The Tale of an Owl, an Angel, & a Tummy Ache

black and brown owl

Luke said it was an angel. Joe, the first century Jewish historian also known as Josephus, calls it an owl. The king who met an unfortunate demise called it a messenger. If you ask me, they were all talking about the same thing.

Acts 12 is an interesting chapter that begins with the martyrdom of an apostle, the only one whose death is recorded in Scripture, and ends with the death of a king. Sandwiched between these fatal bookends is a story about Peter spending a hot minute in a Judean clinker. King Herod (the grandson of the Herod who killed children at the birth of Jesus) assigned four squads to keep Peter behind bars. The passionate disciple wasn’t always easy to keep locked up. The king’s paranoia was correct in that Peter was again miraculously released due to a stealthy angel. But Peter’s not the only one to get a divine visitor in this passage.

The chapter ends with Herod robed in fine clothing, taking glory that alone belongs to God. Luke records it this way:

On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. (Acts 12:21-23)

The aforementioned astute historian whom I call Joe describes essentially the same thing. How fascinating is that, that a non-biblical writer, a Jewish historian who had made friends with the Romans, records the same event about the death of Herod! Joe’s details are different, but not necessarily contradictory.

For example, he says Herod sees an owl that he describes as a messenger of an ill fate. The word for angel is messenger, so that wouldn’t have to be a contradiction. God has used animals to deliver messages before (see Numbers 22:21-39). What Herod perceived as the message from the owl carries the same outcome as what is accomplished by the angel in Acts 12.

Joe gives an interesting detail that could even shed a little light on the biblical data. Luke just tells us that worms ate Herod and caused his death, which gives me flashbacks from the movie Dune, to be honest. Did giant worms come out of the ground and swallow Herod whole, kind of a land version of the Jonah story? Or maybe it happened in a more subtle way.

Historian Joe’s account could make sense of what is going on here. Joe says that upon receiving the message of doom, Herod hunches over in pain, is taken inside with a really bad tummy ache and croaks a few days later. Here’s the account from Josephus if you want to read it for yourself:

At which festival a great multitude was gotten together of the principal persons, and such as were of dignity through his province. On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.” Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl 1 sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, “I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner.” When he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad every where, that he would certainly die in a little time. But the multitude presently sat in sackcloth, with their wives and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king’s recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground, he could not himself forbear weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign . . . “

So, there you have it, the tale of an owl, an angel, and a tummy ache. It’s not that we need a non-biblical source to validate the historical details of the Bible – but it’s always interesting when such sources are available. Such things always remind me of what the Nobel prize winning archeologist Nelson Glueck once said, “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference.”