Of the hundreds of different animals named in the Bible, the cat lovers among us might be disturbed to find that there is no mention of their beloved companion/house-guest in the Bible.
Were there no cats in biblical Israel?
Confidently identifying the presence of the domestic cat (Felis Silvestris catus), rather than its ‘wild,’ untamed cousins in any ancient setting is difficult. The process of domestication, for most animals, creates certain stresses that result in morphological changes; for example, there is often a reduction in size (see Clutton-Brock, 1981: 21-22; Borowski, 1998: 24-27). Consequently, identifying changes like these can make it possible to distinguish between domestic and wild strains. However, cats tend (at least initially*) to lack such clear markers of domestication. One reason for this might be due to their rather aloof demeanour that often characterises their relationships with humans. Borowski (1998:144) argues that this meant that humans could not so easily control their breeding as they could with other animals. The process of domestication could therefore have emerged from the development of a negotiated collaborative/symbiotic relationship between cats and humans rather than selective breeding (see Driscoll et al., 2009; Russell, 2012: 217). This general lack of evidence for a human-controlled breeding regime creates problems when trying to identify between domestic and wild cats. Current thinking suggests that feline domestication – or the forming of a relationship between human and felines – occurred roughly 5-6000 years ago. Although a recent study by Andrew Kitchener of an apparent burial of a cat with its owner in Cyprus has pushed that date back to about 9000 years (see below). Nevertheless, whether wild or domesticated, zooarcheological evidence shows that cats were living in the ancient Levant at the time of biblical Israel; for example, remains of cats were found during excavations of Neolithic Jericho, ca. 7000 BCE (Borowski, 1998:114). If cats were present in biblical Israel, why then is there this silence about them in biblical writings?
The cats of Egypt
The lack of feline representation in Israelite literature is even more striking when one looks to Israel’s near neighbour, Egypt. Here, the sheer volume of artefacts relating to, or featuring, cats attests to their social and religious importance. Cats are featured in statuary, papyri, funerary art and paintings. In fact, so many thousands of cats were mummified that, in the late 19th century, they were being exported to the UK to be ground for agricultural fertilizer. Clutton-Brock (1981:110) observes that a cat skull exhibited in the British Museum was the sole survivor of a single shipment of mummified cats that weighed nineteen tons!
A recent article in the Journal of Archaeological Science argues that the ‘cultural control’ of cats in Egypt can be dated to the 4th Millenium BCE (Naqada IC-IIB period, ca. 3800–3600 BC). Borowski (1998:114-115) notes that, by the time of the New Kingdom (1540-1075 BCE), the number of pieces of art and objects featuring cats becomes ‘overwhelming.’
Cats were particularly suited to the ecology of Egypt and were ideally placed to become an invaluable resource for those working the land. The fertile flood plains beside the Nile produced abundant harvests making Egypt very wealthy (and powerful) as the ‘bread basket of the world’. Grain silos attracted rats, mice and snakes, which, uncontrolled, threatened local and national economies. Although the first interactions between people and the ancestors of the domestic cat were probably for the exploitation of their meat and their pelts (see Reitz and Wing, 1991: 271; also Russell, 2012: 38), the hunting prowess of the cat provided a much needed resource to the harassed farmers and administrators. In the manner of farmers today (including a couple of my near neighbours and their use of feral cats), it would therefore be not at all surprising if they encouraged the semi-socialised cats to remain on site as unofficial security guards. It has also been suggested that the cat’s seemingly natural hostility to snakes may have been the initial reason for its domestication/socialisation in Egypt. Certainly this association can be seen to be expressed within some of its religious narratives. It is in the form of the cat (Mau) that the great sun god Ra battles and defeats Apep, the monstrous snake who is the god of evil and chaos in the seventh chapter of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (fig.1).
“I am the cat [Mau], who fought hard by the Persea tree in Annu on the night when the foes of Nebertcher [a form of Osiris] were destroyed”, the male cat is Ra himself and he is called “Mau” because of the words of the god Sa, who said about him, “who is like [mau] unto him?” and thus his name became “Mau” [cat]. ”
Cats also became associated with other divine figures, perhaps, the best known of which is the goddess Bast (or Bastet).
The use of animals, particularly cats, as votive gifts helps to explain the numbers of mummified animals we find, and is also suggestive of an emotional attachment that the Egyptians had with this creature. The Egyptians’ love for their cats was well known to the ancient historians – although we need to treat their accounts with a certain amount of caution. Herodotus ( II: 66-67) describes the funerary processes, including embalmation, following the natural death of a cat [dog lover’s will be pleased to note that canines are also included!]. Furthermore, they were legally protected. Diodorus Siculus (1st cent BCE) writes that even the unintentional killing of a cat was a capital offence:
“Whoever kills a cat in Egypt is condemned to death, whether he committed this crime deliberately or not. The people gather and kill him. An unfortunate Roman, who accidentally killed a cat, could not be saved, either by King Ptolemy of Egypt or by the fear which Rome inspired.
Such was the Egyptian’s veneration for the cat they became , that Polyaenus (Stratagems VII:9) provides an account of the Battle of Pelusium in 525 BCE, between Pharaoh Psametik III and the Persian leader Cambyses II in which cats played a strategic role. Polyaenus writes that, aware of the reverence with which the Egyptians held the cat, Cambyses ordered that images of the cat-god Bastet be painted on his soldiers’ shields. Furthermore, he placed before his front-line all those animals, including cats, that he knew the Egyptians held dear. Fearing to injure the animals the Egyptian army took flight and was massacred. After the battle, it is reported that the cats were thrown into the faces of the defeated Egyptians by Cambyses, disgusted that a nation should surrender to ensure the safety of animals.
It is appreciated that veneration or reverence is not the same as the close relational bond between an owner and their pet. However, the stone sarcophagus of Ta-Muit, the cat owned by crown prince Thutmose (brother of the celebrated ‘heretic’ Pharoah Akhenaten), offers a possible glimpse of this bond that seems to be hinted at in Herodotus’ reference to cat burials (fig.2) . Numerous depictions in funerary art of cats in domestic settings, often under the owner’s chair, also suggests a more than simply utilitarian feline-human relationship.
The cat…or dog to the north
Cat related artefacts and osteological evidence are much sparser to the norther of Israel; although larger felines (like leopard and cheetah) are quite often artistically depicted in Mesopotamian art (Borowski, 1998:145 and 147). Nevertheless, this should not be interpreted as indicating their absence or lack of social importance in this region. In fact, genetic analysis points to domestic cats all having descended from (at least) five founder cats from the fertile crescent (see Driscoll, et.al. 2007). The Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) site at Parekklisha-Shillourokambos, just outside Limassol, on the island of Cyprus, yielded the earliest discovery of a nine month old ‘domestic’ cat interred within its own burial pit facing, presumably, its owner.
Although there is a lack of evidence for a native population species, remains of cats have been found in a number of other burial sites on Cyprus (PPNB and later). This has led to suggestions that domestic (or semi-domestic) cats were brought to the island by boat roughly 9,500 BCE. The discovery of such early interment of cats is highly suggestive of a close bond – however, paucity of supporting evidence means that, for the moment, this practice remains frustratingly shrouded in mystery.
Caution must be exercised against reading too much into the Parekklisha-Shillourokambos find. Even if it does indicate a ritual or even relational bond (as with a pet), this practice appears to be a rarity. Furthermore, any attitudes of reverence or sentimentality towards the cat does not seem to be shared by its neighbours. Foltz (2010:372) notes that, within Zoroastrianism, in contrast to that of Islam where “the hadiths indicated that the prophet Muhammad was a ‘cat person'”, cats were generally viewed negatively. Schwartz (2014) argues that they were even considered as khrafstra. This was a term given to pests and vermin that, despite the general aversion to killing, were legally (and ritually) allowed to be killed (see Foltz, 2010: 371).
For a short while cat lovers could take comfort from the discovery of an artefact uncovered at Nimrud (Assyria) in the 1950s (fig. 3). The, admittedly ambiguous, feline shaped bronze figurine (ND 2183) was excavated from a well in the North West Palace of king Assurnasirpal II. Numerous Assyrian dog figurines (five of which were discovered alongside ND 2183) have been found and their locations (‘findspots’) (at entrances and under doorways) as well as their names (‘Catcher of the enemy’, ‘Biter of the foe‘) indicate that they functioned as protective figurines. If ND 2183 was a cat, it would suggest that it shared a ritualistic function alongside the dog. Unfortunately, particularly in the light of the protective/guarding duties associated with these figures, its identity as a cat is now viewed as being highly unlikely.
The cat in Israel
The absence of Israelite literary and artefact representations of cats would suggest that its attitude to them more closely reflects that found in their north-eastern neighbours rather than those to the south (Egypt). Evidence for the presence of cats in this region is attested by zooarcheological data. Clutton-Brock (1981: 111) reports that felid remains, dating to around 7000 BCE, have been excavated from Pre-Pottery Neolithic Jericho (as well as at other prehistoric sites) and argues that this would indicate, at least, some form of human-cat interrelationship. Borowski (1998: 145) also notes that the remains of six small cats were found at the Iron Age II site at Ashdod.
And yet the biblical texts make no mention of them. The closest we can get is a very brief reference in the satirical, deuterocanonical (apocryphal) text of the Letter of Jeremiah 6:22 (also called Baruch 6). That states:
Bats, swallows, and birds alight on their bodies and heads; and so do cats.
Letter of Jeremiah (Baruch) 6:22 (RSV)
The problem that this texts poses is that, although most experts believe it was originally written in Hebrew, we only have the Greek text of it. It contains a number of apparent mistranslations of Hebrew which creates its, at times, rather confusing language.** Added to uncertainties arising from translation, problems identifying Hebrew words denoting animals with actual species has beset the translator and Bible (Jewish and Christian) scholar for centuries. This is made even more complicated by the way in which animal taxonomy developed within antiquity which is often at odds with the Linaean classification used by the modern West (for a very good discussion of ancient Jewish classification of animals and the challenges it raises, see Slifkin (2015:9-20). This is illustrated by two fairly recent cat related posts on the (always informative) Remnant of Giants blog, where Deane Galbraith speculates about the possible feline character of לִילִית – Are there cats in the Bible? and Biblical cats again.
Cats in post-biblical Jewish literature: good or bad?
It is only with the emergence of Talmudic Judaism that we begin to get references to the cat in the Mishnah. However, even here, cat lovers do not get much joy. Cats are attributed with having poor memories (even leading to atheism as in some older traditions that read adonai – ‘master’ – as ‘God’) due to their diet.
The students of Rabbi Elazar asked him: For what reason does a dog recognize its master, while a cat does not recognize its master? Rabbi Elazar said to them: If it is established that with regard to one who eats from that which a mouse eats, eating that item causes him to forget, with regard to the cat, who eats the mouse itself, all the more so does eating it cause it to forget.
Babylonian Talmud. Horayoth 13a (Sefaria)
Part of the problem appears to have been the indiscriminate manner in which cats worked. Not only did they kill off pests and vermin, they also tended to kill off anything else they could find (including hens); see Chullin 52b.
The cat as predator also makes an appearance in the Perek Shirah. This (circa) 10th century Jewish hymn of creation comprises 84 individual ‘songs’ that are drawn from the Tanakh which are attributed to natural elements or creatures. Uniquely, the cat’s hymn is actually a duet, performed with the mouse.
The Cat is saying,
“If you rise up like a vulture, and place your nest among the stars,
from there I shall bring you down, says YHVH.” [Obadiah 1:4]
And the Mouse says,
“I shall exalt you, YHVH, for you have impoverished me,
and you have not let my enemies rejoice over me.” [Ps 30:2]
And when the cat catches it, the cat says,
“I have pursued my enemies and overtaken them,
and I did not return until they were destroyed.” [Ps 18:38]
And the Mouse concedes,
“You are just for all that comes upon me,
for you have acted truthfully, and I have been wicked. [Neh 9:33]
Perek Shirah 5
It is perhaps telling to note that Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s (2009), normally, knowledgeable and informed commentary on this text is fairly silent on the place of the cat within Jewish tradition, focusing instead on the experience of the mouse.
The Perek Shirah attempts to make no judgement on the morality of the cat’s (or for that matter the mouse’s) actions; it just records the natural behaviours.
Similarly, Rabbi Yohanan said: Even if the Torah had not been given, we would nonetheless have learned modesty from the cat, which covers its excrement
Eruvin 100b (Sefaria)
If cats had no place within the culture of ancient Israel, this appears to be far from the case today. Rabbi and cat lover Yonassan Gershom, in his blog Notes from a Jewish Thoreau, argues that this apparent antipathy between Jews and cats began to dissipate from the medieval times onward. Gershom argues that the custom of exploiting cats to control rat populations meant that Jewish communities tended to be less devastated by plague than their Christian counterparts. Furthermore, Jewish communities often began to keep cats to protect their parchment scripture scrolls from rats. This gave rise to the tradition that is still maintained in a number of synagogues today of the Shul Katze or synagogue cat. Gershom observes that, “generally speaking, Jewish attitudes toward cats are more positive than toward dogs” and points to a couple of popular children’s books featuring cats.
Why a cat-less Bible?
So why is there this apparent lack of cats in the writings and culture of ancient Israel (and further north) and why the silence? The most common explanation for the omission of the cat within Hebrew biblical texts is that it was a reaction by monotheistic Israel against the Egyptian practice of worshipping cats (or gods that were fashioned in the form of cats). However, this does not make much sense. Felidmorphic deities were a relatively small part of Egyptian life and culture, and the use of the form of dogs for gods like Anubis (or in fact many other animals) did not prohibit multiple references to dogs (or other animals) in biblical texts – although it could be argued that the LXX translators had certain qualms with references that equated the sun too closely with YHWH (see earlier post: Verse of the Month: Psalm 84:11a “For the LORD God is a sun and shield” ). Furthermore, if the dangers of cat-worship posed such a threat, it would likely generate more references than less – see for example the multiple warnings against devotion to Asherah.
It also does not explain the similar lack of zooarchaeological data and cat-related artefacts from the Mesopotamian regions to the north where such strictures on worship were not so prescribed. It is possible, that the Hebrew writes were more informed by Persian attitudes to cat rather than concerns about how cats were portrayed within Egypt. Joshua Schwartz plausibly suggests that Persian attitudes, particularly those relating to the cat as khrafstra informed the way they were viewed in Israel. There is a lot of merit in this. Persian Era Judaism, marking the beginning of the second temple period, had a fundamental influence on the religious and cultural expressions that we find in many of Hebrew biblical texts today. However, it does not completely explain why cats are ignored while other, supposedly, pariah creatures are named (for example, dog, hyena, vulture/eagle, etc.). Schwartz also notes that attempts to keep cats as predators to guard grain stores against vermin might have been problematic. As later rabbinic tradition records, cats can make fairly indiscriminate guards and are prone to cull poultry with as much enthusiasm as they do mice, rats and snakes.
The relative difficulty in tame/socialising the cat (in comparison to the dog), a species that also posed serious ritual issues by its diet, may have added to a reluctance in the domestic utilisation of cats. If this is the case, one would expect that, although Cats were present in Israel, their numbers would not be as high as an area in which they were exploited. Additionally, their tendency to live solitary lives and general preference to avoid human activity, their visibility would be much lower than animals that form packs like dogs – thereby posing more immediate concern to the local community.
* Domestic cats today tend to have a shortened skull compared to their wilder relatives. This becomes evident from around 4th century CE; see Donalson, M. D. (1999) The Domestic Cat in Roman Civilization. Leiwston: Edwin Mellen Press.
**For a brief and clear introduction to this text see pages 35-370 of Nickelsburg, G.W.E (2005) Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah: A historical and literary introduction. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Borowski, O. (1998) Every living Thing: Daily use of animals in Ancient Israel. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.
Clutton-Brock, J. (1981) Domesticated Animal from Early Times. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Donalson, M. D. (1999) The Domestic Cat in Roman Civilization. Leiwston: Edwin Mellen Press.
Driscoll, C.A., Menotti-Raymond, M., Roca, A.L., Hupe, K., Johnson, W.E., Geffen, E., Harley, E.H., Delibes, M., Pontier, D., Kitchener, A.C., Amaguchi, N., O’Brien, S.J., and Macdonald, D.W. (2007) ‘Near eastern origin of cat domestication‘. Science. 317(5837) pp. 519-523.
Driscoll, C.A., MacDonald, D.W. and O’Brien, S.J. (2009) ‘From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication‘.
Foltz, R. (2010) ‘Zoroastrian Attitudes toward Animals‘. Society and Animals. 18 (2010). 367-37
Linseele, V., van Neer, W., and Hendrickx, (2007) ‘Evidence for early cat taming in Egypt‘. Journal of Archaeological Science. 34(12). pp.2081-2090
Linseele V., van Neer W, and Hendrickx S. (2008) ‘Early cat taming in Egypt: a correction’. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(9) pp.2672-2673.
van Neer, W., Linseele, V., Friedman, R. and Cupere, B, de. (2014) ‘More evidence for cat taming at the Predynastic elite cemetery of Hierakonpolis (Upper Egypt)‘. Journal of Archaeological Science. 45 (May). pp 103-111.
Nickelsburg, G.W.E. (2005) Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah: A historical and literary introduction. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Reitz, E.J. and Wing, E.S. (1999) Zooarchaeology. Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Russell, N. (2012) Social Zooarcheaology: Humans and animals in prehistory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Slifkin, N. (2009) Perek Shirah: Nature’s Song. 2nd edn. Jerusalem/Brooklyn: Zoo Torah.
Slifkin, N. (2015) The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. Volume One: Chayot/Wild Animals. Jerusalem/New York: The Biblical Museum of Natural History.