The Riddle of the Vulture and the End Times: Who Gets Left Behind?

August 2012

Eschatological Pulp Fiction

Shortly after my arrival in Jerusalem in the fall of 1982, I was introduced to someone who had written a number of articles and newsletters regarding Israel and the End Times. One particular story about vultures caught my attention especially since the claims were quite astounding. The title had to do with a sudden and dramatic increase in vulture populations across the country, especially in the Jezreel Valley where the ancient city, Megiddo is located. Here at “Har Megiddo (=Ar-mageddon: "mountain of Megiddo"),” a final battle is prophesied to take place with “birds of the air” devouring the defeated armies (Rev 16:16; 19:17-18). The concluding points of this person’s article led the clueless reader to believe that with the growing vulture hordes, the final conflict of “Armageddon” was due to begin in a matter of hours.

This was my first encounter with Christian eschatological “pulp fiction,” or sensationalism, designed to excite specific audiences—primarily Evangelical communities in the United States—in order to bolster financial support. And of course, the money flowed. Some of these “publishers of doom” lived in the most exclusive neighborhoods in Jerusalem, even owning yachts and luxury cars while purporting to be experts and eye witnesses to end times phenomena, which were only available to the readers through these small-time basement presses in Jerusalem. I was a little naïve back then, and admit that much of my biblical focus was on eschatology, so I eagerly devoured their material.

Since those days, though, I have become more familiar with Israel’s flora and fauna. While guiding study tour groups over the past two decades, I have paid closer attention to some of Israel’s key nesting grounds of vultures and other migratory birds of prey.1 It is well documented that Israel’s current population of vultures has unfortunately diminished to the brink of extinction. Two species have already fallen off the bird watcher’s charts, the Bearded Vulture and the Cinereous Vulture, and two others, the Griffon Vulture and Egyptian Vulture, have dropped to less than 40 nesting pairs with only ten chicks recorded last year (2011). Before 1948 there was an estimated 1000 nesting pairs of Griffon Vultures.2

Vultures and the End Times

While the current Israeli vulture population may not be of a “prophetic proportion,” we still might consider a teaching of Jesus alluding to vultures and their involvement in the end times. Jesus said,

“Whoever seeks to keep his life shall lose it, and whoever loses his life shall preserve it.
I tell you, on that night there will be two men in one bed;
one will be taken, and the other will be left. 

There will be two women grinding at the same place;
one will be taken, and the other will be left. 

Two men will be in the field;
one will be taken and the other will be left.”

And answering they said to Him,
‘Where, Lord?’ And He said to them,
‘Where the body is, there also will the vultures be gathered.” (Lk 17:33-37, NASB)

Jesus’ disciples are clearly perplexed; they want to know the location for those who are taken. They probably felt the need to ask, “Where, Lord?”, because prior to these verses, Jesus had reminded his disciples of biblical scenarios such as the days of Noah and the Flood, or the days of Lot at Sodom. In both cases the good were taken away, or spared, while the evil ones that were “left behind” were destroyed. In Jesus’ statement above, however, it would appear that those who are “taken away” end up dead (i.e. vultures gathering to eat them). Therefore, the disciples may have been confused by Jesus’ concluding point. If one is thinking of Noah and Lot where the “taken” are spared, it simply does not make sense that those who are taken would end up in a place of death. In the other biblical examples, Jesus’ focus was on saving the good. Yet, the question should be asked, is Jesus’ focus here about saving the good or destroying the bad?

On Wings of Vultures

Many a famous scriptural allusion references “eagles” in Western Civilization, like “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles (Isa 40:31),” or “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself (Ex 19:4).” The majesty and valor of an eagle has led different Western nations throughout history to adorn their flags and national identities with the eagle’s image. Yet, few English speakers are aware that the Hebrew word, nesher נשר, which is often rendered as “eagle” in Bible translations, really means “vulture.” There are few eagles in Israel, unless they are briefly passing through during migrations, while the Griffon vulture has a venerated history in the Ancient Near East, even being worshiped as a god in Egypt and Mesopotamia. This long-winged scavenger of the Middle East, with its high altitude flying,3 is the true fit for those citations...


“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like vultures (Isa 40:31).”

“You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt,
and how I carried you on vultures’ wings and brought you to myself (Ex 19:4).”

In the New Testament, aetoi (αετοι) is the Greek equivalent for nesher נשר. In Greek, aetoi predominantly means “eagles”. In the Greek and Roman culture, eagles were more represented than vultures, and so it would be easy to understand why many translations would posit Jesus words as "Where the body is, there also will the eagles (aetoi) be gathered." And following that translation, it might seem reasonable to choose, as most commentators do, to render aetoi as “eagles,” symbolic of Roman power and the impending destruction of Jerusalem by the gathering eagles (i. e. Roman army).4 While there may be occasions when very hungry eagles feast on dead carcasses, the bottom line is that most, if not all, of Israel’s long-term, or permanent, nesharim or aetoi residents are vultures, who are renown for their scavenging of the dead. Besides this, Jesus was a Hebrew-speaking Jew raised within a Torah-centric culture, where a vulture would be common, and its biblical allusions obvious. In fact, Jesus was very likely quoting the Hebrew scripture of Job 39:30.

“Where the Carcass is, There Vultures Gather”

David Bivin has provided a reconstruction of Lk 17:37 based on Jesus alluding to Job 39:30 “ובאשר חללים שם הוא ” (uva'asher halalim sham hu), “and wherever there are slain, there it is” (“it” being understood as “vulture” from Job 39:27-29). He suggests a more idiomatic translation of Jesus’ saying to read, “Wherever there is a slain person, there vultures gather.”5 The Greek word that is used in Lk 17:37 for “body” is soma (σωμα) which can mean a dead carcass or living being.6 This resonates well with our understanding of Jesus and his frequent Scripture allusions; however, we are still left with a riddle to solve. If the ones who are “taken” are also the “slain ones” then the point of this teaching is not about rescuing the good “body,” but rather the destruction of the bad “carcass”.

There may be a thematic connection between Lk 17:30-37 and Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and Tares (Mt 13:24-40), where the wheat and tares represent good and evil people in the world; both are allowed to grow together until harvest time, which represents the “end of the age.” In other words, both the good and the evil people will live normal human lives—eating, drinking, marrying, buying, planting, building, selling (like in the days of Noah and Lot, Lk 17:26-29). But in the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, the tares are “taken” out first and burned; afterward the wheat that is “left behind” is saved. So too, Lk 17:30-37, seems to imply that a similar destructive fate will happen for those who are “taken”—they are the carcasses to be eaten by the vultures.

A Redemptive Remnant

In contrast to current, popular end times theology that focuses on the “taking out” of believers from this world while those “left behind” on earth suffer punishment and destruction, we might want to reconsider this end times teaching of Jesus that implies that those left behind are not the wicked. Instead of dreaming about leaving this troubled, wicked world, maybe we should focus on being a faithful, holy remnant.

In that day the Branch of the LORD will be beautiful and glorious,
and the fruit of the earth will be the pride and the adornment of the survivors of Israel.
And it will come about that he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy—everyone who is recorded for life in Jerusalem.(Isaiah 4:2-3 NASB)

1 Gamla in the Golan, the Hula Nature Reserve, and spots in the Negev such as the Tzin Canyon near Avdat.

2 Zafrir Rinat, “Israel Asks World for help as Vulture Population Dwindles” (Ha’aretz Sept 16, 2011).  See also Thomas Krumenacker photo survey data fall of 2010 and spring of 2011 His team counted 110,000 Lesser Spotted Eagles migrating through Israel; a few hundred Short Toed Eagles migrating; A few hundred Booted Eagles; and a few dozen Eastern Imperial Eagles.

3 A cousin of the Griffon Vulture hit an aircraft at 37,000 feet in 1973 over Western Africa.  See “Collision between a Vulture and an Aircraft at an Altitude of 37,000 Feet” Roxie C. Laybourne, The Wilson Bulletin, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Dec., 1974), pp. 461-462.

4 See Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary, John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible et al.

5 David N. Bivin, “The Meaning of Luke 17:37b: “Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together,’” (Jerusalem Perspective 37 [Mar./Apr. 1992]): 2, 18-19.

6 See the comments of James G.D. Dunn, “The Theology of Paul the Apostle.” Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1998 p. 55-56. In the classic work of Homer (9th Century BC) soma is always rendered as a dead body or corpse, while in the later Koine literature of the New Testament, soma is often applied to a living body, e.g. “the body of Christ” (Mt 26:26).