Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Consider the sparrow

I haven't done a natural history essay for a while. Paying attention to the plants, animals, and agricultural processes of the Bible is worthwhile because knowing more about them enhances our understanding of the context in which the particular verse is delivered to us. I've written of other natural history topics previously, and the links are below, if you're interested.

In Matthew 10:29-31 we read that the sparrow is considered the least of birds. The Cornell Ornithology lab describes a sparrow this way,
You can find House Sparrows most places where there are houses (or other buildings), and few places where there aren’t. Along with two other introduced species, the European Starling and the Rock Pigeon, these are some of our most common birds. Their constant presence outside our doors makes them easy to overlook.
Even more specifically, the Bible Encyclopedia describes the sparrows of Israel thus,
The Hebrew tsippor seems to have been a generic name under which were placed all small birds that frequented houses and gardens. The word occurs about 40 times in the Bible, and is indiscriminately translated "bird" "fowl" or "sparrow." ... Sparrows are small brown and gray birds of friendly habit that swarm over the northern part of Israel, and West of the Sea of Galilee, where the hills, plains and fertile fields are scattered over with villages. They build in the vineyards, orchards and bushes of the walled gardens surrounding houses, on the ground or in nooks and crannies of vine-covered walls. They live on seeds, small green buds and tiny insects and worms. Some members of the family sing musically; all are great chatterers when about the business of life. (source)
I watch, and am become like a sparrow That is alone upon the housetop. (Psalm 102:7)
A sparrow is such a friendly bird that if it were on the housetop it would be surrounded by half a dozen of its kind; ... In an overwhelmed hour the Psalmist poured out his heart before the Almighty. The reason he said he was like a "sparrow that is alone upon the housetop" was because it is the most unusual thing in the world for a sparrow to sit mourning alone, and therefore it attracted attention and made a forceful comparison. It only happens when the bird's mate has been killed or its nest and young destroyed, and this most cheerful of birds sitting solitary and dejected made a deep impression on the Psalmist who, when his hour of trouble came, said he was like the mourning sparrow--alone on the housetop. (source)
From Manners & Customs of the Bible by Freeman and Chadwick, we read,
Greek strouthion, (stroo-thee’-on); diminutive of strouthos, (a sparrow); a little sparrow. Sparrows are mentioned among the offerings made by poor. Two sparrows were sold for a farthing, and five for two farthings (Luke 12:6). The Hebrew word thus rendered is tsippor, which properly denotes the whole family of small birds that feed on grain (Leviticus 14:4; Psalms 84:3; 102:7). 



From Henry Hart's The Animals Mentioned in the Bible (1888) we read the following-
The word tsippor has been already dealt with in most of the passages where it occurs, in which it is translated ‘bird’ or ‘fowl.’ In two passages in the Psalms, however, it is rendered ‘sparrow,’ and the term appears perhaps to refer to a particular species. Elsewhere it is generic. In Ps. 84:3 we read, ‘The sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even Thine altars, O Lord of Hosts, my King, and my God.’ Here the metaphor is one of rejoicing; and the Psalmist pours forth his heart in glad and beautiful verse, full of the hope that he too may be permitted to dwell in the house of his God.
Canon Tristram considers that the latter ‘sparrow’ may be the ‘blue thrush’ (Monticola cyanus), which is a common and conspicuous bird in Palestine and Southern Europe, solitary in its habits, and fond of sitting on a roof or any conspicuous eminence while uttering a plaintive cry.  It breeds in the ruins about the temple at Jerusalem. Other species of sparrow are found in the Jordan Valley, as the marsh sparrow (P. Hispaniolensis) and the Moabitish sparrow of Tristram (P. Moabiticus).
Hart, H. C. (1888). The Animals Mentioned in the Bible (p. 203). London: The Religious Tract Society.

It was common in the Middle East to catch sparrows (and most small birds) and skin them and roast them to sell for a tidbit. Thus we have the mention of them where the Lord says He notices each and every fall of the sparrow and thus we should be comforted because we are much more valuable than these small, commonly sold tidbit birds.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

What a gracious and loving God!

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Further Reading

Onions

Pomegranates

Making wine

Wheat v. darnel

Linen


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