The Swallow in the Bible

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There are two words which have been translated as Swallow in the Authorized Version of the Bible, these being deror and agar. Students of the Hebrew languange are, however, agreed that the latter word has been wrongly applied, the translators having interchanged the signification of two contiguous words.

Looking therefore at the word deror, this word signifies liberty, and is well applied to the Swallow, the bird of freedom.  Some of the commentators of old have had differing opinions on the reason for the title of "the bird of freedom" being given to the swallow, one having commented upon the bird as being 'so called because it has the liberty of building in the houses of mankind.' Another takes a somewhat similar view of .the case, but puts it in a catechetical form: 'Why is the swallow called the bird of liberty? Because it lives both in the house and in the field'.  However it is most probable that the 'liberty' to which allusion is made is the liberty of flight, the bird coming and going at its appointed times, and not being capable of domestication. Several kinds of Swallow are known in Palestine, including the true Swallows, the martins, and the swifts, and it is likely that one of these groups was distinguished by a separate name. Whether or not the word deror included other birds beside the Swallows is rather doubtful, though not at all unlikely; and if so, it is probable that any swift-winged insectivorous bird would be called by the name of Deror, irrespective of its size or colour.

The bee-eaters, for example, are probably among the number of the birds grouped together under the word deror, and we may conjecture that the same is the case with the sunbirds, those bright-plumed little beings that take in the Old World the place occupied by the humming-birds in the New, and often mistaken for them by travellers who are not acquainted with ornithology. One of these birds is described by the biblical scholar HB Tristram as 'a tiny little creature of gorgeous plumage, rivalling the humming-birds of America in the metallic lustre of its feathers- green and purple, with brilliant red and orange plumes under its shoulders.'

In order to account for the singular variety of animal life which is to be found in Palestine (and, the state of Israel since its creation in 1948), and especially the exceeding diversity of species among the birds, we must remember that the area of Palestine and Israel is a sort of microcosm in itself, comprising within its narrow boundaries the most opposite conditions of temperature, climate, and soil. Some parts are rocky, barren, and mountainous, chilly and cold at the top, and acting as channels through which the winds blow almost continuously. The cliffs are full of holes, rifts, and caverns, some natural, some artificial, and some of a mixed kind, the original caverns having been enlarged and improved by the hand of man.

As a contrast to this rough and ragged region, there lie close at hand large fertile plains, affording pasturage for unnumbered cattle, and of a tolerably equable temperature, so that the animals which are pastured in it can find food throughout the year. Through this area runs the Jordan, fertilizing its banks with perpetual verdure, and ending its course in the sulphurous and bituminous waters of the Dead Sea, under whose waves the ruins of the wicked cities are supposed to lie. Westward we have the shore of the Mediterranean with its tideless waves of the salt sea, and on the eastward of the mountain range that runs nearly prallel to the sea is the great Lake of Tiberias, so large as to have earned the name of the of the Sea of Galilee.

Under these favourable conditions, therefore, the number of species which are found in the area around Palestine is greater than can be seen in many other parts of the earth of the same dimensions, and it seems probable that for this reason, among many others, Palestine was selected to be the Holy Land. If, for example, the Christian Church had been originated under the tropics, those who lived in a cold climate could scarcely have understood the language in which the Scriptures must necessarily have been couched. Had it, on the contrary, taken its rise in the Arctic regions, the inhabitants of the tropics and temperate regions could not have comprehended the imagery in which the teachings of Scripture must have been conveyed. But the small and geographically insignificant land of Palestine combines in itself many of the characteristics which belong respectively to the cold, the temperate, and the hot regions of the world, so that the terms in which the sacred writings are couched are intelligible to a. very great proportion of the world's inhabitants.

This being the case, we naturally expect to find that several species of the Swallow were inhabitants of ancient Palestine, if indeed so migratory a bird can be rightly said to be an inhabitant of any one country.

The habits of the Swallow are much the same in Palestine as they are in other parts of the world.  Its habit of making its nest among the habitations of mankind is mentioned in.a well-known passage of the Psalms: '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' (Ps. lxxxiv. 3).

The swiftness of flight for which this bird is remarkable is noticed by the sacred writers. 'As the bird by wandering, as the swallow by flying, so the curse causeless shall not come' (Prov. xxvi. 2). This passage is given rather differently in the Jewish Bible, though the general sense remains the same: 'As the bird is ready to flee, as the swallow to fly away; so.a causeless execration, it shall not come.' It is possible, however, that this passage may allude rather to the migration than the swiftness of the bird.
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