Barry Newman's Blog

November 13, 2012

The Parable of the Mustard Seed (part VII)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The parable of the Mustard Seed — barrynewman @ 9:25 pm

The Birds of the Air

Some detailed attention will be given to “birds” and the phrase, “the birds of the air” as they are found in the Old and New Testaments for reasons which should become apparent towards the end of this section and in later sections. One of the issues being dealt with is whether or not the birds in the parable that Jesus told are to be associated with something evil.  There is a view that that they are to be so considered.

The phrase, “the birds of the air” is found a number of times in both the Old and New Testaments. It may be that the term “of the air” is a way of distinguishing flying birds from non – flying birds but it is not at all clear that that is the way the term is used in the Scriptures.  In Genesis, for example, “birds of the air” is quite likely a phrase referring to birds in general.

In the Old Testament, the literal reference is to “the birds of the heavens” The most common Hebrew word for “bird” there is “<op” and it occurs as part of the phrase “the birds of the air” almost 40 times: Genesis 1: 26, 28, 30; 2: 19, 20; 6: 7; 7: 3, 23; 9: 2; Deuteronomy 28: 26; 1 Samuel 17: 44, 46; 2 Samuel 21: 10; 1 Kings 14: 11; 16: 4; 21: 24; Job 12: 7; 28: 21; 35: 11; Psalm79: 2; 104: 12; Ecclesiastes 10: 20; Jeremiah 4: 25; 7: 33; 9: 10; 15: 3; 16: 4; 19: 7; 34: 20; Ezekiel 29: 5; 31: 6, 13; 32: 4; 38: 20; Hosea 2: 18; 4: 3; 7: 12; Zephaniah 1: 3.  There is another Hebrew word for bird, “tsippor”, possibly meaning in some contexts, “small birds” or “hopping birds “but the distinction, if any, to be made between “<op” and “tsippor” is unclear. There are three instances where “tsippor” occurs as part of the phrase “birds of the air”: Psalm 8: 8 and Daniel 4: 12, 21.  There are of course, many references to “birds” in the Old Testament without any reference being made to “the heavens”.

In the New Testament, the literal reference is to “the birds of the heaven”. The most common Greek word for “bird” there is “peteinos” and that is the word used in the parable of the mustard seed.  Of its 14 occurrences, nine are found in the form, “the birds of the air”.  Matthew 6: 26; 8: 20; 13: 32; Mark 4: 32; Luke 8: 5; 9: 58; 13: 19; Acts 10: 12; 11; 6.  There are two other words, translated “birds” in the New Testament.  They are: “ptenos” which occurs once (1 Corinthians 15: 39) and “orneon” which occurs three times (Revelation: 18: 2; 19: 17, 21). Neither “ptenos” nor “orneon” occurs as part of a phrase “birds of the air”.

About thirteen texts in the Old Testament make reference to “the birds of the air”, the birds being birds of prey: 1 Samuel 17: 44, 46; 1 Kings 14: 11; 16: 4; 21: 24; Psalm 79: 2; Jeremiah 15: 3; 16: 4; 19: 7; 34: 20; Ezekiel 29: 5; 31: 13; 32: 4. In the New Testament there are two references to “the birds of the air” where the birds are described as unclean: Acts 10: 12, 11: 6. These are “the birds of the air” that Peter sees in a vision. The word “orneon” is used in Revelation18: 20 to refer to unclean birds and in Revelation 19: 17 and 21 to refer to birds of prey. In Leviticus 11: 13 – 19, there is a list of birds to be regarded as “unclean”.  However it is clear from this list that not all birds are unclean. Texts such as Genesis 8: 20; Leviticus 17: 13; 20: 25, where the word is “<op” and Deuteronomy 14: 11; Leviticus 14: 4, 49 where the word is “tsippor” also make it clear that not all birds are to be regarded as unclean. Most references to “the birds of the air” in the Old and New Testaments depict the birds as neither birds of prey nor unclean.

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