The Surprising Biblical Meaning of Owls

Owls are mysterious creatures that have captivated humans for millennia. With their large, forward-facing eyes and ability to rotate their heads 270 degrees, owls possess an allure that transcends mere biology. Indeed, owls have become deeply symbolic creatures in many cultures and belief systems throughout history.

This is no less true in the Judeo-Christian tradition, where owls make numerous appearances in the Bible. But what exactly does the owl symbolize in biblical texts? As it turns out, owl symbolism in the Bible is nuanced and surprising.

Symbolic Meaning of Owls in the Bible

In the Bible, owls are portrayed as creatures of the wilderness and desolate places. Several Old Testament passages associate owls with abandoned ruins and decay:

“But wild beasts will lie down there, and their houses will be full of howling creatures; there ostriches will dwell, and there wild goats will dance.” (Isaiah 13:21)

“And Babylon shall become a heap of ruins, the haunt of jackals, a horror and a hissing, without inhabitant.” (Jeremiah 51:37)

Here, owls are linked with chaotic wilderness environments separate from human society. Their nocturnal nature adds to the sense of lurking menace.

This connection between owls and ruins persists in the New Testament. In Revelations, for example:

“And their wine merchants were the great ones of the earth…and every shipmaster and seafarer, and all who trade on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning, ‘What city was like the great city?’ And they threw dust on their heads as they wept and mourned, crying out, ‘Alas, alas, for the great city…'”

“…and the light of a lamp will shine in you no more, and the voice of bridegroom and bride will be heard in you no more, for your merchants were the great ones of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.” (Revelation 18:23)

Here again the owl appears linked to decay and abandonment, this time presaging the downfall of the wicked city of Babylon. Owl symbolism seems rooted in their affinity for darkness and solitude.

Owls Represent Wisdom and Discernment

At the same time, owls are presented as wise creatures in some Bible verses. Their intelligence and observational capabilities are respected:

“Even the stork in the heavens knows her appointed times; and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming, but my people know not the rules of the Lord.” (Jeremiah 8:7)

In this passage, the owl’s awareness is compared favorably to the ignorance of some people who fail to heed God’s laws.

Similarly, the Book of Job notes:

“But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.” (Job 12:7-10)

Here, owls and other animals are portrayed as wise teachers about God’s creation. Their vigilance gives them discernment that people sometimes lack.

The Duality of Owls as Both Wise and Ominous

How can owls symbolize both wisdom and ominous wilderness threat in the Bible? The answer has to do with the owl’s nocturnal nature and solitary habits.

On the one hand, the owl sees what others cannot in the darkness of night. Its observational powers and intelligence give it insight. The owl’s wisdom comes from patient watching and discernment.

On the other hand, the darkness symbolic of spiritual blindness and sin. The owl dwells apart from human society, preferring the abandoned wilds. Hence, they presage solitude and decay.

In other words, owls represent the choice between wisdom and wickedness, enlightenment and exile. Their symbolism embraces both the peril and promise of darkness.

Bible Passages Featuring Owls and Their Significance

Beyond these symbolic meanings, several notable Bible passages feature owls directly and indirectly:

Leviticus 11:13-19

In explaining the distinction between clean and unclean animals, Leviticus declares certain birds–including the owl–to be unclean and forbidden:

“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 kite, the falcon of any kind, every raven of any kind…”

“…the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind, the little owl, the cormorant, the short-eared owl, the barn owl, the tawny owl, the carrion vulture, the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe and the bat.” (Leviticus 11:13-19)

The classification underscores the owl’s association with darkness and separation from civilization in ancient Jewish thought.

Isaiah 34:11-15

This prophetic passage uses the owl and other creatures to symbolize desolation:

“But the hawk and the porcupine shall possess it, the owl and the raven shall dwell in it. He shall stretch the line of confusion over it, and the plumb line of emptiness. Its nobles–there is no one there to call it a kingdom, and all its princes shall be nothing.”

“Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses. It shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode for ostriches. And wild animals shall meet with hyenas; the wild goat shall cry to his fellow; indeed, there the night bird settles and finds for herself a resting place.” (Isaiah 34:11-15)

The owl’s presence predicts a return to primitive chaos and ruin.

In this New Testament passage, Christ uses the owl as part of an analogy about spiritual vulnerability:

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-26)

Here, the “waterless places” are wilderness realms where owls might dwell. The analogy highlights the importance of spiritual watchfulness to avoid harm.

Together, these major biblical references and passages reveal the nuances of owl symbolism in scripture. Far from being one-dimensional symbols of evil or decay, owls represent choice, wisdom, discernment and the struggle between light and darkness. Their rich meaning continues to intrigue and inspire readers today.