Bat – עֲטַלֵּף (atalleph)
In my experience, bats are like Marmite. They tend to divide opinion. Some people detest them while others are enchanted by them. Perhaps this is because they literally flit on the peripheries of our lives. The darting dots, like fireflies in reverse, that fly in the gloaming in such apparently random and unpredictable ways. The bat is a liminal creature in so many ways. Then there is that archive of folktales and family stories. The (always distant) relative for whom a bat got caught up in her (it usually is a ‘her’) hair. As a child I was assured that this could never happen, the bat’s skill at echolocation, as well as at flying, was far too good for that. Although, in later life, I found that the swarms of midges, drawn by my body-heat, just above my head, provides a very rich hunting ground and, on more than one occasion, I have felt the rush of air from the wings of a swooping bat.
Although falls in numbers is a cause for concern, bats are probably far more common than most people think. There are 1,300 species of bats world wide. The 17 species that can be found in the UK and account for more than 25% of our resident mammals (Bat Conservation Trust).
Bats are just as common in Israel as they are in the UK. Nineteenth century travellers and writers, like Harris (1824) and Tristram (1898) describe encountering bat in their thousands.
Shalmon and Korine (2003) state that there are 32 species of bats that are currently resident in Israel. Bright (2006:190) suggests that the bats described in the Bible refer to the “diminutive insect-eating ‘microbats’ of the suborder Microchiroptera.” However, he does not give any reasons for this assertion and acknowledges that larger species of bats, like the fruit bat, can also be found in the region.
For more information on Isreal’s bats see Yom-Tov and Kadmon (1998) Analysis of the Distribution of Insectivorous Bats in Israel.
Square pegs in round holes
Bats appear three times in the Bible. The first two are parallels and relate to the dietary laws. The book of Deuteronomy states:
You may eat any clean birds. 12 But these are the ones that you shall not eat: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, 13 the buzzard, the kite of any kind; 14 every raven of any kind; 15 the ostrich, the nighthawk, the seagull, the hawk of any kind; 16 the little owl and the great owl, the water-hen 17 and the desert-owl, the carrion vulture and the cormorant,18 the stork, the heron of any kind; the hoopoe and the bat. 19 And all winged insects are unclean for you; they shall not be eaten. 20 You may eat any clean winged creature.Deuteronomy 14: 11-20 (NRSV)
This instruction is repeated almost identically in Leviticus 11:13-19.
France (1986:20) suggests that the reason for the bat’s inclusion within the list of forbidden food is because they are “among the most malodorous of flying creatures.” However, it is more likely that they are included because they transgress a number of boundaries.*
As Harris (1824) quaintly puts it:
[T]he Jewish legislator, having enumerated the animals legally unclean, as well beasts as birds, closes his catalogue with a creature, whose equivocal properties seem to exclude it from both those classes: it is too much a bird, to be properly a mouse, and too much a mouse, to be properly a bird.Harris (1824: 35)
To the modern mind the inclusion of the bat within the list of birds appears odd. I have even heard it claimed that this shows how ignorant the writers of the Bible must be. However, it is easy to forget that the way that animals and plants are classified today, based on Linnaes, is relatively new (18th century), much later than Jewish taxonomy (science of classification). To us the way we place different animals in different classifications (orders, families, etc.) may appear blindingly obvious, but this is because we are used to it (see post for Day 1). It is, nonetheless, another rather arbitrary construction attempting to categorise a messy world into very neat, rigid pigeon-holes. Earlier, Aristotle had classified animals according to locomotion, the way they moved. In this case, although a mammal (according to Linnaean taxonomy), the bat would fit much better if we placed it alongside other creatures that flew.
It is also important to note that the Jewish writers were not attempting to make scientific statements, their concerns were more about how they, as human beings, should relate to the living things around them. Despite later Christian readings of the Jewish law – and appropriation of its language – texts like these are not about morality (in the sense of Christian concepts of ‘sin’), but more about relationships with the environment and God: Are these creatures harmful (physically and/or ritually) or benign?
In this respect, the Torah, based as it is upon a more general folk taxonomy, divides large animals into two groups; behemot (domestic animals) and chayot (wild animals). Smaller terrestrial creatures are grouped as sheratzim (‘creeping’ or ‘swarming’ things). Larger flying creatures (as opposed to sheretz haoph – winged insects) are classified together as oph (see Deuteronomy 11:19 and 20 above).
Unlike modern zoological taxonomy, Slifkin (2015:17) argues that within the different categories in the Torah, a creature can be placed in more than two creatures can be simultaneously placed in two or more categories. Furthermore, he (2015:33) notes that within the Torah system a creature can move from one category to another as it develops.
Bats – creatures of dark spaces
The final appearance of bats in the Bible links it with another type of creature that we tend to associate with darkness – the mole.
20 On that day people will throw awayIsaiah 2:20 (NRSV)
to the moles and to the bats
their idols of silver and their idols of gold,
which they made for themselves to worship,
The United Bible Societies (1980:8) read this as predicting that, “on the day of the Lord the idols will be cast forth to the bats, i.e. into ruins and caves.”
The association between bats and these locations is widespread. While travelling in the area in the late 19th century, Tristram (1898) observed the short-tailed (or Kuhl’s Pipistrelle) bat (Pipistrellus kuhlii):
Their habit of resorting in great numbers to caves, ruins, and other dark places, is well known; and bats of many species resort by thousands to the caverns and ruins of Palestine.Tristram (1898:46)
Moreschini (2011:8) suggests that this might be an allusion to Babylonian idols that were fashioned in the shape of bats.
A similar connection between idols and bats, and more specifically linked with Babylon, occurs in the deuterocanonical book Baruch 6 (this section is also known as the Letter of Jeremiah). This passage exhorts the exiled readers to remain faithful to God and goes on to describe the impotency of the Babylonian gods:
22 Bats, swallows, and birds alight on their bodies and heads; and so do cats. 23 From this you will know that they are not gods; so do not fear them.Baruch (Letter of Jeremiah) 6:22-23 (NRSV)
It is the association of bats with liminality (physical and metaphorical darkness as well as a sense of spaces at the edge of civilisation) that the writer wants to impress on the reader. Here, as we have discovered in earlier posts, the writers are content with generic references rather than attempting to provide detailed information about which particular bat they have in mind.
Slifkin (2015) explains why:
… [T]he Torah’s system of classification is a folk taxonomy, presented in terms of the animal kingdom’s relationship to human beings. The difference between many zoological species are simply irrelevant from the human standpoint. This is especially true in the case of smaller species, where the differences may not be even noticeable.Slifkin (2015:18)
Bats with accents!
One final note before we leave the bat in peace. Researchers from Tel Aviv University have discovered that bats have regional accents (somewhat akin, they say, to London and Scottish accents!). The 2017 Times of Israel report of this research can be read here: Bats have regional accents, Israeli study shows.
* Person (2014: 56-71) has a very interesting discussion on ‘clean’ versus ‘unclean’ animals in relation to environmental amnesia. He (2014: 64) points out that the animals listed as clean are herbivores which suggests non-human life that followed omnivorous and, certainly carnivorous diets were viewed with suspicion. He (2014: 66) also notes something that I have never noticed before and the link between kosher and the Deuteronomic construction of the ‘good land’ – the land identified as being given by God, as opposed to the wilderness – “the generic ‘clean’ bird lives in the ‘good’ land.”
Bright, M. (2006) Beasts of the Field: The revealing natural history of the bible. London: Robson Books.
France, P. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Bible Animals. London: Croom Helm.
Harris, T.M. (1824) The natural history of the Bible ; or, A description of all the quadrupeds, birds, fishes, reptiles, and insects, trees, plants, flowers, gums, and precious stones, mentioned in the sacred scriptures: Collected from the best authorities, and alphabetically arranged. London: T. Tegg.
Moreschini, C.O.T. (2011) ‘Bats in Greco-Roman Antiquity: The literary creation of ‘demon bats‘. Bat Conservation International. 29(2). 6-8.
Person, R.F. (2014) Deuteronomy and Environmental Amnesia. Earth Bible Commentary 3. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
Shalmon, B. and Korine, C. (2004) ‘The Bats of Isreal: Conservationist make steady progress‘. Bat Conservation International. 21(1).
Slifkin, N. (2015) The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom: Volume 1: Chayot/Wild Animals. New York: Biblical Museum of Natural History.
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.
United Bible Societies (1980) Fauna and Flora of the Bible. Helps for Translators. 2nd edn. London: United Bible Societies.