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Consider the Birds: The Vulture

Isaiah 53:1-3; Isaiah 40:31

Mark D HFirst the Raven. Now the Vulture. Why do I get all the ‘gross birds?’

I didn’t realize that the act of translation could be so controversial and make such a difference! I have always known that it is a huge and tricky job to translate the Bible. The Bible is made up of a whole series of separate scrolls, papyrus and manuscripts written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek over a period of a couple of thousand years, with none of the original documents surviving. There is a whole area of scholarship that has studied the careful copying and transmission of these manuscripts, and then the art of careful translation from the original languages, attempting to capture the essence of words and phrases from their original meaning and cultural context.  As it is, we have many many translations and versions of the Bible in English alone. There is so much that goes into this process. It is complicated. Decisions get made. We will be exploring some of this in our fall series on Understanding the Bible called ‘Windows into the Word.’

For this morning, our concern is simply with one Hebrew word – ‘nesher’, or ‘aetos’ in Greek, and what difference it makes if that word is translated as ‘eagle’ or ‘vulture,’ a word found in 27 places in the Bible, and most often translated as ‘eagle.’ It is only translated as ‘vulture’ in more negative passages or when associated with death. We are holding this Sunday lightly and playfully, opening our imaginations to what we might learn or discover with taking the alternative translation. In the Reader’s Theatre, we heard how funny and strange it sounded to switch around the birds, and maybe in some of our favourite passages, like Isaiah 40, almost sacrilegious... ‘they shall mount up with wings as vultures!?!’  And yet, as I researched these last few weeks, I found pretty compelling evidence that the ‘vulture’ got short changed in translation and could be just as faithful a rendition. It’s kind of fun to play around with this!

I read an article in ‘Haaretz’, the longest running newspaper in Israel, from May 8, 2014 about the controversy over this word – ‘nesher.’ (http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/features/.premium-1.589507). This article states that in the Bible, this word ‘clearly means vulture,’ and that ‘no discussion in the Academy of the Hebrew Language was as heated as the discussion concerning what bird nesher is.’ The article claims that already the early translators of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, ‘got it wrong’ and changed to the Greek word ‘a’etos,’ which does usually mean Eagle. It was only in the 1860’s, that a Reverend Henry Tristram, Biblical scholar and ornithologist, traveled to the Holy Land and published a book that claimed ‘nesher’ was not an eagle but a vulture, or griffon vulture. A highly influential zoologist, Israel Aharoni, followed suite in a 1923 book. This controversy broke out more in the 60’s and 70’s at the Academy of the Hebrew Language, the official institute in Israel for scholarship on the Hebrew language, with the zoological camp pitted against the more traditional linguists. There were even threats of going to the Supreme Court and a 1973 split vote that then Academy president Ben Haim broke by going against his own convictions to choose the vulture. Fascinating, and probably more than we wanted or needed to know! Suffice it to say, we can legitimately play around this morning with these Scripture texts as either eagle or vulture and see where it takes us. Maybe the place to start is with these birds themselves.

Who doesn’t like an eagle? There is something majestic and almost magical in seeing an eagle. In July, a bunch of my Neufeld relatives had climbed a large viewing tower at Hecla Provincial Park on Lake Winnipeg. As we took in the views, an absolutely huge bald eagle suddenly appeared and circled just over our heads before flying off. We were silent, stunned and amazed, a few of us finally grabbing our cameras in time to get a rushed photo of where the bald eagle ... had just been. It felt like a holy moment, being so close to that magnificent and elusive bird in flight. As Debbie Blue writes, upon seeing an eagle ‘you will almost certainly feel something: blessed, or scared, or breathless... they are giant birds with power.’ (Consider the Birds – a provocative guide to the birds of the Bible, Abingdon Press, 2013, p.86). This spring I had the great honour of being gifted an Eagle feather after participating in the mostly Aboriginal wedding of Kristen Shoemaker and Luke Johns. Eagle feathers are highly revered and sacred, used in ceremonies and as a messenger to the Creator, and I hold this feather with great respect. We get excited when we see an eagle soaring overhead. Eagles are also lightning fast, with eagle eyes as they say, and the precision to catch and destroy its prey. They are excellent killers with their brute force and razor sharp talons – big and fast and strong. It made me pause when I remembered that this is probably why the symbol of the Eagle was chosen for the Great Seal of the United States of America, or the imperial standard for Napoleon or as an important symbol for the Nazi Third Reich. Fighter jets and precision missiles use the name Eagle. So do sports teams trying to sound tough. Eagles and Empire are closely associated. Benjamin Franklin had objected to the choice of an Eagle becoming a national U.S. symbol, a bird he said of bad moral character that bullied smaller birds, and he lobbied in vain for the wild turkey. (Ibid, p.90) Hmm... what difference would that symbol have made to the course of that country?  Just this week we have heard eagle-like threats of ‘fire and fury like the world has never known before.’ (Donald Trump, August 8, 2017). Lightening fast, a car was rammed into a group of people protesting a huge white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday. Lord have mercy! There is an appropriation of the Eagle that we may not want to honour.


Turkey Vulture - Head

So what about the Vulture? Weird and scary, disproportionate bodies, some say ugly; bald... not that there is anything wrong with that... and always hanging around dead rotting food, carrion, sometimes eating so much dead flesh that they are almost too heavy to fly. They even projectile vomit into the face of anything that will startle them, and they pee over their own legs. What’s not to like? Gross!  Our family has always enjoyed the evening amphitheatre programs at provincial parks, especially when our kids were young. We had an amazing program on coyotes in Cape Breton and an unforgettable program on the red squirrel and brown squirrel at Bon Echo. The other one that stands out for us was the absolutely fascinating program on the turkey vulture at Restoule about 10 years ago. Our kids loved all the facts about vomit and peeing of course. We heard about how the bald head allows the vulture to get right into the dead food, no feathers in the way. But then the program pointed out the significant role vultures play in the food chain and in cleaning up the environment. They basically are the recyclers and cleansers of our world. Think about it, the vultures do not actually do any of the killing. They rarely hurt a living thing. ‘Death is not their fault, but they remind us of it.’ (Ibid, p. 68) We should be grateful for the roll they take in taking care of rotting remains. Without them, death would pile up. Their strong digestive juices can kill bacteria and pathogens, rendering them harmless. Their urine even sterilizes their legs. They are purifying machines, death eaters (Ibid, p.77). Debbie Blue, in her book Consider the Birds, writes ‘Maybe God is something like that – not so much like an eagle, not a fierce warrior god swooping in for the rescue or kill, but a God who can take everything in and make it clean – a God who can make even death nontoxic.’ (Ibid, p.78) God did afterall send Jesus into our world, a Jesus who died on the cross, who faced right into death in order to bring life, in order to cleanse our world.

What we do by taking on the translation of ‘nesher’ as vulture instead of eagle, is shake up a particular image we have of God. God as eagle can potentially lead us to a strong warrior God, a God associated with Empire. Might God as vulture lead us somewhere else – to a God that is not afraid of death, to a God who would rather enter into the very suffering and death of our world than cause death, to a God who brings life out of death. In the Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah 53 we read ‘he had not form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces. He was despised, and we held him of no account.’ (Isaiah 53:2-3) That sounds more vulture-like than eagle-like. This maybe also transforms our narrow ideas of what is beauty, what is truly lovely and lasting in value. Who says that eagles are more desirable or beautiful than vultures?

We also need to look at how eagles and vultures fly. They do have some parallels – in that they both can soar on the wind, but eagles are known for their smooth take offs and then their lightning quick strikes – with speeds from 120 to 160 kilometres an hour, taking their prey totally unaware. Vultures are more awkward in their take off, especially if they have just eaten.  They almost totter and circle up. But once they get going, they are the supreme gliders and masters of the wind and the skies. They use what are called ‘thermals,’ to ride higher and higher. As parts of the air get warmed by the sun, that air mass expands, lightens and rises and the vultures take advantage and rise right along with this air. In other words, they do not use their own strength, but borrow from the warmth of the sun, a kind of communal energy. Most birds fly below 500 feet. Vultures can glide for miles at 10,000 feet, hardly using their wings, almost like they are suspended in slow motion. In 1973, a griffon vulture, the most likely species in the Bible, collided with a commercial airliner over Africa at 37,900 feet – the highest altitude ever recorded for a bird! (Ibid, p.72)

So what might it mean ‘to mount up with wings like vultures?’  What might that mean for how we might understand the journey of faith? Maybe it is okay and more realistic for ‘they that wait upon the Lord’, to have a more wobbly and circling faith journey, to take one’s time before taking flight, to sometimes be bogged down by the weight of the world. Maybe it is not so much by our own strength or might that we finally soar, but by the communal warmth around us, lifting us up. And once we are up and soaring, relying on the ‘thermals’, then maybe we can ‘run and not be weary, walk and not faint.’ Faith is more circling and being held up, than the seizing and attacking of the eagle.

Again we ask what this means for our image of God. I love the wondering Debbie Blue does. She writes in a longer quote: “Maybe God is a little bit more slow-motion than action adventure – a patiently waiting sort of God; a little quiet – behind the scenes. It takes a long time for people to get to know this God. People keep passing down their partial knowledge to successive generations, but still, we keep getting God a little wrong... We haven’t got the power-hungry and petulant God out of our systems. God must be very patient – it is taking such a long time for our world to be transformed... it would take someone with an eternal and very far-seeing perspective, like a vulture at thirty seven thousand feet, to trust the long view. Perhaps it takes a God with all the time in the world to trust this process – the slow, non-violent revolution – to see that some good might yet come amid all the setbacks and tragedy.’ (Ibid, p.72-3) End of quote. I love this idea of God suspended far far above our world, slowly and patiently watching over its transformation.

So what do you think? Should we take out our black permanent markers and scratch out Eagle every time we see it in out Bibles and write in Vulture overtop in capital letters? I can’t see that movement taking off. We might just be accused of being ‘vulture capitalists’! We are too bound by our cultural assumptions and a whole history of translation, and favourite memorized scriptures. We probably read too many human characteristics into either bird anyways. But we can ask some of these fun questions and ponder alternatives. It has made me wonder this week about what is behind some of our translations and what influences those choices and decisions. I suspect in this case, it has something to do with the interaction of power and vulnerability. Part of the innate appeal of the eagle is its power – its strength. We want to hold on to that, aspire to that. We want eagle strength too! We want others to respect us, honour us, even fear us, if that means we keep our good reputations, status and importance.  Underneath, we fear being small. We fear being seen as weak, insignificant, out of control. We fear our own vulnerability, the limits of our humanity. We come into this world as vulnerable, defenceless babies and spend our lives trying to assert ourselves and gain our independence. We live under the illusions that we are in full control of our lives, that we do have power, even with the knowledge that on the other end of life is death itself. Maybe, just maybe, looking to the vulture can help us come to peace with our own humanness, with the reality that we not ultimately masters of our own future or our lives, that we are inter-dependant, reliant on others and on God.  It is in embracing the vulnerability of our own humanity that we open ourselves up to God. (for a discussion of power and vulnerability, see Ibid, p. 94-96 and 99-100)

When God chose to reveal God’s self to the world, to fly down from the 37,000 foot soaring view, to become incarnate, it was not as a powerful strong God-like figure, but as a vulnerable baby, fully human, who grew to be a servant leader, who shared a message of hope found in love, peace, non-violence, sacrifice and who offered up his life on the cross. Jesus came to save us not in power, but in weakness, for that is the character and ultimate power of love. And Jesus put his face right into death itself, in order to cleanse and save our world.  So you choose – Eagle or Vulture?