The Deer – אַיָּל (ayyal), אַיָּלָה (ayyalah), עֹ֫פֶר (opher), יַחְמוּר (yachmur)

Richard Goode considers the important place deer held for the biblical writers and still do hold within the British psyche.

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There is something special about encountering deer. Increases in population has meant that, in many woodland locations and at certain times of the year, they are fairly easy to spot. Many country parks and estates also keep herds and can allow some very close encounters with them. Despite their antlers, and the rather fierce reputation of stags, deer seem to hold a very special place within the British psyche. This attitude appears also to be reflected by some of the biblical writers.

The Deer of Israel

Slifkin (2015:222) observes that deer were once common in Israel and are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible 21 times. Tristram (1898:99) notes that the number of place names which contain references to deer attest to their proliferation. For example, Aijalon, or ‘deer pasture,’ occurs as the name of a Leviticus city in the tribe of Dan (Joshua 21:24 and Judges 12:12). However, deforestation and hunting resulted in their eradication from the wild by the early 20th century. More recently, from the 1950s, successful attempts have been made to reintroduce two species, the Persian fallow and roe deer (Slifkin, 2015:238).

France (1986:47) states that there were three deer species (cervidae) living in biblical Israel; the red deer, roe deer and fallow deer. Skeletal remains of large red deer have been found in Israel, but it is not known when they died out (Slifkin, 2015:222). The smaller roe deer were very common in the Mount Carmel and the upper Galilee regions until the early 20th century, with the last being shot in 1912 (Slifkin, 2015:222). However, the most common deer type appears to have been the Persian (or Mesopotamian) fallow (Dama dama mesopotamica), which differs from its European counterpart by being larger and whose antlers are not as ‘palmated’ (broad and flat near the top).

Persian fallow deer (Dama dama mesopotamica) reintroduced into Israel in 1978. Image:

One of the problems identifying the specific deer types within the Bible is that, as in English, the term ‘deer’ can act generically referring to any deer (or deer-like) animal. Most of the references to ‘deer’ broadly follow this pattern. Nevertheless, the United Bible Societies (1980:20) recommends translators to identify אַיָּל (ayyal), אַיָּלָה (ayyalah), עֹ֫פֶר (opher) as denoting a specific species with the roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), and the יַחְמוּר (yachmur) with fallow deer (Dama dama) (1980:26; so too Tristram, 1898:83-84). Slifkin (2015:223) argues that identifying yachmur with the very common fallow is problematic as it is used just twice in the Hebrew Bible and suggests that it more likely denotes the hartebeest (Slifkin 2015:256-260).

Food for the table

The list of animals it was permitted to eat (kosher) in the Torah is divided into two parts: First domestic and then wild. Deer are listed first among the kosher wild animals.

‘These are the animals you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, 5the deer [yachmur], the gazelle [ayyal], the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, and the mountain-sheep.’ 

Deuteronomy 14:4-5 (NRSV)

Slifkin (2015:236) suggests that this possibly reflects the prevalence of deer and also for the popularity of venison. Person (2014:59) also notes that deer (and gazelle) are also singular in that it is the only clean wild animal included in the lists concerning the consumption of meat from profane slaughter – that is for the killing of an animal outside the temple confines.

‘But if [the first born of the flock] has any defect—any serious defect, such as lameness or blindness—you shall not sacrifice it to the Lord your God; 22 within your towns you may eat it, the unclean and the clean alike, as you would a gazelle or deer.’ 

Deuteronomy 15:21-22 (NRSV)

When listing the sumptuous fare served daily at the table of King Solomon, the writer of 1 Kings lists deer (ayyal) again heads the list of wild meat:

‘Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of choice flour, and sixty cors of meal, 23ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, one hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl.’

1 Kings 4:22-23 (NRSV)

Sacrificial deer?

Even thought it was unacceptable to use deer as a sacrifice, Borowski (1998:224-227) notes the surprisingly large amount of fallow deer bones found at early Canaanite cultic (sacrificial) sites. Although this could indicate that sites like these should not be identified as being ‘Israelite’, he (1998:227) concludes that the spread and frequency of these finds suggest that while “domestic ruminants were the major component of ancient Israel’s sacrifices”, wild ungulates, like gazelle and deer, as well as more exotic animals, such as lions, appeared to also feature in the cultic tradition.

Hind’s feet in high places

The graceful agility and speed of the deer is a recurring motif within biblical literature. Although not quite as nimble as goats, their ability to negotiate challenging terrain is reflected in the image of a hind (female deer) on a high place. A psalm (or song) of King David declares how his God has preserved his life and kept him safe during times of danger (particularly in escaping from his enemies). The image of the deer is particularly affecting here:

‘He made my feet like the feet of deer,
 and set me secure on the heights.’ 

2 Samuel 22:34 and Psalm 18:33 (NRSV)

This image appears again in the words ascribed to the prophet Habakkuk:

God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.’

Habakkuk 3:19 (NRSV)

The agility or perhaps speed of the deer is alluded to in Isaiah:

‘then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.’

Isaiah 35:6 (NRSV)

The agility associated with the deer continues to be celebrated within the later Jewish writings. The following is from the Nishmat prayer that is recited on the morning of Shabbat.

‘Even if our mouths were as full of song as is the sea, and our tongues as full of rejoicing as the multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the expanse of sky, and our hands spread like the vultures of the heavens, and our feet as light of those of deer – we could not adequately thank you, God our Lord.’

Nishmat Kol Chai also Tanna DeVei Eliyahu Rabba

The fragility of the deer

It might be argued that what makes the deer such a compelling image that can elicit from us such warm feelings is its apparent vulnerability. Its slender figure heightens the impression of it being delicate and vulnerable to its surroundings. This idea is particularly powerful in a terrain that can be harsh and unyielding, particularly from drought. The Davidic psalm (42) captures the anguish of a deer crying from thirst:*

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.’

Psalm 42:1 (NRSV)

The image of the deer unable to find pasture (possibly due to drought) is also found in Lamentations 1:6 and Jeremiah 14:5.

Later Jewish literature develops this theme, emphasising the role of God in providing it the means to survive. One lovely midrash on Psalm 22 (that also gives us an insight to the special place this animals holds) states:

‘You find with this deer, that when it is thirsty, it digs a hole, and inserts its antlers, and lows, and water rises from the deep, as it says, “As a deer yearning for streams of water.” And the Rabbis said: This is the most pious of animals, and it has much compassion upon its young; and when the animals are thirsty, they gather to it, because they know its deeds are pious, so that it shall raise its eyes upon high, and the Holy One will have compassion on them… when David saw that the Holy One answers it, he began to compose this psalm regarding it: “For the Conductor, on the morning hind” (Ps.22:1)’

Midrash Tehillim 22

Symbol of love

If the deer has a special place in the heart of the ‘Holy One’, it also has a special place in the heart of lovers. That great song and celebration of love and sensuality, the Song of Songs, has no fewer than seven references to deer. Twice it includes a rather strange oath:

‘I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
by the gazelles or the wild does [ayyal]:
do not stir up or awaken love
until it is ready!’ 

Song of Songs 2:7 and 3:5 (NRSV)

Slifkin (2015:227) suggests that the fact that deer (and gazelles) are both used as objects in this oath is an indication to the high regard in which these animals were held; “one only swears upon that which is very precious.”

However, it is the grace and beauty of the deer that makes it so suitable as a romantic image.

‘Your two breasts are like two fawns [opher],
twins of a gazelle,
that feed among the lilies.’ 

Song of Songs 4:5 and 7:3 (NRSV)

The ‘beloved’ is also twice likened to a deer (ayyal). What is particularly striking is that both Jewish and Christian allegorical readings of this text understand the beloved to represent God.

My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.’

Song of Songs 2:9a (NRSV)

‘Until the day breathes
and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle
or a young stag on the cleft mountains.’

Song of Songs 2:14 (NRSV)

The use of the deer as an image suited to romantic and sexual love can also be found in Proverbs. Here the (male) reader is instructed to reject the allures of foreign (זוּר – zur) women and to rejoice in the ‘wife of his youth’, who is described as:

a lovely deer [ayyal], a graceful doe [ayyalah].
May her breasts satisfy you at all times;
may you be intoxicated always by her love.’ 

Proverbs 5:19 (NRSV)

The deer and Satan

So far deer appear to be treated in a universally positive way by Biblical and later Jewish tradition (if permission to be eaten can be viewed as positive!). However, France (1986:48) records two rather strange Hebrew legends that associate the deer with the machinations of Satan. Unfortunately they are unreferenced and I would be grateful for any further information about them.

The first story relates to the part a deer played in the deception of Isaac when he blessed Jacob rather than Esau. The legend describes how Esau was out hunting deer. Every time he caught one, Esau would secure it, leave it in a safe place, and go to look for another one. Each time Esau left to continue his hunt, Satan came and set the deer free, so that when Esau returned with another deer, the first one had gone. This happened a number of times and delayed Esau so much that Jacob could secure his father’s blessing.

Another legend describes how, while the young David is out hunting, Satan disguises himself as a deer and manages to lure David deep into Philistine territory. Here, David is seized by the giant Ishbi (who is brother of Goliath) who throws him into a wine press where he would be crushed to death. Fortunately, the earth miraculously opens to allow David to escape.

More information on British deer

The British Deer Society offers lots of information and tips on spotting, identifying and enjoying all things deer –

Final word – a poem

This wonderful poem by Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950) sums up the intimately special nature of encountering the deer – or indeed, any wild creature. It captures the close connection we can almost instantly feel and yet also that feeling of complete and total ‘foreigness’ of our two lives that separates us.

The Fawn by Edna St Vincent Millay

There it was I saw what I shall never forget
And never retrieve.
Monstrous and beautiful to human eyes, hard to believe,
He lay, yet there he lay,
Asleep on the moss, his head on his polished cleft small ebony hooves,
The child of the doe, the dappled child of the deer.

Surely his mother had never said, ‘Lie here
Till I return, ‘ so spotty and plain to see
On the green moss lay he.
His eyes had opened; he considered me.
I would have given more than I can care to say
To thrifty ears, might I have had him for a friend
One moment only of that forest day:

Might I have had the acceptance, not the love
Of those clear eyes;
Might I have been for him in the bough above
Or the root beneath his forest bed,
A part of the forest, seen without surprise.

Was it alarm, or was it the wind of my fear lest he depart
That jerked him to his jointy knees,
And sent him crashing off, leaping and stumbling
On his new legs, between the stems of the white trees?


*Slifkin (2015:229) notes that the che’ayyal taargog (like a deer crying) reflects the belief that animals can vocalise their distress and the deer, in this respect, is no different. He also records that instances of stags calling loudly during drought have been recorded.


Borowski, O. (1998) Every Living Thing: Daily use of animals in ancient Israel. Walnut Creek: Altmira Press.

France, Peter. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Bible Animals. London: Croom Helm.

Person, R.F. (2014) Deuteronomy and Environmental Amnesia. Earth Bible Commentary 3. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.

Slifkin, Natan. (2015) The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom: Volume One: Chayot: Wild animals. New York: Toby Press.

Tristram, H.B. (1898) The natural history of the Bible : being a review of the physical geography, geology, and meteorology of the Holy Land; with a description of every animal and plant mentioned in the Holy Scripture. 9th edn. London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.

United Bible Societies (1980) Fauna and Flora of the Bible. Helps for Translators. 2nd. edn. London: United Bible Societies.

This article was originally posted here as part of Richard’s ‘Biblically Wild’ blog series on Newman University website.