The combat of wild animals was a dominant and persistent theme throughout ancient Near Eastern art. The lion was a traditional symbol for the deities of war and destruction-and also, ironically, of love. The bull, noted for its sexuality and brute strength, was associated with the gods of storms, chaos, and fertility. In art, combat between such powerful animals may have symbolically represented the increasing and unresolved conflicts in nature. This fits into an overall background theme stretching to the earliest Mesopotamian cultures of order over chaos, the urbanization and civilization subduing the wild, a constant fight which the kings and gods had to lead. This particular composition was repeated over and over again at either end of the grand staircases at Persepolis. [Based on a plaque on display at Boston MFA]
The Lion King
Throughout the ancient world, lions were symbols of strength, power, ferocity, and most importantly – of kingship.
Biblical and Midrashic literature are fraught with mentions of lions in many different contexts. The lion has seven names in Hebrew, and its various aspects are used in prophecy and metaphor. Oftentimes, it is used to describe an enemy, the most prominent of which is Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon.
This short article is not attempting to cover the length of the fascinating mentions and usages of the lion in Jewish literature. That has already been expertly done in the Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom (Slifkin, 2015), and I highly recommend reading it. Rabbi Dr. Slifkin covers many fascinating insights about lions, both zoological and conceptual, which are beyond the scope of this article.
What I offer here are a few valuable tidbits for educational purposes, highlighting connections and providing food for thought. I link artifacts relating to the main antagonists of the late First Temple through Persian periods, with Biblical references tying them to lions. Finally, I will end with a treat from my hometown of Jerusalem.
Assyria – The Lion’s Den
What has become of that lion’s’ den, that pasture of great beasts, where lion and lion’s breed walked, and lion’s cub—with none to disturb them? [Where is] the lion that tore victims for his cubs and strangled for his lionesses, and filled his lairs with prey and his dens with mangled flesh? I am going to deal with you —declares the Lord of Hosts: I will burn down her chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your great beasts; I will stamp out your killings from the earth, and the sound of your messengers shall be heard no more. (Nahum 2:12-14).
On the surface, this is an allegory, a metaphor to the great and mighty Assyrians who feared no one. The impact of Nahum’s prophecy would have been most impactful if it was said while Assyria was still at its height. According to the Seder Olam Rabba (20:2), Nahum prophesied during the reign of King Menashe, who ruled for 52 years (II Kings 21:1).
At this time, Assyria was indeed at the peak of its strength, both under Esarhaddon (ca. 681-669 BCE) and Ashurbanipal (ca. 668-631 BEC). Both of them were involved with Judah on some level, but mostly with Egypt.
A further description in Nahum 3:8-10 refers to the destruction of Thebes and exile of Egyptians (possibly the Nubians), which was done once by Esarhaddon and twice by Ashurbanipal. This would narrow down the time in which he prophesied. For more on Assyrian involvement in Egypt, see my article Taharqa, Sennacherib and Hezekiah – the Untold Story.
After the events of 701 BCE, Sennacherib returned to Assyria. Instead of making Judah a vassal, as he had intended (II Chr. 32:1-2), he merely taxed it heavily. You can see more about how that was documented both in Assyrian records and in the Bible in this video by Megalim Institute.
While Assyria did not annex Judah, its culture and idolatry were heavily influential upon it. This can very well explain the constant shift in the kingdom with relation to issues of idolatry and the purging thereof. This would also be the milieu in which Nahum, as well as other prophets, dealt with it.
In any event, it is clear that Nahum was speaking either in the time of Esarhaddon or Ashurbanipal. As for our perspective, it is archaeology which makes a connection between the prophecy of Nahum to the Assyrians per se; certainly, at the time his words were delivered the metaphor was very clearly associated with Assyrian Kings and their practices. Lion hunts were popular pastimes of Assyrian kings, and their portrayal through art was a way of emphasizing the king’s bravery and skill:
In ancient Assyria lion-hunting was considered the sport of kings; symbolic of the ruling monarch’s duty to protect and fight for his people, and to control and subdue the chaos of nature. The sculpted reliefs in Room 10a illustrate the sporting exploits of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (668-631 BC) and were created for his palace at Nineveh (in modern-day northern Iraq).
The hunt scenes, full of tension and realism, rank among the finest achievements of Assyrian Art. They depict the release of the lions, the ensuing chase and subsequent killing [based on description from www.britishmuseum.org]
Ashurbanipal hunting lions, relief from Ashurbanipal’s North Palace, Nineveh (modern Kuyunjik), Iraq, ca. 645-635 BCE. Gypsum, 5′ 4″ high. Image credit: British Museum, London.
Be sure to check out many more such reliefs when you visit the British Museum, in room 10a. For your convenience, their reference is: ME 124781, ME 124850-ME 124870, ME 124874- ME 124878, ME 124883-ME 124887, ME 124921
Exile: The Lions of Babylon
Take refuge, do not delay! For I bring evil from the north, and great disaster. The lion has come up from his thicket: The destroyer of nations has set out, has departed from his place, to make your land a desolation; Your cities shall be ruined, Without inhabitants. (Jeremiah 4:6-7)
Nebuchadnezzar II (605 – ca. 562 BCE). Arguably the most formidable and notorious of all Biblical “bad guys”. Midrash rates him as even more terrible than Sennacherib, and he is mentioned over 300 times in the Bible. While there are several portrayals of him during his rule, he is most famous for destroying the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE – putting a stop to the rebellious Kingdom of Judah with one final blow. Jews around the world and throughout history have grown up hearing his name, as the destruction is lamented annually on the fast day of the Ninth of Av (Tisha b’Av).
The impact Nebuchadnezzar has left on the Jewish people is undeniable. Babylon was the first official exile of Israel as a sovereign nation into the diaspora. Without a homeland and a Temple to center their lives around, Jews lamented the loss of Jerusalem by the Rivers of Babylon. Diaspora became a reality, and religion evolved to supplement the lack of a land and a Temple, and thus “Judaism” was born.
Getting back to the lions, it wasn’t over for the Jews in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar held Jews in his court, gave them Babylonian names (Daniel 1:7), and even had a rather close relationship with Daniel. And to all of them – including those Jews who were marched into Babylon – the connection to lions would have been clear as day. This is because of Nebuchadnezzar’s building operations.
Imagine, seeing what the exiled Jews of Judah saw with their very own eyes. It can be very moving. When you see those lions, you are looking at the same bricks and images seen by Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. What impact did these lions have on them? What imagery did these lions bring up in their appreciation or fear of the works of Nebuchadnezzar?
Nebuchadnezzar was a great builder, and much of the silver in his treasury was spent on rebuilding Babylon to luxurious and lofty new heights. Records of his industriousness include one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. So far, the garden has not been found, but nevertheless it is a subject for art and legend. However, before it was replaced by the Lighthouse of Alexandria, there was one more of his buildings on that list, and that is the Ishtar Gate. A gate of magnificent blue and other vibrant colors, it was decorated with glazed bricks with the images of 120 lions, dragons, and bulls, representing the gods Ishtar, Marduk and Adad, respectively.
Originally from the modern city of Al Hillah, about 55 miles south of Baghdad, this gate has been excavated between 1902-1914, and painstakingly reconstructed to its current state in the Pergamon Museum, where it is on display today. Several of the figures are in museums around the world. So far, I have seen two lions and a dragon in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and one lion in the Boston MFA. There are a few more in museums around the world, including the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada (the video on the page is recommended) and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. The former was actually excavated in Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room, which means that the Biblical characters mentioned above probably spent a lot of their time very close to it.
Another lion-related antagonist who is part of the Babylonian Exile, is Nebuzaradan. So terrible was he, that in comparison to Nebuchadnezzar, he is called a lion, while Nebuchadnezzar becomes a bear.
“He is a bear lying in wait for me” (Lamentations 3:10) – this refers to Nebuchadnezzar; “a lion in hiding” – this refers to Nebuzaradan (Eikha Rabba 3:4).
Lions and bears, oh my!
When contrasted with Nebuzaradan, Nebuchadnezzar is compared to a bear rather than a lion. The reason for this is that the lion is a more ferocious predator than the bear (Slifkin, pp. 86).
Nebuzaradan was the commander of Nebuchadnezzar’s guard, who personally oversaw the destruction of the Temple and the deportation of the Jews. The Talmud (Gittin 57b) goes into gruesome detail of how he butchered countless priests and school children, an act which was seen as revenge for the murder of the prophet Zechariah son of Jehoiada (II Chronicles 24:20-22). This event is also canonized in the lamentations of the destruction, recited on the Ninth of Av, annually.
Nebuzaradan, according to Midrash, is the Arioch who we meet in the book of Daniel (2:15, 24). The name Arioch is similar to the word for lion, Ari, and why is he called a lion?
Nebuzaradan is Arioch. And why is he called Arioch? Because he would roar over the captives like a lion (ari), until they reached the Euphrates. (Eikha Rabba 5:5)
Exile by the Mouth of the Lion
The imagery of lions is strongly associated, not only with Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon itself (e.g. Daniel 7:4), but with the state-of-being of exile, per se. Though the Kingdom of Israel has already been in exile for over a century, to the Kingdom of Judah – whom the Jews today are most likely descended from – Babylon was the first real encounter of exile. It was the first time that the “Jewish People” had to contemplate what it means to be “Jewish” without being a sovereign nation on their own land. Essentially, “Judaism” as a practice, religion, or identity, was born from the Babylonian Exile.
Israel ben Moses Najara (Yisrael Najara), a 16th century liturgical poet, preacher, Biblical commentator, kabbalist, and rabbi of Gaza, composed one of my favorite Sabbath songs – “Yah Ribon”. Written entirely in Aramaic, it incorporates and paraphrases several key verses and ideas from the book of Daniel. This includes Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, and how Daniel addresses the King when presenting a solution to his dreams. The refrain “Yah Ribon Olam ve’Almaya, ant hu Malka, Melekh Malkhaya” [roughly translated “Oh God, Master of the World and the Universe, Thou Art the King, King of Kings”], is very similar to the way in which Mesopotamian kings are referred to, both in scripture and archaeologically.
- For example: “You, O king—king of kings, to whom the God of Heaven has given kingdom, power, might, and glory” (Daniel 2:37).
- “Artaxerxes king of kings…” (Ezra 7:12).
- In archaeology, a famous example is Cyrus the Great in his (mistakenly called) “Human Rights” Cylinder: “I am Cyrus, King of the Universe, the Great King, the Powerful King, King of Babylon…the Great King” – from thebritishmuseum.org
All of this makes it very appropriate for the theme of the song which is the experience of Jews in Exile. A stanza describing the prayer for redemption of Jews from Exile, roughly translated, goes:
Oh God, with Whom resides Glory and Might /
Redeem Thy Flock from the Mouth of the Lion /
And Deliver Your people from amidst the Exile
Redemption “from the Mouth of the Lion” in Midrashic literature is seen as a measure-for-measure in terms of…lions. Oh, my!
There are many Midrashic analogies attributing the character of lions to Nebuchadnezzar, the Temple in Jerusalem, Judah, the fall of Babylon, God Himself, and the ultimate redemption from exile. Perhaps my favorite Midrash is the following:
This one is compared to a lion: “Judah is a young lion” (Gen. 49:9), and this one is compared to a lion: “The first was like a lion” (Dan. 7:4).
The kingdom of Babylon falls by the hand of Daniel, who comes from the tribe of Judah. (Bereishit Rabba 99:2)
“Babylon falls by the hand of Daniel” – this is referring to his interpretation of the Writing on the Wall (Dan. 5). While Daniel is from the tribe of Judah – who is compared to a Lion – he had a vision of Babylon as the head of a lion (Dan. 7:4). It is interesting that Daniel himself is iconic for his relationship to lions.
The fifth chapter of Daniel tells the tale of Daniel being thrown into the lion’s den by king Darius the Mede. Parenthetically, this is a classic case of discrepancy between the Biblical record and the historic record. In the Bible, there is no mention of Nabonidus, who was the successor of Belshazzar. Instead, we hear about a Darius the Mede, who took over the kingdom at the age of sixty-two, and ruled for a single year (Dan. 5:30). Whether Darius the Mede is in fact Cyrus, or possibly the Median king Astyages, is unclear. Darius the Mede does not appear in any historical source other than the Bible and the Talmud. It may be that no artifacts or buildings carrying his name were left behind because of his short reign. (Landy, pp. 11)
Persia: Surrounded by Lions
In Midrashic analogy, the Persians are represented by the Bear (Slifkin, p. 112-4), based on Daniel’s visions (7:5). However, the imagery of lions was quite prevalent in the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Several items with lions on them have been found with inscriptions connecting them to Darius, Cyrus, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes.
Perhaps the most complex and difficult issue in Biblical chronology is the organization and identification of the Persian kings in relation to archaeological discovery. Included in this, is the identification of King Achashverosh from the book of Esther. Several prominent historians have dealt with this question and it warrants an entire article of its own, thereby, way beyond the scope of this article.
The images shown in this section are for the purpose of exploration and to piqued the readers interest, and in this section I will be treating King Achashverosh, briefly, from a Talmudic and philosophical point of view. So why King Achashverosh? Because, according to the Talmud (Megillah 15b, below), he is compared to a lion by none other than Queen Esther:
My God, my God, why have You abandoned me; why so far from delivering me and from my anguished roaring?
Dogs surround me; a pack of evil ones closes in on me, like lions [they maul] my hands and feet.
Save my life from the sword, my precious life from the clutches of a dog. Deliver me from a lion’s mouth; from the horns of wild oxen rescue me. (Psalms 22:2, 17, 21-22)
This was the essential prayer of Queen Esther, before entering to plead to the king on behalf of her people:
On the third day, Esther put on royal apparel and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, facing the king’s palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace. (Esther 5:1)
Rabbi Levi said: Once she reached the chamber of the idols, which was in the inner court, the Divine Presence left her.
She immediately said: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”…perhaps You have left me because in my prayers I called him a dog, as it is stated: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my only one from the hand of the dog”.
She at once retracted and called him in her prayers a lion, as it is stated in the following verse: “Save me from the lion’s mouth”.
Esther, it seemed, didn’t have much choice in the matter. Her life was intertwined in a play of power and politics which had potential to change the course of her people’s history, as well impact her place in her own family line (Esther 4:14). Esther was a descendant of King Saul (Megillah 13b), who lost his throne through refraining from the proper action to annihilate the Amalekite King Agag (I Samuel 15:9), ancestor of Haman the Agagite (Esther 3:1).
The turning point in the story of Esther comes from an understanding she attained with regard to how she treated the antagonists in her life. Calling the oppressor a dog is belittling and demeaning. Calling the oppressor a lion, acknowledges an appreciation of greatness, but also of the dynamic of her opportunity to grow through this. The latter cannot be achieved while belittling the challenge at hand, as difficult as it may be, and that is why she lost her “Divine Spirit” when she refused to acknowledge her oppressor. When she rose to the occasion, she indeed brought about a salvation and a change which inscribed her name on this historic event celebrated annually with the festival of Purim.
Lions of Judah and Judaism
Judah is a lion’s whelp; On prey, my son, have you grown. He crouches, lies down like a lion, Like the king of beasts—who dare rouse him? (Gen. 49:9)
Walking out of Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate towards City Hall, and throughout the city, you will see many representations of lions. Rooted in city tradition, the capital of Judah’s biblical inheritance, the modern emblem is indeed a lion. The new emblem as seen on the Jerusalem Municipality website celebrates fifty years to the city’s liberation in 1967. The older, classic emblem is still visible in many places throughout the city:
Several stone lions are parts of building facades, on rooftops, and engraved in Jerusalem stone. How many lions have you spotted in Jerusalem?
Well, just driving through the city between February through September 2003, you would have seen at least a dozen lions of different color and design, painted by young, experienced artists, and placed in public locations throughout the city. It was quite a sight to see. Some were just plain beautiful, while some had religious and even political themes. I recall one x-ray lion which had a heap of human bones in its belly, and an arrow pointing to them with the word “Daniel”. Below are pictures from the presentation in City Hall, before their relocation throughout the city:
Later on, they were auctioned off to private owners, yet several still remain in prominent public places, such as the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, Misgav Ladach Street in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City at the top of the stairs going down to the Western Wall, and at the entrance to City Hall:
Sometime during 2009, I had the privilege of being hired to do maintenance work for two lions placed in the Jewish Quarter. For around five years I was their caretaker – I say caretaker and not painter, because there was much more to taking care of them than painting them. I covered some of that experience in my art blog. I must have heard hundreds of tour guides explaining – or asking me to explain – the significance of the lions to Jerusalem.
Besides being a hallmark of the city of Jerusalem, the lion is also popular in synagogue and Torah scroll ornamentation. This is because the lion stands for more than the holy city, but also for various components in the city itself, from times of old.
“Ah, Ariel, Ariel, City where David camped! Add year to year, Let festivals come in their cycles! (Isaiah 29:1)
As the prophet, Josiah laments and consoles Jerusalem for the upcoming oppression (possibly) by Sennacherib. He calls the city “Ariel”, which in Hebrew means “Lion of God”. The imagery of the lion is clearly associated with Jerusalem, which is in the portion of Judah. It is not only in metaphor however, but in architecture as well. This verse comes to hint at the structure of the main sanctuary in the Temple:
The Sanctuary was narrow in the back [the eastern side] and wide at the front [the eastern side], like a lion, as it says, “Ah, Ariel [lit. Lion of God] Ariel, the city where David camped.” (Isaiah 29:1) Just as a lion is narrow in his back and wide in front, so too was the Sanctuary narrow in the back and wide in the front. (Mishnah Middot 4:7)
There is a curious connection between the concept of service and lions. Even today, when there is no temple service, the Jewish tradition is that the three daily prayers correspond to the main offering times in the Temple services. The classical Code of Jewish Law known as Shulchan Aruch, by Rabbi Joseph Caro, opens with the following words:
One should strengthen himself like a lion to get up in the morning to serve his Creator, so that it is he who awakens the dawn.
This is based on the Mishnaic imagery of animal characteristics which should be emulated in our daily practice.
Yehudah ben Teimah says: Be brazen like the leopard, light like the eagle, swift like the deer, and mighty like the lion to do the Will of your Father Who is in Heaven. (Mishnah Avot 5:20)
But there is something deeper than simply emulating the might and strength of a lion, which can basically mean “early to bed, early to rise”. In fact, the essence of the inclination to invest in a relationship with the Creator is represented by the lion.
Quite surprisingly, this was learned through an attempt to eliminate the inclination for idolatry, during the Second Temple. According to the Talmud (Yoma 69b), the sages during the Second Temple realized that after all the trouble that idolatry caused during the First Temple, it was simply not worth the risk. Clearly metaphorical, the imagery used to describe the Inclination for Idolatry – and where it resided – were shocking:
In response to the indication of divine acceptance, they observed a fast for three days and three nights, and He delivered the Evil Inclination to them. A form of a fiery lion cub came forth from the chamber of the Holy of Holies.
Consider the implications: Idolatry played a central role in the moral disintegration of the Kingdom of Israel, and the ultimate destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. And its essence resided in the Holy of Holies – the Sanctum Sanctorum. What irony!
The sages were aware of this interdependence from the very start, and knew that eliminating that inclination came at a terrible price: The Service of the Creator around the Temple and the Altar, were predicated on a natural, evolutionary drive. It is no coincidence that some form of worship has been found in just about every culture in the world throughout history. This inclination was now, somehow, maimed. And that means that service became no longer intuitive and visceral, but rather intellectual. It is institutionalized.
In contrast, the drive and desire for service used to be so powerful, they had to be restrained.
Prayer is now an intellectual practice. And intellect removes us from experience, and presents a great challenge in an era where attention spans are significantly changing, due to incessant sensory stimulation. I am sure there is hardly a Jewish educator today who does not feel the challenges of engaging children in prayer. How does one encourage children who are so young and full of energy and compulsion to move, to engage in the intellectual, institutionalized side of Judaism?
I’ll finish with a treat.
Following the theme of decorating Jerusalem with lions, here is another example I was somewhat involved in.
For years, my mother has been an activist for the quality of life for residents of the Old City. There is an artist named Solomon Souza, who recently carried out a beautiful series of graffiti on shop doors throughout the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. This was featured in several news articles, including a YouTube video which I may have shared on social media. My mother asked me for the link to the video, so she could find the artist and contact him about doing some more art in the old city. Below is a taste of the result:
 The Assyrian Exile of the Ten Tribes occurred in three installments around the year 722 BCE. There are qualitative differences between the exiles and how they are perceived today. However, that is beyond the scope of this article.
 For example, see Shemot Rabbah 23:6, Shemot Rabbah 29, Pesikta Rabbati 33, Midrash Pesikta deRav Kahana 13:15, Yalkut Midrashei Teiman. I credit Rabbi Slifkin for making it so easy to find all of them in his wonderful book:
 Slifkin, page 66-72.
 In Hebrew, the word for eating and consumption by fire are interchangeable. E.g. Leviticus 9:24, 10:2.
 Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 26b.
 Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 1:1.
 II Kings 17:7-23.
 Parenthetically, it is curious that the people whom the Assyrians brought in order to repopulate Samaria, who did not know how to properly follow “the law of the God of the Land”, were attacked by lions (II Kings 17:24-27). These people converted (it surely was not called Judaism at the time), accepting the Law of the Land, and are sometimes referred to as “Converted by (fear of) Lions”, roughly translated (גרי אריות).
Slifkin, N. The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. The Biblical Museum of Natural History / Maggid Books / OU Press (2015).
Landy, Y. Purim and the Persian Empire. Feldheim Publishers (2010).