For three years I have been hunting for a verse my OT prof showed our class that absolutely slams ostriches. It never occurred to me to just google “ostrich in the bible.” Anyways, today I was translating 2 Corinthians 4 and saw a cross-reference to Jars of Clay in the OT (Lamentations 4:2) and found it in the next verse: Lamentations 4:3b, “my people have become heartless, like ostriches in the desert” (NIV).
Unfortunately this does not seem like a good translation. The Hebrew text is corrupted (someone tried to put the first letter of Ostrich as the last letter of “like”) but we can quickly resolve that to mean “Like ostriches,” not “Likeo Striches.” Okay. So assuming we now have the right word, the other problem is that there is a clearer text (Job 39:13-18) that mentions Ostriches being terrible moms and letting their eggs sit on the ground where they can be crushed. And that word for Ostrich, ranan, is totally different from Lamentation’s word for Ostrich, ya’an. So why would we think Lamentations 4:3b means “Ostrich”?
But it gets worse. Lamentations 4:3 gets translated in the Greek OT (the LXX) as “Sparrow” instead of Ostrich, so that it is the same word Jesus uses to say “are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Leaving aside the synoptic issue that Matt 10:29 says “two sparrows for a penny” and Luke 12:6 says “five sparrows for two pennies,” and 50¢ is not equal to 40¢ —just totally leaving that aside — I honestly do not think that an ostrich would sell for less than a dollar, period. In modern Capitalism that would never fly, much less the Roman patronage honor/shame economy. I’ve just googled it and found that an Ostrich egg costs about $1000, which given the current minimum wage is 3 weeks wages, or 21 shekels. Just for the egg!
But it gets even worse. Remember how I said that Job 39:13-18 is clearly about an Ostrich? Well, there is no reason to think that is the case. The word ranan is also a single-use word, and the Greek LXX translation of ranan is totally missing! The translators of the LXX just skip it. “Wings flap joyfully,” it says, refusing to specify which bird’s wings so flap.
BDB helpfully connects ya’an with the feminine form of the same root, ya’anah, or Greed. Their implication is that “bat ya’anah” is “daughter of greed, of ostrich as voracious bird.” Similar cognates in Aramaic and Arabic gloss as “daughter of the desert or steppe, from [an Arabic word I can’t transliterate] meaning hard, unproductive soil.” It seems like there is some semantic value as Desert Bird or Greedy Bird, though it probably comes between those, with some broadly Semitic “Desolation Bird.” BDB also connects ya’anah to “wailing (as mourning) (Micah 1:8)… a symbol of loneliness (in Job 30:29)… of desolation, as dwelling among ruins (Isa 13:21, 34:13), and living in a desert (Isa 43:20).” Most interestingly of all, it is associated with “unclean (Lev 11:16 (&par. Deut 14:15)),” where it is a bird prohibited from being eaten along with many other strange birds whose exact translations are uncertain.
Enter A. Walker-Jones and his balls-to-the-wall article “The So-Called Ostrich in the God Speeches of the Book of Job (Job 39,13-18).” He argues that Job 39:13 should be translated as “Sand Grouse” not Ostrich, for a number of biological and contextual observations, not to mention linguistic. He found an early Christian reflection on nature which blurs together Job 39:13 and Jeremiah 8:7, which influenced Jerome to translate ranan as Ostrich. He also compares the physiology of sand grouses, hoopoe larks, and stone curlews, ruling out the latter two for the lines on its neck and the sound of their mating call, respectively. He thinks Lamentations 4:3b refers to owls, not Ostriches, and that it would not make sense in the ANE for Ostriches to be criticized, since their feathers were the symbol of truth and justice. Instead, “The danger here is that impressive, modem folk stories are being read back into an ancient Near Eastern text,” especially Pliny’s criticism of Ostriches, which was particularly unfounded anyway. Owls are chaos creatures, while Ostriches associate with truth and justice. Which is more likely to neglect its eggs? That’s right, the chaos creature.
There are more links I cannot trace down (I’m supposed to be translating 2 Corinthians 4 for my Paul class) to Ostriches: vision strong enough to hatch their eggs by looking at them, Ostriches that can eat glass and metal, and tremendous confusion throughout the ancient world about whether Ostriches were birds or mammals. (Aristotle thought mammals, because they have eyelashes). Three years. I spent three years trying to find that Ostrich slam, just to find it was never about Ostriches at all.
Photo by Dušan Smetana on Unsplash