Animal Imagery in Apocalyptic Literature by Kelly J. Murphy

Horses, lambs, rams, goats, bulls, leopards, eagles, and more—animals practically leap from the pages of ancient apocalyptic literature. Though often strange to contemporary readers, animal imagery was one way that the writers of ancient apocalyptic texts addressed real-life concerns.

Found only in Rev 6:1-8, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse remain among the most enduring images from the book of Revelation and continue to appear across popular culture: a regular segment was named after them on The Colbert Report, Marvel Comics uses the supervillains dubbed “Horsemen of Apocalypse,” and Viktor Vasnetov’s painting is often instantly recognized as depicting the “Four Horsemen.”

Within Revelation, the horses—white, red, black, and pale—function as symbols. Usually, interpreters understand that white equals conquest, red stands for war, black for famine, and pale (a green or grey color) for disease and death; in other words, the horses symbolize what might take place during the end times. Scholars often note that the author(s) of Rev 6:1-8 reused horse imagery from the book of Zechariah in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Zech 1:7-11, Zech 6:1-8). Ancient apocalyptic texts often employ animal imagery symbolically, (re)using earlier traditions in order to address current concerns.

In another example, a dragon, two beasts, and a lamb appear in Rev 13:1-18. Each of these animals evokes older traditions and myths to create new symbolic meanings. Some scholars see the first beast as an indirect allusion to Leviathan, a sea monster often associated with chaos that has precedents in ancient Near Eastern myths. The second beast may be an indirect reference to Behemoth, a giant land animal that is identified as a mythological creature in several noncanonical texts. Within the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh sometimes defeats Leviathan (Ps 74:14, Job 3:8, Job 26:13, Job 41:1-34); Leviathan and Behemoth are also imagined in apocalyptic texts as the source of the food available at the end of days feast when God ultimately defeats chaos (1 En 60:7-9, 1 En 24, 2Esd 6:49-42).

While these particular animal images symbolize chaos, and their defeat signifies God’s power over it (especially at the time of [re]creation), their appearance in Rev 13 suggests the magnitude of the power that opposes the Christian God (e.g., Rev 12:1-13:14). The first beast is a symbol for the then-dominant Roman Empire, while the second beast is often understood as a symbol for the more local powers that may have threatened some early Christians. The lamb, usually associated with meekness or sacrifice, is powerful throughout Revelation, representing the crucified Jesus as the risen Christ working at the command of God (e.g., Rev 5).

In Rev 13:7, the first beast is a combination of leopard, bear, and lion. In the Hebrew Bible, precedent animal imagery is found in Dan 7:1-8, where a series of four mythic beasts emerge from the sea: a lion with eagle’s wings (Dan 7:4), a bear-like creature with terrifying teeth (Dan 7:5), and a four-headed, four-winged leopard-like creature that is given “dominion” (Dan 7:6).

Following the first three creatures, a fourth beast arises, spouting ten horns, which often indicate power in ancient literature (Dan 7:7). As Daniel watches, a “little horn” emerges and three of the other horns are destroyed (Dan 7:8). Scholarly consensus is that the ten horns likely symbolize the Seleucid emperors who came to power in the wake of the fall of the Persian Empire, while the “little horn” is a coded way to discuss Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who is remembered for his tyrannical rule and how he desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem.

According to some scholars, the hybrid creatures are borrowed from Babylonian imagery. Other explanations focus on the predatory nature of the animals, which is a coded reference to the dangerous empires they represent. Alternatively, perhaps such unnatural combinations demonstrate how these empires are the antithesis of God’s orderly creation. That the strange beasts are symbolic tropes and so not expected to actually rise out of the sea is made abundantly clear when Daniel asks a divine attendant to explain them: the beasts are the four empires that will eventually be destroyed by Yahweh (Dan 7:15-28).

Kelly J. Murphy, "Animal Imagery in Apocalyptic Literature ", n.p. [cited 24 Sep 2022]. Online:



Kelly J. Murphy
Assistant Professor, Central Michigan University

Kelly J. Murphy is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University. Her research focuses on the Hebrew Bible, including the construction of gender in the Bible, the functions and use of apocalyptic literature in both the ancient and contemporary worlds, and the afterlives of biblical narratives on wealth and poverty. She is coeditor of a volume entitled Apocalypses in Context: Apocalyptic Currents throughout the Ages (Fortress Press, 2016).

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Absence of order. In the ancient Near East, chaos was believed to precede and surround the order of the known world.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

A period of time that appears most often in apocalyptic texts and refers to a future time marked by radical change, at the end of human history.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

Of or related to textual materials that are not part of the accepted biblical canon.

related to an oppressive power

Rev 6:1-8

The Seven Seals
1Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, “Come!”2I l ... View more

Rev 6:1-8

The Seven Seals
1Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, “Come!”2I l ... View more

Zech 1:7-11

First Vision: The Horsemen
7On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the ... View more

Zech 6:1-8

Eighth Vision: Four Chariots
1And again I looked up and saw four chariots coming out from between two mountains—mountains of bronze.2The first chariot had red h ... View more

Rev 13:1-18

1And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names.2And the ... View more

Ps 74:14

14You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.

Job 3:8

8Let those curse it who curse the Sea,
those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan.

Job 26:13

13By his wind the heavens were made fair;
his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.

Job 41:1-34

1 “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook,
or press down its tongue with a cord?2Can you put a rope in its nose,
or pierce its jaw with a hook?3Will it make ... View more

2Esd 6:49-42

49“Then you kept in existence two living creatures; the one you called Behemoth and the name of the other Leviathan.

Rev 12:1-13:14

The Woman and the Dragon
1A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve star ... View more

Rev 5

The Scroll and the Lamb
1Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals;2a ... View more

Rev 13:7

7Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation,

Dan 7:1-8

Visions of the Four Beasts
1In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the ... View more

Dan 7:4

4The first was like a lion and had eagles' wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two ... View more

Dan 7:5

5Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, ... View more

Dan 7:6

6After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it.

Dan 7:7

7After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in ... View more

Dan 7:8

8I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by ... View more

Dan 7:15-28

Daniel's Visions Interpreted
15As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me.16I approached one of the attendants ... View more

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