OSTRICH (יְעֵנִ֖ים, Lam 4:3 ostrich all Eng. VSS; בַּ֣ת יַּעֲנָ֔ה, ostrich ASV, RSV, owl KJV; חֲסִידָ֥ה, ostrich KJV, Job 39:13, love RSV; רְנָנִ֥ים, ostrich RSV; peacock KJV). Of the four Heb. words tr. “ostrich” in one or other Eng. VSS only two can stand. Bath Ya’anāh, found eight times, is more correctly tr. owl, as in KJV (see Owl for discussion). Heb. חֲסִידָ֥ה is the stork (q.v.). Ye’ēnîm (from greedy) is generally accepted, from LXX, Vulg., etc. onward, while Renãnîm (Job 39:13) is amply confirmed by the detailed description in the following vv. In the Biblical times the ostrich was found in all suitable parts of Pal. Less than a cent. ago it was being hunted regularly by Arabs, for it was a sign of prowess to catch one, but the Arabian species now seems to be extinct, the last known specimen having been killed for food in Saudi Arabia during World War II. Ostriches have also disappeared from much of their former range around the N African deserts and their numbers in other parts of Africa also have been reduced; today they are found only in open dry country, mostly in E Africa, where they are protected in reserves and national parks.

The ostrich is by far the biggest living bird, and an adult cock may stand eight ft. tall and weigh 300 pounds. It is conspicuous, with black and white plumage, and bare pink neck and upper legs. The wings are quite useless for flight, but bear the ornamental plumes for which ostriches are kept in farms. The hen is smaller and grayish brown. Although basically vegetarian the ostrich also takes insects, esp. locusts, and other small bugs that it may come across. Heb. יְעֵנִ֖ים, though thought by some commentators to mean “screamer,” is more likely to come from a root meaning “greedy,” and it may refer to its well-known habit, at least in captivity, of swallowing a wide range of unsuitable hard objects which may cause death. From the description in Job 39 it is clear that the author knew the bird well, and it is possible that Job had tame ostriches living around his tents, as the Arabs had into this cent. Great collections of tamed animals, prob. including ostriches, were kept in Egypt before 2,000 b.c. and in Mesopotamia in the 19th cent. b.c.; one of the earliest definite records is in the 3rd cent. b.c., concerning eight pairs of ostriches in harness that formed part of a procession at Alexandria.

The ostrich was well known to the ancient peoples and was widely eaten, prob. also by the Israelites, for it cannot be identified among the forbidden meats. Its eggs (six to eight inches long and weighing three pounds) were used as utensils after the contents were eaten; ornamental cups made from them have been found in Assyrian graves of around 3,000 b.c., as well as in other ancient cultures.


G. R. Driver, “Birds in the OT”; II “Birds in Life,” PEQ (1955) 137, 138; A. Parmelee, All the Birds of the Bible (1959).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The largest bird now living. The Hebrew words ya`anah, which means "greediness," and bath ha-ya`anah, "daughter of greediness," are made to refer to the indiscriminate diet of the ostrich, to which bird they apply; and again to the owl, with no applicability. The owl at times has a struggle to swallow whole prey it has taken, but the mere fact that it is a night hunter forever shuts it from the class of greedy and promiscuous feeders. The bodies of owls are proverbially lean like eagles. Neither did the owl frequent several places where older versions of Jer and Isa place it; so the translations are now correctly rendered "ostrich." These birds came into the Bible because of their desert life, the companions they lived among there, and because of their night cries that were guttural, terrifying groans, like the roaring of lions. The birds were brought into many pictures of desolation, because people dreaded their fearful voices. They horned on the trackless deserts that were dreaded by travelers, and when they came feeding on the fringe of the wilderness, they fell into company with vulture, eagle, lion, jackal and adder, and joined their voices with the night hawks and owls. For these reasons no birds were more suitable for drawing strong comparisons from.

1. Physical Peculiarities:

They attained a height ranging from 6 to 8 ft., and weighed from 200 to 300 lbs. The head was small with large eyes having powerful vision, and protected by lashes. The neck was long, covered with down, and the windpipe showed, while large bites could be seen to slide down the gullet. The legs were bare, long, and the muscles like steel from the long distances covered in desert travel. The foot was much like the cloven hoof of a beast. The inner toe was 7 inches long, with a clawlike hoof, the outer, smaller with no claw. With its length and strength of leg and the weight of foot it could strike a blow that saved it from attack by beasts smaller than a leopard. The wings were small, the muscles soft and flabby. They would not bear the weight of the bird, but the habit of lifting and beating them proved that this assisted in attaining speed in running (compare Xen. Anab. i.5,2, 3). The body was covered with soft flexible feathers, the wings and tail growing long plumes, for which the bird has been pursued since the beginning of time. These exquisite feathers were first used to decorate the headdress and shields of desert chieftains, then as decorations for royalty, and later for hat and hair ornaments. The badge of the Prince of Wales is three white ostrich plumes. The females are smaller, the colors gray and white, the males a glossy black, the wing and tail plumes white. The ostrich has three physical peculiarities that stagger scientists. It has eyelashes, developed no doubt to protect the eyes from the dust and sand of desert life. On the wings are two plumeless shafts like large porcupine quills. These may be used in resisting attack. It also has a bladder like a mammal, that collects uric acid, the rarest organ ever developed in a feathered creature.

2. Eggs and Care of Young:

These birds homed on the deserts of Arabia and at the lower end of the great Salt Sea. Here the ostrich left her eggs on the earth and warmed them in the sand. That they were not hard baked was due to the fact that they were covered for protection during the day and brooded through the cooler nights. The eggs average 3 lbs. weight. They have been used for food in the haunts of the ostrich since the records of history began, and their stout shells for drinking-vessels. It is the custom of natives on finding a nest to take a long stick and draw out an egg. If incubation has advanced enough to spoil the eggs for use, the nest is carefully covered and left; if fresh, they are eaten, one egg being sufficient for a small family. No doubt these were the eggs to which Job referred as being tasteless without salt (Job 6:6). The number of eggs in the nest was due to the fact that the birds were polygamous, one male leading from 2 to 7 females, all of which deposited their eggs in a common nest. When several females wanted to use the nest at the same time, the first one to reach it deposited her egg in it, and the others on the sand close beside. This accounts for the careless habits of the ostrich as to her young. In this communal nest, containing from 2 to 3 dozen eggs, it is impossible for the mother bird to know which of the young is hers. So all of them united in laying the eggs and allowing the father to look after the nest and the young. The bird first appears among the abominations in Le 11:16 the Revised Version (British and American) the King James Version "owl"; De 14:16, the Revised Version (British and American) "little owl," the King James Version "owl." This must have referred to the toughness of grown specimens, since there was nothing offensive in the bird’s diet to taint its flesh and the young tender ones were delicious meat. In his agony, Job felt so much an outcast that he cried:

"I am a brother to jackals,

And a companion to ostriches" (Job 30:29).

Again he records that the Almighty discoursed to him about the ostrich in the following manner:

"The wings of the ostrich wave proudly;

But are they the pinions and plumage of love?" etc.

(Job 39:13-18).

3. Old Testament References:

The ostrich history previously given explains all this passage save the last two verses, the first of which is a reference to the fact that the Arabs thought that the ostrich was a stupid bird, because, when it had traveled to the point of exhaustion, it hid its head and thought its body safe, and because some of its eggs were found outside the nest. The second was due to a well-known fact that, given a straight course, the ostrich could outrun a horse. The birds could attain and keep up a speed of 60 miles an hour for the greater part of half a day and even longer, hence, it was possible to capture them only by a system of relay riders (Xenophon, op. cit.) When Isaiah predicted the fall of Babylon, he used these words: "But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and ostriches shall dwell there, and wild goats shall dance there" (Isa 13:21). Because this was to be the destruction of a great city, located on the Euphrates River and built by the fertility and prosperity of the country surrounding it, and the ruins those of homes, the bird indicated by every natural condition would be the owl. The wild goats clambering over the ruins would be natural companions and the sneaking wolves--but not the big bird of daytime travel, desert habitation, accustomed to constant pursuit for its plumage. Exactly the same argument applies to the next reference by the same writer (Isa 34:13). "And the wild beasts of the desert shall meet with the wolves, and the wild goat shall cry to his fellow; yea, the night monster shall settle there, and shall find her a place of rest" (Isa 34:14). "The beasts of the field shall honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; because I give waters in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my people, my chosen" (Isa 43:20). Here we find the ostrich in its natural location, surrounded by creatures that were its daily companions. The next reference also places the bird at home and in customary company: "Therefore the wild beasts of the desert with the wolves shall dwelI there, and the ostriches (the King James Version "owls") shall dwell therein: and it shall be no more inhabited forever; neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation" (Jer 50:39).

"Even the jackals draw out the breast, they give suck to their young ones:

The daughter of my people is become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness" (La 4:3).

This reference is made to the supposed cruelty of the ostrich in not raising its young.

Gene Stratton-Porter

See also

  • Birds