The Cuckoo in the Bible

Signified by Shachaph

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Only in two instances is the word CUCKOO found in the Authorized Version of the Bible; and as they occur in parallel passages they are practically reduced to one. In Leviticus 11:16 we find it mentioned among the birds that might not be eaten, and the same prohibition is repeated in Deuteronomy 14:15, the Jewish people being ordered to hold the bird. in abomination.

The Hebrew word is shachaph (the vowels to be pronounced as in 'mat'), but as to the precise bird which is signified we can but conjecture. The etymology of the word gives us but little assistance. Shachaphis derived from a root that signifies leanness or slenderness; but it is not very easy to base an interpretation on such grounds. In the Jewish Bible the word is rendered as 'Cuckoo,' but with the addition of the doubtful mark.

It is possible that the bird may be the Shachaph of the Pentateuch, for several species of Cuckoo are known to inhabit the Holy Land. One of them is the species which is familiar in the UK by sound, if not by sight, and which possesses in  the Holy Land the same habits as in England. It is rather remarkable, by the way, that the Arabic name for the bird is exactly the same as the English, the peculiar cry having supplied the name.

Many commentators believe that by the word shachaph was signified some species of sea-gull, or at all events some marine bird. As such birds live on fish, they would neccessarily come into the class of unclean birds, and there is on that account some probability that the suggestion is a correct one.

German Rabbi Doctor Ludwig Lewysohn in the 19th Century had a very elaborate disquisition on the the subject, in which he decided that the creature was one of the sea-birds, and derives its name of Shachaph, or 'attenuated', from the meagreness of its proportions. Of the various sea-birds, he selected the petrel as the species which he thought to have been signified by the word. This bird, as he said, is a very lean one, having many feathers, but very little flesh, so that its limbs are no larger than olives, and no one could make a meal of it. This last remark, however, tends to diminish rather than to establish his theory, as, if the bird could not be eaten, there would have been no object in prohibiting the Jews from eating it.

He further proceeded to observe that the bird is unable to scratch, and may therefore be given to a child as a playfellow, and that it is capable of being domesticated and living in a cage. There is, however, no argument here, and the theory is not a tenable one.

Biblical scholar HB Tristram, also in the 19th Century, with far more probability suggested that if the bird be not one of the Cuckoos, and be really a sea-bird, it may be one of the shearwaters which live in such numbers on the sea-shore of the Holy Lands. He mentioned especially two species, the Great Shearwater and the Manx Shearwater, both of which are extremely plentiful on the coast, skimming continually over the water, and being regarded by the Muslim people with superstitious awe, being thought to be the ever-restless souls of-the condemned, who are doomed to fly backwards and forwards continuaily until the end of the world, clad in sombre plumage, and never permitted to rest.

Besides the shearwater, many species of gull inhabit the same. coast, and it is not at all unlikely that the word shachaph was used in a collective sense, as we have seen to be the case with tzippor, and signified any of the marine birds, without aiming at distinction of species.
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