Consider the Ostrich: Job 39 and God’s Commentary on His Creation – Part I

The book of Job, which is an exploration of the problem of human suffering, contains some of the most descriptive language about the natural world in all of Scriptures.  Job 39 in particular sees God using the natural history of multiple animals including the mountain goat, deer, donkey, ostrich, horse, hawk and eagle to illustrate His omniscience and wisdom in creation.   Reading through Job I can’t help but be amazed at how similar the author’s descriptions of the behavior of these animals are to what we would observe in these organisms today.

How is the Ostrich Described in the Bible? 

Among the animals described in Job 39 I am especially intrigued by the ostrich.  While only found in Africa today, the ostrich was apparently more widely distributed in the past and is mentioned multiple times in the Bible.   In most translations the ostrich is recognized in Leviticus (11:16) along with the owl, sea gull and hawk indicating it was thought of as a type of bird despite the recognition that it can’t fly.   Job 30:29 finds the ostrich identified with the desert or wastelands.  In Lamentations (4:3) the ostrich is used as an illustration of a lack of attention of parents toward their children and here in Job 39 we also find a lack of parental wisdom attributed to the ostrich.

Job 39 and the Ostrich:

The most complete description of the Ostrich in the Bible is found in Job 39 verses 13-18.  The New Kings James Version translates this ancient passage this way:

13. The wings of the ostrich wave proudly, But are her wings and pinions [like the] kindly stork’s?
14. For she leaves her eggs on the ground, and warms them in the dust;
15. She forgets that a foot may crush them, or that a wild beast may break them.
16. She treat her young harshly, as though [they were] not hers; her labor is in vain, without concern,
17. Because God deprived her of wisdom, and did not endow her with understanding.
18. When she lifts herself on high, she scorns the horse and its rider.

The context of Job 39 is God’s response to Job. It begins in chapter 38 where He asks Job where he was when He laid the foundations of the earth and then proceeds to describe many parts of His creation and asks; what can man know?  In chapter 39 God turns His attention toward the animals He created.  Above we see the description of the ostrich.   What do we learn about the ostrich here?  First, they have wings but they are not like the wings and feathers of a stork which are beautiful and enable flight.  The female ostrich lays her eggs on the ground in the dust and is prone to forgetting or ignoring some of the eggs which result in their either being crushed or eaten by other beasts.   The ostrich is observed to be rather callous toward her young and does not tend them, presumably in comparison to some other birds that dote on their chicks.  And what accounts for these observed behaviors? God himself proclaims that He did not endow the ostrich with understanding.   Lastly, we see that, though not endowed with wisdom, when the ostrich lifts itself up to run it can put the horse and its rider to shame.   While many of these characteristics appear unflattering the context of Job 38 and 39 clearly portray these all as the direct result of God’s having made them this way.

An ostrich with wings partially outstretched.

An ostrich with wings partially outstretched.

A Modern Natural History of the Ostrich.

Before exploring the implications of this text further let us take a look at a modern natural history of the ostrich and see how it compares to the descriptions of the ostrich in Job.   The ostrich is the largest living bird weighing up to 300 pounds and standing more than 6 feet high.  Living ostriches are native to Africa where there is only one recognized species though there is considerable variation among populations.  They are a flightless bird and are morphologically (ie. physical features internal and external) and genetically most similar to other flightless birds such as the Emu, Kiwi, and extinct Moa from New Zealand, many of which were much larger than the ostrich.   The ostrich has “wings” that are too small to allow flight yet they have some of the largest (over 2 meters) wings of all birds, it is missing a bone where some of the flight muscles would be attached and its large feathers lack the intricate lateral hooking system found in birds that can fly.   While unable to fly, their large size and powerful legs enable them to run over 40 miles per hour for extended periods of time (the Cheetah can only attain these speeds for a few seconds)  to escape predators.  They do use their wings to cover their featherless legs for warmth on cold nights and for a number of courtship displays and they have two claws at the tips of the wings possibly for defensive purposes.  They live in desert regions where they are well adapted to hot and dry conditions.

An ostrich nest with eggs. here we see a group of eggs in the center of the nest which are the primary eggs that will be incubated in the evenings usually by the male.  The eggs pushed off to the sides are the result of the dominant females pushing aside eggs laid by other females. These eggs will never hatch and will be scavenged.

An ostrich nest with eggs. here we see a group of eggs in the center of the nest which are the primary eggs that will be incubated in the evenings usually by the male. The eggs pushed off to the sides are the result of the dominant female pushing aside eggs laid by other females. These eggs will never hatch and will be scavenged.

Female ostriches will lay eggs in a dirt nest that has been prepared by the male ostrich.  Multiple females will use the same nest but typically the last female to lay eggs is the dominant female and she will roll and kick many or all of the prior eggs that were laid out of the nest (see picture).  The female and male will periodically take turns incubating the remaining eggs with no attention paid to the surrounding eggs. Among the eggs that are incubated many are lost or broken in the dirt nest.  Even after hatching it is the male ostrich that will take care of the young of which only 15% typically will survive to reproductive age with most becoming food for a number of predators.  Despite these difficult odds the ostrich is a very long-lived bird and so a female ostrich may have 20-40 years of attempts to produce offspring that will live to reproductive age.  Lastly, when ostriches with chicks come into contact with other ostriches with chicks there is often competition for the young with the loser giving up their chicks to the victor.

Another ostrich nest showing the simple dirt next with eggs pushed out of the next.

Another ostrich nest showing the simple dirt nest with eggs pushed out of the nest.

Quick Observations:

If we compare these modern observations of the ostrich to the Biblical descriptions we find that the book of Job has a very accurate description of the behavior seen in modern-day ostriches.   The Bible recognizes the ostrich as a bird despite its lack of flight and the description of the eggs not being well cared for is exactly the way it appears even if we understand today that the “good” eggs of the dominant female are being cared for at the expense of the others. The female is not invested in the bringing up of offspring and combined with the observation that parents will give up chicks to other parents, contributes to the impression that the parents don’t seem to care.  All together God would appear to be accentuating the characteristics of the ostrich that Job and his friends would not expect to find in a world with no waste or suffering and thus the ostriches behavior appears, to man, to represent a creation paradox.  For now let me just observe that God does not suggest that there is anything wrong with the Ostrich. Quite the opposite, He says that He is the one that has withheld understanding from the Ostrich and this is taking responsibility for the observed behavior of these birds.  We will explore the implications of this in the context of the “good” creation of Genesis 1 in part II of this series on the Ostrich.

A last observation for now: the origin of the book of Job is unknown.  Many modern scholars believe it to be only as old as the 6th century BC but the dominant view in historical Christianity is that Job was written at the time of the patriarchs or as late as the time of the Solomon and thus included with the wisdom literature of his age.  Most creation scientists are predisposed to view Job as a very ancient text because they believe that it records evidence of an ice age and a time when man commonly lived in caves and thus records a time very soon after the global flood.  As above, I will address the implications of this view in part II.  For now, marvel at the wondrous Ostrich that God hath made.

Comments

  1. I too am fascinated by the ostrich. You might find this interesting:
    http://biblicalanthropology.blogspot.com/2010/10/ostrich-in-biblical-symbolism.html

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    • Hi Alice, thanks for the link. Yes, very interesting. That fits with one of my points that I will continue in part II that the ostrich that we see today is biologically very similar to the ostrich of the Bible and that the earliest peoples recognized the behaviors of the ostrich. Joel

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  2. ShawnBrito says:

    Indeed a very interesting article.. Its generally assumed that the book of Job is about 4000 years old (Written in 2000BC) and contains references to many animals that are now extinct. In light of this, I personally believe the ratite bird (Ostrich) might have been larger or perhaps biologically deviated to modern taxonomic classification. Could the Ostrich described in Job be another ratite bird (Aepyornis) which became extinct in the 17th century (described in Wikipedia)? Aepyornis although native to Madagascar have been recorded far up north. Fossilized eggs have been found far up north on the Canary Islands as well (Hence they would have been present in substantial numbers during Job’s days) in the middle eastern zones. By the time the KVJ was written this ratite would have been near extinction hence rendering the English text as Ostrich. However we know very little about the Aepyornis (a.k.a: Elephant Bird). From what scientists do know, the Aepyornis laid very large eggs (2 gallon capacity) and weighed 850 lbs (~400kg). A large ratite like Aepyornis would indeed scorn the horse & rider. A larger egg would also yield a larger chick, hence the independence from their parental care at a young age. Also in my honest opinion, the lack of parental care would have led to their demise :-)

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    • Hi, here is an update on the elephant bird, (Aepyornis): “Claims of findings of “aepyornithid” egg remains on the eastern Canary Islands, if valid, would represent a major biogeographical enigma.[18] These islands are not thought to have been connected to mainland Africa when elephant birds were alive. There is no indication that elephant birds evolved outside Madagascar, and today, the Canary Island eggshells are considered to belong to extinct North African birds that may not have been ratites…” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant_bird

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  3. You have some excellent points in your “Observations” section.

    Some notes regarding incubation and rearing of chicks: “…The dominant female lays her eggs first, and when it is time to cover them for incubation she discards extra eggs from the weaker females, leaving about 20 in most cases…The eggs are incubated by the females by day and by the males by night…Typically, the male defends the hatchlings and teaches them to feed, although males and females cooperate in rearing chicks…” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostrich

    Although all hens lay their eggs in the dominante female’s nest, apparently only she and the dominante male incubate and raise them.

    While “God’s” description of ostrich’s behavior is very good, (and very poetic), I would disagree with the part about not imparting the ostrich with wisdom. For starters, she can tell her eggs from those of the other females. She knows it is unwise to invest precious resources to raise all the young left in the nest by the other females, (could she and her mate really sucessfully hatch and raise that many chicks without sacrificing their own?). She knows to sit on the eggs during the day, when her dusky feathers serve as the best camoflage, and the male knows to sit on them at night when his black feathers are the best camoflage.

    But, I completely agree with your point that the evidence would appear on the surface that the ostrich doesn’t know what she is doing and doesn’t care for her chicks.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] example for Job and his friends. Indeed, as this article on Naturalis Historia points out, “All together God would appear to be accentuating the characteristics of the ostrich that Job … Combined with the portrayal of it as a foolish or potentially even callous creature, it seems to […]

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  2. […] Source: Consider the Ostrich: Job 39 and God’s Commentary on His Creation – Part I […]

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