MOSES AND THE EAGLE
A statement in Deuteronomy 32:11 seems to imply that the eagle can carry its young upon its back. Critics have challenged the accuracy of this assertion. A study of the Hebrew text shows that the phrase and action in question may refer directly to God and not to the eagle. But if the activity was intended to be that of an eagle or eagle-like bird, there is evidence from natural science to demonstrate that at least one species of eagle can carry its young astride its back. With either possible interpretation of the text, the Scripture is accurate in its treatment of the data.
*Frederic R. Howe is Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of Old Testament Language and Exegesis at Western Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, Portland, Oregon. "George F. Howe is Associate Professor of Biology Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California.
In his song of praise to
the Sovereign God as recorded in Deuteronomy, Moses made some detailed
pronouncements about the habits of the eagle with these
As an eagle stirs up its nest, hovering over its young, spreading its wings to catch them and bearing them on its pinions, so the Lord alone was guide to them, and no strange god was with Him. (Deuteronomy 32: 11,12, Berkeley Version).
In her scholarly treatise on Bible birds, the ornithologist Alice Parmelee has recognized the valid description of an eagle's nest given in the first portion of verse 11. Assuming that the words "spreading its wings to catch them and bearing them on its pinions" in Deuteronomy 32:11b referred to a mother eagle transporting a young bird upon her back, Miss Parmelee challenged the accuracy of Scripture as follows:
Sometimes the adult birds hovered over their fledglings and fluttered encouragingly around and under them. At a distance the eaglets appeared to be carried at times on a parent's wings, but this is not the case. Although grebes, swans, and some other birds paddle through the water with their young ones nestled on their backs, there is no reliable report of any bird actually flying with a smaller bird on its back.1
A study of the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy 32:11 is necessary to explore briefly this apparent problem, and to understand the breadth of possible Biblical interpretation. The verse appears in a context of Scripture which sets forth vividly God's Sovereign care and protection of His people Israel. Moses expresses his praise to the Almighty God in this major segment of Deuteronomy. He compares, in this 11th verse, the activity of a parent eagle with reference to its young, and the action of the Lord with reference to His people Israel.
The point of comparison between the condul2t of God towards Jacob and the acts of an eagle t6ward its young, is the loving care with which He trained Israel to independence. The carrying of Israel upon the eagle's wings of divine love and ornnipotence was manifested in the most glorious way in the guidance of it by the pillar of cloud and fire, though it was not so exclusively in this visible vehicle of the gracious presence of God as that the comparison can be restricted to this phenomenon alone.2
Many students of the Biblical Hebrew text of this passage believe that the first part of verse 11 refers strictly to the work of the eagle, but the last part refers to God alone, and His action. This view is exegetically defensible, and is reflected in the American Standard Version, which reads as follows: "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."
Following this approach, the interpreter can show that the descriptive words of Deuteronomy 32:11b do not apply at all to an eagle. This is one avenue to follow in refutation of the charge that the Bible reports inaccurately here on events in the realm of natural science. The verse can just as easily be translated in this manner: "As an eagle, He (Jehovah) stirs up His nest, He hovers over His young, He spreads abroad His wings, He takes him (Jacob or Israel), He bears him on His pinions." This suggested translation attempts to reflect upon the exact gender of the Hebrew verbal suffixes, translated by the English pronouns "his" and "him." Specifically, thus, the action of "bearing him on His pinions" refers descriptively to God. The interpretation here then harmonizes with a major cross reference found in another book written by Moses, Exodus 19:4-"Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings and brought you unto myself (ASV)."
Inasmuch as there is some flexibility of translation in this verse, some prefer the wording found in the Authorized Version, or the Berkeley Version. It is at this point that the problem seems to arise. As noted Alice Parmelee feels that this description cannot apply to an eagle. The author of the article dealing with eagles in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia also felt that this verse, if limited to the description of the flight of the eagle, would be incompatible with facts of natural history.3 Accordingly, she limited herself to the ASV translation.
The Hebrew word neser itself might provide another avenue of exploration. By lexical definition, this word covers quite a descriptive span. Brown, Driver, and Briggs states ". . . griffon-vulture, eagle . . . neser may be a more comprehensive word, incl. both vulture and eagle."4
The New Bible Dictionary summarizes the linguistic evidence by stating:
Some true eagles are still found in, or travel through Palestine: Heb. neser is probably as much a generic term as the English word "eagle". It could include all large birds of prey, and the many references, most of them figurative, give few clues as to the species.5
It would seem from Old Testament usage that where the context of the passage supplies details, this word certainly includes the vultures within its descriptive limits. There is enough evidence, however, to allow the term to refer to the true eagle. If the words here in Deuteronomy refer to the behavior of an eagle, then we must explore the observations made concerning these birds to see if anything like this may actually occur.
In his classic work on birds of prey, Arthur Cleveland Bent presented much detailed information about the nesting habits of the golden eagle, Aguila Chrysadtos canadensis (Linnaeus). He reported material derived from an observation published in "The Condor" as follows:
Dr. Loye Miller (1918) published the following account, as given to him by one of his students:
Last summer while my father and I were extracting honey at the apiary about a mile southeast of Thatcher School, Ojai, California, we noticed a golden eagle teaching its young one to fly. It was about ten o'clock. The Mother started from the nest in the crags, and roughly handling the young, she allowed him to drop, I should say, about ninety feet, then she would swoop down under him, wings spread, and he would alight on her back. She would soar to the top of the range with him and repeat the process. One time she waited perhaps fifteen minutes between flights, I should say the farthest she let him fall was 150 feet.
My father and I watched this, spellbound, for over an hour. I do not know whether the young one gained confidence by this method or not. A few days later father and I rode to the cliff and out on Overhanging Rock. The eagle's nest was empty. (Miss F. E. Shuman.)6Another interesting observation is recorded by S. R. Driver, in his commentary on Deuteronomy included in the International Critical Commentary series. Driver presented the position on this verse that the word neser should be translated "vulture." He then cites without comment this material:
W. L. Alexander quotes from Davy, Salmonia, p. 87, the following pertinent illustration: "Two parent eagles on Ben Weevis were teaching their offspring, two young birds, the manoeuvres of flight." Rising from the top of a mountain, they "at first made small circles and the young imitated them; they paused on their wings waiting till they had made their first flight, holding them on their expanded wings when they appeared exhausted, and then took a second and larger gyration, always rising towards the sun, and enlarging their circle of flight, so as to make a gradusually ascending spiral." See also Bochart, Hierozoicon, ii, 181.7
The reader will notice carefully that the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy states ". . . he takes him, he bears him on his pinions ('ebrU6)" (italics supplied). It would thus appear from these observations of true eagles that parent birds possess remarkable agility, and actually have been seen in the cited instances to support, either on the strong pinions, or on the area of the back, the young eaglet in its initial "flight training" program!
In summary, we have attempted to show that Deuteronomy 32:11 has no conflict with the realm of observational science. One species of eagle has been reported to carry its young astride its back, and it is clearly possible that Moses had observed a similar event in an eagle species. A footnote from the Berkeley Version of the Bible is instructive at this point:
Moses as shepherd had watched the training of eaglets, thrusted out of their nest, hurled from the sheer rock; then the mother swooping down as they struggled, bearing them up, letting them go again, to catch them; so repeatedly. So God trained Israel-and still trains us.8
which according to its own self-testimony, is God's unique revelation to man, is
accurate in its treatment of all data.
1. Parmelee, Alice. All the Birds of the Bible. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1959. p. 99.
2. Keil, C. F., and F. Delitzsch. "The Fifth Book of Moses," in Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament. Translated by James Martin. Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1951. p. 473.
3. Stratton-Porter, Gene. "Eagle," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Edited by James Orr, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1952. p. 885.
4. Brown, Francis; S. R. Driver; and Charles A. Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon at the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press. 1907. pp. 676-677.
5. Cansdale. G. S. "Birds of the Bible." The New Bible Dictionary. Edited by J. D. Douglas. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962. p. 154.
6. Bent, Arthur Cleveland. Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey. Part I. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum, Bulletin 167. United States Government Printing Office. 1937. p. 302.
7. Driver, S. R. "Deuteronomy." The International Critical Commentary. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1916. p. 358.
8. Bible, English. Berkeley Version. Translated with notes by Gerrit Verkuyl. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House. 1959. p. 216.