The word lion occurs some 155 times in OT, all Eng. VSS. אֲרִי, H787, and אַרְיֵה, H793, are the general words for lion and lioness; and כְּפִיר, H4097, is properly tr. “young lion,” though the word applies to grown cubs as well as young; e.g. Psalm 34:10 “The young lions suffer want and hunger,” cf. Psalm 17:12, “a young lion lurking in ambush.” The other words may well have had special meanings. Only one Gr. word is found; this is used literally twice, and six times in fig. language in Revelation. This rich vocabulary suggests that lions were well known throughout the OT period; the majority of references are fig., yet it is clear that they were sometimes common enough to be of some danger to both humans and stock.

The two giant cats—lion and tiger—are usually regarded as African and Asiatic respectively, but this is not wholly correct. The tiger’s range is from the borders of Europe, in the Caucasus Mountains, through to NE and SE Asia. The lion’s main home is now in Africa S of the Sahara, yet it still has a small outlier in the Kathiawar Peninsula of NW India. The position was once very different. Lions lived in most parts of Africa including Egypt and the N coast, outside the deserts, swamps and jungles. In prehistoric times there were still lions in parts of Europe. In David’s reign lions were found more or less continuously from Greece through Asia Minor to India. The African lion was generally reckoned to be long-maned and the Asiatic, or Persian form short-maned, but there is much variation and the black mane is found in individuals rather than in races. Thus the lion and tiger overlapped for much of their range, but the lion kept to grassland and dry open forest; the tiger to the dense forest and jungle, where its striped coat served as camouflage. Up to the 1900s man had reduced the tiger’s numbers more than its overall range but by 1971 the tiger was on the danger list. Today the lion is confined to warm regions and shows less variation in color, size and habitat than the tiger.

The lion began to lose ground as soon as man made settlements and kept flocks and herds that needed protection. The cultivable parts of Egypt were occupied early and its lions disappeared many centuries b.c. Elsewhere in Africa the pressure did not build up until recent years. The Cape lion was lost about 1865, and the Barbary lion of the N coast, in the early 1920s. Lions were extinct in Greece about the end of the 1st cent. a.d. and in Pal. during the time of the Crusades, the last prob. being killed near Megiddo in the 13th cent. Lions were reported in Syria by Burton as late as 1851; they still survived in Persia and Iraq in this cent., but these too had vanished before 1930. The lion is the only plain-colored large cat, but the young, born in litters of two to five, have more or less obvious dark markings, sometimes not losing them until two years old. Unlike the rather solitary tiger, the lion is sociable and lives in family groups, called prides, so it is not surprising that Heb. pl. forms occur nearly fifty times. Lions normally feed on fairly large game, often combining in the hunt for it. They feed to capacity and then rest before killing again. (Cf. Num 23:24, “it does not lie down till it devours the prey.”)

Although there are occasional incidents in which humans are killed by lions, such events are unusual and are often provoked by the victims, for the habitual man-eating lion is rare. Such evidence as the Biblical record provides suggests that this was true also at a time when lions were fairly familiar objects of the countryside. Three cases are reported: (1) the disobedient prophet (1 Kings 13:24ff.); it is interesting that the body was not eaten, for this is typical of the chance encounter where, on the human level, it can be said that the lion panics and kills; (2) one of the sons of the prophets; a rather similar incident (1 Kings 20:35, 36); (3) the punishment of the pagan settlers (2 Kings 17:25, 26). This is stated clearly to have been God’s judgment, but regarding the first cause a modern parallel is seen in the notorious man-eaters of Tsavo, a group of lions that terrorized the labor force building the Kenya Railway. On the other hand, numerous OT literal and fig. passages infer that lions often were common enough to be a potential danger to domestic stock. The picture in the NT is so different that it seems reasonable to assume the lion had become rare. On the other hand, Diodorus Siculus, who wrote of events around the beginning of the Christian era but is not always reliable, reported that the Nabateans had fertile plantations in the S Negev where flocks had to be continually protected against lions and other beasts of prey (Biblioteca historica 3:43). Of nine NT mentions, seven are purely fig.; one refers back to the prophets, and the single current one is 2 Timothy 4:17, where Paul states that he was rescued from the lion’s mouth. Some commentators see a reference to the devil (cf. 1 Peter 5:8); others to a lion in the amphitheater, since by this time lions were being imported in great numbers for the games, mostly from the Upper Nile. Jul ius Caesar gave shows involving 400 lions; Nero organized fights between cavalry, bears and lions, and one of the standard sentences for Christians refusing to conform was being thrown to the lions.

Not all ancient rulers regarded lions in this brutal way. Daniel 6:7ff. pictures them being kept in captivity. In Egypt, 1,000 years earlier, lions were trained to help in the hunt; Rameses II is reported to have had a tame lion that accompanied him to battle. At Nimrud lions regularly were bred by Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 b.c.). Lion hunting was a favorite pastime of these Assyrian kings, as is illustrated dramatically in reliefs on Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh c. 650 b.c. It is possible that a similar motive impelled these Assyrian kings as is found in African tribes today, whose young men kill lions in single combat and so acquire some of the lion’s attributes. The fig. mentions of the lion in OT are too many to analyze fully, but most commonly it is metaphorical for strength, as Samson asked “What is stronger than a lion?” (Judg 14:18). Hence one of Christ’s Messianic titles—the Lion of the tribe of Judah (Rev 5:5)—refers back to Genesis 49:9, “Judah is a lion’s whelp.”


H. B. Tristram, The Natural History of the Bible 9th. ed. (1898), 115-121; G. Loisel, Histoire des Ménageries de l’Antiquité a nos Jours (1912); G. S. Cansdale, Animals and Man (1952).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


(1) Occurring most often in the Old Testament is ’aryeh, plural ’ardyoth. Another form, ’ari, plural ’arayim, is found less often.

1. Names:

Compare ’ari’el, "Ariel" (Ezr 8:16; Isa 29:1,2,7); char’el, "upper altar," and ’ari’el, "altar hearth" (Eze 43:15); ’aryeh, "Arieh" (2Ki 15:25); ’ar’eli, "Areli" and "Arelites" (Ge 46:16; Nu 26:17).

(2) kephir, "young lion," often translated "lion" (Ps 35:17; Pr 19:12; 23:1, etc.).

(3) shachal, translated "fierce lion" or "lion" (Job 4:10; 10:16; 28:8; Ho 5:14).

(4) layish, translated "old lion" or "lion" (Job 4:11; Pr 30:30; Isa 30:6).

Compare Arabic laith, "lion": layish, "Laish," or "Leshem" (Jos 19:47; Jud 18:7,14,27,29); layish, "Laish" (1Sa 25:44; 2Sa 3:15).

(5) lebhi, plural lebha’im, "lioness", also labhi’, and ’lebhiya’ (Ge 49:9; Nu 23:24; 24:9); compare town in South of Judah, Lebaoth (Jos 15:32) or Beth-lebaoth (Jos 19:6); also Arabic labwat, "lioness "; Lebweh, a town in Coele-Syria.

(6) aur, gor, "whelp," with ’aryeh or a pronoun, e.g. "Judah is a lion’s whelp," gur ’aryeh (Ge 49:9); "young ones" of the jackal (La 4:3). Also bene labhi’, "whelps (sons) of the lioness" (Job 4:11); and kephir ’arayoth, "young lion," literally, "the young of lions" (Jud 14:5). In Job 28:8, the King James Version has "lion’s whelps" for bene shachats, the Revised Version (British and American) "proud beasts." the Revised Version margin "sons of pride"; compare Job 41:34 (Hebrew 26).

(7) leon, "lion" (2Ti 4:17; Heb 11:33; 1Pe 5:8; Re 4:7; 5:5; The Wisdom of Solomon 11:17; Ecclesiasticus 4:30; 13:19; Bel and the Dragon 31,32,34).

(8) skumnos, "whelp" (1 Macc 3:4).

2. nodetitle:

The lion is not found in Palestine at the present day, though in ancient times it is known to have inhabited not only Syria and Palestine but also Asia Minor and the Balkan peninsula, and its fossil remains show that it was contemporary with prehistoric man in Northwestern Europe and Great Britain. Its present range extends throughout Africa, and it is also found in Mesopotamia, Southern Persia, and the border of India. There is some reason to think that it may be found in Arabia, but its occurrence there remains to be proved. The Asiatic male lion does not usually have as large a mane as the African, but both belong to one species, Fells leo.

3. Figurative:

4. Narrative:

Nearly all references to the lion are figurative. The only notices of the lion in narrative are of the lion slain by Samson (Jud 14:5); by David (1Sa 17:34 f); by Benaiah (2Sa 23:20; 1Ch 11:22); the prophet slain by a lion (1Ki 13:24; also 1Ki 20:36); the lions sent by the Lord among the settlers in Samaria (2Ki 17:25); Daniel in the lions’ den (Da 6:16). In all these cases the word used is ’aryeh or ’ari.

5. Vocabulary:

The Arabic language boasts hundreds of names for the lion. Many of these are, however, merely adjectives used substantively. The commonest Arabic names are sab`, ’asad, laith, and labwat, the last two of which are identified above with the Hebrew layish and labhi’. As in Arabic, so in Hebrew, the richness of the language in this particular gives opportunity for variety of expression, as in Job 4:10,11:

"The roaring of the lion (’aryeh), and the voice of the fierce lion (shachal),

And the teeth of the young lions (kephirim), are broken.

The old lion (layish) perisheth for lack of prey,

And the whelps of the lioness (bene labhi’) are scattered abroad."

In Jud 14:5-18, no less than three different terms, kephir ’arayoth, aryeh, and ’ari, are used of Samson’s lion.

See also

  • Animals