Various species of owls are mentioned in the Old Testament. Apart from references to owls as unclean birds, the Bible features owls figuratively to symbolize tormenting loneliness, desolation, mourning, and judgment.
The Mosaic Law classifies owls and other birds of prey as unclean, meaning they were forbidden to be eaten as food by Israel: “These are the birds you are to regard as unclean and not eat because they are unclean: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kite, any kind of raven, the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl” (Leviticus 11:13–18; see also Deuteronomy 14:11–17). Owls were considered unclean most likely because they are predatory creatures who eat flesh with the blood in it.
Owls are among the wild predators that have long dwelled in the desert lands and abandoned ruins of Egypt and the Holy Land. Both Isaiah and Zephaniah speak of owls nesting in ruined wastelands to paint symbolic images of barrenness, emptiness, and utter desolation: “For the LORD has a day of vengeance, a year of retribution, to uphold Zion’s cause. Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land will become blazing pitch! It will not be quenched night or day; its smoke will rise forever. From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again. The desert owl and screech owl will possess it; the great owl and the raven will nest there. God will stretch out over Edom the measuring line of chaos and the plumb line of desolation. . . . The owl will nest there and lay eggs, she will hatch them, and care for her young under the shadow of her wings” (Isaiah 34:8–11, 15; see also Isaiah 13:21; Psalm 102:3–6; Zephaniah 2:13).
The prophet Jeremiah illustrates Babylon’s destruction and perpetual desertion as a city whose only inhabitants are desert creatures, hyenas, and owls: “So desert creatures and hyenas will live there, and there the owl will dwell. It will never again be inhabited or lived in from generation to generation” (Jeremiah 50:39).
In Psalm 102:3–6, the owl symbolizes the loneliness of the psalmist’s tortured heart: “For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers. My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food. In my distress I groan aloud and am reduced to skin and bones. I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins.”
Micah compares the voice of these nocturnal creatures to a mournful lament: “Therefore, I will mourn and lament. I will walk around barefoot and naked. I will howl like a jackal and moan like an owl” (Micah 1:8, NLT). One scholar offers this personal account of the owl’s haunting sound: “Its cry is a loud, prolonged, and very powerful hoot. I know nothing which more vividly brought to my mind the sense of desolation and loneliness than the re-echoing hoot of two or three of these great owls as I stood at midnight among the ruined temples of Baalbek” (M. G. Easton, quoting Tristam’s Natural History of the Bible, “Owl,” Easton’s Bible Dictionary, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893).
The New Testament contains no references to owls.