Biblical Bears

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Of course, neither the Corps of Discovery nor Henry Brackenridge invented the legend of Ursus arctos horribilis. They merely inked in some more details, which enhanced the fright factor. Fear of bears may well reside deep in the collective subconscious of the human animal, if Biblical authority is any indication. The bear of Palestine, Ursus arctos syriacus, has been extinct since the early 20th century.

There are warnings about annoyed or hungry bears (Amos 5:19), as well as females with cubs (II Kings 2:24), which certainly are still worth heeding.

A she-bear robbed of her cubs is a simile for human anger (II Samuel 17:8; Isaiah. 59:11; Ecclesiastes. 25:17), and for the wrath of God (Hosea. 13:8): "I will meet them as a bear that is bereaved of her whelps, . . . the wild beast shall tear them."

The bear is Nature's trope for a wicked ruler (Proverbs, 28:15); for God lying in wait (Lam. 3:10); for the prowess of David the shepherd (I Samuel 17:34, 36-37; and for the coming age of peace (Isaiah 11:7).

Could a frontier preacher have overlooked the suitability of the metaphor of the fabled grizzly to drive his message of divine retribution deep under the skins of westering sinners? Two Old Testament figures were names to hang the lesson on, and there was more to their stories than just names for a beast.

Ephraim (Genesis 48) was leader of the Ephraimites, the most warlike of the twelve tribes of Israel. Their land was bordered on the east by the Jordan River, on the west by the Mediterranean Sea. (The last grizzly in the state of Utah, trapped and shot by a sheepherder in 1923, was an 1,100-pound, 9 foot 11 inch livestock killer known as "Old Ephraim.")

Moses gave the land of Canaan to Caleb (Numbers 13-14), who was the leader of the tribe of Judah. "Old Caleb," the grizzly, was anointed custodian of the American West, the Garden of the World, the new Promised Land, "which floweth with milk and honey."

Finally, for all modern defenders of the endangered species, Ursus arctos horribilis, it is King Solomon's wisdom (Proverbs 17:12) which offers words to crusade by: "Better to meet a she-bear robbed of its cubs than to confront a fool immersed in folly."