Biblical Wildlife: Do You Know Lions?

Male Asiatic Lion.

Pop quiz: which word appears more frequently in the Bible: grace or lion?

According to a simple search on Biblegateway.com, the word “grace” is used 125 times in Scripture.  “Lion” is used almost as frequently, with 119 occurrences.  Isn’t it fascinating that lions feature so prominently in stories and imagery of the Bible?  The lion must have held a prominent place in the imaginations and memories of the ancient Israelites and Gentiles; otherwise, they would have failed to identify with the stories.  If I say to you, “there’s an Odocoileus virginianus in the backyard!” you likely won’t have an emotional response.  However, if I say, “There’s a huge 10-point whitetail buck in the backyard!” you will likely come running to see the majestic creature before it silently, gracefully flees to a more secluded location.

Lion imagery features prominently in the Psalms, as King David frequently compares the assassination attempts of his enemies to hungry, devouring lions who lie in wait for their prey.

“Lord my God, I take refuge in you;
save and deliver me from all who pursue me,
or they will tear me apart like a lion
and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me.”
Psalm 7:1-2

However, in several Proverbs, the bold, courageous qualities of lions are praised(Proverbs 28:1 and Proverbs 30:29-31) ; and in other passages, God attributes lion-like qualities to himself: he is powerful and fearless like the lion (Isaiah 31:4), and his lion-like roar will bring his children trembling before him from the west (Hosea 11).  Many are familiar with the favored Sunday School story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, when he was sentenced to death after praying to the LORD and disobeying the King.  God sent an angel to shut the mouths of the lions, and the king who put him into the den of lions was amazed.  Peter warns in 1 Peter 5:8 that they need to be alert, because “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  Perhaps most interesting is the verse in Revelation 5:5 that reads,

“Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”  

Aslan, the Christ figure of C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” books, is a lion.

Most agree that Jesus is described here as the Lion, although others question the translation (1).   Without reading too much into the motives and inspirations of C.S. Lewis, we also remember that Aslan, the Christ figure of the Chronicles of Narnia series, is a lion.  In The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Mr. Beaver is asked if Aslan is safe.  His reply suits Jesus as the Lion of the tribe of Judah well: “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Like the people of the Bible, an image probably pops into our heads when someone says “lion.”  Perhaps what comes to mind is from a childhood cartoon, a nature documentary, a Hollywood movie, or more likely, a visit to the zoo.  My local zoo has several lions.  I remember the awe I experienced seeing the powerful male with the thick mane of fur; it roared and I felt shivers down my spine.  I was fortunate enough to see a lion cub romping with its mother, playfully batting at her tail.  I remember their massive size, from their paws to their heads and mouthful of teeth.  Thank goodness for the layers of fence that separated me from them, and allowed me to look closer, admire their build, the tawniness of their fur!  It is no wonder that people from the Biblical times to today have ascribed power, cunning, fearlessness, and strength to them.  It is no wonder that the disobedient were killed by being thrown into a den of lions!

There are many subspecies of lion, and the ones found in the Bible are not the same as the ones we typically picture, like Simba and Mufasa from The Lion King.  When we think “lion” we are likely thinking of Panthera leo nubica, the Masai lion, or more generally the “African lion” known as P. leo leo or just P. leo; but the lions of the Bible were Panthera leo persica, the Asiatic lion.  Asiatic lions have a larger tail tuft, smaller portion of the body covered by the mane, and (for the anatomy geeks out there)  “less inflated auditory bullae,” than their African relatives.

Recently, African lions have been in the news.  I was dismayed to hear that lions found in Africa are in danger of extinction.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently proposing that the African lion be listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act; while these animals don’t live in the USA, their listing would prevent any trading in lion parts and safari hunters from returning with their trophies (for more information, read this article from Scientific American).  The main threats to African lion survival are indiscriminate killing (to prevent future loss of livestock or even human life), and loss of habitat and their natural prey species (2).

And what of the Asiatic lion?  I’m afraid they are faring far worse.

Previous range of P. leo persica stretched from Greece to India...
This map shows all lion species’ historic ranges.  The previous range of P. leo persica is the northern branch, stretched from Greece to India…
Current population of P. leo persica
Current population of P. leo persica

Today, the Asiatic lion lives in a tiny fraction of its previous territory; in fact, only one small population of about 400 individuals exists today in the wild.  Habitat loss and human-lion conflict (real or perceived, as with the preemptive killing of lions in Africa) are likely responsible for their dwindling numbers, and they are currently listed as an Endangered Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

A single wildfire or some other disaster could wipe out the entire population of Asiatic lions.  The lion of the Bible could cease to exist within our lifetime.  Might we lose not just an important creature that God created, but one that demonstrates the ferocity, boldness and strength of our Father?  Might the Psalms, Proverbs and the account of Daniel lose their relevancy and power without the existence of a major character, the lion?

Craig Sorley, the Director of Care of Creation Kenya once shared,

“My dad and I used to go camping out in the bush (the wilderness in East Africa) and listen to the lions roaring as we fell asleep in our tents.  Today when I take my own sons camping, the night is quiet.  We don’t hear any roaring lions.” 

Craig’s sons have lost out on their ability to experience the awesome roars of wild lions; we have much to lose of our ability to relate to many passages of the Bible if we lose God’s lions.  It wouldn’t be the same to restrict their existence to Discovery Channel reruns and a few zoos; at the same time, we must face the very real struggles of humans living in close proximity to lions, those who know first hand their fearsome qualities.  Our need to care for God’s creation is urgent, but riddled with complexity and human political, ideological, and social interests.  Sounds like a job for the followers of the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

 (What can you do?  Share this blog with your small group or bible study; start talking about creation care and dig into passages like Genesis 1-3, Psalms 8 and 104, John 1, Romans 8, Colossians 1.  Talk with your pastor about making creation care a core part of being the body of Christ. Host Care of Creation for a weekend seminar and encourage everyone to come!)

1. Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. “Entry for ‘LION'”. “International Standard Bible Encyclopedia”. 1915.

2. Bauer, H., Nowell, K. & Packer, C. 2012. Panthera leo. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 29 December 2014.