Question: "What is the significance of vultures in the Bible?"
Answer: The word vulture in the Bible can refer to birds of prey generally and is not always limited to what we think of as vultures. Several Hebrew words are translated as “vulture” and can also refer to other birds in the raptor family: eagles, hawks, falcons, carrion vultures, and buzzards are all included (Lexham Bible Dictionary). Throughout the Bible, vultures usually carry a negative connotation:
Vultures are unclean. God forbade the Israelites to eat birds of prey, declaring them unclean (Leviticus 11:13; Deuteronomy 14:12). Vultures have an important, yet ugly job, to clean up dead and decaying carcasses, thus reducing the spread of disease. Since vultures typically consume a diet of carrion, these birds would not have been safe for the Israelites to eat and are therefore declared as unclean in the Mosaic Law.
Vultures contribute to a dishonorable death. In the Old Testament, exposure to birds of prey after death was a terrible and dishonorable fate. The Israelites understood the importance of proper burial, and having one’s body exposed after death was included among the Lord’s curses in the event of continual rebellion (Deuteronomy 28:26). Goliath and David both threatened one another with post-death exposure to birds of prey and wild animals (1 Samuel 17:44–46). When the Gibeonites were avenged, seven of Saul’s descendants were killed and their bodies left exposed to the elements, birds of prey, and wild animals (2 Samuel 21:6). To prevent dishonor, Saul’s concubine Rizpah kept guard over the bodies to keep the vultures and wild animals away (2 Samuel 21:10).
Vultures are a symbol of death and judgment. Both Old and New Testaments portray vultures as symbols of death and God’s judgment. For instance, in Proverbs 30:17 the consequence of scorning one’s parents is that the eye of the scorner “will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures.” The judgment of Samaria and Jerusalem includes a reference to a vulture (Micah 1:16). In his threat of judgment against Israel, Hosea also mentions a bird of prey, which the ESV translates as “vulture,” as representing God’s judgment against Israel (Hosea 8:1).
In the New Testament, vultures indicate the coming death and judgment of those who follow the Antichrist (Matthew 24:28; Luke 17:37; Revelation 19:19–21). After the battle of Armageddon, an angel calls out to the birds of prey, saying, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small” (Revelation 19:17–18).
Although these birds were created good along with the rest of creation, the vulture’s present purpose is a result of the fallen world. Vultures may have a foul reputation, but they do serve an important function in God’s creation and His Word.