The people of ancient Israel lived in a world filled with wild and dangerous creatures. Just as today you are statistically likely to be related to someone who has died of cancer, in Palestine in the 10th century B.C.E. you were statistically likely to be related to someone who had been killed by a wild animal.
Man-eating lions haunted watering holes (2 Samuel 23:20); Syrian brown bears ate children (2 Kings 2:23); cobras, scorpions, and pit vipers sent many unwary travelers to their deaths. Of the ten deadliest animals on earth today (in terms of numbers of people killed per year), eight of them (dogs, bears, hippos, crocodiles, lions, leopards, scorpions, and cobras) were common in Palestine in Bible times.
But the deadliest animal in ancient Israel hasn’t killed anyone in centuries. It has been extinct since Roman times, the last of them having been hunted down in Europe by the Gauls. It is the aurochs, (Hebrew re’em), the wild bull.
The aurochs stood over six feet at the shoulder and was over ten feet long. Massive and muscled, it weighed in at well over a ton. It’s razor-sharp horns spanned nearly six feet—and it is one of the few creatures in history that deliberately hunted men. As far as I know, the aurochs and the elephant are the only herbivorores to do so.
English archaeologist Austen Layard wrote: “The wild bull, from its frequent representation in the bas-reliefs, appears to have been considered scarcely less formidable and noble game than the lion. The king is frequently seen contending with it, and warriors pursue it both on horseback and on foot.” (Nineveh and Its Remains, 1849, Volume 2, page 326) Julius Caesar wrote the following description of them: “[They] are scarcely less than elephants in size, but in their nature, colour, and form, are bulls. Great is their strength, and great their speed: they spare neither man nor beast when once they have caught sight of them.”
Today, there are no non-domesticated strains of bovines left. Even the deadly water buffalo, while it may live in the wild in some areas, is descended from domestic ancestors. It is hard for us to imagine what it would have been like to face an animal of the size, speed, and ferocity of the aurochs with nothing more than sword, spear, and short bow. From the standpoint of a Bronze Age warrior, these creatures were unstoppable.
Researchers believe that the closest representation of the aurochs alive today is an Asian breed of cattle called Gaur. I have included pictures below--one of gaur, and one of a bull Photoshopped to be the size of an ancient aurochs.
I would rather face a lion any day.