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Lions of the Bible

Male lion. © copyrighted photo.

also known as:
alsan (Turkish)
leo (Latin)
λέων (Greek) —transliteration: leon
أسد (Arabic) —transliteration: 'asada
simba (Swahili)
See 6 Hebrew words for lion (below)

Introduction

The native lions of Israel and other Middle Eastern territories were of the Asiatic variety of Panthera leo leo and Panthera leo persica, not the African variety, which is larger. In modern Israel, lions are extinct. They could be very bold, not only attacking flocks in the presence of shepherds, but also attacking in towns and villages (2 Kings 17:25-26) and devouring men (1 Kings 13:24-25). There are more than 150 mentions of lions in Scripture.

Female lions eating carcass. Photo © copyrighted.
Lions consuming their kill. They are the only big cats of which males have a different appearance to females.

…they did not fear the Lord. Therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. So the king of Assyria was told,

“The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land. Therefore he has sent lions among them, and behold, they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” —2 Kings 17:25-26 ESV excerpt

This powerful carnivorous animal eventually became extinct in Israel, due to climate changes and overhunting during the Ottoman and British periods. By the early 20th century, in what is now Israel, Asiatic lions and Asiatic cheetahs were extinct.

In ancient times, they must have been numerous. They had their lairs in the forests (Jeremiah 5:6; 12:8; Amos 3:4), in the caves of the mountains (Song of Songs 4:8; Nahum 2:12), and in the canebrakes on the banks of the Jordan (Jeremiah 49:19; 50:44; Zechariah 11:3).

Shepherds sometimes, single-handed, encountered lions and slew them (1 Samuel 17:34-35; Amos 3:12).

Snarling young lion. Photo © Copyrighted.
A 2 year old lion can roar. Lion roars are very loud and intimidating and can be heard 5 miles (8 km) away. Lions can run up to 50 miles per hour (80 km), and are known to leap as far as 36 feet (11 meters). Their night-sight is 6 times better than a human.

Blessed with supernatural strength, Samson killed a young roaring lion with his bare hands…

Then Samson went down with his father and mother to Timnah, and they came to the vineyards of Timnah. And behold, a young lion came toward him roaring. Then the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat… —Judges 14:5-6 ESV

The strength, courage, and ferocity of lions were proverbial.

…the one who is valiant, whose heart is like the heart of a lion… —2 Samuel 17:10 NASB

…as a lion, who dares rouse him… —Genesis 49:9 NASB

…what is stronger than a lion?… —Judges 14:18 NASB

Lions as God’s executioners

At various times in the Old Testament, God used animals such as lions to punish wilful sinfulness. An example is found in 1 Kings 13 involving a lie and disobedience of a Divine command…

“Thus says the Lord, ‘Because you have disobeyed the word of the Lord and have not kept the command that the Lord your God commanded you… your body shall not come to the tomb of your fathers.’” …And as he went away a lion met him on the road and killed him. And his body was thrown in the road, and the donkey stood beside it; the lion also stood beside the body. And behold, men passed by and saw the body thrown in the road and the lion standing by the body. And they came and told it in the city where the old prophet lived. —1 Kings 13:21-24 ESV excerpts

Daniel and lions

After King Darius realized that innocent Daniel had been miraculously protected by God (through a powerful angel’s action) from the ferocious, ravenous lions in the execution den, he took action against those who had accused Daniel and tricked the King.

The king then gave orders, and they brought those men who had maliciously accused Daniel, and they cast them, their children and their wives into the lions’ den; and they had not reached the bottom of the den before the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones. —Daniel 6:24 NASB

painting by Briton Rivière
Daniel’s Answer to the King—painting by Briton Rivière
published by Thomas Agnew and Sons, 1892 (Daniel in the Lions Den)

King Darius then sent out a royal decree to all people, praising God and ordering fear of Him

“I make a decree that in all the dominion of my kingdom men are to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel;
For He is the living God and enduring forever,
And His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed,
And His dominion will be forever.
He delivers and rescues and performs signs and wonders
In heaven and on earth,
Who has also delivered Daniel from the power of the lions.” —Dan. 6:26-27

Lions in Solomon’s Temple

There were carvings of lions in Solomon’s Temple. The lavers (water basins), each of which held “forty baths” (1 Kings 7:38), rested on portable holders made of bronze, provided with wheels, and ornamented with figures of lions, cherubim, and palm trees (1 Kings 7:36). The stands for the basins had panels…

and on the panels that were set in the frames were lions, oxen, and cherubim. On the frames, both above and below the lions and oxen, there were wreaths of beveled work. —1 Kings 7:29 ESV

Lions and Solomon’s throne

Moreover, the king made a great throne of ivory and overlaid it with refined gold. There were six steps to the throne and a round top to the throne at its rear, and arms on each side of the seat, and two lions standing beside the arms. Twelve lions were standing there on the six steps on the one side and on the other; nothing like it was made for any other kingdom. —1 Kings 10:18-20 NASB

The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. Artist: Sir Edward John Poynter, 1890.
One artist’s imagining of King Solomon’s throne room. The real throne was likely much more impressive.
Artist: Sir Edward John Poynter, 1890

Jewish tradition says that Solomon’s magnificent throne was claimed as a spoil of war and taken to Babylon, where eventually King Ahasuerus, the father of Darius, sat on the throne, or wanted to but was afraid and commissioned a replica. There are various other stories involving other kings such as Shishak. The Jewish Midrash (a biblical exegesis by ancient Judaic authorities) and the apocryphal Targum Sheni describe a very elaborate throne, and provide more details including marvelous mechanisms involving the lions and other animals—including a lion that places the crown over Solomon’s head when he sits down. There is no way of knowing if any of these details are true. The Midrash and Apocrypha are not inspired Scripture.

The Devil as a lion

Snarling roaring lion. Photo © Copyrighted.

Satan is symbolically referred to as a stalking “roaring lion.”

“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour…”1 Peter 5:8 KJV

Filled with hate, Satan stalks his prey. People are said to be “taken captive by him” (2 Tim. 2:26). Christians are warned against his “devices” (schemes) (2 Corinthians 2:11), and called on to “resist” him (James 4:7).

Learn more: Satan and his hatred of all humanity

Lions in the original Creation and during the Millennium

Lion’s head with leaves. Photo © Copyrighted.

In God’s original Creation, animals, such as lions, ate plants. Adam and Eve walked with God, and were masters over all His wonderful creatures (Genesis 1:26; 1:28). Adam and his family were meant to enjoy the animals and rule over them forever with love.

In those early days, Earth was a beautiful paradise—just as God intended. There were delicious fruits and plants of all types to eat, many of which are now extinct. All of the animals were friendly and under man’s control. None ate meat or killed. God provided the plants, fruits and seeds with all the nutrients people and animals needed. There was no sin, no death or disease. See: The Fall of Man and God’s Story

  • So, why are things the way they are today? How did so many bad things come into our world? Answer
  • Did God make the world the way it is now? What kind of world would you create? Answer

Restoration of lions and other parts of Creation

During the coming physical thousand year reign of Christ the Messiah on Earth. This will be a golden age of peace, in which God will restore many things we lost when sin came into the world. Lions, wolves and venomous serpents will no longer be a threat to man or beast.

Face of a lion—a repeated motif in the future Holy Temple

During the Millennium, there will be a Temple of God in Jerusalem. The inspired prophet Ezekiel describes a repeating detail inside of the Temple that involves the face of a lion.

The thresholds, the latticed windows and the galleries round about their three stories… were paneled with wood all around… It was carved with cherubim and palm trees; and a palm tree was between cherub and cherub, and every cherub had two faces, a man’s face toward the palm tree on one side and a young lion’s face toward the palm tree on the other side; they were carved on all the house all around… —Ezekiel 41:16-20 NASB

Dr. John MacArthur suggests that these figures of angels with palms between them possibly depict the life and fruitfulness of God’s servants. The cherub angel’s face of a man and of a lion possibly represent the humanity and kingship of Messiah (John MacArthur, Litt.D., D.D., The MacArthur Study Bible).

Lions as symbols

Lion sculpture. Photo © Copyrighted.
  • KINGS—Lions were common royal symbols of kingship.

    …stately when they walk:
    The lion which is mighty among beasts
    And does not retreat before any… —Proverbs 30:29-30 NASB

    The king’s wrath is like the roaring of a lion,
    But his favor is like dew on the grass. —Proverbs 19:12 NASB

    Like a roaring lion and a rushing bear
    Is a wicked ruler over a poor people. —Proverbs 28:15 NASB

  • Lion of Judah

    Hebrew: אריה יהודה —transliteration: Aryeh Yehudah —meaning: Lion of Judah

    The Tribe of Judah (Judahites/Jews) is symbolized by both a lion’s cub and an adult lion, due to Jacob’s blessing on his son Jacob (Israel) in Genesis.

    Judah is a lion’s whelp;
    From the prey, my son, you have gone up.
    He couches, he lies down as a lion,
    And as a lion, who dares rouse him up? —Genesis 49:9 NASB

  • Jewish People and Jerusalem

    Coat of arms of Jerusalem municipality.
    Coat of arms of the modern municipality of Jerusalem, adopted in 1949 and officially approved in 1958, as designed by Eliyahu Koren.

    A symbol of the Jews to this day, a lion appears as a figure, statue or ornament in or on many synagogues.

    The lion of Judah appears on the modern municipal emblem (coat of arms) of the city of Jerusalem (below).

  • Christ—The Lion of Judah

    The first time that Jesus Christ came to Earth, He presented Himself as the pure, sinless Lamb of God, living a life of extraordinary humility and suffering and dying a horrific death as a sacrifice to atone for our sins. At this time He established the Messianic spiritual Kingdom of God.

    When He returns again (the 2nd Coming), He will come as The Lion of Judah—the King of kings, the all-powerful Son of God, the Just One, bringing true justice to the world and destroying all evil. The Messiah will establish the promised physical Kingdom of God on Earth.

    The Book of Revelation states,

    …“Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” —Revelation 5:5 ESV

    See: Names of God

  • Jehovah’s deliverance

    For thus the Lord said to me,

    As a lion or a young lion growls over his prey,
    and when a band of shepherds is called out against him
    he is not terrified by their shouting
    or daunted at their noise,
    so the Lord of hosts will come down to fight on Mount Zion and on its hill.
    Like birds hovering, so the Lord of hosts will protect Jerusalem;
    he will protect and deliver it; he will spare and rescue it.” —Isaiah 31:4-5 ESV

  • Pagan gods, kings and nations

    • Babylon

      The foremost national symbol of the Babylonian Empire was the lion. The Lion of Babylon was the king—and also a symbol of their warrior goddess (see below).

      Glazed terracotta lion from Ancient Babylon.
      Glazed terracotta reportedly dating to the reign of King Nebuchadrezzar II, Babylon (now Iraq). This brick panel is in the Procession Way which ran from the Marduk temple to the Ishtar Gate and the Akitu Temple, and the throne room. There were 120 of these lions in Processional Way. This lion is now housed in the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin.
    • ISHTAR—The pagan goddess Ishtar has the lion as a major symbol. See: Ishtar

    • Egyptian bas-relief of lion-headed warrior goddess with sun disk on her head. Photographer Gérard Ducher (Néfermaât).
      Ancient Egyptian bas-relief of lion-headed warrior goddess with sun disk on her head. Location: Temple of Kom Ombo.
      Photographer Gérard Ducher (Néfermaât). License: CC BY-SA 2.5. Photo altered somewhat for this publication.

      EGYPTIAN GODDESS SEKHMET—The Israelites were familiar with the lion-headed warrior and solar goddess of Egypt named Sekhmet (or Sachmis, Sakhmet, Sekhet, Sakhet, etc.). Ancient Egyptians believed she protected the pharaohs and led them in battle. Her name means the (one who is) powerful or mighty. She is also known as “She Who Mauls” and “Lady of Slaughter.”

    • EGYPTIAN PHARAOHS—Pharaohs were frequently depicted with the body of a lion—a sphinx. The photo below of a lion statue from ancient Egypt apparently shows the king Amenhotep III entirely as a lion. Inscribed on the lion’s chest are hieroglyphics translated as saying, “Lion of the rulers, wild when he sees his enemies tread his path.”

      Ancient Egyptian lion representing a pharaoh. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin. License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.
      One of various lion sculptures, apparently of Amenhotep III, originally installed at the ancient Soleb temple of Amun-Ra (Upper Nubia, formerly Kush). Its inlaid eyes are gone.
      Original photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin. License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.
  • Other tribes of Israel

    • DANITES—Moses’ said of the Tribe of Dan (the Danites),

      Dan is a lion’s whelp,
      That leaps forth from Bashan.” —Deuteronomy 33:22 NASB

    • GADITES—Of the Tribe of Gad (Gadites), Moses said,

      Blessed is the one who enlarges Gad;
      He lies down as a lion [or lioness],
      And tears the arm, also the crown of the head.
      Then he provided the first part for himself,
      For there the ruler’s portion was reserved;
      And he came with the leaders of the people;
      He executed the justice of the Lord,
      And His ordinances with Israel.” —Deuteronomy 33:20-21 NASB

Winged-lion in Daniel’s vision

God gave the prophet Daniel a prophetic vision in Babylon which included a terrifying symbolic lion-like beast which represented the powerful Kingdom of Babylon.

“I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it.” —Daniel 7:2-4 ESV

The king of beasts (the lion) was a commonly understood symbol of Babylon—representing this world power’s strength and ability to swiftly and viciously destroy its enemies. The royal palaces of Babylon were guarded by symbolic winged-lions.

Vast army of demonic lion-headed beasts during The Great Tribulation

As a punishment on evil doers and as a demonstration of Satan’s true hateful and destructive nature, God will withhold some of His protection on Earth against the power of fallen angels. As a result, a devastating dark army will physically attack Earth killing ⅓ of mankind. This event occurs when God looses His bonds on 4 very powerful evil-angels that He has held in check for millennia, and removes His restraint from demons to do as they wish. It is a Divine judgment on the very wicked—who reject God’s light in favor of spiritual darkness—and offers ⅔ of humanity to turn to the light, repent and believe in the Gospel of Christ.

This will happen near the end of The Great Tribulation, as described by the Apostle John in his visions recorded in the Book of Revelation. These powerful demons lead a deadly army of 200-million strange demonic beings who are described as riding beasts with a lion-like head, horse-like body, and a powerful tail in the form of a serpent. The mouth of the lion-like head emits fire, smoke and brimstone.

Then the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God, one saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet,

“Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.”

And the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour and day and month and year, were released, so that they would kill a third of mankind. The number of the armies of the horsemen was two hundred million; I heard the number of them. And this is how I saw in the vision the horses and those who sat on them: the riders had breastplates the color of fire and of hyacinth and of brimstone; and the heads of the horses are like the heads of lions; and out of their mouths proceed fire and smoke and brimstone.

A third of mankind was killed by these three plagues, by the fire and the smoke and the brimstone which proceeded out of their mouths. For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; for their tails are like serpents and have heads, and with them they do harm. —Revelation 9:13-19 NASB

But very good things are coming for God’s true followers—an age of peace and restoration…

Archaeology and paleobiology

Ancient lion bones have been found by archaeologists in the region of Israel. In fact, long ago, lions were found on a broad range, even across all of North America and most of Africa.

Map showing distrution of true lions.
This map shows (in gold) where lions are known in ancient times in this part of the world. Their current-day natural distribution is indicated in blue. According to researchers, 2-thousand years ago over a million lions roamed throughout regions covering Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India and Europe. By the 1940s, the number of lions is estimated at 450-thousand—and in the early 21st century it has decreased to less than 23-thousand in the whole Earth. —Rhonda Klevansky, Big Cats (Exploring Nature) (London, England: Anness Publishing, 2014)

In the region of ancient Israel, lion bones have been…

…found in caves and in the Jordan [River] gravels. —James Hastings, editor, Dictionary of the Bible (1900).

The largest faunal collections and most intensive archaeo-zoological research for [the Chalcolithic] period have been carried out in the northern Negev. This biological data provides us with a detailed picture of human/animal relations during this formative period. … If Shiqmim is taken as a representative sample for the valley, sheep … and goat … make up over 90 percent of the faunal assemblage with the remaining 10 percent consisting of cattle, … dog, equid and ca. 3.8 percent of wild animals (gazelle, hartebeest, hippopotamus, lion, small cat, fox, hare, ostrich, bird and fish). —Thomas Levy, editor, The Archeology of Society in the Holy Land (New York, Continuum, 1998), pp. 231-32

The ancient Greeks developed a myth about Hercules kiling a Nemean lion. For this reason, they named a constellation λέων (Léōn) —Latin: Leo.

Men and places named for lions

Male lion walking. Photo © Copyrighted.

Lions’ Gate

Lions Gate, Old City of Jerusalem. Photo by Pontificake. License: GNU Free Documentation License or CC BY-SA 3.0.
Lions’ Gate, Old City of Jerusalem
Photo by Pontificake. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the Eastern Wall gates of the current Old City in Jerusalem is called Lions’ Gate (aka “Lions Gate” or “Lion’s Gate”). It is also called Sheep Gate and St. Stephen’s Gate. Four lion-like animals are carved in the stone above the gate. The Via Dolorosa starts at this gate (traditionalist’s path of Christ’s last walk).

Hebrew words for lions

Young shaggy male lion. Photo © Copyrighted.

At least 6 different Hebrew words are used in the Old Testament for a lion.

  1. כְּפִיר —transliteration: kephir —meaning: a young lion; “shaggy”

    The word kephir is used in Judges 14:5; Job 4:10; Psalm 91:13; 104:21).

    This term is also used figuratively of cruel enemies in Psalm 34:10; 35:17; 58:6; and Jeremiah 2:15.

  2. אֲרִי —transliteration: 'Ari

    This word denotes the lion in general, without reference to age or sex (Numbers 23:24; 2 Samuel 17:10, etc.).

    the “puller” in pieces

  3. שַׁחַל —transliteration: shachal or shahal —the “roarer”

    This word refers to fierce, mature, roaring lions and is used in Job 4:10; 10:16; 28:8; Psa. 91:13; Proverbs 26:13; and Hosea 5:14; 13:7.

  4. לַיִשׁ —transliteration: Laish or layish (Job 4:11; Proverbs 30:30; Isaiah 30:6)

    The capital of northern Dan received its name from this word, as did a biblical man.

  5. לָבִיא —transliteration: labi or labiy' —from a root meaning “to roar”

    This refers to a grown lion or lioness (Genesis 49:9; Numbers 23:24; 24:9; Ezek. 19:2; Nahum 2:11).

  6. Hebrew: גּוֹר —transliteration: gor —meaning: a lion’s whelp (cub)

    This word is used in Genesis 49:9, etc.

    They will roar together like young lions
    They will growl like lions’ cubs. —Jeremiah 51:38 NASB

Mature male lion eating. Photo © opyrighted.

Lions and very closely-related big cats

A true lion is (or has been) considered anything in the species Panthera leo, Panthera leo leo, Panthera leo persica (Panthera persica), Panthera atrox (aka Panthera leo atrox—American lion—extinct), or Panthera leo spelaea (aka Panthera spelaea—extinct).

Other animals in the same big cat genus are:

  • tigers (Panthera tigris)
  • jaguars (Panthera onca)
  • leopards (Panthera pardus and Panthera uncia)

Lions are fertile with all of these species, so they are apparently all part of the same created kind. Their offspring are called…

  • lion + tiger = liger, tigon, tion, or tiglon
  • lion + jaguar = jaglion, jagulep or lijagulep
  • lion + leopard = liard, lipard, or leopon

What are the Genesis “kinds”? learn about baraminology—non-Evolutionary classification of created organisms

See: The Origin of Species

Also see

Article Version: July 17, 2019