Wednesday, February 22

Lions in Scripture

Lions: the Bible is replete with copious references to them. Lions are used often as a type of symbolism or imagery portraying an aspect of God's character or in prophecies concerning the Messiah. They also are not simply figuratively represented, but also appear in various accounts found in the Bible, such as the infamous account of Daniel and the lion's den as well as the attack of the lion on Samson, one of the Judges. On the evolutionary tree, lions came about through the same kind of animal group which tigers, cats, jaguar, leopards, and others developed from. Some male lions exceed 550 lbs in terms of weight, the second largest cat after the tiger.[1] The lion is classified as a threatened species, and can live around ten to fourteen years in the wild.

Lions were bred by Assyrian kings, and, according to tradition, Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) was with tame lions in India by wealthy landlords.[2] They were used in later Roman times by Roman emperors to participate in gladiator arenas. Pompey, Julius Caesar and others are known to have executed mass amounts of lions at various times.[3] Of Biblical interest, certain names include the "lion." Othniel's (the first of the judges) name can mean "lion of God" or "God is might." Ariel, both the symbolic name for Jerusalem (Isaiah 29:1-2, 7) and a man sent by Ezra (Ezra 8:16) also means "lion of God." Othni, one of the temple porters (temple gate keeper or musician), means "lion of Jehovah" (1st Chronicles 26:7). Arioch, a king of Ellasar (Genesis 14:1, 9) and Arioch, captain of King Nebuchadnezzar's guard (Daniel 2:14-15, 24-25), means "lion-like" or "venerable." Other examples are Ara (1st Chronicles 7:38), meaning "a lion" or "congregation," Arieh (2nd Kings 15:25) meaning "the lion," Laish (Joshua 11:5; Isaiah 10:30; 1st Samuel 25:44) also means "a lion," and Nergal (2nd Kings 17:30), one of the Assyrian and Babylonian gods - the god of war and hunting - meaning, "the great dog; that is, lion." The tribe of Judah was also symbolized by a lion (Genesis 49:9).

A male Asiatic lion (credit: Gangasudhan)
Perhaps one of the more infamous Biblical accounts of lions is the account of Daniel and the lion's den. Written by the prophet Daniel c.537 BC, Daniel 6 records said account. Darius had appointed 120 satraps (ساتراپ - a Persian governor of a province) to rule the kingdom, with three administrators appointed over them. One of these three was Daniel. In antiquity, Daniel was renown for his wisdom (Ezekiel 28:3), evidenced also in an early form of the scientific method utilized by Daniel to test his hypothesis concerning food and drink (Daniel 1:8-16). It seems that Darius had planned to appoint Daniel over all of the kingdom (6:3), which certainly did not please the administrators and the satraps. They attempted to find something to charge Daniel with, but could find nothing against him. A classic example of a hunger for power, the satraps and administrators went to Darius and persuaded him to issue an edict (a decree) and enforce the decree "that anyone who prays to any god or human being during the next thirty days [except the king], shall be thrown in the lions' den... in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed" (6:7-8). Daniel, however, upon learning of the decree, persisted in his daily prayers. Thrice each day, Daniel "went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem" (6:10).

When the administrators and satraps found Daniel praying and kneeling, they went to Darius and spoke with him, deceptively inquiring about the veracity of his decree concerning prayer and its effects. The king agrees that he did, and the men reveal that Daniel had broken this command. "When the king heard this, he was greatly distressed; he was determined to rescue Daniel and made every effort until sundown to save him" (6:14). It was, however, under Persian law, an unchangeable situation. The order was given, and Daniel was thrown into the lion's den. Some critics have challenged the notion that the "law of the Medes and Persians" could not be changed (cf. Esther 1:19, 8:8). However, Diodorus Siculus (17:30) reported that Darius III (336-330 BC) had an innocent men executed because he could not change what was decreed under royal authority. In the Biblical text, Darius (a different figure, possibly a governor of Babylon or Cyrus himself) could not sleep that evening, and would not eat or be entertained. At dawn, Darius went to the lions' den to determine the fate of his servant, Daniel, calling out to Daniel in anguish. "Then Daniel spoke with the king: 'May the king live forever. My God has sent His angel and shut the lions' mouths. They also haven't hurt me, for I was found innocent before Him. Also, I have not committed a crime against you my king'" (6:22).

As a result, Daniel is brought up out of the lions' den, uninjured. "The king then gave the command, and those men who had maliciously accused Daniel were brought and thrown into the lions' den, along with their wives and children. They had not reached the bottom of the den before the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones" (6:24). The decree of Darius is one which we ought to adhere to, "For he is the living God and He endures forever; His kingdom will not be destroyed, His dominion will never end" (6:26). Daniel (Hebrew: דָּנִיּאֵל - Daniyyel) had faith in God, such faith that God "shut the mouths of lions" (Hebrews 11:33). Another instance of an encounter with lions in Scripture is that of a young King David. Displaying incredible faith, while conversing with King Saul about going up against the giant Goliath, David replied, "Your servant has been keeping his father's sheep. When a lion or bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine" (1st Samuel 17:34-37).

It is noteworthy that "The lion of Palestine was properly of the Asiatic variety, distinguished from the African variety, which is larger. Yet it not only attacked flocks in the presence of the shepherd, but also laid waste towns and villages (2 Kings 17:25-26) and devoured men (1 Kings 13:24-25). Shepherds sometimes, single-handed, encountered lions and slew them (1 Sam. 17:34-35; Amos 3:12).... The strength (Judg. 14:18), courage (2 Sam. 17:10), and ferocity (Gen. 49:9) of the lion were proverbial. Although not now found in Palestine, they must have been in ancient times very numerous there. They had their lairs in the forests (Jer. 5:6; 12:8; Amos 3:4), in the caves of the mountains (Song of Songs 4:8; Nah. 2:12), and in the canebrakes on the banks of the Jordan (Jer. 49:19; 50:44; Zech. 11:3)."[4] Evidently, there are also different words used in the Hebrew Bible to describe a lion. "1. Gor (i.e., a “suckling”), the lion's whelp (Gen. 49:9; Jer. 51:38, etc.). 2. Kephir (i.e., “shaggy”), the young lion (Judg. 14:5; Job 4:10; Ps. 91:13; 104:21), a term which is also used figuratively of cruel enemies (Ps. 34:10; 35:17; 58:6; Jer. 2:15). 3. 'Ari (i.e., the “puller” in pieces), denoting the lion in general, without reference to age or sex (Num. 23:24; 2 Sam. 17:10, etc.). 4. Shahal (the “roarer”), the mature lion (Job 4:10; Ps. 91:13; Prov. 26:13; Hos. 5:14). 5. Laish, so called from its strength and bravery (Job 4:11; Prov. 30:30; Isa. 30:6). The capital of northern Dan received its name from this word. 6. Labi, from a root meaning “to roar,” a grown lion or lioness (Gen. 49:9; Num. 23:24; 24:9; Ezek. 19:2; Nah. 2:11)."[5]

Another curious textual appearance of the lion is found in 1st Kings 13, probably written around 550 BC by Jeremiah. It details the account of a man of God who "came from Judah to Bethel" (13:1). After conducting certain business with the king, the man of God proceeded to return, but took a different way than the way which he had originally come. An old prophet living in Bethel heard what had occurred, and had his sons saddle a donkey for him. Upon finding the man, the old prophet lied to the man of God, telling him that "'An angel said to me by the word of the LORD: 'Bring him back with you to your house so that he may eat bread and water.'' (But he was lying to him.)" (13:18). As a result, the man followed the old prophet to his abode. The word of the LORD came to the old prophet, who relayed the message to the man of God concerning disobeying God's direct command not to eat bread or drink water or return the way he had come (13:17, 20-22). After the man of God had finished eating, his donkey was saddled, and "As he went on his way, a lion met him on the road and killed him, and his body was left lying on the road, with both the donkey and the lion standing beside it. Some people who passed by saw the body lying there, with the lion standing beside the body, and they went and reported it in the city where the old prophet lived" (13:24-25). When the old prophet heard of this, his sons saddled his donkey for him, and "Then he went out and found the body lying on the road, with the donkey and the lion standing beside it. The lion had neither eaten the body nor mauled the donkey" (13:28) so the prophet had the man of God's body buried and laid in his own tomb.

Harkening back to King David, even prior to David and the incident with the man of God, we have an earlier account - involving Samson the judge. Samson, a Danite, was renowned for his incredible strength and myriad of feats. Once, "Samson went down to Timnah together with his father and mother. As they approached the vineyards of Timnah, suddenly a young lion came roaring toward him. The Spirit of the LORD [God the Spirit] came on him in power so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat. But he told neither his father nor his mother what he had done... Some time later, when he went back to the marry [a young Philistine woman], he turned aside to look at the lion's carcass, and in it he saw a swarm of bees and some honey. He scooped out the honey with his hands and ate as he went along. When he rejoined his parents, he gave them some, and they ate it. But he did not tell them that he had taken the honey from the lion's carcass" (Judges 14:5-6, 8-9). At the wedding feast, Samson gave his audience a riddle. After some persuasion, he explains the riddle to his wife, who "in turn explained the riddle to her people" (14:17). The riddle concerned the honey and the lion, and the guests gave the answer to the riddle, which seemingly did not make Samson very pleased (14:19-20).

Some have noted the similarities between this instance in the life of Samson and a particular feat accomplished by the Greek hero, Heracles (better known in his Roman form as Hercules). Hercules was the offspring of the god Zeus and a mortal woman named Alcmene, and foster son of Amphitryon, the Theban general. In Greek myth, Hera, the goddess wife (and sister) of Zeus, grew jealous of the sexual escapades of Zeus. Although he and Hera were essentially husband and wife, Zeus had a lust for women - typically whatever woman he saw, he had a child with in one form or another, sometimes disguising himself as someone (or something) else. As a result of this growing jealousy, culminating in a sense with driving Hercules mad, so that he killed his wife and children, Hera proceeded to send Hercules on a series of twelve labors (interestingly, one bears resemblance to the Garden of Eden, and may be part of the reason - aside from the Vulgate - why the misconception that the fruit in Eden was an apple may have arisen from). Not all writers have the same order of the twelve labors, but Apollodorus (2.5.1-2.5.12), a Greek scholar and grammarian, gives the first labor as the killing of the Nemean lion.

Tribe of Judah emblem (Public domain)
The Nemean lion (Λέων της Νεμέας - Léōn tēs Neméas) was a monster in Greek myth that resided in Nemea, which is today part of the prefecture of Korinthia (or Corinthia). In the myth, mortals could not would the beast, as its golden fur was immune to their attacks. According to Apollodorus (Library 2.5.1), the Nemean lion was the offspring of Typhon (who is the "father of monsters" in Greek myths, such as the Hydra and Cerberus), but according to Hesiod, a Greek oral prophet, the lion was considered the offspring of Orthrus (Theogony 327). It has been posited (especially in apologetics) that Hercules/Heracles is based off of the historical figure seen in the biblical book of Judges - Samson, son of Manoah. One of Hercules' labors was to defeat a lion, and Samson also defeated a lion with his strength. However, lions are not common in Greece. The inhuman strength of Heracles is also reflected in the historical Samson. Hercules may have been a legend based off of Samson (a legend is generally a story rooted in some sort of historical basis). Either way, the account of Samson is a very fascinating one. Yet another reference to lions is found in the infamous passages about the lion in the future kingdom of God.

Isaiah 11:6-7 states that "The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox." The other relevant passage often cited is Isaiah 65:25, "'The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent's food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,' says the LORD." These passages seem to be, taken in context as well as with other supporting scriptural references, referring to a kind of Edenic paradise where creatures such as lions, well known as carnivores, revert back to the Edenic (pre-Fall) nature of eating plants (cf. Genesis 1:29-30). Many biblical scholars believe that this is intended to occur during the future kingdom of God (Zechariah 14; Revelation 20, etc.). Lastly, the well-known use of the title of Jesus, the "Lion of Judah." As mentioned earlier in the article, when Jacob was blessing his son, Judah, he referred to him as a "young lion" (Genesis 49:9; Gur Aryeh גּוּר אַרְיֵה יְהוּדָה), where the Lion later comes to represent Christ.

In John's letter from Patmos (written c.AD 95), we read, "Then one of the elders said to me, 'Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe o Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals" (Revelation 5:5). In the fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia, written by author and apologist C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), a lion named Aslan (the King of Beasts and son of the Emperor Over the Sea) represents Jesus Christ as he would be in a fantasy world. Various traits of Jesus can clearly be seen in Aslan throughout the series. The name itself, Aslan, is the Turkish word for "lion." Therefore, while this is certainly not an exhaustive investigation or in-depth examination of the use of lions in the proverbial and historical sense in Scripture, a general overview (as intended) allows for further research on the part of the reader, if wished. It is fascinating to see the way in which God's Word portrays different people, places and things through the use of symbolism in imagery, particularly when it comes to lions in Scripture.

The Truth Ministries would like to thank you for taking the time to read this article of "The Truth." Feel free to email us at or, visit our facebook page, or visit our ministry website.  It is the mission of this ministry to "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2nd Corinthians 10:5). We understand that many will disagree with our position, our claims and our ministry, and we recognize the individual's right to believe what he or she wills, and that some will disagree on our position regarding this particular topic. However, understand that we stand firm upon the Bible as God's Word, which we believe to be historically accurate and reliable, and hold to research which was based on what His Word tells us, through a Biblical worldview. Take care, and God bless you reader. Troy Hillman

[1] Nowak, Ronald M. Walker's Mammals of the World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
[2] Smith, Vincent Arthur. The Early History of India. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924. 97. Print.
[3] Wiedemann, Thomas. Emperors and Gladiators. Routledge, 1995. 60. Print.
[4] "Lions." WebBible Encyclopedia. Christian Answers Network, n.d. Web. 10 Feb 2012.
[5] Ibid.