The Owl signified by the Cos and Yanshuph in the Bible

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In various parts of the Old Testament there occur several words which are translated as OWL in the Authorized Version, and in most cases the rendering is acknowledged to be the correct one, while in one or two instances there is a difference of opinion on the subject.

In Lev. xi. 16, 17, we find the following birds considered among those which are an abomination, and which might not be eaten by the Israelites: 'The owl, and the night-hawk, and the cuckoo, and the hawk after his kind; And the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl.'

Here, then, we have in close Proximity the word Owl repeated three times, and the same repetition occurs in ,the parallel passage in Deut. xiv.  The words which are here translated as Owl are totally different words in the Hebrew, so that if we leave them untranslated, the, passages will run as follow: 'And the Bath-haya'anah, and the night-hawk, and the cuckoo, and the hawk after his kind; 'And the Cos, and the cormorant, and the Yanshuph.'

Taking these words in order, we find in the first place that the Jewish Bible accepts the translation of the words cos and yanshuph, merely affixing to them the mark of doubt.  But it translates the word bath-haya'anah as Ostrich, without adding the doubtful mark. The same word occurs in several other passages of Scripture, the first being in Job 30: 29: 'I am a brother to dragons and a companion to owls.' In the marginal reading of the Authorized Version, which, it should be borne in mind, is of equal value with text, the rendering is the same as that of the Jewish Bible, and in several other passages the same reading is followed. We therefore accept the word bath-haya'anah as the ostrich, and dismiss it from among the owls.

Coming now to the other words, we find in the passages already quoted the words cos and yanshuph. Both those words occur in other parts of Scripture, and evidently are the names of nocturnal birds that haunt ruins and lonely places. Taking them in order, we find the word cos to occur again in Ps. cii. 6: 'I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.' The Psalm in which this passage occurs is a penitential prayer, in which the writer uses many of the metaphors employed by Job when lamenting his afflictions, and  describes himself as left alone among men.


The simile is equally just and feasible in this case, the Owl being essentially a bird of night, and associated with solitude and gloom. The particular species which is signified by the word cos bears but very slightly on the subject, inasmuch as in general habits all the true Owls are very similar in hiding by day in their nests, and coming out at night to hunt for prey, their melancholy hoot, or startling shriek, breaking the silence of the night.

Still it is necessary to identify, if we can, some species with the word cos, and it is very likely that the Little Owl, or Boomah of the Arabs, is the bird which is signified by the word cos.

Whether or not the Little Owl was used for the object of attracting smaller birds to their traps (as detailled in our information and fact page about the Little Owl) by the ancient inhabitants of Palestine is rather doubtful; but as they certainly did so employ decoy-birds for the purpose of attracting game, it is not unlikely that the Little Owl was found to serve as a decoy.

The common Barn Owl also inhabits Palestine, and if, as is likely to be the case, the word cos is a collective term under which several species are grouped together, the Barn or White Owl is likely to be one of them.

Considering that the Barn Owl's shrieks from a deserted building in England can sound particularly haunting, especially on a dark night when nothing is visible, it is likely that in the East, where popular superstition has peopled many a well with its jinn and many a ruin with its spirit, the nocturnal cry of this bird, which is often called the Screech Owl in the UK from its note, would be exceedingly terrifying, and would impress itself on the minds of sacred writers as a fit image of solitude, terror, and desolation.

The Screech Owl is scarcely less plentiful in Palestine than the Little Owl, and, whether or not it be mentioned under a separate name, is sure to be one of the birds to which allusion is made in the Scriptures.

Another name now rises before us: this is the Yanshuph, translated as the Great Owl, a word which occurs not only in the prohibitory passages of Levitieus and Deuteronomy, but in the Book of Isaiah. In that book, ch. xxxiv. ver. 10, 11, we find the following passage: 'From generation to generation it shall lie waste; none none shall pass through it for ever and ever.

'But the cormorant and the bittern shall possess it; the owl (yanshuph) also and the raven shall dwell in it: and He shall stretch out upon it the line of confusion, and the stones of emptiness.' The Jewish Bible follows 1.110 same reading.  It is most probable that the Great Owl or Yanshuph is the Egyptian Eagle Owl.
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