

25. PYGARG See Antelope above.

26. RAT A large rodent listed among the unclean animals (Leviticus 11:29 ) but were eaten by a disobedient people (Isaiah 66:17 ). See Rodents below.

27. RODENTS All small rodents are designated by the Hebrew akhbar , a generic word including both mice and rats. The Mosaic prohibition against eating rodents (Leviticus 11:29 ) reveals their presence in the Holy Land. As a guilt offering for stealing the ark of the covenant, the Philistines were advised to send “five golden mice” to the Israelites when they returned the ark to them (1 Samuel 6:4 , KJV; “rats,” NIV). More than twenty varieties of small rodents have been identified in the Holy Land today.

28. WEASEL The weasel is a small mammal that is related to the mink. The weasel was common in the Holy Land, although mentioned only once in the Bible (Leviticus 11:29; compare NAS, mole).

29. WHALE The whale is a large aquatic mammal that resembles a large fish (Ezekiel 32:2; Jonah 1:17; Matthew 12:40 ).

The Greek word translated, “whale” in Matthew 12:40 (KJV) is also called “a great fish” ( Jonah 1:17 , NIV), “great creature” (Genesis 1:21; Psalm 148:7 , NIV), “monster” (Job 7:1;Job 7:1;12:1; Ezekiel 32:2 , NIV). The exact identification of the animal is impossible with present knowledge.

30. WOLF The wolf is a large wild canine that is thought to be the primary ancestor of the domestic dog. Common in Palestine in biblical times, the wolf constantly threatened sheep and shepherds and earned a reputation for viciousness (Genesis 49:27; Matthew 7:15; Luke 20:3 ). The wolf stalked prey at night (Jeremiah 5:6; Zephaniah 3:3 ). Its method of attack is described in John 10:12 . Its name is used symbolically to describe deceitful and greedy people (Ezekiel 22:27; Acts 20:29 ).

Reptiles A reptile has been defined as “an animal that crawls or moves on its belly or on small short legs.” This category of animals includes alligators, crocodiles, lizards, snakes, and turtles. It is generally agreed that, in many instances, the reptiles in the Bible cannot be specifically determined. Many times the same Hebrew word is translated in different ways. Leviticus 11:30 is a case in point. The same Hebrew word translated lizard in a number of translations is translated crocodile in the RSV. There does, however, seem to be a grouping of reptiles in this verse, even though the specific names may be difficult to determine.

1. ADDER The adder is a venomous snake. See Serpent below.

2. ASP The asp is a venomous snake. Modern translations often use “cobra.” See Isaiah 11:8 in various translations. See Serpent below.

3. CHAMELEON The chameleon is a kind of lizard that changes color according to its surroundings. See Mole above. The unique design of its eyes characterizes the chameleon. Each eyeball moves independently; thus it can look two ways at the same time. Feeding mostly on insects, the chameleon is harmless. In Palestine it lives in trees and bushes and hangs onto branches with its long tail.

4. COBRA The cobra is a deadly poisonous snake with loose skin on its neck that forms a hood when the cobra is excited. See Asp .

5. COCKATRICE Cockatrice designates a venomous snake. Cockatrice is the name for a legendary serpent. As used in the KJV, however, it is a venomous snake. Later versions translate the Hebrew word “adder” (RSV) and “viper” or “venomous snake” (NIV).

6. CROCODILE The crocodile is a large, thick-skinned, aquatic reptile. See Lizard below.

7. FROG The frog is a web-footed, amphibious animal. Frogs are mentioned prominently in connection with the ten plagues in Egypt, where frogs were quite common. The psalmist reminded the Israelites of plague devastation in Psalm 78:1; Psalm 105:1 .

8. GECKO The gecko is a wall lizard. The gecko is a common type of lizard in the Holy Land. Sucking-disc toes enable it to run over walls and ceilings. Early versions translated the Hebrew word “ferret,” while later scholars believe gecko is the correct translation (NAS, RSV, NIV). It is a harmless but repulsive-looking reptile.

9. LIZARD The lizard is a long-bodied reptile that is distinguished from the snake by two sets of short legs. Several kinds of lizards are mentioned in Leviticus 11:30 : gecko, monitor lizard, wall lizard, skink, and chameleon (NIV). One traveler identified as many as forty-four different species in Palestine.

10. SERPENT Serpent seems to be a general name for long-bodied reptiles, specifically snakes such as the adder and viper. The serpent is mentioned numerous times in the Bible. At least thirty-three different species may be found in Palestine. Translators use various terms to translate the eight Hebrew terms. The serpent—usual name for snake—has been a continuing symbol of evil and of the evil one. See Adder; Asp; Cockatrice; Cobra; above and Viper below.

11. SKINK The skink is a small lizard listed among the unclean animals (Leviticus 11:30 NIV). Other translations render, “sand reptile” (NAS), “snail” (KJV), “sand lizard” (NRSV).

12. SNAKE See Serpent above.

13. TORTOISE The tortoise is a land turtle listed among the unclean animals (Leviticus 11:29 KJV). Other versions have “great lizard” (RSV; NAS; NIV) instead of tortoise.

14. VIPER The viper is a venomous snake. See Serpent above. See Birds; Insects .

Shirley Stephens

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Animals'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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