Science in Christian Perspective



Job and the Ostrich: 
A Case Study in Biblical Accuracy


From: JASA 15 (December 1963): 107-110.

Critics have questioned the accuracy of statements about the ostrich in Job 39. A study of ostrich life history, mating habits, nesting behavior, and care of the young reveals that the Bible account is completely reliable in every detail.

God made some precise statements concerning the habits of the ostrich when He answered job:
The wings of the ostrich wave proudly: But are they the pinions and plumage of love?

For she leaveth her eggs on the earth,
And warmeth them in the dust,

And forgetteth that the foot may crush them, Or that the wild beast may trample them.

She dealeth hardly with her young ones, as if they were not hers: Though her labor be in vain, she is without fear:

Because God hath deprived her of wisdom, Neither hath he imparted to her understanding.

What time she lifteth up herself on high, She scorneth the horse and his rider (job 39:13-18, ASV).

*Dr. Howe is Assistant Professor of Biology, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California.

Certain ornithologists and anthropologists have denied the scientific accuracy of verses 14-16 of this passage. Alice Parmelee has stated that job is not fair to the ostriches when he judges their behavior by human standards and accuses them of treating their young cruelly:

. . . As parents they are outstanding. "Cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness" (Lamentations 4:3) is as mistaken a statement of their paternal behavior as is the statement that they hide their heads in sand to avoid danger. (11, pp. 204 and 207).

She accepts the validity of some portions of the narrative, but rejects the statement concerning ostrich cruelty and attempts to prove the point by a subsequent discussion of ostrich nesting habits.

Although Schreiner accepts the accuracy of the Bible account, he believes that job 39:14 refers only to an aberrant or abnormal phase of the ostrich story and is not representative (14, p .291). Without definitely mentioning job's errors, Beebe (2, p. 212) believes this passage is incorrect. Laufer discusses the job citation and assumes that the Bible account is erroneous: "The observation made in the book of job that the ostrich treats her offspring harshly does not conform with the real facts" (8, p. 12).

In an attempt to clarify the basis of these criticisms and to establish the validity of job 39:13-18, an analysis of the ostrich life history has been made. Since little work is presently being done with this bird, citations come mainly from the writings of zoologists and agriculturalists of a previous generation. Theological publications are consulted concerning Biblical aspects of the problem.

The Scripture states (job 39:17) that the ostrich has been deprived of wisdom and understanding. Since these words were written to laymen of all generations, no apologies need be made for their simplicity and teleological character. All that is necessary to prove their truth is to demonstrate that the ostrich does in some cases act in an unwise manner.

The ostrich in Africa consumes prickley pear to its own peril (9, p. 54). In eating such fruits, the head, neck, throat, and eyes of the ostrich become lined with the fruit-thorns.

The foolish running of the ostrich frequently leads to broken legs. "But his mad scamper will almost probably end a few miles off with a tumble into a wire fence, and a broken leg" (9, p. 107). Martin summarizes this apparent lack of wisdom on the part of the ostrich by stating that

-to revert again to the Book of Job-their character could not possibly have been more perfectly summed up
than it is in the words: "because God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither hath He imparted to her understanding" (9, p. 146).

While describing these birds in an historical novel, Robinson comments on their apparent lack of wisdom; they have the "brains of a maggot and strength of a mule" (13, p. I). Pickrell mentions their violent reaction to dogs, which frequently leads to their death (12, p. 406), and Schreiner (14) tells of cock fights that also frequently prove fatal. He attributes the preponderance of females over males to the cockfights. The male birds kick at each other through wire fences, thus breaking legs. He also says that cocks frequently die when, from behind their fences, they attempt to attack people.

The adult birds seem to manifest a "will to die." Hayden (7) observes that when illness strikes, the bird makes up its mind to die and seems to resolutely carry out that intention. Martin (9, p. 54) mentions this "will to die" in birds whose necks have been pierced by cactus needles. Her efforts to force-feed such injured birds were always futile.

Another ostrich mentioned by Martin stuck its head through the mesh of a fence to eat a quince. After swallowing the quince, the bird's neck would no longer pull back through the fence. She describes his plight thus:

. . . there was no one at hand to help, and the more he tugged and julped in the frenzied manner of ostriches when held by e head, the more firmly he stuck. And he was found at last, with his neck broken, and his head, to all intents and purposes, pulled off (9, p. 150).

While discussing the apparently foolish behavior of the birds, the "head in the sand" myth should be mentioned. The job account, of course, does not contain this erroneous idea. Although strictly a fable, his notion may have its basis in observable fact, as Beebe explains:

Lastly, the fable of hiding their heads in the sand to avoid detection has some foundation in their habit of crouching as closely as possible to the ground, when they think they are observed; a great eight-foot creature thus transforming itself into an inconspicuous ant hill, or mound of earth . . . (2, p. 212).

The ostrich's lack of wisdom is further demonstrated by items it snatches and swallows unexpectedly. Martin speaks of some ostriches in a zoo that died of poisoning from pennies fed to them (9, p. 155). She also recalls that one ostrich tried to swallow her earring, while yet another bird swallowed a farm manager's lighted pipe and was none the worse for wear (9, p. 153). In his story Robinson tells of ostriches swallowing such bizarre items as scarf pins, hat pins, lighted cigars, and chatelaine watches (13, p. 66). Robinson also mentions birds pulling the handkerchief from the cook's rear pocket and one particular ostrich which drank coffee (13, p. 66).

On the basis of these observations, the Bible's statement that ostriches have been deprived of wisdom is fully vindicated.

Job 38:18 refers to the speed of die adult birds and to their ability to cope with mounted hunters. An analysis of the literature confirms these statements and demonstrates the ferocity of the adult birds.

Ostriches are a great hazard to horseback riders. While riding, Schreiner (14) had a hole kicked through his riding breeches at the knee by an ostrich. He also knew of a boy who was kicked out of the saddle by one of these birds. Schreiner tells of their ability to leap five-foot fences and to swim in rivers. Martin tells of an ostrich that chased and kicked a horse and rider (9, p. 113), and Crandall (3) says an ostrich can easily outdistance the swiftest horse.

Citations from ostrich literature also bear out the Biblical indication (Lamentations 4:3) that the ostrich can be a ferocious bird. Ostrich farmers used a "bush" or stick to control the birds. Douglass refers to these bushes, their use, and the ferocity of the ostrich:

If men are allowed to enter the camps with bad bushes, and the birds get fighting with them, or, worse still, if they go with none at all, and then dodge about, the quietest bird will in a week of two be made perfectly rampant. But if good bushes are taken the bird gets to know that he can do nothing, and seldom attempts any nonsense (5, 100).

Douglass also mentions that the birds become
ferocious upon hearing the squeak of the chicks in

Martin tells an amusing story of a newcomer to the Karroo of South Africa who was skeptical of the prowess of ostriches but soon found that they are to be respected. An ostrich held him prisoner for hours in the sun atop a hot ironstone boulder (9, p. 114).

Pickrell (12, p. 405) also confirms the violent nature of the ostrich. A fatal encounter of a man with an
ostrich is described by Robinson in his historical novel (13, pp. 142 and 242). The adult birds establish
definite territorial boundaries and will defend these boundaries ferociously (9, p. 112).

    Mating Habits

Conflict in the literature arises cock is naturally polygamous or monogamous. It is believed that the birds are naturally monogamous. Whatever their natural inclinations may be, however, the cock frequently finds himself with more than one hen. Mosenthal stresses their polygamous nature:

Each cock-bird associates with three or four hens, all of which lay their eggs in one large nest scooped out in the sand and relieve each other by turns at incubation (10, p. 41).

Douglass (5, p. 120) insists that the monogamous condition is the most favorable for the production of Foung birds since polygamy results in fighting and broken eggs. Schreiner maintains that the cocks are actually monogamous and that polygamy is in a sense forced upon them due to the habits of the females and the ratio of males to females. Schreiner's statement confirms job 39:14-16 about the laying of eggs in sand and female cruelty:

Such hens generally attach themselves to the cock whose attentions they have attracted (often by intruding into his nest and remaining in the immediate neighborhood) , and lay regularly at any rate for a time, in his nest. if they cannot lay in the nest because it is already occupied, they will not go at once to another nest, but will deposit their eggs just outside the nest; but if there are many hens to one nest so much bother ensues that some of them betake themselves to other nests. Others lay in any nest indiscriminately, and are a great nuisance to the farmer. Some keep to one nest until they have laid about a sitting, and then begin to brood; but in such hens the brooding fit does not generally last long, as they can only get on the nest occasionally, and are much disturbed by other hens (14, p. 291).

Schreiner then misrepresents the Bible by stating that it teaches that the sun's heat hatches the eggs. The Bible does not imply that the sand or the heat of the sand hatches the eggs, unaided by the hens. Scripture simply asserts that the ostrich lays its eggs in the sand and then warms them in the dust-an extremely accurate description of their sand nests and brooding habits! Barnes attests to the fact that the Hebrew text does not carry the idea of the sun's heat hatching the eggs (1, p. 229). To the contrary, the evidence which Schreiner and Douglass present argues clearly for Biblical accuracy. The eggs laid outside the nest and the confusion of the polygamous nest confirm job 39:14-16.

Certain additional aspects of ostrich nesting habits bear out the truth of job 39:14-16. Anxious habits of ostriches during egg laying endanger the eggs themselves:

One occupies the nest, the other broody hens lying or standing about close at hand, thus betraying its presence. When she arises, whichever of the other hens is quickest, perhaps a laying hen, takes her place. Under these conditions a great many eggs are broken both before sitting begins and afterwards. The hens do not sit by turns; there is no plan in their proceedings at all (14, p. 293).

The laying of eggs goes on from day to day by some of the hens even after others have ceased. The conse quence of this is that the same lot of eggs are never in the nest together for more than a few days at a time. (This I have frequently proved by marking the eggs.) Some are rolled out, new ones are laid, or old ones are rolled in, for the nest becomes trampled almost out of shape by the traffic about it. Thus there are no chicks; the eggs become broken or addled, and the nest is eventually abandoned. Under such conditions it not infrequently happens that the cock (and perhaps some of the hens) abandons the nest in disgust before the full period of incubation is completed (14, p. 293).

Gibson (6, p. 215) reaffirms the dropping of eggs in the sand outside the nest. Douglass (5, p. 122) attributes such scattered eggs to young and unpaired hens.

Both birds participate in the care of the eggs. Martin emphasizes the faithfulness of the cock in nesting (9, p. 116), and Schreiner (14), Wetzstein (15), Crandall (3), and Mosenthal (10) each stress the role of the male in incubating the eggs. In fact, Pickrell (12) asserts that the cock helps the female become oriented to the nest. At first the female lays eggs on the ground, but the male will roll a few of them into the nest. After the cock has done this, the hen will then lay her others in the nest.

In justice to the ostrich, it has been demonstrated that in some respects they are faithful parents, defending their nests, and even cooling the eggs. But there is another side to their nesting behavior-a. side which underscores the natural history of job (an apparent cruelty and lack of concern for the eggs and young.)

The hens may desert the nest if they are overfed (9, p. 121)., The impatience of these birds jeopardizes the nest as Douglass observes:

Some birds get very impatient, especially if there are many days between the hatching of the first and the last chick, and are apt to leave the nest before all are hatched . . . (5, p. 108).

Hens sometimes forget their own nest and invade the nests of others (1, p. 229). Because of this, Barnes mentions, the bird has been used in Arabic fables as being foolish and not loving its own young:

Damir, an Arabic writer, says, "When the ostrich goes forth from her nest, that she may find food, if she finds the egg of another ostrich, she sits on that and forgets her own . . . " (1, p. 229).

Martin tells of a cock that trampled his own nest after one of the hens was removed to stop the fighting (9, p. 128), and Delitzsdi (4, pp. 338-339) reports that wild ostriches are known to trample their nests if die nests are disturbed by humans.

The nest is always in danger of attack from jackals, wildcats, and other animals (4). Martin (9) reports that whiteneck crows drop stones which break the eggs, and later the bird descends to eat the broken egg.

She also gives an account of jackals preying upon the eggs.

During the hatching stage the chicks are in danger because of the erratic behavior of the parents. The hatching period lasts about 4 days, some of the eggs hatching earlier than others. Pickrell (12) recommends that after hatching begins, unhatched eggs should be removed to an incubator, because they are liable to injury from the parents.

As the Bible has indicated, the adults are sometimes very incompetent in care of the chicks. Martin (9, p. 119) tells of one overzealous cock that literally ran his chicks to death, taking them across the veldt on a continual search for fresher pastures. One hen on the Martin farm that had faithfully reared several broods of chicks lost one batch as follows:

. . . one day the idiotic ostrich-nature asserted itself; she took a sudden and senseless fright-probably at nothing -lost her wits, bolted right away, leaving the chicks to get dispersed about the veldt, where only a few were found; and was herself never heard of again (9, p. 137).

Older birds are spiteful of chicks that are not their own. Parents know their own chicks and will kick and peck at those of other nests (14).

It is hoped that this review of ostrich habits, reproduction, and care of young will demonstrate that the Biblical record (while making no claim at being exhaustive) is accurate in each detail of natural history which it contains. It is noteworthy that a book written thousands of years before the rise of experimental biology has such amazing authenticity. This veracity of job 39 should challenge serious consideration of all the words in this ancient book.

Credit is due Dr. John Kephart (Westmont College Librasian) for gracious assistance in securing many of the books used in compiling this paper. Appreciation is also due Cora Wellman of Encyclopedia Americana Research Service, for providing one of the bibliographic lists used.


1. Barnes, Albert, Notes on The Old Testament (Edited by Robert Frew), Job Vol. II, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1950.
2. Beebe, William C., The Ostriches and Their Allies. Annual Report of The New York Zoological Society, 1904.
3. Crandall, Lee S., "The Ostriches and Rheas," Bulletin, New York Zoological Society, 1929.
4. Delitzsch, F., Biblical Commentary on The Book of job, Vol. 2, Wm. B. Eerdrnans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Mich., 1949.
5. Douglass, Arthur, Ostrich Farming in South Africa, Cassell, Fetter, Calpin & Co., London, 1881.
6. Gibson, E. C. S., "The Book of Job, Westminster Commentaries, Methuen & Co., London, 1899.
7. Hayden, Carl, "The Ostrich Industry," House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., 1913.
8. Laufer, Berthold, "Ostrich Egg-shell Cups of Mesopotamia and the Ostrich in Ancient and Modern Times," Anthropology Leaflet 23, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, 1926.
9. Martin, Annie, Home Life on An Ostrich Farm, George Philip & Son, Liverpool, 1892.
10. Mosenthal, Julius de, and James Edmund Harting, Ostriches and Ostrich Farming, Trilbner & Co., London, 1879.
11. Parmelee, Alice, All the Birds of the Bible, Harper & Bros. Publishers, N. Y., 1959.
12. Pickrell, Watson, Ostrich Farming in Arizona, Yearbook Department of Agriculture for 1905.
13. Robinson, Will, A Bird in The Hand-The Story of an Ostrich Round-up, Arizona State University Library, 1918.
14. Schreiner, S. C. Cronwright, The Angora Goat and a Paper on The Ostrich, Longmans, Green, and Co., N. Y., 1898.
15. Wetzstein, H., "Notes on Dr. Delitzsch's Commentary on The Book of job," in Delitzsch (Ref. #4), PP. 338-341.