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Talking and mythological animals in the Old Testament

And—does Leviticus mention dinosaurs?

Published: 12 May 2013 (GMT+10)

Sometimes Bible translations have words that need further explanation. D.V., Australia, asks: asp

Cockatrices are mentioned in Isaiah 11:8, 14:29, 59:5 and Jeremiah 8:17

My concern is how can I explain these animals to an unbeliever who asks for an answer for the hope that is within me. Are cockatrices a type of dinosaur/dragon maybe or just something misunderstood?

I had difficulty finding the answer from a biblical creationist standpoint; most places online were about skeptics trying to attack the Bible’s credibility. Thank you for your time in this manner. I believe it would be nice to have this information posted for any Christian researching this curious topic.

Lita Cosner responds:

Most modern English translations use the word ‘asp’ to translate the word that you are using ‘cockatrice’ to translate. The Septuagint also uses the Greek word for asp. I’d be more inclined to think that this was the correct meaning, given the context of all of these passages. A child might stick his hand into a snake hole, but a large beast (if it were not mythical) would require a much larger den.

Kitty S., U.S., asks:

I researched your website and other scientific resources but could not find an answer for this: if animals had mental ability to talk in words (a la C.S. Lewis characters), do they have the physical capability—i.e., use of tongue, lips, etc.? For instance, Balaam’s donkey talked—would a donkey be able to do that, or the serpent in the Garden of Eden?

Lita Cosner responds:

I would imagine that the physical apparatus of the vocal cords, etc, would be a bit different depending on what species we’re talking about. For instance, one reason apes have been taught (rudimentary) sign language rather than speech in experiments to try to get them to use language is because their vocal cords are not capable of the range of sounds required for human speech. Humans use lips, teeth, tongue, and larynx to produce a variety of sounds used in speech. But the birds which are capable of very accurately mimicking human speech use the syrinx to produce the sounds (a muscular, Y-shaped structure at the base of the trachea), not their larynx, and their tongue is not involved in making the sounds either. An elephant has figured out how to mimic human speech by placing his trunk in his mouth to modulate the sound, and a beluga whale was recorded mimicking human speech by inflating his air sacs to a much higher pressure than is needed for normal whale vocalizations (this allowed him to vocalize several octaves lower than normal). This shows that even when animals lack the same structures for speech that humans have, sometimes other structures allow for similar vocalizations.

However, in the case of the serpent and Balaam’s donkey, we don’t need to explain what structures were in play when they talked—those are clearly supernatural, unusual events (after all, people knew that snakes and donkeys don’t normally talk!). And note that both the serpent and donkey used language, not simply mimicking human speech—and no animal is able to learn language.

Todd M., U.S. asks:

I was reading Leviticus recently, and I came across the section about clean and unclean animals and which may be eaten. I noticed a specific reference to the ‘great lizard’ in 11:29 [NASB]. I was wondering if this could be a reference to dinosaurs or a specific kind of dinosaur. I did Hebrew word studies and looked at other translations. The King James of 1611 translates it as a tortoise, but tortoises aren’t lizards. The NIV translates it as ‘great lizard’, and the NKJV translates it as ‘large lizard’.

If you could shed any light on this verse, I’d greatly appreciate it. Thanks for your great ministry.

Lita Cosner responds:

Those who claim dinosaurs are found in the Torah usually claim that the word tannin means what we would call a ‘dragon’ or ‘dinosaur’ (I personally would love to see a technical lexical study to try to prove this one way or the other; as it is, I don’t know enough on the subject to give an opinion on that). The word in question here is sab, which can mean ‘tortoise’ or ‘lizard’. The Septuagint translation means roughly “land-dwelling lizard”—the New English Translation of the Septuagint translates it “dry-land crocodile”, but that’s a little stilted; it could simply mean ‘lizard’. There’s a perfectly good Greek word for ‘dragon’ (drakon), so while the Greek translation krokodeilas doesn’t prove Leviticus was referring to plain old lizards, it’s good evidence that’s how the Jews a couple centuries before Christ interpreted it.

I hope this is helpful.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Rabbi Chaim D.
Please allow me to clarify what I wrote. I was referring to the sab of Leviticus, not the tannin. Some other Rabbinic commentators consider the sab to be a type of lizard. Tannin is a word of variable meaning, and is used to refer to the whale, snake, crocodile, leviathan and perhaps other creatures as well.
Kim G.
Im not sure why we would doubt animals spoke to men, Jesus casting out the Demons into the herd of pigs, shows us clearly that demons and Angels are able to posses or communicate through animals just as they do Humans. Satan clearly infiltrated the serpent, an Angel or God himself clearly spoke from within the Donkey, and more than one demon possessed the man to which Jesus cast into the herd of pigs. We have a supernatural God, who created not only man, but supernatural beings to do his will...Remember it was the serpent that spoke, but Satan who was cast out of Heaven for the deed. Its also odd tat Aboriginal Folk law has animals speaking tomen and animals speaking to each other.....maybe at Creation all living creatures and mankind could, and then somewhere along the way God put an end to it for some reason beyond mankinds historical memory, by simply only allowing us to communicate within our own kind.......sounds far fetched, but then aGod in Heaven wouldnt find that difficult
Lita Cosner
If people originally routinely spoke with animals, we would expect to find this somewhere in Scripture, and also an account of God putting an end to this. Genesis tells us in the Babel account that mankind after the Flood had one language, which was confused. This explains where all our human languages come from. Also, it appears that animals don't just lack the capacity for human language, but for any language.

There are a few theories as to what the mechanics were with the serpent that tempted Eve, but a few things: Eve was innocent; she had no reason to be suspicious or fearful of a talking serpent in and of itself (now, when it started contradicting God, that would have been the opportune moment for some suspicion...). It may have looked and/or sounded beautiful, which would have further added to its 'plausibility'.
Don S.
I always find it amazing that people find it impossible to believe in a serpent or donkey that can talk. We have talking TV's, earphones, speakers. Yet nothing here is alive and has voice boxes. Talking is nothing more than sound waves in a particular pattern that can be decoded by humans. Parrots can talk, but no voice box or mind to convey the message. All God has to do to make an animal talk is fashion their breath (spirit) to move the sound waves in such a way as can be understood. Just like we intelligent humans do with inanimate objects like speakers.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Romans 1:20
Rabbi Chaim D.
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki, 1040-1105) and many other Rabbinic commentators explain that the animal in question is the toad. I do not know why some writers associate it with extinct animals.
Phillip C.
The Apostle Peter in the New Testament also confirmed that Balaam's donkey spoke literal words to Balaam, his master. 2 Peter 2:16 says: But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey-a beast without speech-who spoke with a man's voice and restrained the prophet's madness.

If Jesus and the New Testament writers believed the Old Testament stories as true and literal, why shouldn't every Christian believe them as true and literal?

I am currently studying Literary Criticism at a Bible College that advocates theologians who relegate the Old Testament stories as Folk Tales and religious propaganda. But If I'm asked to choose between the Theology of these 'theologians' or the Theology of the New Testament writers, I'm going to have go with the New Testament writers. The NT writers speak the same for the stories of Elijah, Jephthah, Moses and Jonah. They're all taken literally.

Thanks CMI for educating me in the Word of God. I have full confidence in the Bible.
Nancy H.
I saw a cave drawing that dates back to a long time before Christ (to be honest I can't remember the date but it was during BCE) and it showed both men and dinosaurs (and palm trees) in the me this proves that great lizards and men walked the earth together.
Lita Cosner
We do think that artistic representations of dinosaurs (such as in Angkor and on Bishop Bell's tomb) show that dinosaurs and humans coexisted. However, without seeing the authentication for this particular cave painting, I can't affirm (or repudiate, for that matter) it as evidence.
Brian D.
On the first section, if an unbeliever asks this question, they are not looking for an answer to the hope that is in us. They are simply tying to find faults and objections to the Bible. In this case, even if you provided an answer, they wouldn't change their mind or even think about coming to God.
Lita Cosner
Yes, but when skeptics ask these things as an excuse not to believe the Bible, I prefer to take away the excuse.
Joe F.
Thanks much for these responses. The question of unicorns came up this morning in Sunday school, and though I knew the reference was to wild oxen, I didn't have a lot of information. Fortunately, this article also offered a link to Carl Wieland's 2004 explanation of the unicorn. I will pass that along to the person who asked, because this has been thrown at her by internet skeptics. These issues need to be addressed, and many thanks to CMI for doing so.
Caleb L.
I love CMI's articles on dragons and dinosaurs, but I am very disappointed with this article. I am currently doing research on many of these ancient creatures, such as cocatrices, basilisks, and griffins, and I believe there is good reason to believe that these are real creatures: pterosaurs. Their ancient descriptions match that of pterosaurs, and they are always presented as real creatures, so I don't think we should always jump to the conclusion that these are mythological creatures or that it means something else in the biblical text. I think it is a shame that CMI published this article without realizing that the same logic is being used by compromisers in places where the word dragon is used. Also, I disagree with the part about large lizards. Listed along with these lizards is the monitor, which is the largest lizard alive today, so this reference to large lizards wouldn't have made much sense if it wasn't talking about the largest, 'terrible lizards': dinosaurs.
Lita Cosner
The cockatrice/asp question was one of translation—as far back as the second century BC, the LXX translated the Hebrew word in question with the Greek word for 'asp'; even though cockatrices would be mentioned in ancient literature for many hundreds of years.

Furthermore, the cockatrice, from the twelfth century onwards, was said to be born from a chicken's egg incubated by a toad or a snake. Other iterations have it being born from a 'rooster's egg'. It had the ability to kill just by looking at someone. Such a creature is clearly mythical; whether it has its origins in a creature that was historical is something that would have to be proved.

On the other hand, the LXX does use the word drakon. So the LXX translators believed that the OT refers to dragons, but there is no evidence that the believed the same about cockatrices.
Craig M.
Hi Lita, you are so well informed and knowledgeable, your comment about tannin and dragons kind of suprised me. Possibly I misunderstood, but there's a great book you (CMI) offer by Darek Isaacs, that while not a technical lexical study, deals with that issue pretty convincingly. I'm curious if you've read it what you thought of his arguments? Thanks, Craig
Lita Cosner
Thank you for your kind comments. I have read Darek Isaacs's proposed view of tannin, and find it interesting, plausible even. However, I personally would like to see a technical lexical study before drawing any conclusions. It's simply good sense to be skeptical of information that is so favorable to one's own position, if valid, until it is defended in peer-reviewed literature. Creationists are under so much scrutiny that we cannot afford to be lax about our standards for proof, even (especially!) regarding things we hope to be the case.
graham P.
Good replies, Lita.
If the object of critics is to disprove the bible, by asserting that dragons are false (IE mentioned by the bible and non-existent) then those critics must also assert that Pliney, Josephus et al are also false, because dragons are treated as normal animals by most ancient historical scholars.
They must also address the large body of literature, including newspapers from Britain and Australia that deal with huge animals, from the last 200 years. This cherry-picking of obscure OT references reminds me of Jesus' remark about straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.

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