What’s the difference between an eagle and a vulture?
The Greek aetos is usually translated “vulture” in Matthew 24:28 and Luke 17:37, but “eagle” in Revelation 4:7, 8:13, and 12:14. Why?
The answer has to do with how words — for animals, in this case — are used metaphorically.
In English a “vulture” is different than an “eagle” — and we also have hawks, falcons, turkey vultures (“buzzards”), eagle owls, and more — but beyond the zoological differences, the two words also represent very different qualities: a vulture is usually bad, while an eagle is usually good.
“Eyes like an eagle” refers to someone who has the good fortune of seeing well, as does “eyes like a hawk.” “Eyes like a vulture,” though not a common expression, to me indicates something nefarious.
“Waiting around like vultures,” too, refers to something untoward. “Waiting around like eagles” — again, not a common expression — to me is neutral or positive.
To “soar like an eagle” is a good thing, while “to soar like a vulture” — even though vultures and eagles soar almost exactly the same way — is bad.
I think that all of this is important because it highlights an important fact about how language works: the associations of a word extend beyond the literal meaning of the word.
In Matthew 24:28 and Luke 17:37, the aetos birds gather around (dead) bodies. That’s what “vultures” stereotypically do in English.
Revelation 4:7, which matches Ezekiel 1:10, mentions a lion, an ox, a human, and an eagle. It’s hard to know if, in that context, aetos was supposed to be positive (soaring like an eagle, for example) or negative (perhaps like an ox that gores). But certainly to the extent that the four animals are used to represent the four evangelists, and, in particular, to the extent that John is an aetos, only “eagle” works in English. (Question: Do you think we should we let that later interpretation influence our translation decision?)
In the OT, aetos is used for nesher. We find the word in Isaiah 40:31, for example, where it is clearly positive: people who wait for God are compared to eagles.
In Exodus we see the well-known image of “wings of Eagles,” upon which God lifted up the Israelites. There “wings of vultures” certainly doesn’t work in English.
In Habakkuk 1:8, though, nesher (and aetos) are used as a predatory image: The Chaldeans “fly like a nesher, quick to devour.” Though most translations go with “eagle” here, I think “vulture” is better.
(Micah 1:6 is interesting, too, because it uses the phrase, bald “like the eagle.” Eagles aren’t bald — not even the bald eagle — but vultures are.)
Deuteronomy 14:12-18 and Leviticus 11:13-19 both contain lists of birds that are not to be eaten. Though it’s almost impossible now to know what each word represented there, we do see evidence of an advanced ornithological taxonomy.
But I think that the zoology here is irrelevant. In most of these cases, the difference between an “eagle” and a “vulture” is a question not for bird experts, but more generally for English speakers.