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In a few contexts the vulture is clearly meant—e.g. Matthew 24:28, “There the eagles will be gathered together.” These scavengers hang high in the sky great distances apart, and can see when a neighboring bird drops down, so that vultures from a wide area soon collect. This is a habit of vultures generally. An ancient proverb quoted in the Talmud, says that a vulture in Babylon can see a carcase in Pal. The context in Micah 1:16, “Make yourselves as bald as the eagle” suggests the Griffon vulture, whose head is covered with short creamy down, giving the appearance, at a distance, of being bare.

Few people today, other than experienced naturalists, can distinguish between these birds, usually seen at great distances and heights, where color cannot be distinguished. Hebrew נֶ֫שֶׁר, H5979, can thus be taken as a name embracing them all. Several fig. passages reflect interesting beliefs (Deut 32:11), “Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,” implies that a hen eagle deliberately disturbs the young, persuades them to take off, and then catches them on her wings if need be, but this has little basis in fact. Young birds spend long periods alone at the nest, esp. as they grow older. Between eight and twelve weeks, according to species, the juvenile becomes fully feathered and begins flapping and exercising its wings, finally becoming airborne. “Flying like an eagle toward heaven” (Prov 23:5), may be connected with an ancient belief that the eagle disappeared into the sun every ten years, to dive down into the sea, like the sun, and emerge refreshed. Pliny wrote of the eagle forcing her young to look straight against the sun’s beam.

The biology of eagles in Pal. is too varied to treat. About three species breed in tall trees or, more often, on cliffs. The others are passing migrants or winter visitors. They feed mostly on live prey, which ranges from young deer to reptiles and insects.


G. R. Driver, “Birds in the OT; I, Birds in Law,” PEQ (1955), 5-20, See also Bibliography of Bird Migration.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

A bird of the genus aquila of the family falconidae.

The Hebrew nesher, meaning "to tear with the beak," is almost invariably translated "eagle," throughout the Bible; yet many of the most important references compel the admission that the bird to which they applied was a vulture.

There were many large birds and carrion eaters flocking over Palestine, attracted by the offal from animals slaughtered for tribal feasts and continuous sacrifice. The eagle family could not be separated from the vultures by their habit of feeding, for they ate the offal from slaughter as well as the vultures. One distinction always holds good. Eagles never flock. They select the tallest trees of the forest, the topmost crag of the mountain, and pairs live in solitude, hunting and feeding singly, whenever possible carrying their prey to the nest so that the young may gain strength and experience by tearing at it and feeding themselves. The vultures are friendly, and collect and feed in flocks. So wherever it is recorded that a "flock came down on a carcass," there may have been an eagle or two in it, but the body of it were vultures. Because they came in such close contact with birds of prey, the natives came nearer dividing them into families than any birds. Of perhaps a half-dozen, they recognized three eagles, they knew three vultures, four or five falcons, and several kites; but almost every Biblical reference is translated "eagle," no matter how evident the text makes it that the bird was a vulture.

For example, Mic 1:16: "Make thee bald, and cut off thy hair for the children of thy delight: enlarge thy baldness as the eagle (m "vulture"); for they are gone into captivity from thee." This is a reference to the custom of shaving the head when in mourning, but as Palestine knew no bald eagle, the text could refer only to the bare head and neck of the griffon vulture. The eagles were, when hunger-driven, birds of prey; the vultures, carrion feeders only. There was a golden eagle (the osprey of the King James Version), not very common, distinguished by its tan-colored head; the imperial eagle, more numerous and easily identified by a dark head and white shoulders; a spotted eagle; a tawny eagle, much more common and readily distinguished by its plumage; and the short-toed eagle, most common of all and especially a bird of prey, as also a small hooded eagle so similar to a vulture that it was easily mistaken for one, save that it was very bold about taking its own food.

The first Biblical reference to the eagle referred to the right bird. Ex 19:4: "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself." This "bare you on eagles’ wings" must not be interpreted to mean that an eagle ever carried anything on its back. It merely means that by strength of powerful wing it could carry quite a load with its feet and frequently was seen doing this. Vultures never carried anything; they feasted and regurgitated what they had eaten to their young.

The second reference is found in Le 11:13 and repeated in De 14:12, the lists of abominations. It would seem peculiar that Moses would find it necessary to include eagles in thislist until it is known that Arab mountaineers were eating these birds at that time. The next falls in De 28:49: "Yahweh will bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand." This also refers to the true eagle and points out that its power of sustained flight, and the speed it could attain when hastening to its hunger- clamoring young, had been observed. The next reference is in De 32:11: "As an eagle that stirreth up her nest, That fluttereth over her young, He spread abroad his wings, he took them, He bare them on his pinions."

This is good natural history at last. Former versions made these lines read as if the eagle carried its young on its wings, a thing wholly incompatible with flight in any bird. Samuel’s record of the lamentation of David over Saul and Jonathan is a wonderful poetic outburst and contains reference to this homing flight of the eagle (2Sa 1:23). In Job 9:26 the arrow-like downward plunge of the hunger-driven eagle is used in comparison with the flight of time. In Job 39, which contains more good natural history than any other chapter of the Bible, will be found everything concerning the eagle anyone need know:

"Is it at thy command that the eagle mounteth up, And maketh her nest on high? On the cliff she dwelleth, and maketh her home, Upon the point of the cliff, and the stronghold. From thence she spieth out the prey; Her eyes behold it afar off. Her young ones also suck up blood: And where the slain are, there is she" (Job 39:27-30). Ps 103:5 is a reference to the long life of the eagle. The bird has been known to live to an astonishing age in captivity; under natural conditions, the age it attains can only be guessed.

"Who satisfieth thy desire with good things, So that thy youth is renewed like the eagle." Pr 23:5 compares the flight of wealth with that of an eagle; Pr 30:17 touches on the fact that the eye of prey is the first place attacked in eating, probably because it is the most vulnerable point and so is frequently fed to the young. Pr 30:19: "The way of an eagle in the air; The way of a serpent upon a rock: The way of a ship in the midst of the sea; And the way of a man with a maiden."

This reference to the eagle is to that wonderful power of flight that enables a bird to hang as if frozen in the sky, for long periods appearing to our sight immovable, or to sail and soar directly into the eye of the sun, seeming to rejoice in its strength of flight and to exult in the security and freedom of the upper air. The word "way" is here improperly translated. To the average mind it always means a road, a path. In this instance it should be translated:

The characteristics of an eagle in the air; The habit of a serpent upon the rock; The path of a ship in the midst of the sea; And the manner of a man with a maid. Each of these lines stood a separate marvel to Agur, and had no connection with the others (but compare The Wisdom of Solomon So 5:10,11, and see Way).

Gene Stratton-Porter

See also

  • Birds