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:
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.