The Bible uses several animals as symbols of certain truths. Some of the symbolisms are clear as day while others are not as obvious. For instance, almost everyone knows that the dove is used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. But there are many other birds that have been used in the Bible including the sparrow, the raven, the eagle, the owl, etc. In this article, we will take a closer look at the owl and what this bird of prey symbolizes in the Bible.
The owl is a symbol of isolation and judgment. It is also used to represent uncleanliness because it was classified as an unclean bird. Additionally, the hunting tactics of the owl can be seen as a symbol for the devil who, just like the owl, prowls in the dark looking for an opportunity to attack.
Owls are listed alongside other birds of prey (eagles, falcons, etc) that are considered unclean and should, therefore, not be eaten (Lev. 11:16, Deut. 14:16). Any bird (or animal) that hunted and ate their prey with their blood were considered unclean. This is because consuming blood was considered unclean as it violates the sanctity of the human body and life. Moses warned Israelites that the life of an animal is in its blood and so the law forbade the consumption of blood (Lev. 17:15).
As such, the owl can be a symbol of uncleanliness or something forbidden. There were two kinds of unclean animals in the Bible – generally unclean and ceremonially unclean. For instance, camels were rated unclean but it was not forbidden to touch them or even use their hides in making shoes or clothing. On the flip side, other unclean animals like pigs were generally unclean so apart from not eating them, it was also not allowed to handle them. Owls fall under the same category. They are used to illustrate the importance of keeping away from all appearances of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22). Just like handling unclean animals would make one unclean, Christians are to keep away from any kind of sin that would contaminate them.
Owls are masters of isolation. Unlike other birds of prey like falcons and eagles, owls hunt at night. They will often be seen perching on a tree as they stealthily scan the horizon for prey. This picture of isolation has been demonstrated in several instances of scripture. For instance, the Psalmist likens himself to the owl to symbolize how isolated and lonely he felt.
I resemble a pelican of the wilderness; I have become like an owl of the waste places. Pslams 102:6
Another prolific example is given in the prophecy of Jeremiah where he warns Babylon of God’s vengeance.
So desert creatures and hyenas will live there, and there the owl will dwell. It will never again be inhabited or lived in from generation to generation. Jeremiah 50:39
In this prophecy, Jeremiah tells of How God will punish Babylon because of taking His people captive. The hallmark of the judgment would be the desolation of the city which will be so destroyed that no one would dwell there – apart from the owl. This contrast helps to demonstrate how owls are birds of isolation.
Prophet Isaiah also uses the symbolism of the owl to demonstrate the desolation that would be visited upon the nations.
The desert owl and screech owl will possess it; the great ow and the raven will nest there. God will stretch out over Edom the measuring line of chaos and the plumb line of desolation. Isaiah 34:11
We have seen how Isiaiah demonstrates the symbolism of desolation/isolation through owls. In the same scripture, however, (Isaiah 34:11) we can also see the theme of judgment in relation to owls. This is a scripture in which God is pronouncing judgment over Edom.
A critical look at the other mentions of Owls in the Bible will also reveal the symbolism of judgment. For instance, when God is issuing the law of clean and unclean birds, we can infer that the consumption of an owl or any other bird that was labeled unclean would attract God’s judgment. The same can be said of the prophecy of Jeremiah (50:39). In this prophecy, God is pronouncing judgment over Baylon, and the mention of the owl can be seen as a symbol of the same.
In modern times, owls are considered wise and intelligent and are therefore seen as symbols of judgment. Even C.S Lewis thought of the owl as a symbol of wisdom and intelligence and that is why he coined the phrase “parliament of owls.” C.S. Lewis first used the phrase in The Chronicles of Narnia
Owls are nocturnal hunters and they are especially adapted for that. Their eyes are adapted for night vision and their feathers have a velvety feel which helps to muffle sound while in flight. Unlike other birds of prey which have noisy wing flaps, the owl can glide stealthily and catch their prey unawares.
The owl’s adaptation to hunting stealthily can be a symbol for the devil who is also a “stealth hunter.” From as early as the book of Genesis, the devil is portrayed as a master of deception who tries to catch us unawares. Apostle Paul even warned the new testament church that the enemy may even masquerade as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). But the account of James is the one that portrays this notion clearly.
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 1 Pet. 5:8
Jesus understood how the devil hunts and that is why he cautioned his disciples to be always on the lookout. He told them that the only way they could stay ahead and keep away from temptation is to always e in prayer (Matthew 26:41).
Modern society often likes the owl to wisdom and intelligence but the Bible may have a different symbolism for this bird of prey. In most of the mentions in the bible, this bird represents either isolation or judgment. It is also regarded as an unclean bird in the Mosaic law which can be seen as a symbolism of evil. In other words, the owl can symbolize many things depending on the context.