The Greek word ἀλώπηξ (alopex, fox) appears in the Septuagint (LXX) and other early literature. In western culture the word has long signified craftiness or cleverness, and this meaning had even come to be associated with the Greek word by the first century. However, it is not likely that Jesus spoke this phrase in Greek.
According to the NET translators:
This is not fundamentally a figure for cleverness as in modern western
culture, but could indicate
- an insignificant person (Neh 4:3; 2 Esd 13:35 LXX);
- a deceiver (Song Rabbah 2.15.1 on 2:15); or someone destructive, a destroyer (Ezek 13:4; Lam 5:18; 1 En. 89:10, 42–49, 55).
Luke’s emphasis seems to be on destructiveness, since Herod killed
John the Baptist, whom Luke calls “the greatest born of women” (Luke
7:28) and later stands opposed to Jesus (Acts 4:26–28). In addition,
“a person who is designated a fox is an insignificant or base person.
He lacks real power and dignity, using cunning deceit to achieve his
aims” (H. W. Hoehner, Herod Antipas [SNTSMS], 347).
According to the Intervarsity Press New Testament Commentary:
Calling someone a “fox” in antiquity would not necessarily imply that
the person is sly; instead, it could portray the person as worthless,
slanderous, treacherous or (often) cunning in an unprincipled manner.
Thus Jesus here does not offer Herod a backhanded compliment (cf. Ezek
13:4). Perhaps more to the point, foxes also would prey on hens (v.
34) when they got the chance.
The Gender of 'Αλώπηξ
Various sources claim that since the word ἀλώπηξ is feminine, Jesus was calling Herod a 'vixen' and mocking him as an animal that is not to be feared. This may have even been the motivation for Mel Gibson's portrayal of Herod Antipas with a female wig and mascara in his movie Passion of the Christ (cf. SBL letter).
While this is a possibility, the word is inherently female in gender in the Greek language (cf. natural gender) and Jesus most likely did not originally make this statement in Greek, so this likely says very little about the characteristics of the metaphor Jesus is using. Readers should be careful not to read this meaning into the text as the primary meaning of the metaphor. Those who do read the meaning of the gender into the metaphor should also do so when Jesus refers to himself as a female hen in v. 34.
Foxes and Hens
Later in v. 34, Jesus says,
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones
those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your
children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you
were not willing.
Foxes are predators of hens. Jesus may have been continuing his metaphor here.
'Αλώπηξ as a Semiticism
While alternate nuances of the word have been stated, it should be made clear that the primary reason Jesus likely did not intend to use ἀλώπηξ in the western/Greek sense is because he most likely did not make this statement in Greek, i.e. he likely spoke Hebrew or Aramaic.
In both Aramaic and Hebrew literature, the 'fox' carries the connotation of being 'second rate,' i.e. insignificant. Randall Buth wrote an excellent article about this which is published on the Jerusalem Perspective website, where he examines multiple uses of the term in Semitic literature. Two examples follow:
"There are lions before you, and you ask foxes" (JT Shev 39a).
In other words, why would you ask a student when there are top scholars in the room?
"We thought he was a lion, but he is a mere fox" (BavaKama 117a).
The Semitic use of 'fox' is almost always derogatory and refers to someone who is insignificant. As Jesus would have most likely made this statement in a Semitic language, this meaning is most helpful in understanding Jesus' diss of Herod.