Sparrow – Day 16 of 30 Days [Biblically] Wild

Sparrow – צִפּוֹר (tsippor), στρουθίον (strouthion)  

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). Image: Miguel de la Bastide. Source: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/House_Sparrow/overview

Once more we turn our gaze upwards to, what Richard Jefferies (1885) described as ‘nature on the roof’* as we look at the ubiquitous sparrow.

The cheeky sparrow

Although the rook will forever be my ‘favourite’ among birds, I have to confess to an utter delight when it comes to sparrows. Their sheer energy and collective vibrancy as you walk past a suburban bush and it erupts with a whirling chaos of chirps and cheeps! If find their wonderful chattering antics around the bird feeders as they squabble and bicker, like a bunch of adolescent monkeys, or dust-bathing at the kerbside of a local road, totally engrossing and entertaining.

LBJs in the Bible

For most habitats favoured by humans, the sparrow is a common and familiar figure. Tristram (1898) states:

Our common House sparrow is found on the coast in the towns, and inland its place is taken by a very closely-allied species, Passer ciaspina and especially by Passer salicarius [now hispaniolensis] , the Spanish Sparrow, which breeds in countless myriads in the thorn-trees of the Jordan valley until I have seen the branches borne down by the weight of the nests.

Tristram (1898:202-203)
Male Spanish Sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis) in Laerru, Sardinia, Italy. Image: Francesco Canu. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_sparrow#/media/File:Passer_Hispaniolensis_Male.JPG

The ancient writers do not appear to share the modern preoccupation with identifying precise species (and sub-species!). Both the Hebrew צִפּוֹר (tsippor) and the Greek στρουθίον (strouthion) are generic terms that can refer to any small songbird.

The (modern) Hebrew for sparrow is דרור בית. The United Bible Societies (1980:77) not that the Hebrew, tsippor, is derived from a root meaning “to cheep or whistle” (see also, France, 1986:140). Slifkin (2009:230) also points out that it might also relate to the word tsafra, ‘morning’, and the association with song birds with the dawn chorus. The New Testament occurrences both use the Greek στρουθός (strouthos) in its diminutive form, strouthion. Therefore, either ‘little sparrow’ or ‘little bird’ would be appropriate. Consequently, we cannot be totally certain to what actual species of bird these passages refer, other than small song birds. Slifkin (ibid) calculates that tsippor could refer to any of the more than 5,800 species (if not more)! Perhaps we are encountering the biblical equivalent for the LBJs (‘little brown jobs’) of the modern birding world!

Sparrows in the house

Although, most English translations still retain the name sparrow, it has been widely considered for some time that the reference in Psalm 102 refers to a different species and that earlier translations of this verse reading ‘sparrow’ are incorrect.


7 I lie awake;
   I am like a lonely bird on the housetop. 

Psalm 102:7 (NRSV)

Numerous commentators have argued that the gregarious and highly communal nature of the sparrow makes it ill-suited to be the subject of this simile and suggest the more solitary blue rock thrush (Monticola solitarius) instead (see for example: Tristram, 1898:202; France, 1986:140). However, it might also be argued that the unwelcome and unusual experience of loneliness experienced by a highly social bird is exactly the image that the psalmist is attempting to draw.

Another psalm, Psalm 84, provides an interesting and rather surprising reference:


3 Even the sparrow finds a home,
   and the swallow a nest for herself,
   where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
   my King and my God. 

Psalm 84:3 (NRSV)

This is a beautiful and painfully poignant song of longing for the temple. It was probably written at the time of the exile (see Johnston, 2005:298). If this is the case, the temple would have been disused and partially demolished, accounting for the reference to ‘sparrows’ (tsippor) and swallows nesting in the temple and on the altars.**

How much are sparrows really worth?

As with the Hebrew references, whether the instances in the New Testament specifically denote ‘sparrow’ or simply any common, small, bird that was viewed as having little or no value, is possibly academic. It would certainly be missing the rhetorical point that is being made by their authors. In fact, this element of doubt – creatures that are barely noticeable enough to note what actual species they actually are – rather adds to the lesson being made.

The reference occurs in material that is shared by both Matthew and Luke, referred by biblical scholars as Double Tradition material. These are passages that are specifically related to the teachings of Jesus and are attributed, by some commentators, to the primitive, but hypothetical, written source known as ‘Q’.*** Whilst broadly presenting the same message there are one or two interesting differences.

Matthew 10:29-31Luke 12:6-7
29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

 6Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. 7But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Recently, this teaching has received a lot of attention from those involved with ecotheology and environmental concerns.**** On the one hand, the text has been presented as clear evidence for God’s concern for all living life, no matter how small and insignificant. Matthew’s version is particularly powerful in this respect and has been frequently cited by ecologically aware Christian groups to summon action to prevent the extinction of species. However, on the other hand, critics point to the way that it promotes and endorses the divide between human and non-human in terms of their value in God’s sight. The point being made that the ‘sparrows’ really are of lesser worth to God compared with humans. Going Johnson (1991:195) points out that Luke omits Matthew’s reference to ‘falling to the ground’ and suggests that this is because he “wants to emphasise [God’s] protection and care.” No doubt these questions will continue to be debated.

Nevertheless, the value placed on sparrows in the two versions presents an interesting window into the Roman Palestine of the first century. The context in which the ‘sparrows’ are being sold is not clear. It is often assumed that this is a reference to their use in the temple as sacrificial animals. However, it could also be simply a reference to general commerce in the streets of small birds for consumption, something that would be familiar to the hearers of Jesus’ words (see below for sparrows as food). Whatever the context, the point is that they are cheap. The word translated here as ‘penny’ is ἀσσάριον (assarion) which has been calculated to have been roughly one-sixteenth of a day’s wage (assuming a day’s wage was a denarius).

The low financial value attached to the sparrow receives further support by the ‘Edict on Maximum Prices‘ (Edictum de Pretiis Rerum Venalium) that was set by the Emperor Diocletian in 301 CE. This edict fixed the price for a number of items ranging from crops and seeds to part and whole animals. The sparrow is listed as being the cheapest bird that could be used for food, being set at 16 denarii for 10 birds (see Prantl, 2011:374).

One of four pieces of the edict (in Greek) re-used in the door frame of the medieval church of St. John Chrysostomos in Geraki. Image: Ash (2009). Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edict_on_Maximum_Prices#/media/File:Prices_edict.jpg

The two accounts reflect slightly different traditions, with Luke suggesting that bulk purchases meant that you got one free (France, 1986:141)! Bauckham (2012:91) argues that, “for Jewish counting in tens [this] would be the equivalent of our half-dozen.”

Mercy or death?

Richard Bauckham (2012:92) notes that there is a close parallel to the ‘lesson of the sparrows’ within rabbinic tradition relating to the mid second century Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai. Although this account is later than the Gospel versions, like a lot of rabbinic material, it antecedents are much earlier and suggest that Jesus was drawing upon traditional Jewish teaching.

At the end of this period [R. Simeon] emerged and sat at the entrance of the cave and saw a hunter engaged in catching birds. Now whenever R. Simeon heard a heavenly voice exclaim from heaven, ‘Mercy!’ it escaped; if it exclaimed, ‘Death!’ it was caught. ‘Even a bird is not caught without the assent of Providence,’ he remarked; ‘how much more then the life of a human being!’

Genesis Rabbah 79.6 (cited in Bauckham, 2012:92-93)

The ‘leper’s sacrifice’

Engraving by G. Pearson in Rev J.G. Wood’s Bible Animals (1883)

Wood (1883:396) makes an interesting observation relating to the possible use of the sparrow in the ritual prescribed for the cleansing of leprosy. It is described in Leviticus 14:


4the priest shall command that two living clean birds [tsippor] and cedar wood and crimson yarn and hyssop be brought for the one who is to be cleansed. 5The priest shall command that one of the birds [tsippor] be slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel. 6He shall take the living bird [tsippor] with the cedar wood and the crimson yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the living bird [tsippor] in the blood of the bird [tsippor] that was slaughtered over the fresh water. 7He shall sprinkle it seven times upon the one who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease; then he shall pronounce him clean, and he shall let the living bird [tsippor] go into the open field.

Leviticus 14:4-7 (NRSV)

It should be noted that Wood (op cit) acknowledges that these instructions do not specify any particular species, however he appears to favour the sparrow.

The humane pragmatism (for humans anyway!) that is characteristic of so many of the Jewish laws can once again be seen here. As we saw with the dove (Day 4), care was taken within the sacrificial system to accommodate everyone, including the poor. The rigid code of social exclusion that was applied to anyone exhibiting the symptoms of leprosy would have meant that the sufferer (and possibly family members dependent on them) would have very quickly descended into destitution. Using very common birds ensures that this ritual is accessible to everyone. The use of two turtle doves or two pigeons is also permitted by those who are poor in place of the three lambs (two male and one female) on the eighth day of the ceremony (Lev 14:10-20).

A banquet of sparrows

The use of sparrows (or, at least, small songbirds) in the sacrificial codes demonstrates that they were viewed within Jewish law as kosher or clean. Slifkin (2009:230-231) argues that this is not purely because passerines are non-predatory or carrion eating, but that they can be viewed as being harmless and “defenceless.” This he suggests lies at the heart of how many Jews understand the principle of kashrus:

[Y]ou are what you eat, and if you are to eat the flesh of living creatures, we should at least only absorb the natures of non-predatory creatures.

Slifkin (2009:230)

Throughout history sparrows have been a ready source of meat protein that can be used to supplement diet. Buczacki (2002) notes that, within Britain:

Sparrow pie was a popular country dish until well into the twentieth century and probably still is in some areas.

Buczacki (2002:373)

He goes on to describe his own experiences of the bird as a dish:

In my limited experience, grilled sparrows seem to consist mostly of beak, but they were considered highly nutirtious, although Andrew Boorde, in his Dyetary of Health (1547) thought them “hard of digestion.”

Buczacki (op cit)
Small birds were mostly caught through ‘netting.’ Netting Birds, Tomb of Khnumhotep, ca.1897–1878 B.C.E. Image: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544550?enlarge=true

It is very likely that the references to the στρουθίον in the Gospels that we looked at earlier relate to food produce rather than sacrifice. Describing his Palestinian travels in the late 19th century, Tristram (1898) notes that:

Small birds are still an ordinary article of consumption in the East… At the present day we may see in the markets long strings of sparrows and other birds exposed for sale by the fowlers, and in the Syrian cook-shops they are often sold ready plucked and trussed in rows on little wooden skewers, roasted and eaten like kabobs [kebabs].

Tristram (1898:161)

A little earlier, Wood (1883) maked a similar observation:


Various birds are sold in this manner, little if any distinction being made between them, save perhaps in respect of size, the larger species commanding a higher price than the small birds. In fact, they are arranged exactly after the manner in which the Orientals sell their “kabobs,” i.e. little pieces of meat pierced by wooden skewers.

Wood (1883:400)
Take part in the Wildlife Trust’s ’30 Days Wild” challenge

Footnotes

*See his chapter of the same name and the gloriously evocative chapter ‘Red Roofs of London’ in his (1885) collection of essays The Open Air.

*For more on this psalm, see an earlier post: Verse of the Month: Psalm 84:11a “For the LORD God is a sun and shield”

**This relates to an area of research within biblical study that explores the literary relationship between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). If you would like to know more, you can download, free of charge, in multiple formats, a copy of The Synoptic Problem: A way through the maze, written by one of the leading practitioners in this field, Mark Goodacre.

***There is a nice overview of this question in Bauckham (2012:91-98)

References

Bauckham, R. (2012) Living with other Creatures: Green exegesis and theology. Croydon: Paternoster.

Buczacki, S. (2002) Fauna Britannica. London: Hamlyn

France, P. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Bible Animals. London: Croom Helm.

Jefferies, R. (1885) (2006) The Open Air. (New edn.) Stroud, Gloucestershire: Nonsuch Publishing.

Johnson, L.T. (1991) The Gospel of Luke. Sacra Pagina Series 3. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press.

Johnston, P.S. (2005) Appendix of Form Critical Categorizations.’ in. Johnston, P.S. and Firth, D.G. (eds.) Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches. (2005) Leicester: Apollos. pp. 295-300.

Prantl, M. (2011) ‘Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices of 301 AD. A fragment found in Aigeira‘. Historia Scribere 3 (2011). 359-397.

Slifkin, N. (2009) Perek Shirah: Nature’s song. 2nd edn. Jerusalem: Zoo Torah

Tristram, H.B. (1898) The natural history of the Bible : being a review of the physical geography, geology, and meteorology of the Holy Land; with a description of every animal and plant mentioned in the Holy Scripture. 9th edn. London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.

Wood, J.G. (1883) Bible Animals: Being a description of every living creature mentioned in the scriptures from the ape to the coral. New edn. London: Longmans Green and Co.

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