Biblical Cats Again

The Methuselah of Biblioblogging, Jim Davila, draws attention to an article in Archaeology (19 June 2017) on the domestic cat’s origins in “Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt”.

Noting that “Israel” is included on the list, Jim mentions that the Hebrew Bible and New Testament “never once mention domestic cats”.

This is quite possibly correct. However, in an earlier post I suggested that there might be one mention of a (wild, but possibly able-to-be-domesticated) cat hidden in the pages of the Hebrew Bible. It all depends, though, on how one translates “lilith” in Isaiah 34:14 along with three other (wild) animals.

In later tradition, Lilith becomes a nocturnal demon, greatly feared at least since medieval times. But Lilith has since been reclaimed by feminists, Neopagans, and Magick practitioners, and also features in the TV series Supernatural.

Update (22 June 2017): Jim Davila responds. For much the same reasons he sets out, I only count my suggestion as a possibility at the moment, too. I haven’t seen any peer-review-published identifications of the lilith with a cat (but there may well be some), and I would need to find some other grounds to link the lilith to the domestic house cat (Felis catus) before I’d publish the idea. And the lilith is (as I noted) clearly wild rather than domesticated in Isaiah 34 – although, many cats (Felis catus) are indeed wild or feral. Maybe a future project. Cat-loving Bible-readers of the world must know the truth.

Are there cats in the Bible? Maybe, yes

nativity-scene-with-cat

It’s often said that there are no cats in the Bible – referring to the animal which became the domestic house cat (Felis catus or Felis silvestris catus).

But is that true?

There’s a good case to be made that the biblical Lilith was a cat.

It’s true that later rabbinic tradition understood Lilith to be a demon. In one rabbinic tradition, for example, Lilith is an incubus demon, collecting the sperm ejaculated from men’s nocturnal emissions, and using it to create demonic babies (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 151b). And in one medieval tradition, Lilith becomes the first wife of Adam, before Adam left her for a more submissive woman, who didn’t demand that she always must be on top (The Alphabet of ben Sirach).

But in the Bible, the lilith (לִילִית) appears only in one verse, where she simply appears alongside the mention of ordinary animals. The lilith is quite probably, therefore, simply another animal. In Isaiah 34.14, the lilith is named alongside three other four-footed animals which commonly occupy ruins or the wilderness, probably (depending on the translation), the wildcat, the hyena, and the goat.

The cat was, after all, widely known and partially domesticated by the late first millennium BCE, all the way from eastern Asia through to Africa and Europe. People back then knew that cats were extremely useful in getting rid of rodents and their accompanying disease. So it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if there were one mention of a cat in the Old Testament.

Consider too, that the cat is most active at night, which might explain the apparent connection of ‘lilith’ to the Hebrew for night (לילה). The etymology is not found in other Semitic languages, but there was a wide variety of Semitic terms used for “cat”. Then there’s the old folk wisdom that you don’t let a cat near a sleeping child’s cradle or they snuff out their breath, which might have developed into the later legend about Lilith as a demon who kills infant children. Lastly, the medieval Spanish Jewish representation of Lilith is “El Broosha”, who is … a big black cat.

So, maybe there is one mention of a cat in the Bible. And maybe baby Jesus and the young John the Baptist used to play with their pet cat, as in the painting by Federico Barocci:

Federico Barocci, 'The Madonna of the Cat' (ca. 1575)
Federico Barocci, ‘The Madonna of the Cat’ (ca. 1575)