Animals in the Psalms

The animals went in two by two

Ever since we had the psalm with the seas and whatever moves in them in the last line (Ps 68/69), I have been thinking about the animals in the psalms, so I went back and had a systematic look; and it’s amazing how many there are. They fall into three main categories : creepy-crawlies, birds, and beasts, which is what you would expect.

Beasts, raging and otherwise

The beasts are the most frequent characters on the scene, and they range from sheep and goats to raging beasts. To be specific, we see bulls, cattle, beasts of the field, calves, the young wild ox, mules, wild asses, oxen and deer. We have boars, lions, rabbits (possibly rock hyraxes, in one translation.  I like hyraxes, we came across them in Africa, and they are like overgrown guinea pigs or small wombats), horses and dogs.  At the exciting end of the spectrum we have lions and raging beasts (as a category in their own right), we have monsters in the sea (Ps 73/74) and monsters to play with (Ps 103/104, clearly my kind of psalmist there), we have a dragon (Ps 90/91) and we have Leviathan .  I’ve included sea creatures here, as there are also unspecified fish and the creatures moving in the deep, who set off this line of inquiry in the first place. Interestingly, we do not have any cats in the Psalms, and I think this is more likely to be a reaction against the importance of cats in Egyptian religion than anything else.

Insects and things that sting

I am also using creepy-crawly as a general term, and including not just gnats, dogflies, worms, moths, good bees and bad bees (interesting), grubs, locusts,  but also frogs, adders and vipers.  I suppose you could make out a case for the fish, dragon and Leviathan fitting better into this category (dragons are loathly worms in Malory and old ballads), but I think scale means they fit better among the beasts.

Feathered creatures

In my third category :  apart from the generic ‘birds of the air’, we have sparrows, swallows, hawks and doves, pelicans (very glad to see them.  I have always had a soft spot for that verse in the Adoro te devote which addresses the Lord as a pelican), storks, owls, young ravens, quail (sadly, only in there for meat, and I think God could have given the Israelites something a little less labour-intensive), eagles and another generic, the ‘birds of heaven’, which is the same thing but in a different translation.

Positive and negative

That’s quite a line-up.  I’m sticking rigidly to the Psalms, because if I try and take in a wider part of the Bible, this would be a book rather than a blog;  but even so, that’s quite a lot of variety and differentiation.  The creatures are all real ones (I include the dragon here, as so many animals have been discovered that the psalmist would not have known about that I think it’s only fair to allow him all the ones he names).  What are they there for?  The birds are usually there as an example of praising God, but also the psalmist describes himself as clamouring and moaning like a dove.  The insects are usually there as a bad thing, reminiscences of the plagues of Egypt; the bees are ambiguous because they produce honey from the comb, which is the sweetest thing that the psalmist can think of to compare to the sweetness of God’s law and the joy of obeying it, so they have a good side, as well as being a stinging danger.

Good and bad animals

The beasts fall into two camps.  Like the birds, they can rejoice in creation and give thanks to God.  Beasts of the field are usually entirely positive, because they are there ‘to serve man’s need’, very much according to the original model at creation.  Horses are usually creatures of war.  A horse in war array was the nearest ancient equivalent to the modern tank, and equally devastating if you were a humble foot-soldier, but the psalmist warns that even if it is on your side,’ a vain hope…is the horse, despite its power it cannot save’, and God is the only real source of victory.

Dogs tend to move in packs (sometimes they are even translated as jackals), and they are a threat to a wounded man or a lone traveller.  This reflects reality even today, particularly in mountainous lonely areas.  Raging beasts are obviously a challenge, but they are often generalised because they are metaphorical.

Men more dangerous than animals

One of the striking things about looking at the animals in the psalms is that it is clear the main threat to the good man is from evil men, and they are the problem that he most often calls to God to help with.  The lion roams about roaring and seeking whom he may devour, but it’s just dangerous, it’s not personal spite (unless it’s a metaphor for the devil).  Evil men lurk and prowl like the lion, but without any metaphor they seek your life, take away your good name, deprive you of any pleasure in life so that you might as well be dead, make plots against you;  and God does not move to protect the victim as quickly or completely as he would like.   This is the free will problem.  People cause trouble, and God can help you to deal with the consequences, but he can’t (unlike Superman) change the fact once happened that a wicked person has done something wicked.  Salvation history in a nutshell.

Animal metaphors

One interesting reference to sheep and goats, since herds were usually mixed, is in Psalm 22/23, where they represent us (also in Ps 73, where we are only sheep with no ambiguity).  Usually they are just there as a sort of chorus line or part of the scenery to show peace and tranquillity.  Lambs are emblems of innocence, sometimes joy,  and patient suffering.  They gambol in the fields or they are sacrificed.  It’s very unsentimental.   On the whole though, the animals in the psalms are there as animals, not as representations of something else.  They reflect real observation and experience.  The psalmists are all observant people, and they see all creation as part of God’s plan, either praising him directly  (even inanimate mountains clapping their hands) or just witnessing to him by existing, like the stars.  The lion stands in for the devil, but then it’s difficult to talk about supernatural beings without metaphor (look at what we do when talking about God).  Mostly, evil men are referred to as precisely that, because they can choose to be evil; the animals are all behaving according to their nature, so they can be dangerous but not sinful.

God the ruler over all

God is described as a ‘mighty man’, a ‘man of war’ (I’m accepting the Canticles as part of my psalm corpus again here).   As they say, God made man in his own image and man has been returning the compliment ever since.  He would not be described as any sort of animal (exceptionally he is ‘like a moth’ in Ps 38/39) because I think that would be regarded as disrespectful, with man seen as so clearly the top of the tree.  (I think the moth simile is allowed because the scale makes it so clear that it is indeed merely a simile, not a real comparison.)  C.S.Lewis embodies Christ as a lion, because he’s thinking in more African terms about the lion as the king of beasts (with the mane like an aureole around his face), but God the Father never actually appears in the Narnia universe; he is a shadowy off-stage figure like the point at which parallel lines meet.  The psalmists’ lion is more of a mountain lion, a big and fearsome lynx-like creature, dangerous but not so impressive, not kingly.  In the psalms, where obviously the emphasis is on the Father rather than the Son, we don’t talk about what he looks like, except in human terms of role (the shepherd, the King, the warrior, the judge).  After all, in Jewish tradition, you never try to portray the Almighty.  He’s always modestly wrapped in a cloud, even in the text.

God’s mighty wings

There is one exception to this though:  the Lord has pinions, has mighty wings, (in some translations, feathers, which is a bit too concrete) with which he shelters and rescues us.  (I think this is why it is always the eagles who sort things out at the end of Tolkien’s stories.) God is never described directly as an eagle in the Psalms.  The eagles are one of the parts of creation that do his bidding, sailing in with supplies for the starving prophet  (sorry, that’s not in Psalms, I’m cheating) or being a metaphor for deliverance.   God has pinions.  ‘Underneath are the everlasting arms’ is a most comforting verse for many.  But I love the dynamism of ‘he will conceal you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge’ (Ps 90/91).  You don’t need the wings of a dove (Ps 54/55) for yourself, if the Lord is there to enfold you in soft warmth and carry you to safety.  But imagine how wonderfully exciting it would be.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe writes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines.

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