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Biblical Stories and Symbolism of Owls in the Bible

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I haven’t thought much in the past about owls in the Bible, but upon a thorough Bible study on them where they are mentioned and pondering the cultural significance of owls, there is such deep meaning.

This article will uncover what exactly that is by exploring where the Bible mentions owls and in what context, as well as how owls are typically regarded in the world. We will then compare and contrast the two to dig up the deeper understanding of the desert creatures we call owls that can be applied to one’s spiritual journey. 

vector of owl peeking out from side with the text owls in the Bible biblical stories and symbolism

Owls in The Bible

Owls are only explicitly mentioned in scripture in the Old Testament, and they are not mentioned in the New Testament. 

The first entrance of owls in the Bible is in the Mosaic Law, found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. 

“And these you shall detest among the birds; they shall not be eaten; they are detestable: the eagle, the bearded vulture, the black vulture… the little owl, the cormorant owl, the short-eared owl, the barn owl, the tawny owl, the carrion vulture,”

Leviticus 11:13, 17-18 (ESV)

This segment of the Law that God tasked Moses and Aaron with teaching to the Israelite people lays out the foods, the animals, that are cleared to be eaten, and those that are not. If an animal was considered clean, it could be eaten, and if unclean, then forbidden. As you can read in the above scripture, all types of owls were declared unclean and therefore forbidden from consumption.

But why were owls unclean? There is not an exact reason given in the biblical context. However, the diets of Old Testament law have been studied by many modern-day nutritionists and dieticians, who have said that they are much healthier eating habits than what is eaten today, in a time when there were no spiritually forbidden foods. 

An article on Evidence4Faith states that “Unclean birds are mostly scavengers or predators. Many feed on the dead, decaying, rotting flesh or animals. Because of this, they often accumulate toxins and pathogens. Some on this list are natural incubators for pathogenic bacteria and viruses.” We know this to be true for owls as they are predators, hunting down rodents for food (and we all know rodents are pretty gross). 

After the foundation of the connotation of owls in the Bible is laid out by the declaration of their uncleanliness in the Law, owls are found in the context of certain environments, typically desolate places.

“Therefore the wild beasts of the desert with the wild beasts of the islands shall dwell there, and the owls shall dwell therein: and it shall be no more inhabited for ever; neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation.”

Jeremiah 50:39 (KJV)

This passage is found within an entire chapter by the prophet Jeremiah regarding judgement on Babylon, a wicked city punished by God for its oppression of His people, the Israelites. God essentially destroyed the city of Babylon, similarly to Sodom and Gomorrah. This specific verse is a description of exactly how destroyed He will leave the city; so empty and somber that owls will inhabit it. 

We know that owls are nocturnal birds, meaning they are awake and hunting at night, a time of quiet and darkness. Owls do not like populated areas full of light and life, so if owls are drawn to the remains of the fallen Babylon, we know that the extent of their destruction by God was quite vast.

A similar use of owls in the Bible is in Isaiah 34:

“And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof: and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls. The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest.

There shall the great owl make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shadow: there shall the vultures also be gathered, every one with her mate.”

Isaiah 34:13-15 (KJV)

This chapter of Isaiah is a prophetic announcement by Isaiah of God’s indignation towards all of the nations of the world. Similar to his destruction of the wicked city of Babylon, the judgement of God on the world in this prophecy will result in a sense of desolation marked by the presence of owls and other doleful creatures. This destruction as a result of God’s wrath is believed to be the tribulation as it relates to the second coming of Christ, whether that be before, after, or during his 1,000 year reign.

image of owl in tree for the post on owls in the Bible

Owls are used in a more figurative sense in Psalm 102, a prayer of the afflicted:

“For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace. My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread. Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my flesh. I am like a desert owl of the wilderness, like an owl of the waste places;”

Psalm 102:3-6 (ESV)

This afflicted person is not specified in biblical texts. Whoever it may be, they are calling out to God begging him to hear their cries and prayers “in the day of” their “distress” (Psalm 102:2). In their great distress, they describe themselves as weak and brittle, probably in a great amount of pain. Based on the context of owls that we have seen so far, the afflicted person’s comparison of themselves to a “desert owl of the wilderness” and an “owl of the waste places” is likely an expression of their loneliness. 

Their life, environment, relationships, whatever it may be are empty and left in ruins like the city of Babylon, or Sodom and Gomorrah, and they are the owl that is left in such ruins, all alone and unclean. 

Owls in Culture

Something interesting I’ve noticed as I’ve studied up on Owls in the Bible, is how different of a symbol they are than the typical cultural symbolism. 

Culturally, owls have appeared in mythology, folklore, and literature often symbolizing wisdom, mystery, or even death. The tootsie pop commercial comes to mind for me. A little kid, curious on how many licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie pop, brings the tootsie pop to an owl sitting in a tree, hoping that he, in his wisdom, would know the answer. Of course, the “wise” owl just ends up eating the lollipop. But nonetheless, when we think of owls in our culture, whether it be in movies, TV shows, books, etc. they are pretty much always displayed as a pillar of wisdom. 

This contrast between the portrayal of owls in the Bible verses in culture gets my wheels turning on the significance of their symbolism in scripture as a sign of desolation, emptiness, loneliness, and judgment. 

Scripture vs Culture

Just to reiterate, owls tend to symbolize wisdom in cultural context, but in biblical context, they symbolize destruction – typically as a result of judgement. 

These different meanings speak volumes to the destruction of sin in our own lives and the judgement we are destined to face for it – that is unless we accept the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. 

The presence of owls, along with the wild beasts of the islands and the wild beasts of the desert were left in the wake of the city of Babylon, (Jeremiah 50:39) as well as the entire world in one of the prophetic visions of Isaiah about the tribulation (Isaiah 34:13-15). The wicked city of Babylon was founded on the story of the tower of Babel.

“Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

Genesis 11:4 (ESV)

At this point, the entire population of the world spoke the same language. They wanted to build the tower in order to reach God and “make a name” for themselves. Of course, this did not turn out well for them. 

God came down and spread all the people throughout the earth and confused their languages. Thus the tower was named Babel, as babel is the Hebrew word for confusion. The location of the tower would later become the city-state of Babylon. 

Babylon was prophesied many times to fall into darkness and wickedness, and thus it was so. Under the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon conquered Jerusalem, the holy land, and drove the Jews out. This is known as the Babylonian exile. Later on, King Nebuchadnezzar burned Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. 

Now that we have some background on the city that was destroyed and inhabited with owls, we can relate it back to the difference in cultural and biblical  symbolism of owls. 

Just like the cultural significance of owls (symbols of wisdom), the people of one language thought in their own, fleshly wisdom that they could reach God and become greater. This ultimately led to a city that is referenced many, many times throughout scripture as a pillar of sin and evil, and was ultimately destroyed. 

Similarly, in Isaiah’s prophecy of the tribulation, the nations of the world face God’s wrath as they too had followed the whims of the “wisdom” of the flesh, and will face death and destruction. 

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The idea that owls symbolize wisdom is only cultural, as the biblical meaning of owls is a sign of judgement resulted in desolation. This contrast is just perfect as the culture of the sinful world is always at war with the truth of scripture. Culture is defined as the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively. Humans, without God’s wisdom through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, possess hearts of absolute evil. 

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV)

No wonder the symbolic meaning of owls would be so opposite between the world and the Bible. Leaning on one’s own wisdom in one’s sinful flesh leads to nothing but judgement and destruction. 

“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.”

James 3:14-15 (ESV)

There is nothing I can say about what we should take away from the spiritual significance of owls in the Bible that isn’t already said perfectly in the Word of the Lord God itself. Therefore, let this be the lesson learned: 

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

Proverbs 3:5-6 (ESV)

Background on Owls

Just for a little bit of fun, here are some interesting things about owls, also called the night hawk, that you may not have already known!

Owls are fascinating known for their nocturnal habits, silent flight, distinctive appearance, and hauntingly powerful hoot. They belong to the order Strigiformes and are found on every continent except Antarctica. Owls are characterized by their large, forward-facing eyes that give them excellent night vision, allowing them to hunt effectively in low light conditions.

However, their eyes are fixed in their sockets, leaving them without peripheral vision. They compensate for this with their famously creepy move of turning their heads up to 270 degrees, thanks to their flexible necks.

These nocturnal creatures are carnivorous predators, primarily feeding on small mammals such as mice, voles, and rabbits. Depending on the species and location, their diet may also include insects, fish, birds, and even other owls. They are equipped with sharp talons and a powerful beak designed for tearing and consuming prey.

The unique characteristics and adaptations of owls continue to intrigue scientists and enthusiasts alike, making them a subject of ongoing study and admiration in the natural world.

You may enjoy this video on owls in the Bible:

ESV – “Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”

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