Biblical Ornithology

God appears not to understand that in ostriches, it’s the male who builds the nest, incubates the eggs, and cares for the young.

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I stick this in the bucket of scientifically inaccurate statements in the bible, but also don’t see it as invalidating it as divine revelation. God writing to those people with their knowledge and beliefs could possibly use such beliefs and to make a point. Much the same way as discussion of ruminating animals is wrong in some of the food laws

Sure. Just wanted to insert some ornithological knowledge into the discussion. And it serves the point that even if something is divine revelation, we can’t necessarily take it as true.


What Bible translation are you reading? I don’t see anything in the text that says that the female builds the nest, incubates the eggs, or cares for the young.

Indeed, the Hebrew text says the very opposite. It says that “She treats her young harshly, as if they were not hers.” That wording makes very clear that she’s not like a human mother. She treats the young as if they aren’t even hers! In other words, she ignores them. Walking away from ones offspring is about as harsh of a treatment (from a human perspective) as one can imagine. “She cares not that her labor was in vain. . .” explicitly states that despite her efforts in producing the eggs, she goes on as if that effort was for no purpose. She deposited the eggs and that’s it. Done.

Nothing about the male ostrich is stated in the text—so you can’t make a claim on that front. So I am baffled by your post.

I checked a dozen English Bible translations for Job 39:14-18 and none of them say anything about the ostrich which justifies your claim.


No problem. I’m baffled by yours.

Clearly you misread the Biblical text. Nothing baffling about that.

No problem. I’ve certainly misread it at times. It happens to all of us.

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Hang on, we are allowed to admit we make mistakes?!

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Don’t believe I did. You’re condescending. I don’t want to derail the thread, though.

I for one never make a mistake. (I thought I did that one time. But I was wrong about that.)


Is it, though? The only “glitch” seems to be the rabbit, and that chews and recycles faeces. The Bible doesn’t specify ruminants as a taxon, any more than “shellfish” implies we think bivalves are teleosts. The behaviour observed might be the criterion.

But that also plays into your correct comment that if one is teaching, one draws on the knowledge base of the taught. I remember a number of school science lessons where, for didactic simplicity, the science was incorrect.

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I will have to give this a think through, perhaps over at the levitical laws and science thread though.

@deuteroKJ does the original Hebrew gender the ostrich?

If it doesn’t, that just makes it worse, because the male ostrich doesn’t have any of the described faults.

Whoops, it turns out I’m not quite right. I was supposing that ostriches were typical ratites. But they aren’t. The male builds the nest and is the primary incubator. But while several females may lay in that nest, there is one primary female who shares incubation duties and even helps care for the young after they hatch. In other ratites, the male does all the incubation and care.

The bible must have been thinking of the secondary females that lay their eggs and leave. But why ignore that primary female?


Pending the proper answer I am not sure that this would be a problem. From my experience in Greek and a limited amount in Hebrew a noun need not correspond to actual gender in its grammatical gender. Even where there are both masculine and feminine forms it is acceptable in many instances to use one to denote both genders or just the gender denoted by the form in question
My Hebrew interlinear does list it as a female ostrich, but would definitely be interested in a proper answer

The verbs associated with the subject noun for ostrich in that passage are feminine forms, so it is entirely appropriate that English Bible translators applied the pronoun “she.”

Also, the Hebrew word for “her eggs” is feminine in form, so the feminine pronoun in English is quite correct in the translations.

Of course, in Hebrew, as in many other languages, what is called “gender” is not necessarily the sort of strict label we assume in English—but I don’t want to get too far into a linguistic tangent on this. (I recall the Hebrew noun for ostrich as used in the beginning of the ostrich passage is “grammatically masculine”–where the species’ wings/feathers are described—but from then on in the passage most everything goes feminine.)

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My point is that it wouldn’t fix the problem. Ostriches are not an example of bad parental care.

I was just commenting on the issue of language there. As I noted earlier in the thread, I am happy to say that the scripture accommodates the erroneous views of the ancient Isralites to make a point without worrying too much

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And that is how the rabbis view this (in my experience.) If you read the passage as a whole, this very grandly-poetic section is not about technical zoological exposition per se but it does describe some of the ways in which God has sovereignly and wisely endowed these animals with capabilities appropriate to their survival. As one would expect poetry in general to do: it often works from a foundation of what humans think about various topics and builds from there. In this case, the “ostrich argument” of Job 39 reminds the reader that even though an ostrich does not parent like a stork and has an ancient reputation for being a rather “oblivious” parent, “Yet when she spreads her feathers to run, she laughs at horse and rider!” (verse 18) This is kind of like our saying in casual English, “OK, so you don’t consider the ostrich mother a great parent by human standards—but ya gotta respect that that same ostrich can easily outrun a horse and rider!”

Because the ancient Hebrews had a high opinion of storks and a not-so-high opinion of ostriches, there are multiple passages in the Old Testament where storks (in positive ways) and ostriches (in negative ways) are referenced—in each case in order to make a pointed statement about God and his chosen people, not about ornithology. (That doesn’t lead me to conclude that God is pro-stork and anti-ostrich per se. The topic in such passages is not to improve human understanding of bird behaviors.)

This topic brings to mind the popular expression “Every rose has its thorns.” It’s a true statement in its usual context—where the topic isn’t really roses per se but someone or some thing upon which the rose comparison is being analogically applied. After all, technically speaking, if one were addressing a botanical society, someone would most certainly object to “Every rose has its thorns” because even in nature (and not just special hybrids cultivated by people) there exist a few varieties of thornless roses. So even if it can be argued that “Every rose has its thorns” is a botanically false statement, the sentence can nevertheless still be true in its context—especially poetic ones.

One of the things I learned from my SIL/Wycliffe Bible Translator colleagues many years ago is that genre is vital to good Bible hermeneutics and translation.

@swamidass, I should have included this additional explanation in my response to your previous question in this thread.


What else do you have? I find it interesting.