Birds and Fowl in the Old Testament

Two words translated as “bird” or “fowl” in the Old Testament: ‘ôwph (ofe) – “a bird (as covered with feathers, or rather as covering with wings), often collect.” and ‘ayiṭ (ah’-yit) – “a hawk or other bird of prey:” and tsippôwr (tsip-pore’) – “a little bird (as hopping):”[i]  Of these three, “’ôwph” appears to be the most generic, both based on their definitions and based on the fact that it is used exclusively in Genesis (both creation and the Flood narratives) except for three times: Genesis 7:14 (tsippôwr), Genesis 15:10 (tsippôwr), and Genesis 15:11 (‘ayiṭ).  Genesis 7:14 is most instructive because both “’ôwph” and “tsippôwr” are used together.  The former is used first and associated with “kind,” as are the rest of the creatures mentioned in the verse, while the latter is used second and appears to emphasize the extent of “’ôwph.” 

Seeing as “’ôwph” is the broadest definition, it is the word we will use to understand the Biblical definition of a bird.  Leviticus 11:13-23 lists several fowl.  Notably, the bat is mentioned (verse 19, in KJV, NASB, Amplified, and ESV).  It also appears that “fowl” is applied to flying insects (verse 20), though they are also referred to as “flying creeping things” (KJV) in verses 21 and 23. 

Deuteronomy 14:12-20 gives the same list of unclean birds.  Notably, flying insects are not called birds here: they are simply “every creeping thing that flieth” (KJV).  However, that is in verse 19 while verse 20 appears to be a closing statement for the whole section on fowls, implying that the flying creeping things can still be considered fowl.  Also of note, “bats” appear in Deuteronomy 14:18.

Of note in both Deuteronomy and Leviticus is that every bird listed in the King James Version is a flying bird.  However, the ESV, NASB, and Amplified all mention “ostrich” at the beginning of verse 16, instead of “owl” in the KJV.  However, it is unclear what this animal is, exactly.  The Strong’s Concordance does not have a word listed for the use of “owl” in Leviticus 11:16 or Deuteronomy 14:15, which happens if multiple Hebrew words are translated as a single English word.  According to a website,[ii] there are indeed two words for “owl”: “bath” and “ya’anah.”  The former is daughter while the latter is owl or ostrich, though it is also given that the exact meaning is unknown.  Therefore, it is possible that it is not referring to an ostrich and every bird in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are flying birds only. (Also, see 3284 in Strong’s Concordance.  It is “ya’ǎnâh” and makes reference to owls but it is also the feminine form of “yâ’ên” which is translated as ostrich [and it only appears in one location]).  Most likely, this is an ostrich, since several translations all give the same word for it.

As an aside, there is one other place where the word “ostrich” is used and that is in Job 39:13.  It is a different word, “nôwtsâh.”  It is only used as ostrich in the Job verse.  It appears to be identified as an ostrich largely because of the context of Job 39.[iii]  However, the description of the “ostrich” sounds more like a megapode, what with leaving its eggs in the ground and not caring for its young after they hatch.  Of course, megapodes are not known from Israel nor the Middle East, either now or from fossils.  However, Job is one of the earliest books in the Bible, so it is possible that megapodes had not yet migrated from Mount Ararat to Australasia.

Since “fowl” in the Bible appears to mean “flying thing” but also including some flightless creatures, such as the ostrich, it would apply easily to Microraptor and quite possibly Velociraptor and Dakotaroptor.

Written by Steven King


[i] All definitions from Strong, James (1990) The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN

[ii] Blue Letter Bible, https://www.blueletterbible.org/search/search.cfm?Criteria=owl&t=KJV&ss=1#s=s_primary_0_1, accessed July 17, 2017.

[iii] Beeke, Joel R. (2014) The Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible, Reformation Heritage Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan