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Animals of the Bible

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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To contrast them with plants and minerals, animals are called in Hebrew (living soul): used always collectively in Genesis 1:20,24; 9:10; or simply ḥayyah (living): as a rule collectively (Genesis 9:2 et seq.); rarely as a singular (Genesis 37:20); or in the plural ḥayyot, as in Psalms 104:25. Etymologically speaking, this latter Hebrew word corresponds well enough with the Latin animal and still better with the Greek ζῶōυ; it might, therefore, have been used of man as well as of brutes. It is, however, never so used in Hebrew, nor in certain other languages, reflecting the popular rather than the scientific mind. Popular Jewish philosophy accords willingly to animals all the characteristics man has in common with them, inclusive of life. The Biblical writers, when speaking of animals, generally look at them either from the standpoint of man's superiority—and thus avoid lessening the distance between the animals and their godlike and God-appointed ruler by uniting the two under a common name—or from the point of view of the Creator of all, and then merge man and brutes, together with inanimate beings, and angels as well, into the universal appellative of "creature." When exceptionally—as in the narrative of the Deluge—man and brutes are recorded together, it is done by means of a circumlocution or descriptive clause, like "all flesh" (Genesis 6:12,13; 9:11,17), sometimes with the addition, "in which there is breath of life" (Genesis 6:17), or "all [beings] in whose nostrils was the breath of life" (Genesis 7:22).

Classification into Four Groups.

It is generally considereed that the Bible divides animals into four groups, according to their mode of moving: (1) quadrupeds, or walkers; (2) birds, or fliers; (3) reptiles, or creepers; (4) fishes, or swimmers. In fact, we find these four groups enumerated, side by side, throughout the Biblical books: for instance, in Genesis 1:26,28; 6:7,20; 7:8; 9:2; Leviticus 11:46; Deuteronomy 4:17,18; 1 Kings, 5:13; Ezekiel 38:20. This division, however, is but a later and abridged form of a more complete classification, consisting of six distinct groups as recorded in Genesis 1:20-25. Moreover, the mode of living seems to be absolutely foreign to either the primitive classification or its simpler substitute. Birds in the Bible are said to fly, but reptiles are nowhere said to creep, nor fish to swim. Man and quadrupeds are said "to go" rather than "to walk," but the same is also said of the serpent (Genesis 3:14). In fact, the grouping of Genesis 1:25 is the complex outcome of no less than four different factors.

First in order comes the origin or element from which the animals were produced. The creation of animals is divided into two distinct acts: the one for the fishes and birds taken from the water (Genesis 1:20-23), the other for the terrestrial animals taken from the earth (Genesis 1:24,25). The air evidently was not yet recognized as an element. Such, at least, is the interpretation that both the Septuagint and the Vulgate have given to the original text.

The habitat of animals is introduced as a second factor. Fishes are the "living things" of the waters, of the sea, of the rivers. Birds, created to "fly in the expanse of heaven," are called the "birds of heaven"; that is, of the air. Hence, a new group obtained by the subdivision of the first group into animals of the air and animals of the water.

A third factor was the mode of propagation. Just as we are in the habit of grouping together all useless and all troublesome small vegetation—or, to be more accurate, as in the Linnean system all plants having an obscure mode of fertilization were thrown into one large family, in contrast with flowering plants—so in the Bible all inferior animals whose way of propagating escapes the popular attention were designated by a common name (shereẓ); that is, "fast breeding [animals]," or its practical equivalent (remes), "that which moves in large masses." This factor creates two new groups, inasmuch as it involves the subdivision of the terrestrial animals into (a) higher quadrupeds or "animals of the earth" proper, and (b) lower quadrupeds and reptiles, or shereẓ and remes (see, for the rendering of these two appellatives, Fish and REPTILES). The same subdivision was made for the aquatic animals thus divided into (a) tanninim gedolim, or cetaceous animals, and (b) shereẓ, remes.

Finally, the fourth factor—which gave the last and finishing touch to the division of animals as we find it in Genesis 1:20-25—is the relation of animals to man from a practical point of view; that is, their possible utility, as food or helpers. The animals that were of special usefulness to man, whether domesticated or not, received the common appellative of —that is, according to current etymology, "dumb animals"—while the others retained the more general name of "animals of the earth." This last line of division is not well marked in all the books of the Bible. The name behemah is sometimes extended to all large quadrupeds, whether useful to man or not, just as the behemot are frequently thrown in with the other quadrupeds, or "animals of the earth"; but we find also the two groups registered side by side, for instance (besides Genesis 1:20-25), in Genesis 1:26 (according to the Septuagint and Syriac, Genesis 7:14, 9:10).

To sum up, in accordance with the four factors mentioned—origin, habitat, propagation, usefulness —the Animals of the Bible are classified as follows: First group, "animals of the earth" proper; second group, behemot; third group, remes, or reptiles; fourth group, birds; fifth group, shereẓ proper, or fishes; sixth group, cetaceans. Besides this classification into six groups and the one into four, we find in the Bible another division into five groups; that is: (1) "animals of the earth"; (2) behemot; (3) birds; (4) reptiles; (5) fish (Genesis 1:24,26), according to Septuagint and Syriac, Genesis 7:14, 9:10. If we now observe that in the division into four groups the quadrupeds are called indifferently "animals of the earth," or "behemot," it becomes plain that both the division into five and the one into four were obtained from the more complete classification by eliminating such groups of animals as could be dispensed with without creating confusion. Thus, the division into five was obtained from the one into six by suppressing the cetaceans, in which man, the Hebrews especially, had but little interest. Thus, also, the division into four was obtained from the one into five by selecting at one time the behemot and at another the "animals of the earth" to represent all the quadrupeds: the former because more interesting to man; the latter, very likely, on account of greater comprehensiveness.

This classification marks by no means the last stage of action of the four factors we have just described. Thus, we find that the third factor brought about the adoption of a subgroup in the group of birds; that is, the insects called (flying shereẓ), from their obscure and rapid mode of propagating. Again, the fourth factor created a new section in the group of the behemot, the domesticated animals being distinguished from the others by the appellation of "possession, property" (compare Latin "pecunia, peculium," from "pecus"; English "chattel" from "cattle"). Further, apparently under the influence of the same factor, the miḳneh was subdivided into (a) be'ir, the beasts of burden; (b) baḳar, plow-animals; and (c) "small animals"—sheep and goats, which furnish merely food and clothing. It was also the same factor of usefulness that caused the barburim, fowls, to be detached from the group of birds (1 Kings, 5:3). It may be fortuitous that the classification adopted by the author of Genesis 1:20-25 stops, so to speak, half-way, recording only six groups of animals, when the factors that underlie it suggested a good many more groups. It seems, however, that it was with a view of obtaining, when added to the creation of man, the same number seven as that which suggested the division of the whole creation into six days, completing a week with the seventh day. Further subdivisions of some of the groups above mentioned betray the action of another factor. This, however, contrasts entirely with the others, in so far as it originated from an observation of the anatomical structure of the animal itself and its mode of feeding. Thus, the birds of prey were detached from the group of birds, taking the specific name of 'aïṭ. The behemot were divided into hoofed animals and clawed animals; the former into cloven-hoofed and non-cloven-hoofed animals; and, in their turn, each of these categories into "cud-chewing" and "non-cud-chewing," etc. This attempt at a somewhat scientific classification seems, however, to have been the outcome of ritualism, not of popular observation like the more primitive and general grouping of which the above is a logical, not chronological, analysis. See for further discussion of these classes and subdivisions the article Clean and Unclean Animals; also Birds, Cattle, Fish, Reptiles; Dietary Laws.

  • Tristram, Fauna and Flora of Palestine;
  • L. Chichester Hart, Animals of the Bible.
H. H.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Animals of the Bible'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​a/animals-of-the-bible.html. 1901.
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