Metaphor: Violence of Bears

Popular culture gives us a number of friendly bear characters, such as Yogi Bear or Pooh Bear, that talk and are generally silly. However, even if they belong to a smaller species, live bears are all quite dangerous animals, especially females protecting their cubs with strong maternal instincts. Scripture shows that both male and female bears can be dangerous though, particularly when hungry. Why else would a major competitive sports team have chosen to name itself after the bear?

The first instance of the Hebrew word for the bear, dov, is found in 1 Samuel 17 when David is describing the animals he fought when defending his flock of sheep. David killed both lions and bears to save the lambs they hunted for food, giving credit to God for delivering him and them from danger. The bear is mentioned three times in this section, always as an animal attacking or trying to steal from the flock.

This begins the pattern of uses for bears; there is no positive mention of bears in Scripture. The best mention of the bear is in Isaiah 11 as a millennial prophecy about the changed nature of animals in the Kingdom of God. However, it is mentioned as eating peaceably with a cow, so it’s a backhanded compliment at best because the implication is that it was previously dangerous and can only be at peace with an herbivore once the world is at peace with God.

Three verses specifically mention a (mother) bear robbed of her whelps (cubs) as being aggressive toward people. One compares her to men being bitter and another describes a fool in his folly as being worse. Surely any mother bereft of her young will be bitter, and do foolish things, but a bear will be truly dangerous about it.

The third is more interesting though. Hosea 13:7-8 mentions three animals: a lion, a leopard, and a bear, which are the same three animals mentioned in Rev 13:2, describing a grotesque beast in the prophetic end days that blasphemes and causes the world to worship itself and the dragon, which is the devil. In other words, these three animals are a direct illustration of various aspects of evil.

The specific aspect of the bear that is used in the evil beast is its feet. Now, the unique thing about bears in regard to their feet is that they use them for walking the same way humans do, on the full sole or pad of their feet (paws). This is called plantigrade motion. In comparison, birds and dogs walk on their toes, and horses and other hoofed animals technically walk only on their nails. Bears are also capable of walking upright on two feet, although they mostly walk on all fours. So they can mimic the gait of a human, although not for very long.

This verse in Revelation is the only mention of bears in the New Testament, which uses the Greek word arktos. The original root of arktos involved moving slowly. Bears in particular travel slowly because of their feet: they walk on their soles like humans, but they are generally much more massive than humans. Animals that walk primarily on their toes or nails are much more agile. For instance, all felines, including the big cats like lions, walk on their toes, so they can move very quickly at need. Other carnivorous plantigrade animals like raccoons are more agile because they are smaller. But bears are the largest carnivorous plantigrade animals on land, and therefore they are some of the slowest animals.

This word arktos has the same root as the star called Arcturus, also known as the “guardian.” It is placed in the sky in the constellation of Bootes, the herdsman, who is the guardian of the flocks. Those flocks are illustrated in the sky by the greater and lesser sheepfold constellations, today known as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Somehow bears became associated with these two constellations, so the name of the star that leads or guards them was also named to reflect that, even though it doesn’t actually have anything to do with bears. A herdsman would never be herding bears, after all, but defending the flock from them, as David did.

Another reference to various animals as prophetic beasts occurs in Daniel 7, where verse 5 mentions the bear. The word here is technically a different word than that used in the rest of the Old Testament because it is Aramaic rather than Hebrew, but it is still transliterated as “dov”, so it is clearly the same as the Hebrew. Including this verse, “dov” is used thirteen times in the Old Testament, marking it with a rebellious and violent character.

In Daniel’s vision here, the bear is the second animal mentioned, corresponding to the second of the great world empires, the Medo-Persian empire. Therefore the bear represents a cruel and violent empire, and it is shown in a fierce position of devouring another animal and rising to continue its violence further, greedy for more flesh.

Why study such a negative illustration? So that we know what not to be. We are not to be violent, but peaceable. Rom 12:18: “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.” We are not to be bitter or foolish at loss, or discontented with what we have, greedy for more. 1 Tim 6:8: “And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.”

Challenge: Run a mile, participate in a dance, play soccer, or do something else active that involves being agile or fast on your feet, as a physical reminder that we can often run from evil rather than becoming enmeshed in its violence.

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