That Small-fry Herod Antipas, or When a Fox Is Not a Fox

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We need to start translating “fox” with its proper Hebraic cultural meaning.

מְתֻרְגְּמָן (me⋅tur⋅ge⋅MĀN) is Hebrew for “translator.” The articles in this series illustrate how a knowledge of the Gospels’ Semitic background can provide a deeper understanding of Jesus’ words and influence the translation process. For more articles in this series, click here.

Jesus called Herod Antipas a fox (Luke 13:32), and English speakers and Europeans assume the point is obvious. Foxes are proverbially associated with cleverness and craftiness. Therefore, Jesus must be calling Herod a crafty person. However, it turns out that Jesus was saying something very different to his Hebrew-speaking audience.

The metaphor “fox” has proven deceptive to speakers of European languages. Many New Testament specialists have followed the clear, widely-known sense of the Greek word and idiom without first asking an important question: “How was ‘fox’ used by Hebrew speakers?” The answer reveals a difference in Hebrew and Greek usage, and it should serve as a reminder that one must always interpret metaphors within the proper cultural setting.[1]

The Context

The context of Jesus’ characterization of Herod as a fox is a story that appears in Luke 13:31-33:

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” (New International Version)

A student finds the following note to Luke 13:32 in the NIV Study Bible: “fox. A crafty animal.”

Reading the passage in Greek will not help if one is limited to standard Greek reference works. The Greek word for “fox” is ἀλώπηξ (alōpēx). The word is as old as the Greek language, and Liddell and Scott state that alōpēx means “fox, Canis vulpes” and that it is used proverbially “of sly persons.”[2] The standard Greek dictionary for the New Testament leads to a similar conclusion: Walter Bauer states that “fox” is used figuratively of crafty people.[3]

First Hebraic Meaning

In Hebrew “fox” (שׁוּעָל, shū·‘ĀL) has a wider range of meaning than in Greek or English. First, Hebrew culture shared with the rest of ancient Mediterranean cultures the implication of “fox” as a crafty animal. The Midrash gives an example:

When the other kingdoms are described figuratively in Scripture, they are compared to wild beasts: “Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea” [Dan. 7:3], and it is also written, “The first was like a lion” [Dan. 7:4]. But when Scripture speaks of the Egyptians, they are compared to foxes, as it says, “Catch for us the foxes” [Song 2:15]; keep them for the river [i.e., to be thrown into the river, as the Egyptians threw the Israelite babies into the river].

R. Eleazar ben R. Shim’on [end of second century A.D.] said, “The Egyptians were crafty and that is why Scripture compares them to foxes.” (Song of Songs Rabbah 2:15, § 1.)

There is a similar reference to “fox” in a parable attributed to Rabbi Akiva (early second century A.D.):

A fox was once walking alongside a river and he saw fish swarming from place to place. He said to them, “What are you fleeing from?”

“From the nets that humans cast for us,” they answered.

The fox said to them, “Wouldn’t you like to come up on the dry land? We could live together, you and I, just like our forefathers.”

They answered, “You’re the one they call the cleverest of animals? You aren’t clever. You’re a fool. If we are afraid in our own element, how much more out of our element [literally, in our place of death]!” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 61b)

Second Hebraic Meaning

The fox (Canis vulpes). Illustration by Liz McLeod.

More important for our understanding of Jesus’ words in Luke chapter 13 is a second, very common use of “fox” in Hebrew. Lions and foxes can be contrasted with each other to represent the difference between great men and inferior men. The great men are called “lions,” and the lesser men are called “foxes.”

The epithet “fox” is sometimes applied to Torah scholars: “There are lions before you, and you ask foxes?”[4] In other words, “Why do you ask the opinion of foxes, that is, my opinion, when there are distinguished scholars present?”

A certain scholar, thought at first to be brilliant, was by all outward signs inept, and it was remarked about him, “The lion you mentioned turns out to be a [mere] fox.” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 117a)

Sometimes the use of “fox” relates to pedigree: “He is a lion the son of a lion, but you are a lion the son of a fox.”[5] In other words, “He is a distinguished scholar and the son of a distinguished scholar; but, although you are a distinguished scholar, your father is a less-distinguished scholar than his.”

The word “fox” can also have moral connotations, as a saying from the Mishnah demonstrates: “Be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes.”[6] This saying could be paraphrased, “It is better to be someone of low rank among those who are morally and spiritually your superiors than someone of high rank among scoundrels.”

The phrase, “And infants will rule over them,” from the list of curses in Isaiah 3:1-7 to be visited upon Jerusalem and Judah, is interpreted by the Babylonian Talmud as follows: “[Infants means] foxes, sons of foxes.”[7] In this interpretation, “fox” not only assumes the nuance of moral depravity, but also, through the verb “rule,” is linked to kingly reign; thus, “foxes, sons of foxes” means “worthless, degenerate rulers who are the descendants of worthless, degenerate rulers.”

A rabbinic interpretation of the phrase “[Your fury] consumes them like straw” (Exod. 15:7) makes the comparison between the Egyptians and foxes using the same prooftext as Song of Songs Rabbah quoted above. Here, however, the focus of the fox metaphor is explicitly on low status.

When any kind of wood burns, there is some substance to it. But when straw burns, there is no substance to it. Since it is said, “And he took six hundred choice chariots,” etc. [Exod. 14:7], I might have understood that there was some substance to them [the Egyptians]; but Scripture says, “It consumes them like straw.” Just as there is no substance to straw when it burns, so also with the Egyptians. When they burned, it became evident that there was no substance to them in the face of the calamities that you brought upon them…. There was no kingdom more lowly than Egypt, but it held power a short time for the sake of Israel’s glory. When Scripture describes other kingdoms figuratively, it compares them to cedars…but when it describes the Egyptians, it compares them to straw, as it is said, “It consumes them like straw”…. Again, when Scripture describes other kingdoms figuratively, it compares them to wild beasts, as it is said, “And four great beasts” [Dan. 7:3], but when it describes the Egyptians, it compares them to foxes, as it is said, “Catch for us the foxes” [Song 2:15]…. “It [Egypt] will be the most contemptible of the kingdoms” [Ezek. 29:15]. (Mechilta, Beshallah 6; to Exodus 15:7 [ed. Horovitz-Rabin, p. 137, lines 3-19])

The Sting in “Fox”

Jesus called Herod a fox after some Pharisees reported that Herod wanted to kill Jesus. Jesus’ response challenged any such plans: “Tell Herod I’ve got work to do first.” Jesus was not implying that Herod was sly, rather he was commenting on Herod’s ineptitude, or inability, to carry out his threat. Jesus questioned the tetrarch’s pedigree, moral stature and leadership, and put the tetrarch “in his place.” This exactly fits the second rabbinic usage of “fox.”

When Jesus labeled Herod a fox, Jesus implied that Herod was not a lion. Herod considered himself a lion, but Jesus pointed out that Herod was the opposite of a lion. Jesus cut Herod down to size, and Jesus’ audience may have had an inward smile of appreciation at a telling riposte.

Translating “Fox”

English versions of Luke 13:32 fail on two counts when they use the word “fox.” On the one hand, they miss the true dynamics of the rebuke, and on the other hand, they implicitly give a false, positive meaning. What is needed is a colorful English term that can be used across wide audiences. That last requirement is difficult because words of scorn are often excessively vulgar or restricted to rather small subsets of English speakers.

Foxes photographed in Holon, Israel, by Arthur.nesterovsky. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Consider the following list of possibilities for “fox” in its negative sense: weakling, small-fry, usurper, poser, clown, insignificant person, cream puff, nobody, weasel, jackass, tin soldier, peon, hick, pompous pretender, jerk, upstart.

Most of the terms in this list are too colloquial or jocular. “Small-fry,” “insignificant person,” “peon” and “pompous pretender” may be the best for a wide audience. In context, and referring to a local ruler, “fox” was a humiliating “slap in the face.” The English term should convey this intent as nearly as possible.

We need to start translating “fox” with its proper Hebraic cultural meaning. Jesus was direct. Antipas was a שׁוּעָל בֶּן שׁוּעָל (shū·‘ĀL ben shū·‘ĀL, “a fox, the son of a fox”), a small-fry.[8]

This article originally appeared in issue 40 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

  • [1] This is true for any language around the world. One should always assume that metaphors carry different connotations until proven otherwise, even in languages with tremendous cultural overlap like English and French: “cow” and “vache” carry completely different implications.
  • [2] Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (9th ed., revised and augmented by Henry Stuart Jones with Roderick McKenzie; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), 75. Under the meaning “sly persons,” Liddell and Scott list examples from Solon [6th cent. B.C.] II 5; Pindar [5th cent. B.C.], Isthmian Odes 4 (3).65; Plato [4th cent. B.C.], Republic 365c; Eunapius [4th-5th cent. A.D.], Historicus, p. 249D; and Diogenianus 2.15, 2.73, 5.15, 7.91.
  • [3] Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (2nd ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 41. This lexicon includes many references to Greek works outside the New Testament such as the works of the first-century philosopher Epictetus.
  • [4] Jerusalem Talmud, Shevi’it 39a, chpt. 9, halachah 5.
  • [5] Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 12c, chpt. 10, halachah 5. Compare Bava Metsi’a 84b.
  • [6] Mishnah, Avot 4:15.
  • [7] Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 14a.
  • [8] Paul Billerbeck has already outlined most of the arguments in this article. See (Hermann Strack and) Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1922-1960), 2:200-201. In English, see T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1974 [1949]), 276: “The answer of Jesus is defiant…‘fox’…describes an insignificant third-rate person as opposed to a person of real power and greatness. To call Herod ‘that fox’ is as much as to say he is neither a great man nor a straight man; he has neither majesty nor honour.”
  • Randall Buth

    Randall Buth

    Randall Buth is director of the Biblical Language Center and a lecturer at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Home for Bible Translators. He is a member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research. Buth received his doctorate in…
    [Read more about author]

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