Animals in the Bible 2
Hebrew for Bear is Dov, and it appears in many books of the Old Testament; the Greek is arktos which appears in Revelation 13:2 where only its feet are mentioned.
Typically it is mentioned not for itself but as an instance of savagery. David, about to face Goliath, tells Saul that when bears or lions have attempted to rob his flock he has pursued them to free the sheep, and when attacked himself, he has killed both kinds. One may suspect the young warrior of exaggeration, but it’s clear at least that these are seen as large and and vicious creatures. The bear which dwelt in ancient Israel was the Ursus Syriaticus, a smallish bear related to the European brown bear, although its fur is light brown, sometimes almost blond. It was certainly not a negligible presence, but nothing like the size of a grizzly or polar bear.
It seems to me that a brave young man could possibly tackle such an animal, although I doubt his capacity to deal in the same way with a lion, which was much larger and more aggressive.
Later in the David story we get another image of the bear. Hushai, David’s agent is trying to stop Absalom from carrying out an immediate attack on David and his men who have fled from his rebellion. He says that seasoned fighters like David and his troops, having had to flee will be very dangerous, like “a female bear robbed of her cubs.”
This image must have been traditional as it is used in Proverbs 17:12, “It is better for a person to meet a mother bear robbed of her cubs, than to encounter a fool in his folly.” The same emphasis on the savagery of the bear is found also in Lamentations 3 and Hosea 13. It’s true that there are other sorts of image: Isaiah imagines the cow and the bear grazing together in his vision of the peaceable kingdom. 2 Kings 2:24 tells how a group of children who have mocked the prophet Elisha as bald, are eaten by two she-bears. The third Isaiah, speaks of those who long for deliverance as “growling like bears, mourning like doves” This is obviously not aggressive growling but rather a kind of animal whining which can heard also from dogs. This image involves a more precise experience of bears than most.
For the truth is that most bears, even the larger ones, are not very savage. The Syrian bear is described as timid and keen to avoid trouble. Perhaps if it felt cornered by a human being, it might attack, and certainly a mother deprived of cubs would do so. But we should ask why anyone would do this to a bear, and if it was sometimes done to capture cubs for baiting or dancing, how often this was done. The ruling assumption made in the Bible about beasts of prey is that they are savage.
We should ask, savage in comparison with what or whom? The answer seems to be, human beings. Some very aggressive humans are compared to bears, but most are assumed to be peaceful compared with animals. Here we can see how the notion of animal savagery has been used to overlook the behaviour of the most savage animal on the globe, homo sapiens. A report issued by the UN today details the plight of children in the Syrian civil war. Amongst other atrocities is the fact that eight year olds were forced to hang and kill other children.
In fact the violence of humans is so well-excused in the bible that it can be cheerfully attributed to God, as in Hosea 13:8 “I will attack them like a bear robbed of her cubs, ripping open their chests, says the Lord” Here the blameless bear is made to excuse the imagined violence of God.
The assumption that beasts of prey are savage has been used to justify human savagery towards them; the Assyrian lion hunts wonderfully depicted in the sculpted friezes in the British Museum are a case in point, as is the modern practice of trophy hunting where noble animals are killed by savage and ignoble humans.
In Daniel chapter 7 the prophet sees a vision of great and savage empires which are symbolised by beasts including the bear. The kingdom of God and his saints is symbolised by a son of man, that is, a human being. Clearly this is nonsense. No animal has ever been as violent to its own kind or indeed towards other living creatures as homo sapiens. As far as the historical record is concerned a kingdom of bears would be nearer the kingdom of God than anything ruled by humankind. Unless the human is Jesus? Certainly Jesus has inspired his followers to live without violence, through his explicit teaching and his example; and although he is not recorded saying anything about animals, we can see that those such as St. Francis, who have chased savagery from their souls, have had a greater understanding of animals.
There are now many organisations round the world that work for the welfare of particular bears, although Ursus Syriaticus is no longer present in Israel.