Exactly what sound do cows make?

Brian Webster's picture

“The cattle are lowing, the poor babe awakes...” Do folk really say “lowing” anymore when they talk about cow sounds? Especially city folk? Cows “moo,” right?

In 1Sam 6:12 and Job 6:5 the cows “low” according to most translations or they “moo” in a few. A recent commenter suggested that they “bellow” in Job 6:5 rather than “low.” That led to a change for both of these passages (for a future edition of NET). What difference does it make?

The verb‎ gaʿah (גָּעָה) is rare in the Hebrew Bible; it is used only in these two passages. Strong’s disctionary explains it as “a primitive root; to bellow (as cattle):—low.” BDB and DCH both just say to “low.” HALOT says: “qal: to roar, low” and also cites cognates: “Middle Hebrew, Ugaritic gʿt roaring; Jewish Aramaic targummic tradition, Syriac gʿʾ to scream.” The cognates suggest a potentially loud sound.

While cows have a fairly limited phonetic range, this does not mean that all “moos” are created equal. Are there not contented moos, upset moos, and hey-there’s-food-over-here moos? There’s a small cow field behind my house. Usually the grass is sufficient, but when the farmer has needed to bring in hay, the cows may “bellow” to each other as they run over to the hay being unloaded. Chewing generally replaces mooing, but any “moos” during a meal tend to be contented moos. On the other hand a disturbance can incite some “bellows.”

No, not all “moos” are created equal. The comment left at Job 6:5 was pretty sparse, but my guess is that the commenter would make a distinction between the soft contented “lowing” of cattle and the loud unhappy “bellowing” of cattle.

The context in Job is a rhetorical question expecting the answer “No.” Does a donkey bray when it has grass? No. Does a cow [make X noise] over its fodder?
Now if we understand “fodder” (‏בְּלִיל; belil) correctly, it refers to mixed fodder or mash. So the picture is not a free range situation, or hay taken out to the field. The good stuff has been poured into a manger (remember that’s a feed trough, not a crib) and the cow has nothing to bellow about–nothing to complain about–which is the point in Job. So, what sound does a cow not make over its fodder? It doesn’t “bellow.”

OK, you’re glad to know that we’re concerned about the details for the NET Bible. We can join the CEB, NIV, and NLV in using “bellow” at Job 6:5. But let’s also look at 1 Sam 6:12 Do the cattle “low” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NASB, NIV, NLV, Amplified, etc.), or “moo” (CEV, CEB), or “bellow” (future NET edition)? And what difference does it make?

Here’s the situation. The Philistines had captured the ark of the Lord and been plagued to point of sending it back. But still they wondered, “Is Israel’s God behind this, or is it all coincidence?” So they made a plan. They would send it back on a cart with offerings to the Lord. But they would hitch the cart to two milk cows, which had never been harnessed to a yoke and whose nursing calves would be taken away from them. If the ark went back to Israel, then Israel’s God was in control of all these matters; if not, then it was just happenstance. 1 Sam 6:12 says:

“Then the cows went directly on the road to Beth Shemesh. They went along, [making X noise] more and more. [But] they turned neither to the right nor to the left. The leaders of the Philistines were walking along behind them all the way to the border of Beth Shemesh.”

What was the noise? The translations all agree, the cows were “lowing” or “mooing.” That’s the sound that a cow makes, right? This pictures the cows walking along contentedly, having blissfully forgotten about their calves, with a divinely inspired contentment and intention to get to Beth Shemesh.

Maybe that’s what happened.

But what if they were “bellowing”? What if it was a loud noise as suggested by the Hebrew cognates. Then they are going along discontentedly and in protest. More as if they are compelled by unseen angelic cattle prods.

Does one picture give a greater sense of God’s sovereignty than the other? That’s a judgment call I guess. For translation, the question is what the word means. We can’t be sure. (Did they have more than one word for cow sounds?) The cognates suggest a loud sound. So we have chosen “bellow.” It fits the context. Creates a vivid picture. And clearly communicates God’s sovereignty, forcing the cows against their nature while being witnessed by the Philistines.


SonShine's picture

Thanks Brian for this trivia unraveling. I guess I had not much thought about this but having grown up around cows who "moo" and "bellow" I should have a better understanding than someone who just grew up in a city environment. This just goes to show you that when you are in the presence of cows you can read their "language" just as when you are in the presence of those who are saddened by grief or elated through joy. Isn't it great that this shows the hand of our Creator? Cows thus speak their own language and we would be wise to take a lesson from them when they "moo" or "bellow".
I doubt I will read the scriptures quite the same again now that this picture has been refreshed in my mind.
Awesome Friday fodder

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