Lions and other wild beasts in ancient Israel (Psalm 22)

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Illustration: Young David slays a lion

For the modern reader the ferocity of wild beasts is something of a cliché; we can  mouth the analogy “as bold as a lion” without having had any firsthand experience with the terror these animals can inspire. In ancient Israel, though, such creatures were an all too real danger and a pervasive source of fear. Menacing carnivores included bears, lions, leopards, wolves and jackals. The situation of the ancient Israelite herdsman was all the more acute in that he had to defend his livestock from these beasts or face personal ruin. The shepherd literally stood between the predator and its prey (1 Samuel 17:36-37).

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of lions and bears from the Iron Age, and many carnivores continued in the region until the fairly recent past. Leopards still survive in parts of the Negev. Relief sculptures from Nineveh (ca. 650 B.C.) depict  the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal hunting lions from the relative safety of his war chariot, indicating that these animals were neither rare nor exotic in the ancient Near East. In Psalm 22:13-14 David likened his enemies to a roaring lion that made his heart melt; no doubt many Israelites knew what it was to be paralyzed with fear by the roars, growls, howls and snarls of wild beasts.


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