Disney’s The Lion King famously portrays the king of beasts. In Judaism, too, the lion has always held this position. The lion is by far the most prominent of all wild animals mentioned in Scripture, Midrash, and Talmud. It is mentioned on over 150 occasions in Scripture, and in nearly two hundred different contexts in the Talmud and Midrash. There are several different names for the lion in Scripture, which also attests to its prominence. Lions used to be widespread in the Land of Israel, until they were hunted out around eight centuries ago.
The lion’s position as the king of beasts is explicitly stated by the Sages of the Talmud and it is implicit within Scripture itself. The lion is the symbol of the tribe of Judah, from which kings were selected. The lion is also implicitly presented as the king of beasts in the prophet Ezekiel’s visions of the divine chariot, upon which was the likeness of a lion. And the prophet Amos presents the Lion King as a metaphor for the King of Kings: “The lion has roared, who shall not be afraid? The Lord God has spoken, who shall not prophesy?”
Why is the lion universally regarded as the king of beasts? The lion may earn this title due to its regal appearance; its head is adorned by a luxurious mane, like a royal crown upon a king. But more fundamentally, the lion earns its royal title due to it being the most powerful of predators, and its resultant position at the very top of the food chain.
The most distinctive aspect of lions is their sheer power as predators. Bears possess more brute strength, and leopards possess greater speed and cunning. But when one factors in everything together, including size, strength, claws, teeth, and hunting ability, the lion emerges as the leader. It stands right at the top of the food chain, as stated in Proverbs: “The lion is the mightiest of animals, and turns away before no one.”
The Mishna instructs man to emulate this power of the lion for noble purposes, stating that one should “Be as mighty as a lion to fulfill the will of your Father in Heaven.” Simply speaking, this is referring to the lion’s physical strength, which man is encouraged to emulate in a non-literal sense. But perhaps we can explain it to refer to a unique aspect of lions.
Big cats are aggressive carnivores by nature, which makes it hard for them to get along with each other. All the other big cats – tigers, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, cougars – therefore lead solitary lives. But lions, unique among cats, live in large groups, called prides. Such prides typically consist of one to four males, five or six females, and their cubs. These large family groups successfully cooperate in hunting their prey – the family that preys together, stays together!
Such sociability is remarkable. In the words of the renowned zoologist Vitus Dröscher: “The lion is undoubtedly a creature with a highly aggressive disposition. But within his clan he controls his bloodthirstiness so effectively that he can be called a friendly, even a tender-hearted beast. What is it that inhibits his aggressiveness when in the presence of fellows he knows well?”
Perhaps the real might of the lion is not in its great power as a predator, but in its ability to overcome this in the presence of other lions. The Mishna elsewhere tells us, “Who is mighty? He who conquers his drives.” This is the leonine trait that man is encouraged to emulate.
In Disney’s Lion King, young Simba sings that he “just can’t wait to be king,” when he’ll be “Free to do it all my way.” But the lesson that he learns is that being a lion king does not mean succumbing to doing whatever one feels like—it means rising to the occasion. That is the true power of the Lion King.
Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin is the director of The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Israel. This essay is adapted from The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom (OU Press / The Biblical Museum of Natural History / Maggid Books).