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On the wings of eagles?

"But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."

(Isaiah 40:31 KJV)

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This scripture passage, spoken to the Jewish captives in Babylon before their return to Jerusalem in 538 BC, is one of the most beloved verses in the Old Testament. It has become a source of encouragement for countless others in times of despair. The verse is seen frequently on religious artwork and memorabilia--an indicator of its popularity in modern society. However, the bird referenced in this scripture may not be an eagle.

The words nshr (Hebrew) and aetoi (Greek) are used in the Holy Bible to describe vultures, not eagles. However, the Jewish Publication Society translates nshr as an eagle. Linguist Ze'ev Ben-Hayyim, founder and past president of the Academy of Hebrew Language says that nshr is an eagle and ayit is a vulture, but their identification is controversial and may never be known.

A search was conducted using the words "eagle" and "vulture" found in the King James Version (KJV) of the Holy Bible using Biblegateway, TM an Internet source of bible translations. This procedure yielded 34 eagles and four vultures, each of which was cross-referenced with the Hebrew Interlinear Bible (Old Testament) or the Greek Interlinear Bible (New Testament). Without exception, the birds nshr / nshrim and aetoi / aetou were transliterated as vultures (Hebrew and Greek, respectively).

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The Holy Bible references other birds of prey which are similar to nshr / nshrim and aetoi / aetou, including: peres / phrs (lammergeier, bearded vulture, ossifrage), ozniyyah / oznie (eagle), die / dae / da'ah / diuth (black kite), ayet / aie / 'ayyah (falcon), raham / rchm / rchme (Egyptian vulture, Pharaoh's chicken), or ra'ah / rae (glede). The bird aie (variants include ayet / 'ayyah) described in Leviticus 11:14, Deuteronomy 14:13, and Job 28:7 is rendered as a kite or a vulture. Since kites and vultures share many characteristics, positive identification might be a problem--especially at a distance.

Another source of error may stem from the choice of words used to identify certain birds, thus making proper translation difficult. For example, in Genesis 15:11, Abram prevented the fowls of the air (oit) from descending upon his animal sacrifices. The meaning of ayit / oit is "to rush down, to dart," hence these birds are probably carrion feeders. Furthermore, the words oit / aie / ayet are similar in appearance to ayit. The Alcalay Dictionary (Hebrew-English) identifies ayit as a vulture, but the Even - Shoshan Dictionary (Hebrew-Hebrew) describes this bird as an eagle. The Encyclopedia Mikrait suggests that nesr (an Arabic term) refers to a larger group of birds inclusive of Old World eagles, kites, and vultures (i.e., Accipitridae).

The art of translation is subjective, however; Rav Saadiah Gaon and other contemporary scholars in the field of biblical zoology say that nshr (Hebrew) and aetoi (Greek) both refer to vultures--specifically the griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus). The Even-Shoshan Dictionary (Hebrew-Hebrew) identifies the nshr with griffon vulture, as does the Daat Mikra. This finding may be unpopular. Many people consider vultures to be loathsome creatures since they are carrion feeders, but tend to overlook their important role as nature's garbage collectors--a bias largely due to symbolism.

Ironically, the nshr is one of the most famous birds in the Middle East. Also known as the great vulture, this bird has a regal past. Two verses in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 17:3 and 17:7) and one in the New Testament (Revelation 12:14) refer to the nshr as a "great eagle," a likely reference to the great vulture. Perceptions of vultures are different today than centuries ago.

Throughout history several cultures deified the vulture--an indication of "greatness." The Assyrians added wings to humans and beasts, such as the humanheaded and vulture-winged bulls of Ninevah. The Assyrian god Nisroch, worshipped by King Sennacherib, was a human-figure who bore the head and wings of a vulture. The Jewish people would have been familiar with these religious symbols during their captivity. The Talmud mentions an Arabic deity (nesra / nasr) as a vulture-god, similar to their term nesr used to describe a griffon vulture. Vultures were the chief emblem of power in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Nekhbet, a once-prominent goddess of the Nile, was depicted as a griffon vulture.

Eagles did not become associated with nobility until Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), probably because of his familiarity with these birds in Europe. The eagle was a symbol of royalty for Rome and used as a battle standard in France. However, the Assyrians and Persians chose the griffon vulture as their war insignia. Eagles are found in Israel, but not frequently seen as compared to large flocks of vultures.

The griffon vulture is a magnificent bird, almost five feet in length with a wingspan that can exceed eight feet. Authors were inspired by its wings. For example, Ezekiel 17:3 says, "And say, Thus saith the Lord GOD; A great eagle (nshr) with great wings, longwinged, full of feathers, which had divers colours, came unto Lebanon, and took the highest branch of the cedar."

A curious passage is found in Deuteronomy 32:11-12: "As an eagle (nshr) stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: So the LORD alone did lead him, and there was no strange god with him." This verse, along with Exodus 19:4, "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' (nshrim) wings, and brought you unto myself" are precursors to Isaiah 40:31. More than an allegorical or poetic interpretation, some naturalists have observed golden eagles carrying eaglets on their backs during flight training. Perhaps this behavior is true for griffon vultures, although it has not been documented.

The griffon vulture's massive wingspan allows it to fly easily at altitudes over 10,000 feet (the record is 37,000 feet). As such, it is the highest flying of all birds. "Wilt thou set thine eyes upon that which is not? for riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle toward heaven" (Proverbs 23:5). Another reference to flight is found in Obadiah 1:4, "Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and though thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the LORD." Birds of prey expand their field of vision by gaining altitude. Since Old World vultures hunt by sight, not smell, vision is essential to detect possible food sources.

Griffon vultures often choose the highest and most inaccessible places for roosting and nesting. Although not used exclusively by vultures, high rock crevices are the preferred locations. "Doth the eagle (nshr) mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high? She dwelleth and abideth on the rock, upon the crag of the rock, and the strong place. From thence she seeketh the prey, and her eyes behold afar off. Her young ones also suck up blood: and where the slain are, there is she" (Job 39: 27-30). Vultures are aptly associated with battlefields--a sign of carnage.

Feeding habits also differentiate eagles from vultures. Eagles mostly eat live prey and vultures feed on carrion--even human flesh when available. This characteristic is probably why most people think vultures are despicable. The griffon vulture, king of birds, is first on the list of non-kosher food. "And these you shall regard as an abomination among the birds; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle (nshr) ... " (Leviticus 11:13).

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Old World eagles are solitary birds, but vultures are gregarious. "For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together" (Matthew 24:28). Large flocks of griffon vultures were seen soaring high above Israel, their graceful moves unlike other birds--except kites. Perhaps this is why Agur said, "There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle (nshr) in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid" (Proverbs 30:18-19).

Most vultures have a bald head, giving them an unsightly appearance--another possible reason that people disdain vultures. The griffon vulture is not entirely bald, but instead has fine, white down that covers its head and neck. "Make thee bald, and poll thee for thy delicate children; enlarge thy baldness as the eagle; for they are gone into captivity from thee" (Micah 1:16). Old World eagles have feathered heads. The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) has feathers on its head that turn white with age, thus giving mature birds a bald appearance. However, the bald eagle is a New World species, so scripture would not address it.

Although inconclusive, nshr probably refers to a vulture and not an eagle. This rationale is based on historical evidence and some behavioral characteristics of these birds as recorded in scripture. This identity crisis may be due to symbolism. In Western countries, the eagle conveys the same imagery as the vulture does in the Old World. Perhaps European bible scholars who translated these verses were influenced more by symbolism than the actual birds. If their intention was to elevate the "status" of vultures to that of eagles, it was done without a good understanding of these species.

The work of interpreters and translators is similar--at least in some respects. One common purpose is to reveal hidden meanings. Although symbolism and multiple meanings are important for program development, they should not overshadow factual information. Careful research will help interpreters avoid some of these possible pitfalls.

Dr. Mark Morgan is an associate professor with the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism at the University of Missouri. Reach him at markmorgan@missouri.edu.
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Author:Morgan, Mark
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2012
Words:1649
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