Saturday, August 27, 2022

Birds in Ancient Israel

Dana McNeely

In the hot days of an Arizona summer, my husband and I enjoy hanging from the edge of the pool watching finches visit our bird feeder. They seem to have less fear of us, below them in the water, and we are close enough to see the details of their bright yellow or red plumage and dark brown or black caps. They chitter happily when there are empty perches, but when all eight are occupied, aerial arguments ensue which are equally fun to watch.

Finches aren’t the only birds that capture our interest. Because my husband, The Constant Gardener, has planted so many trees, shrubs, and flowering plants on our property, we enjoy many varieties of birds singing to us in the mornings and swooping from tree to tree. For a little over a month, we were visited daily by a pair of Cooper's Hawks, which sadly, at least for us, moved on when daytime temperatures topped 110. I don’t blame them.

Cooper's Hawk with catch
Image courtesy Tony Alter via WikiMedia

You might guess that birds take a prominent place in my writing, and thus, my research. My first biblical novel, RAIN, tells the story of a mysterious prophet, a desperate youth, and a relentless queen during the time of Israel’s great drought. Did you guess that the prophet in RAIN is Elijah? If so, you won’t be surprised I researched birds in ancient Israel to inform what I would write about Elijah’s ravens.

Clean or Unclean

The first thing I learned about ravens in ancient Israel, is they were considered ceremonially unclean. While a devout Hebrew could eat any bird designated ceremonially clean, those listed as unclean were dietary taboo. The list in Deuteronomy 14 names ravens among the unclean, along with vultures, kites, falcons, buzzards, owls, seagulls, hawks, cormorants, storks, herons, hoopoes, and bats. Interesting that bats are listed among unclean birds! Are you curious about what hoopoes look like? Here you go:

Hoopoes probe the ground for large insects, larvae, and pupae
Image courtesy Zemplin Templar via WikiCommons

What I found intriguing was that God used unclean birds, the ravens, to deliver Elijah’s bread and meat, especially since ravens are a scavenger species and would be tempted to eat the food themselves.

As I envisioned Elijah sitting beside the brook, waiting for his daily breakfast and supper deliveries, I imagined him growing fond of his messengers, the ravens.  An excerpt from RAIN follows below, where a raven first meets Elijah.

Elijah Fed By Ravens courtesy

"IN A NARROW GORGE EAST OF the Jordan, a brook threaded its way past a small cave. On the cliff walls above, sure-footed nubiani leapt from stone to stone, their curved horns outlined against the sky. Eagles nested in feathered outcroppings. Along the creek banks, reeds swayed in the breeze. Vines trailed into the stream like graceful arms washing linen. Reflections of pistachio trees waded in the shallows, and moss carpeted the slope to the brook, patterned by dappled shade.

Year after year, the days of the dry season followed a pattern. On a midsummer day, with the sun baking the valley below, the brook normally grew quiet, fell deep into slumber, and sank into the earth until wakened by the early rains. But today, despite the blazing sky, the brook flowed from the mountain’s heart as if from a bottomless spring. 

Far above the sharp cliffs, a raven circled, tilting her head to peer down. The man beside the stream wore a ragged sheepskin, and though she tasted its stench in the air, the raven knew the man himself was not carrion. She had flown a long and weary time, but this was the place, this was the man. As she spiraled down, she heard him speak, though not to her. Man’s words are not for beasts or fowl to understand, but there was something like the brook’s song in his voice. Perhaps, like the brook and the raven, the man also heard the Call.

Though hungry herself, the raven swooped low and dropped bread into the man’s outstretched hands.

Elijah laughed when he caught the falling loaf. Over the many months, he’d been pummeled by falling loaves and raw meat, but this young raven, a newcomer, was the first to drop his meal into his hands. 

'Well done!' Swiftly he broke off a third of the loaf and tossed it into the air. 

The bird hovered above him, tail fanned and curved like a sliver of moon, blue-black wings beating the sky. She caught the bread right as it began its downward descent, soared up and out of the ravine, and headed north."

I enjoyed writing about the ravens so much that they appeared in several scenes, including three with Jezebel.  I began to think about birds other than ravens and how they were used. It made sense that since UNCLEAN birds could not be used for food, CLEAN birds could be eaten - and someone must catch or hunt them. 

Antique Woodcut, Bird Snare | Bird Trained for Falconry
Images courtesy WikiMedia

Are Fowlers Foul?

In researching occupations in ancient Israel, I learned that fowlers, those who snared, trapped, or hunted birds did a brisk trade selling birds for food, sacrifice, or pets. Some wealthy individuals purchased caged songbirds for their music.

So while our modern-day sensibilities might cringe at the thought of capturing birds, in Israel's agrarian culture, fowlers provided birds for meat and sacrifice at prices accessible to the poor.

Bas-reliefs on Egyptian monuments show traps, nets, and snares of various kinds being used to capture unsuspecting fowl. Decoys or bait lured a bird into the trap, at which time a net or door might drop, blocking the exit. The 'gin' was a trap consisting of a net and a stick acting as a spring.

Egyptian bas-relief showing captured cranes
Image courtesy WikiCommonsMedia

Ancient bird trap with drop-down gate. It would be propped with a stick until the bird entered.
Image courtesy WikiCommonsMedia

In RAIN, a young Israelite girl is skilled at weaving snares and building crates for the birds she captures, and Miriam's hobby grows into a second source of income for her family. In the following scene, Aban, an acolyte of Ba'al is invited to the home of an Israelite he meets after concealing Elijah's flight route from pursuing soldiers.

"Finally, they neared a small, one-story home. The murmur of sleepy birds identified the dark shapes stacked near the open door as rug-covered crates. Inside, firelight flickered from a stone hearth. Caleb pulled him across the threshold. A young girl rushed into the room and clasped the Israelite around the middle.

'Brother, how many did you sell today?' Miriam backed away, hands on hips, head tilted. Her form was slight but strong, though she couldn’t have seen more than nine years. When her eyes shifted to Aban, a dimple appeared in one cheek.

'For shame, Miriam, seeking your share of profits before I walk through the door. Where is our grandmother? Savta! I’ve brought a guest.' Leaving them, he hurried into the next room and spoke in quiet tones to someone. Miriam and Aban studied each other. He saw the moment she recognized his clothing from the sudden disapproval in her young eyes. 

For his part, he couldn’t stop looking at her face. She wasn’t beautiful, but her face was like new parchment, waiting for the quill. Her eyes softened at the corners as she made the decision to be kind. 'Did my brother tell you I weave his bird snares? All the finest catches are mine.'

'She does have a knack.' Caleb returned, leading an old woman dressed in black from head to toe. A strand of silvery hair escaped from under her head covering, which was slightly crooked, as if hastily donned. 'Now take some locusts to the houbara, sister. Your finest catch didn’t sell today.' He reached forward and gave a tug to the thick braid hanging down her back. Miriam squeaked, but rushed off."


Baited Trap
Image courtesy Olina via WikiMedia


What the Bible says about fowlers.

Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. ~ Psalm 91:3

We have escaped like a bird from the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped. ~ Psalm 124:7

Free yourself, like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the snare of the fowler. ~ Proverbs 6:5

Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come: as fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them. ~ Ecclesiastes 9:12

Many of the Bible's references to fowlers and their various methods for capturing birds, are used as effective cautionary tales. 

For myself, I'm happy to allow the birds to remain free to sing from the trees. However, I do hope the Cooper's Hawks return when the weather cools.

Further Resources:

Birds of Lebanon and the Jordan Area by S. Vere Benson
Every Living Thing: Daily Use of Animals in Ancient Israel by Oded Borowski
All the Trades and Occupations of the Bible by Herbert Lockyer

RAIN ~ Whispers in the Wind Book 1

Aban yearns to join the priesthood of Ba'al, unlock the power of the rain god, and hear the deity's voice. But first, he must survive a perilous initiation ceremony.

When the mysterious prophet Elijah interrupts the rites, overturns the idol, and curses the land with drought, Aban must choose a side in Yahweh's war against the Ba'als - and it may cost him his life.

WHIRLWIND ~ Whispers in the Wind Book 2 
A king's downfall and a love that transcends war. December 5th, 2022.

Dana McNeely dreamed of living in a world teeming with adventure, danger and romance, but she had a problem - she also needed a lot of peace and quiet. She learned to visit that dream world by stepping into a book.

Inspired by the Bible stories of Elijah, Dana wondered about the widow of Zarephath and her son. Who were they? What was their life, before? How did the boy change after he died, saw the other world—and came back?

Those questions led to Dana writing RAIN, in which she built her dream world of adventure, danger, and romance. Peace and quiet, however, have remained elusive.

No stranger to drought, Dana lives in an Arizona oasis with her hubby the constant gardener, two good dogs, an antisocial cat, and migrating butterflies.

Learn more about Dana and her books at her website:
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  1. Thanks for the interesting post today, and for your continuing contribution to the blog! I am a fan of watching the birds as well, and I enjoyed reading the excerpts from your book. I've never thought about the sale of birds in the market before. Thanks for enlightening me!

  2. Thank you for sharing this fascinating post!