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Providence and Lion Attacks
Although this website is called "Rationalist Judaism," I have never personally claimed to be a perfect rationalist; instead, I usually describe myself as "rationalistically inclined." There are certain issues with which I simply can't personally adhere to the rationalist approach. One of them is providence.
As I discussed in The Challenge Of Creation, from a rationalist standpoint, personal providence is to be downplayed. Pre-hassidic rabbinic authorities generally did not see everything as being bashert. And I'm also aware of how easy it is for the human mind to see pattern and significance in that which, statistically speaking, contains none.
But I can't help how I feel. Quite simply, I really strongly feel a tremendous amount of divine providence in my own life. I'm not just talking about all the various blessings that I enjoy as a result of how my life has turned out. I'm not even just talking about the way in which those who campaigned against me experienced their own downfall, which continually unfolds. I'm talking about the way in which, in the course of writing books for the public about Judaism and the natural sciences, obscure but incredibly useful pieces of information find their way to me - sometimes at extraordinarily fortuitous times.
Twelve years ago, I began writing The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. At the moment, I am finishing the first volume, on chayos (wild animals). I left writing the chapter on lions until last, even though it appears first in the book, due to its difficulty. Over the last few months I have been completing this chapter, and on Friday I came to a particularly problematic section, regarding how lions hunt.
Zoologists have observed that while the lion’s method of obtaining prey takes many forms, the most common method involves co-operative hunting in which several lions will stalk their prey, fan out, and some will then rush the prey animal and chase it towards the others. Zoological studies also describe lionesses as doing most of the killing of prey, with males enjoying the results of the lionesses’ kills. George Schaller's seminal study of lion behavior, performed in the Serengeti, describes how out of a total of 1,210 lions observed stalking and chasing after their prey, only 3% were males.
Such co-operative stalking and chasing by lionesses is, however, never described in Scripture. Instead, all accounts of lion attacks – most of which are metaphorical, but which should still be using an image drawn from reality – are of solitary male lions that are lying in ambush:
He lies in wait secretly, like a lion in his den; he lies in wait to catch the poor; he catches the poor, when he draws him into his net. (Psalms 10:9)
He is like a lion that is greedy for its prey, and like a young lion lurking in secret places. (Psalms 17:12)
[God] is to me like a bear lying in ambush, and like a lion in secret places. (Lamentations 3:10)
Why does Scripture describe male lions hunting via ambush, if the zoological accounts of hunting involve lionesses hunting via stalking and chasing? This was the problem that I faced on Friday morning.
I stared at these verses on my computer screen, trying to figure out how I would address this topic in my encyclopedia. A burst of inspiration completely failed to enter my head. So I did what I usually do in such situations; I temporarily gave up, and switched windows on my computer in order to take a look at my feeds from various websites. And, lo and behold, there was a headline about a newly published report on lion behavior, which directly addressed this problem.
It turns out that the reason why zoological accounts of lions hunting involve lionesses stalking and chasing their prey is that the zoological studies were, until very recently, necessarily selective. Most studies of lions hunting have taken place in open savannah such as the Serengeti, where it is easy to observe such behavior. But the study that hit the news on Friday utilized GPS devices fitted to lions and laser-based terrain mapping technology. This revealed that while in the open savannah, the hunting is mostly done via lionesses stalking and chasing, in forested regions it is different: male lions hunt alone, via ambushing their prey. (It does not appear that they hunt on behalf of the females, but who knows, perhaps this will yet be demonstrated.)
The reason for this has to do with the physical differences between male and female lions. Males are much more powerfully built, with a heavy mane. This makes them well-suited for fighting other males for control of the pride, but it makes them slower and less agile than females, and the mane harms their ability to camouflage themselves in grass. Whereas lionesses can engage in group hunting involving stalking and speed, male lions must use a technique of ambushing. Such a technique is most effective in dense forest. This terrain is not very common in the African savannah, but there would have been much of it in Biblical Israel, which was much more densely forested than the Israel of today.
The lion has come up from his thicket... a lion from the forest shall slay them… (Jeremiah 4:7, 5:6)
The typical lion attack in Biblical Israel would have been an ambush from a solitary male lion in a thicket, not the stalking and chasing done by groups of lions in the Serengeti. Fabulous!
The timing of my seeing this news report was simply exquisite. That's why I can't be a full-blooded rationalist. Who knows, maybe I should try reciting Perek Shirah as a segulah to get funding for my museum!