Should one fear God like fearing a lion?

Samson dispatches a young lion -- Lucas Cranach the Elder - Web Gallery of Art:

When Ezekiel envisions God in the intricate images of four animals —  a human, a lion, an ox, and an eagle – a reading that comprises the Haftarah (or concluding scriptural reading) for the morning of Shavuot – he might or might not have visualized the lion as the formidable apex predator that no human or animal wishes to confront one on one. Did he view God (partly as a lion) in his Throne Chariot Vision as a frightening deity, while none of the other three images would cause humans to dread it?

Long before Ezekiel, the prophet Isaiah (5:29) prophesied about the forthcoming Assyrian military assault (probably the devastating Sennacherib campaign in 701 BCE) on Judean territory, depicting the Assyrian warriors’ roar “like that of the lion, they roar like young lions; they growl as they seize their prey and carry it off with no one to rescue.”  Similarly, Jeremiah (2:15) attests to the same idea when he likens the roaring and growling of lions to the Assyrian and Babylonian monarchs, (who had devastated and decimated the kingdoms of Israel and Judea in 722 and 586 B.C.E. respectively).

Amos reflects the deep-seated human trepidation from the lion as he seeks to impress and prod his hearers to tremble before God’s Word, even more than they dread the lion. Indeed, rather than fear God, who as Jeremiah says, “does roar from on high”, even “mightily” so (25:30) — an idea that both Joel (3:16) and Amos (1:2) uniformly phrased: “And the Lord roars from Zion”– to these prophets’ chagrin – Ezekiel joins them too — man trembles from the roar of a lion, but not from God’s. Why, it is God’s roar that should be heeded, if not feared, rather than that of mere lions.

Nevertheless, unlike the frightening lion’s roar the people of Israel heard God’s voice on the first Shavuot from atop of Mt. Sinai — an unimpressive-in-its-physical-altitude-and-size mountain, whose exact location is unimportant to the Torah — filtered through Moses’ human voice: ‘’So Moses went down to the people saying to them God’s word’’, even as “God answered him by a voice’’.  Was the divine voice like a lions’ roar? Elijah at Mt. Horev (Sinai) heard the same divine voice, and it was not; it was rather ‘’a gentle whisper’’.

The prophets’ concern about the absence of God fearing among their hearers is mirrored in the Jewish liturgy on the High Holy Days that petitions God to ‘’instill Your fear in all Your creatures…and your dread in all You created’’.  Simply put, people don’t fear God, albeit dreading lions, even as the biblical lion is not a frightening animal as reflected in a Nigerian maxim: ‘’The lion’s power lies in our fear of him’’…

Though we might dismiss as irrelevant the example of Samson the ironman — the first known biblical lion slayer — who dispatched a young lion at the vineyards of the Philistine town of Timna after the animal roared at him, we would have to reckon with young David’s pitch to King Saul as he pleaded for being the one who would beat down Goliath, the Philistine giant and mighty warrior, in a duel.

Though a mere shepherd youth, David makes his case to the king: “Whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I [alone] went after it and struck it down, [even being successful at] rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by its cheeks, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears.” To be sure, these predators only braved a baby sheep, not even a fully-grown one. That King Saul believed David’s telling of his exploits may be inferred from his prompt embrace of David and his forthright sending him off to take on Goliath, though he could not fit into the war gear of the tall King Saul.

Isaiah’s assertion (31:4) that a lion will growl haughtily and defiantly when it devours a prey despite the vociferous shepherds who seek to retrieve the animal, buttresses the fact that shepherds (like young David) were wont to challenge lions who snatched a livestock individual from the flock.  In Isaiah’s assertion that the lion “will not be terrified” or “daunted” at the shouting of “a band of shepherds” summoned to chase it away (31:4), we find evidence for the normative pursuit of lions by shepherds to save what they could from the predator, even as the latter would opt to shun such encounters with shepherds.

The Talmud presumes that an able shepherd could either deter, or, if necessary, rescue any individual from the herd under his watch, even from the jaws of either a wolf or a lion “by chasing a predator of this kind away”. A capable and skilled shepherd would face “the lion with other shepherds and with sticks chase it away.” And this despite the fact that hired shepherds in the ancient Near East were not obliged to make good on or indemnify for livestock lost to predators. Indeed, it was quite common for shepherds to pursue a lion that snatched an individual from the herd.

In general, a lion (or for that matter a mountain lion too) would try and avoid confronting a human, even swerving from a path where a human walks, especially if more than one human is present.  “Humans are one of the few creatures that lions fear” contends Nathan Myhrvold, an accomplished observer of lions in their natural habitat.  Lions are naturally fearful of humans and, unless one runs away, they will not see humans as prey. Humans are not the typical prey lions tend to hunt simply because humans often don’t live among wild animals in the wild, or frequently wander alone into lions’ territory, especially when lions typically hunt at dusk and night or at dawn.

Even if a human fell into a lions’ den, the Talmud posits, we cannot testify that he must be dead, for such an encounter does not necessarily mean that the person would be killed by the predatory animals, especially if the lions were not hungry. There would thus be plenty of time for such an individual to either extricate himself or be aided out by others.  In conclusion, the normative biblical lion did not pursue human beings to attack them, and as it naturally feared them it did not pose danger to them.

Did Ezekiel mean to deliver a similar message in his (Shavuot) prophetic message that humans should not fear, but rather revere God and especially God’s Word? If one’s piety is based on actually fearing God – whom Ezekiel saw partly as a lion — then the ”fear of Heaven” would no longer be a pure one but qualified or iffy – a question to ponder on Shavuot, if not on any other day…

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.