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Animals in the Psalter

by Marion Craig


The Hebrew psalms captures the natural beauty of animals, reminding us of the beauty and gift of God's creation. The imagery also points so often to the liturgy.

Larger Work

Orate Fratres

Publisher & Date

The Liturgical Press, January 1950 No. 2, pp. 56-62

Contemporary brands of piety, as manifested in some of our popular prayer books, tend to draw a sharp line of distinction between the natural and supernatural worlds. In other words, nature and the homely-smelling surroundings of the cow byre, sheep fold, and stable seem very out of place. Where today, among all our books of devotion, could we find a prayer for a sitting hen that she might successfully raise her clutch of chickens? That little domestic blessing was inserted, it would seem quite casually, into a fourteenth century Italian Franciscan missal. True, a vast proportion of us are today city dwellers; to counterbalance this, there is among Catholics a considerable encouragement of “life on the land,” and in the more secular world the truly enormous popularity of nature lore and the “great outdoors.” Yet still the generality of our popular prayers continues to be modeled on the more formal and piously fastidious style of post-renaissance centuries: a style which, through translation or adaptation, has been watered down from its original precision, grace and elegance into the dated, limp, formless, and (considering our present crude hustling generation) the incongruous insipidity that so often and so curiously lingers on in pious Manuals and Treasuries even to this day.

By contrast – by what a startling contrast! – the ancient Hebrew psalms and canticles, primitive, archaic, stylized though they be, and sometimes most ambiguously translated, have preserved in themselves a strange divine secret of undying virility and eternal youth. They are real, human, vital, alive. They are never ashamed to be interested in life, and their range is the whole range of a man's eyes and questioning mind, as he stands out in the open and looks up through the trees at the sky, and away then to the furthest hills on the horizon, and then down again to the tiny ant busily and industriously employing herself over a wisp of bark at his feet. That perhaps is their secret: they are so natural. In their human element, as reflecting the changeless emotions of the human heart, they may be puzzled, despondent, speculative, sad; wrathful and bitter; trustful and repentant; loving, and joyously elated. Always they are sincere: they never pretend. And just as the primitive Eastern countryman, living perhaps in tents, among his flocks and herds, has a very personal interest in the simple beasts that he tends, and in the wild creatures prowling beyond, the borders of his fields, so, too, the inspired singer of the psalms continually turns in his thoughts to nature, and through nature to nature's Lord.

The mountains skipped like rams (Ps. 113:4).

Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers (Ps. 123:7).

As the hart panteth (or "crieth out”?) for the waterbrooks, so longeth my soul for Thee, O God (Ps. 41:2).

They have whet their tongues like a serpent’s (Ps. 139:4).

He lieth in ambush, secretly, as a lion in his lair (Ps. 9:30. The lion– the proud “Lion of Judah”–that has long since vanished from Palestine, exterminated there by the relentless drives for wild beasts to stock the Roman amphitheaters).

As the eagle that stirreth up her young to fly, and fluttereth over them, so spread He abroad His wings (The Song of Moses, canticle of Lauds on Saturday. Deut. 32:11).

Divine inspiration apart, no one of us living today could possibly have composed such prayers. Our popular piety, in thought and speech, is as remote from them as the flat air-conditioned softness of some up-to-date hotel from the keen sharp life-giving winds on the moors. They teach us that nothing in nature is common or mean, and the lowliest of creatures may glorify God's name, and stand symbol for His eternal verities.

"The beasts of the forest are Mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills." That is the key to the psalmist's mind in relation to the animal kingdom beneath man’s foot and subject though they be, they are still His, Yahweh's, the Lord's. All through the psalms, as indeed the whole of the Old Testament, there runs an extraordinarily strong, almost visual perception of the nearness of the Almighty as a personal Being who speaks, who moves, who watches, who listens, whose “voice maketh the hinds to calve and discovereth the thickets" (Ps. 28:9), “who giveth to the beast his food, and to the young ravens which cry unto Him" (Ps. 146:9).

And men, reflecting on this natural bond and intimacy between Yahweh and His creatures, without any demur, any quibbling over a scientific inaccuracy or a possible devotional impropriety, boldly called on the whole of creation to worship God and praise His name. Not only the trees, the hills, the dews and frosts, the sun and stars, but “O ye whales and all that move in the waters, bless ye the Lord! . . . O ye fowls of the air, bless ye the Lord! . . . O ye beasts wild and tame, bless ye the Lord! . . . Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord!” (Song of the Three Children, at Lauds, and Ps. 150).

And again comes that refrain in that curiously enchanting, almost fairy-like phrase: "Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons and all deeps" (Ps. 148:7). Who, indeed, are the "dragons"? A “dragon,” thus translated from the Hebrew tannin, had been identified here as an amphibious monster such as the whale which in olden times would be sighted in the Mediterranean “deeps." Antiquity, very naturally, had an abiding interest in the fabulous and terrible unknown. In Ps. 73 the dragons’ heads that are shattered and thrown to the “people” (i.e., animals, i.e., jackals) of Ethiopia, whilst taken to refer to the Egyptian crocodile, may quite fittingly mean here some ancient fabulous monster of the deep (cf. Fr. Boylan's Psalms).

In Ps. 103 we are told, besides, that God has a special plaything sporting in the sea, a pet animal, as we might call the creature, by name (and size) “leviathan.” (After reading this, who shall say that the Jews did not sometimes bring humor into their prayers?) Now, as Father Martindale has reminded us, back of the Semitic mind there always lurked the sinister figure of Tiamat, the Power of Chaos and the Primeval Deep, a winged and scaly monster with clawed feet and long bared fangs who is attacked and driven off by thunderous Bel-Merodach, the champion of the Gods of Heaven. We see the two beings warring thus on one of those ancient Babylonian sculptured slabs dug up by Layard from the desert sands. So gigantic as the creature was, so frightening, perhaps then the Jews found considerable comfort in thinking of Tiamat as conquered and harmless, a gentle playmate under the one true God's almighty hand. The idea is not without its attraction and significance today.

Another animal which was treated with great respect by antiquity was the bull. Strong, fierce, powerful, he signified in many heathen mythologies the vital, energizing, reproductive forces of life. With proud-reared mien, large wary eyes of shell and lapis, smooth curving horns, and flowing beard of lapis lazuli, there is a bull's golden head carved upon a harp or lyre and marvelous in its beauty and realistic detail, which rests today in the University Museum in Philadelphia. It is estimated that he was made and laid down beside the dead in the royal tombs at Ur–Abraham's Ur of the Chaldees– about five thousand years ago!

Cattle mentioned in the psalms were of two varieties. Those which roamed. half-wild, in the cattle-raising plains country, east of the Jordan, of which the land of Bashan formed a northern-most portion. Of these, savage and formidable beasts when roused, it is that Ps. 21 speaks: “Many bulls have compassed me, strong bulls (in the Hebrew: “strong ones of Bashan”) have beset me round," as typifying to later Christian generations the ferocious persecutors of Christ. The second type was the docile, patient, domesticated ox, useful for his shaggy wool, as the cow was for her milk, and to draw the plough in the fields. In Israel the “horn” became synonymous with human and national strength and well-being; and the Shophar and Keren, used as trumpets in the Temple worship, were, as they still are in the modern synagogues, a cow's or a ram's horn, flattened and straightened out by means of heat.

The Jew must have felt an intense pride in his cattle for him to exclaim in the tragic Messianic Ps. 68: "I will praise . . . and glorify Him, and that shall please God better than a young bullock (sacrificed) that has horns and hoofs!" Each year thousands of these fine animals–bulls, rams, calves, heifers, ewes, goats, kids and lambs — were devoutly sacrificed to God. And yet it was He who also said, "Will I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?" (Ps. 49). There was yet to be one infinitely merciful and all-sufficing Sacrifice. “Burnt offering and sin-offering hast Thou not demanded; then said I, Behold, I come!" (Ps. 39).

Of all beasts recorded in the psalms the “unicorn” is the most fascinating. Heraldic designs, as well as pictures and tapestries fashioned in medieval days, show him as a pure white equine or deer-like beast, his one straight slender out-thrust horn pointing most delicately aloft. The unicorn was an emblem of chastity. Sometimes he was hunted, sometimes captured; slain, he rose triumphant from the dead. In this mystical sense we have a lingering partiality for the lovely ancient name. In classic ages there was evidently hearsay lore of a (prehistoric?) one-horned monster. However, iconoclastic scientific data has substituted for the "unicorn" (Hebrew: rem or reem) the two-horned aurochs, the bison or buffalo, which early became extinct in Palestine. “My horn shall be exalted like the horn of a unicorn" (Ps. 91:11).

Nowhere in the psalms is there any reference to the horse comparable to Job's wonderful description of him. Like the mule, he has no understanding (Ps. 31) and needs a bridle, "else he will not come unto thee." Though King David, the traditional composer of the psalms, is believed to have been the first to introduce war horses and chariots into the Jewish army (cf. Madeline and J. Lane Miller's Encyclopedia of Bible Life), the Jews still needed encouragement so as not to feel over-impressed by the latest mobile defense equipment of their rich and powerful heathen neighbors: “Some trust in horses and some in chariots, but we will call upon the name of the Lord our God!" (Ps. 19:8). Only in that obscure but strangely beautiful Song of Habacuc which is sung during Friday Lauds do we hear the horse spoken of magnificently, and then, characteristically, he is Yahweh's conquering steed: "Thou didst ride upon Thy horses and Thy rescuing chariot. . . . Thou didst make a pathway through the sea for Thy horses."

Like the unclean swine, the dog, so favored throughout the West, fares badly at the hands of the Jews. Surely it is significant that perhaps the one entirely happy reference to a faithful dog occurs in our Greek Septuagint Tobias, a slight reference but so charming that it should be better known. Maybe this dog was a Saluki, the hairy greyhound, one of a privileged Eastern breed! But, alas, in the psalms "dogs" are the poor, neglected, wolfish, village curs, scavengers and inveterate howlers by night, "behold, they yelp with their mouths!" – dogs that in Ps. 21:17 close in to kill the stricken creature (a deer? This psalm is entitled in the Hebrew “The Hind of the Morning") that is a figure of the suffering Messiah to come.

But with what tender solicitude do the psalms almost invariably speak of sheep! The imaginative Easterners vividly pictured themselves as sheep in Yahweh's flock. “Thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep” (Ps. 79). “We are Thy people and the sheep of Thy pasture" (Ps. 94). Most famous of all allusions is the incomparable Ps. 22, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” The Good Shepherd, the Shepherd Orpheus or Apollo, Jesus Christ, who makes music on His lyre, and guides with His crook the faithful sheep in the Christian catacombs. No symbol of our Lord, save the Lamb of God, has been more beloved by the Church. Though verse 5 is understood to refer to a kingly hospitable banquet, it is very interesting to learn that the Palestinian shepherd is accustomed to salve the scars on his sheep with butter oil, and to water his flock by means of a stone ladle or cup drawn up from the wayside well beneath (cf. Madeline and J. Lane Miller, op. cit.). “Thou anointest my head with oil, and my over?owing cup how goodly is it!” The Healing. The Cup. Immemorial symbols of the Eucharist. To countless millions of people in their darkest hour of affliction this psalm has brought consolation and hope.

Other animal symbols dear to us in the Psalter are the dove with her plumage of silver and greenish gold; the swallow building a nest near God's altar, and the eagle whose youth is renewed, as ours shall be. Mystically splendid words in this Ps. 102, perhaps the loveliest of all the psalms. There is a curious allusion to them made by the traveler, Richard St. Barbe Baker. He was assured by a Palestinian shepherd that these birds lived for hundreds of years! In adventurous boyhood, this shepherd had sometimes spied an old decrepit eagle on a mountain height, moulting its sparse plumage and fed by younger birds. Gradually its feathers sprouted again, until, one day, he would find the eagle gone!

The frail little spider (not in the extant Hebrew, where it is a "moth," but only in our Vulgate Latin version), the owl blinking in his hole, the swarm of bees, the solitary eastern sparrow on the roof, the destructive wild boar rooting wickedly in the hedges–to each humble insignificant creature the inspired psalmist of Israel has granted immortality. Daily, Weekly, yearly, the majestic cycle of the Hebrew psalms is recited and chanted by Christians who have never in their lives seen the Holy Land, and whose paths are bounded perhaps by concrete streets, by the roar and screeching of machines, by an unnerving ugliness and frightening uniformity undreamt of by the ancients even in their nightmares. Yet always, happily for ourselves, in the immortal psalms there is a means of refreshment and hope. There, as at the very beginning of creation, we can Watch the moon in her changing season, and the young lions seeking in the shadowed forests their meat from God, and the stork’s nest aloft in the highest fir tree, and the agile wild goats and tiny conies (possibly little creatures like the American prairie dogs) frisking about among the rocks, and the wild asses coming timidly across the sands to drink in the purling valley stream.

“O Lord, how manifold are Thy works! . . . Thou sendest forth Thy Spirit and they (Thy creatures) are created; and Thou renewest the face of the earth" (Ps. 103).


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