The blog of the Dominican student brothers at Blackfriars, Oxford.

Built on the four pillars of our Dominican life – preaching, prayer, study, and community – Godzdogz offers many resources for exploring the Catholic Faith today.
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Biblical Beasts: Leviathan

Thursday, August 04, 2011
The first question I suspect many people will have about a leviathan is, 'What is it?' There is, it must be said, no simple answer to this question. The earliest translation of the Old Testament, the Greek Septuagint, calls it a dragon or serpent, while the Latin Vulgate sometimes follows the Greek, and sometimes leaves the Hebrew name, Leviathan. This was the approach adopted by the translators of the King James version of the Bible, which, with its huge influence on the English language, has given us the word Leviathan.

Photograph by Gianfranco Lanzetti
This doesn't get us an awful lot closer to understanding what one is though. Modern scholars have suggested it might be a crocodile, or perhaps a whale, but in fact we can see a certain significance in leaving the name untranslated. It represents something more than an ordinary animal, since it is clear from the mention of Leviathan in Isaiah 27:1 that this animal has some kind of apocalyptic significance. We could perhaps identify it, for example, with the dragon which features so prominently in the book of Revelation.

In any case, the Leviathan does seem to be some kind of sea creature or, as we might say, sea monster, and this perhaps gives us the most useful key to understanding its significance. In some ancient Near Eastern creation myths, the creation of the world was the result of a battle of the creator god with an ancient and powerful sea monster: it symbolised a power opposed to that of the creator. In the Psalms, though, the Psalmist sings to God of the Leviathan as 'the monster you made to play with' (Psalm 103:26). For the Lord, creation was not the result of some cosmic struggle, but a completely free act of love: thus everything in the world is the object of his delight, even sea monsters, or crocodiles, or, in short, Leviathan.
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Biblical Beasts: Kid

Tuesday, August 02, 2011
There are a surprising number of ways in which kids are used in the Old Testament. You’ve probably all heard of the Passover lamb, but in fact it was also permissible to eat a kid at the Passover. Kids could also be used for burnt offerings, fellowship offerings, and sin offerings.

Amongst the more morally dubious uses for a kid was Jacob’s deception of his blind father Isaac by wearing the skins of kids so that he could receive the blessing that was meant for his brother Esau. Then there’s the rather bizarre story of Judah offering a kid as payment to a prostitute who happened to be his daughter-in-law Tamar. But the really big no-no when it comes to the use of a kid is cooking a kid in its mother’s milk. From this prohibition comes the restriction on Koshar food of not eating meat with dairy products.

It is not entirely clear why there should be such a restriction, but one interesting theory is the claim that an essential part of Judaism was a desire for clear separation and the abhorrence for mixtures. In Hebrew, the word for separation, kadosh, also means holy, and so practices such as not eating a kid in its mother’s milk could be symbolic of Israel’s call to holiness. It’s understandable why this particular combination might be objectionable to Jews. The kid once it had been drained of its blood in preparation to be cooked was very definitely dead, whereas milk was given to a kid to give it life. This was unacceptable to a holy people who were aware of the sharpest separation that existed on God’s earth between the realm of the living and the domain of the dead. But equally we can see why this prohibition should have been lifted under Christianity, for the separation between death and life has now been overcome by Christ’s Passion - holiness is no longer about separation, but about being united in Christ. Read more

Biblical Beasts: Jackal

Sunday, July 31, 2011
For millennia the jackal has played a less than wholesome part in the mythology and literature of the east, near east and Africa. Varying species and subspecies of jackal make this a hard animal to portray accurately, and indeed, this is just the case we face in biblical descriptions. There is, to date, much confusion over when exactly a jackal is being referred to in the bible, particularly given that European translations often substituted instead that much more familiar animal, the fox. It would seem there are three possibilities in Hebrew for the jackal, none exclusive; shû'ãl, 'the digger'; 'íyyîm, 'the howlers'; and tãn, 'the stretcher'. Endearing titles are they not?

So why does the jackal get such a bad press? Well, the wily and cunning nature of the fox is equally applicable to the jackal, indeed the chief difference seems to be that the jackal is a more social animal. It conceals itself by day and issues forth at night, in pairs or larger packs, to prey upon the weak or defenceless creatures it encounters, or to scavenge among the refuse or crops of mankind. The jackal will eat just about anything, but only fight that which it can easily overpower. In the ancient world it was renowned for devouring the dead and dying that lay strewn on the battlefield after dark. “They will be given over to the sword and become food for jackals” (Psalm 63:10).

Spiritually speaking, the jackal represents one whose worldly cunning and indifference to the plight of others, is salient. The jackal waits, and watches, and when the time is opportune and the risk slight, he pounces; his aim is survival – at any cost. Understandable for a beast of the field, but for mankind these are not honourable traits. The jackal therefore arises time and time again in scripture to represent the cunning and duplicity of men; the selfishness of one who prowls unseen by night and hides by day. One whose deeds are hidden, whose motivations remain secret; one who prefers the wastelands that hide ill deeds, and who refuses to live openly in the light.

Well, you can imagine if interviewed a jackal simply saying ‘we have to earn a living somehow’, and quite right. But for us, we should not indulge in cunning or trickery, or band together to prey on the defenceless. We should not strip others of what is rightfully theirs and then seek to hide ourselves away. We should aim that our deeds can be held before others and not seek the cloak of darkness and night. Indeed, remember that; “You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:5).
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Biblical Beasts: Insect

Thursday, July 28, 2011
Three of the ten plagues of Egypt involved insects, a plague of gnats (Exodus 8:16ff), a plague of flies (Exodus 8:20ff), and a plague of locusts (Exodus 10:1ff). On the one hand insects represent something weak, fragile, and easily crushed. On the other hand they represent something mighty and strong, capable of appearing in great numbers and of bringing about great destruction. There are references in the Bible to both aspects, e.g. Isaiah 51:6; Hosea 5:12; Job 4:19 and James 5:2. Read more

Biblical Beasts: Horse

Tuesday, July 26, 2011
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Biblical Beasts: Goat

Sunday, July 24, 2011
Goats do no not have the best reputation. They have come to be associated with the devil and Satanism. Much of the goat's diabolic symbolism is linked to its behaviour. Isidore of Seville describes the goat as "a lascivious animal; it likes to butt heads and is always ready to mate. Because of its lust its eyes are slanted (square pupils). The nature of goats is so hot that their blood can dissolve diamonds". The goat's reputation is also not really helped by Christ's description of the last judgement, where the goats are put to the left and banished to hellfire. Read more

Biblical Beasts: Fox

Thursday, July 21, 2011
My Grandfather grew up on a farm but spent the vast majority of his life living in Manchester. He had very definite views on foxes. Ideally they were to be shot. He regretted the difficulty in executing such a policy in a densely populated urban area. He had some sympathy with those who wanted to hunt foxes for sport. He had no time for anyone who thought of foxes as anything other than vermin.

My grandfather would, then, have approved of the words sung by the bride in the Song of Songs: 'Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vineyard, for the vineyard is in blossom' (Song of Songs 2:15). In the Old Testament, a vineyard is often the symbol of Israel. The people of God are in bloom, the Bridegroom has come. The foxes, the thieves that vandalise this vineyard, must be cleared away so that the vineyard can bear much fruit. The foxes here represent our sins, all we do to resist the Word of God.

In Luke's gospel we again have the behaviour of the fox contrasted with the Kingdom of God. 'Foxes have holes ... but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head' (Luke 9:58). The vulnerable Christ walks in the light, and during his public ministry relies on his creatures for hospitality. The fox, in contrast, comes out to steal what is not his and then hides in the darkness of a hole. Jesus offered his life as a gift, and gave the human beings the great honour of giving him a gift. He accepted and allowed his creatures, those that loved him, to care for him. The fox receives no such gift and is reduced to raiding bin bags for food. Where Jesus built community by giving and receiving, the fox antisocially steals and damages. This is why my Granddad wanted to shoot them. Read more

Biblical Beasts: Eagle

Wednesday, July 20, 2011
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Biblical Beasts: Dove

Tuesday, July 19, 2011
In the last decade it has become rather popular to release doves at funerals. Whilst I personally find this a rather vulgar novelty, it does have some grounding in the funeral practices of early Christians. There are many examples in the Roman Catacombs of sepulchres marked with a dove and the Greek inscription "ΕΙΡΗΝΗ"(peace). This is of course a prayer for the peace of the deceased's soul but throughout the centuries the dove became associated with civil peace. This association with peace is never mentioned explicitly but many references point towards this connotation. Read more

Biblical Beasts: Cow

Thursday, July 14, 2011
The cow is the female of many animals but we usually take the term to refer to the most domesticated of farm animals, the one pictured on the left. She grazes in fields all over the world and supplies most of our milk and meat. When God created the land animals, the 'cattle' get special mention (Genesis 1:24). Again, it need not necessarily refer to what we now understand by that term: many kinds of bison, buffalo, and wildebeeste might be included. Read more
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