Determining the Bird

Leviticus 9:1-11:47

By Gary A. Rendsburg

Published April 01, 2005, issue of April 01, 2005.
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This column, both when written by myself and by others, typically dwells on the larger issues inherent in the particular portion — for example, a theological point, an ethical or moral lesson, a social observation, whatever it may be. I depart from that norm this week with a look into the arcane world of biblical philology.

This week’s reading includes the very detailed presentation of the dietary laws in Leviticus 11; a parallel text appears in Deuteronomy 14. The most detail occurs in the list of forbidden birds, Leviticus 11:13-19. One is entitled to ask: How do we know the identification of any particular species in this list? Who is to say, for example, that an ’orev is a raven, a yanshuf is an owl, a hasida is a stork and an ’atalef is a bat? True, these words have these meanings in modern Hebrew, but did they mean these things in ancient Hebrew?

To illustrate the process involved, I have chosen to deal with just one item, the rather curious term bat ya’ana in Leviticus 11:16 (see also Deuteronomy 14:15), identified as the ostrich. But how do we know it means “ostrich”?

Biblical scholars begin by looking at all the passages in which a particular word occurs. A check of the concordance reveals that the term occurs in six other passages, with a seventh occurrence, as well, in a slightly variant form.

In every one of the other passages, the plural form, benot ya’ana, appears in conjunction with the word tannim (jackals) and/or with reference to the desert (three times in Isaiah and once each in Jeremiah, Micah and Job). In one of these passages, Micah 1:8, we learn something new, namely, that these two species are connected with lament and mourning. Presumably the reference is to the loud sounds that these two animals produce. The jackal’s howl is well known, of course; and thus we assume that the bat ya’ana also produces a distinctive cry.

In short, bat ya’ana must refer to a bird of the desert with a distinctive howl or a similar sound. The best option — if not the only option — is to assume that our species is the ostrich, the quintessential desert bird, and one with a notable hiss to boot. In fact, this bird’s name probably derives from the verbal root ’nh, meaning “speak, respond,” so distinctive is its voice.

The seventh additional passage mentioned above is Lamentations 4:3, in which a slightly different form appears, the plural form ye’enim. The context, however, is the same, for once more we encounter the words tannim (jackals) and midbar (wilderness).

The best description of the ostrich in the Bible occurs in Job 39:13-18, but oddly the form bat ya’ana does not appear here. Instead the species is called by a different name, the plural form renanim in verse 13. This passage refers to the bird placing her eggs on the ground and warming them in the dirt (as opposed to building a nest), the fact that predators may take the eggs (which they do), her proverbial lack of wisdom (proverbial in Arabic culture to this day — calling someone an ostrich is a great insult!) and the fact that she can outrun the horse (also true, as noted by Xenophon in antiquity).

The fact that renana (the presumed singular of renanim) clearly means “ostrich” may at first glance suggest that bat ya’ana must refer to a different species altogether. But caution is advised here. Note that different dialects of the same language often use totally separate and unrelated words to refer to the same species. American English alone knows three words for the same rodent: woodchuck, groundhog and whistle pig (the last of these used commonly in the Appalachian Mountains region).

Furthermore, Job is written in a distinct dialect of ancient Hebrew, and it has the richest vocabulary of any book in the Bible. So one is not surprised to find a rare or unique word for “ostrich” in Job 39:13. In fact, one may note that renanim also derives from a word having to do with vocal production, namely, the root rnn (sing).

The next step that a biblical scholar takes is to check the ancient translations of the Bible, known as “the versions” in the discipline. If we look at these texts, we note that all of them render bat ya’ana as “ostrich.” Thus we find strouthos in the Greek Septuagint and struthio in the Latin Vulgate (these two words, as the reader may realize, are the source of the English word“ostrich”). The Aramaic Targumim and the Syriac Peshitta (still used by various Middle Eastern churches) use na’ama, ne’ima and similar variants to render our term, while Saadya Gaon translated bat ya’ana as na’am in his Arabic version of the Bible. All these Aramaic and Arabic forms are still in use today in the modern-day varieties of these languages. In short, there is a millennia-old tradition that bat ya’ana means “ostrich.”

The third step normally would be to look for cognates, to find other Semitic languages that use the term bat ya‘ana (or something similar) for “ostrich.” In this case, there are none, however. Hebrew is the only Semitic language with this term (or something similar), and thus we cannot proceed down this path further.

As to the very unusual form of this term, with bat (“daughter”) appearing before ya’ana, we can say the following. Languages do funny things, and this is a case in point. An analog occurs in Genesis 49:22, where banot tsa’ada occurs for “wild asses,” the exact equivalent of which occurs in Arabic, with banat tsa’dat meaning “wild asses.” For some unusual formations in English, note “mother-of-pearl” referring to the inner layer of mollusk shells, and “bird-of-paradise” as the name of a flower (and not a bird!).

And thus the biblical scholar proceeds, one word at a time!

Gary A. Rendsburg is the Blanch and Irving Laurie professor of Jewish history and chair of the department of Jewish studies at Rutgers University.

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