What does the ostrich mean in Job and what is its significance?

My perusal of Job led me to a rather interesting observation: ostriches. That’s right, the Bible led me to mull over a large, flightless bird. There’s a first time for everything, right?

job_friendsJob is spent with much of the book concerned with Job’s lamenting his misfortunes and his companions countering him along the way, before Elihu and then God himself rebuke them for their errors. In the midst of all that woe-is-me lamenting, I couldn’t help being completely thrown by the mention of an…ostrich? Really? We’ve seen repeated themes with animals before, such as in the animals that were acceptable or unacceptable for the Israelite people to eat, as well as animals which were used as a larger representative example in some passages. However, the ostrich seems to stick out as a rather unusual inclusion in the midst of that.

The mention is included with God’s rebuke to Job, as he is highlighting the errors of the things Job has said and how he might correct his mindset (Job 39:13-18):

“The wings of the ostrich wave proudly,
but are they the pinions and plumage of love?
For she leaves her eggs to the earth
and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them
and that the wild beast may trample them.
She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers;
though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear,
because God has made her forget wisdom
and given her no share in understanding.
When she rouses herself to flee,
she laughs at the horse and his rider.”

As it turns out, this is not the sole mention of ostriches in the Bible. A sampling of the others includes:

119Needless to say, it doesn’t exactly paint the most flattering portrait of ostriches. As with the other passages about different animals found in God’s admonishment to Job, the ostrich seems to be set forth to teach a symbolic lesson. There is much focus on the dichotomy of wisdom versus folly and righteousness versus wickedness in Job’s lament, and the ostrich seems to highlight the folly that is warned again. It is portrayed as a foolish bird, having been made to “forget wisdom” and “given…no share in understanding.” That folly is also shown in how the ostrich is said to flee from danger but laugh at the horse and rider as it does; it suggests a foolishness and obliviousness to the true danger it faces. Scientifically, this seems to have a solid basis, as the ostrich has been known to outstrip horses when it comes to pure speed. However, as Bible Hub states, we see another example of this foolishness due to the fact that “…it is sometimes so foolish as to run around in a circle, and then, after a long chase, it may perhaps be caught.”

There also seems to be a measure of callousness imbued in the ostrich, as there is emphasis placed upon its treatment of its eggs and how the eggs are left on the ground, where there is the potential for them to be crushed or trampled. Scientifically, there does seem to be a compelling basis for this as well. First, we must establish what is meant by the ostrich leaving its eggs. In the article, The Ostrich in the Bible, we see this observation: “Some translations render the word “leaveth” in terms of a forsaking. But the word here, ‘azab, though it can carry that meaning, acquires that meaning based on context — it carries the meaning of leaving behind, and no one would argue that the ostrich does not leave or place its eggs on the ground and leave them now and then (without “abandoning” them). In fact, we’ll see in a moment that this is a good description of their behavior, and indeed, even “forsaking” fits a certain behavior they have.” As it turns out, both interpretations carry a certain amount of truth.

The ostrich does indeed make its nest on the ground, but that itself is not an uncommon practice amongst some birds; rather, it is behavior unique to the ostrich that seems to add to this perception. Ostriches live in family groups, and when it comes to reproducing, the article has this to say: “Each hen lays between two and eleven creamy white eggs in a communal nest which can be nearly 10 ft (3 m) across and is simply a hollow in the ground formed by scraping and body weight. When egg laying is complete there are usually ten to forty or more eggs in the nest; the most ever recorded was seventy-eight. Only about twenty can be incubated, however, so the dominant hen will reject any surplus eggs by pushing them out of the nest.” So we see that ostriches do literally leave their eggs on the ground, but there is also a basis for saying that they will forsake their eggs under certain circumstances. If the nest is disturbed by predators or other creatures, the ostrich reacts in the extreme because when the ostrich comes and finds that her nest is discovered, she crushes the whole brood, and builds a nest elsewhere.” This behavior seems to carry on after the eggs are hatched, because “When the chicks emerge into the world, it is the male who cares for them.” Even as the chicks grow, the behavior can still continue: “Under certain environmental conditions…the family group may break up when chicks are a few weeks old, the adults renewing sexual activity and becoming highly aggressive towards all juveniles. Chicks fledged in small numbers outside the breeding season are frequently treated as outcasts and live solitarily.” So through these circumstances, we can see how the ostrich would serve as an example of foolishness and parental neglect or callousness. This can even be seen as symbolic in the way that, just as the men were urged to be righteous and wise, part of that went hand-in-hand with dealing kindly and favorably with the fatherless people and other people who could be taken under their care.

The ostrich sets forth an interesting example for Job and his friends. Indeed, as this article on Naturalis Historia points out, “All together God would appear to be accentuating the characteristics of the ostrich that Job and his friends would not expect to find in a world with no waste or suffering and thus the ostriches behavior appears, to man, to represent a creation paradox.” Combined with the portrayal of it as a foolish or potentially even callous creature, it seems to offer a symbolic warning against those same traits in humankind. This is supported by the repeated warnings against folly and wickedness and the urging to strive to be righteous and wise.

Ostriches: the most maligned of the flightless birds. Penguins, watch out, you could be next.



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