In the book of Luke chapter 13 v 32, Jesus refers to Herod as "that Fox":

32And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. ESV

What did he mean by this? (I cannot find this animal mentioned any where else in the Bible.)

  • 1
    Foxes are cunning, red, hairy hunters. The reference is to Herod's character but also to his Idumean (Edomite) descent, a son of Esau.
    – Mike Bull
    Sep 16, 2013 at 0:48
  • I've never heard that about his descent before, that's fascinating. Do you have a source for that information? I can't find any reliable references of 'fox' being used for Edomites.
    – Dan
    Sep 16, 2013 at 1:31
  • No reference - except that there are "Jacob vs. Esau" undercurrents throughout the New Testament in the Jesus vs. Herods struggle, which began with the slaughter of the innocents and didn't end until AD70.
    – Mike Bull
    Sep 16, 2013 at 10:42
  • Hmm, I'd have to see more support before I'd be able to go down that road (not necessarily sources, but explanation).
    – Dan
    Sep 16, 2013 at 12:53
  • I believe Herod's Idumean heritage comes from either Josephus or the church fathers.
    – user3267
    Jan 9, 2014 at 22:52

5 Answers 5


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

  1. an insignificant person (Neh 4:3; 2 Esd 13:35 LXX);
  2. 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.

  • @ Dan, I study from a niv bible and when i looked up the scriptures you give for Ref:on first Blockquote- Neh 4:3 it says fox, but then in Ezek 13:4; and Lam 5:18 it says jackel.Why the Change when it is written in the same language?
    – Bagpipes
    Sep 16, 2013 at 10:33
  • 1
    Because the NIV Old Testament is translated from the Hebrew, but these are references to the Greek Septuagint.
    – Dan
    Sep 16, 2013 at 12:54
  • Re-reading this, I'm left wondering, are you assuming that whoever translated the spoken phrase from the Aramaic or Hebrew into Greek did so badly? Only the most deliberately literal translations would leave in a misleading idiom without translating the sense. Dec 21, 2014 at 14:27
  • @JackDouglas possibly. It was either translated literally by the Greek author (and it's possible the Semitic use was even lost on that author - depending on who you think Luke was and when you date his gospel), or the author intended to use the Greek metaphor (and it may not even be close to what Jesus originally said, which is entirely possible given that the author of Luke's gospel acknowledges he is not an eyewitness to the events). So is it a bad translation? That's a matter of perspective. (continued)...
    – Dan
    Dec 22, 2014 at 3:53
  • If you gave me a 'two-finger salute' in the UK, and I reiterated the story to my friends telling them that you 'flipped me off', I would not be accurately relaying the precise gesture you made to my friends - but they would understand your intent better by my contextual choice of explanation. This may have been the author of the gospel's intent, or it may have been a literal recording of the event where the Semitic context was lost on the author himself, being a Greek (keep in mind that Lukan authorship is a later tradition - we have no idea who the author is).
    – Dan
    Dec 22, 2014 at 3:57

The verse actually does not refer to Herod at all.

The ESV mistranslates the phrase αλωπεκι ταυτη as "that fox" instead of "this fox". ταύτῃ is the dative singular of the pronoun οὗτος, meaning "this", not "that". The word for the demonstrative "that" in Greek is ἐκεῖνος. There is no manuscript variant that uses ἐκεῖνος here. The ESV is not alone: the KJV, NIV, RSV, and NRSV all make the same error. The Orthodox New Testament translates the verse correctly, as do English translations of the Greek Church Fathers who quote the verse (see below).

Christ is referring to the craftiness of the Pharisees and not Herod here. This was well explained by the Greek commentator Cyril of Alexandria, who wrote an extensive commentary on Luke in the late 4th or early 5th century:

What then does Christ answer to these things? He replied to them gently, and with His meaning veiled, as was His wont: "Go and tell, He says, this fox." Attend closely to the force of the expression: for the words used seem forsooth to be directed, and to have regard, as it were, to the person of Herod: but they really rather refer to the craftiness of the Pharisees. For while He would naturally have said, "Tell that fox," He does not do so, but using very skilfully a middle sort of expression, He, so to speak, pointed to the Pharisee, who was close beside Him, and said, "this fox." And He compares the man to a fox: for it is constantly a very crafty animal, and, if I may so speak, malicious, such as were the Pharisees.

Homily C, Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke

A similar explanation can be found in the later commentary by the Byzantine Theophylact of Ohrid.


There are translation issues here that may account for the OP's not finding "fox" in his translation of the O.T. Looking behind the Greek text is a Hebrew or Aramaic word that Jesus must have actually used. The Hebrew word שׁוּעָל (shu'al) appears seven times in the Hebrew Bible. It can be translated either as "fox" or "jackal." A relevant example is Ps. 63:10

HEB: חָ֑רֶב מְנָ֖ת שֻׁעָלִ֣ים יִהְיֽוּ׃
NAS: They will be a prey for foxes.
KJV: they shall be a portion for foxes.
NIV: They will... become food for jackals.

@Dan's answer accurately summarizes the case if Jesus meant to say "fox." But if he meant "jackal" then the word would definitely be an insult.

Conclusion: What exactly Jesus meant by the term is hard to know. At best, he was calling Antipas crafty. If Jesus was thinking of the "lion vs. fox" theme mentioned by @Dan, then he could be comparing Antipas (a mere fox) to his more formidable father, Herod the Great (a lion). If Jesus actually said "jackal" in Hebrew, then the insult would be stronger, like calling him a wild dog - a devourer of dung and human flesh.


The operative word in Luke 13:32 is ἀλώπηξ (alópéx), meaning, "a fox; a fox-like, crafty person" (Strong's). It occurs in only three places in the NT:

  • Matt 8:20 - Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”
  • Luke 9:58 - Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”
  • Luke 13:32 - But Jesus replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘Look, I will keep driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach My goal.’

To describe a person as a "fox", as Jesus did of Herod in Luke 13:32 could be either

  • complimentary because the person was smart and cunning (eg, a good and clever manager) in a good sense
  • insulting because the person was politically astute to use the privileges of power for personal aggrandizement and financial gain.

History tells us that Herod is unquestionably in the latter category. Note the comments of Ellicott:

(32) Go ye, and tell that fox . . .—The word was eminently descriptive of the character both of the Tetrarch individually, and of the whole Herodian house. The fact that the Greek word for “fox” is always used as a feminine, gives, perhaps, a special touch of indignant force to the original. He had so identified himself with Herodias that he had lost his manliness, and the proverbial type of the worst form of woman’s craft was typical of him.

The Pulpit commentary adds a further insight:

Verse 32. - And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox; literally, that she-fox. The Lord saw through the shallow device, and, in reply to his false friends, bade them go to that intriguing and false court with a message which he would give them, The epithet "she-fox" is perhaps the bitterest and most contemptuous name ever given by the pitiful Master to any of the sons of men. It is possible it might have been intended for Herodias, the influence of that wicked princess being at that time all-powerful at court.


ἀλλ᾽ οὑτοσὶ γάρ ἐστι περὶ τοῦ ναυτικοῦ ὁ χρησμός, ᾧ σε δεῖ προσέχειν τὸν νοῦν πάνυ. Δῆμος] προσέχω• σὺ δ᾽ ἀναγίγνωσκε, τοῖς ναύταισί μου ὅπως ὁ μισθὸς πρῶτον ἀποδοθήσεται.Ἀλλαντ.] Αἰγεΐδη φράσσαι κυναλώπεκα, μή σε δολώσῃ, λαίθαργον ταχύπουν, δολίαν κερδὼ πολύιδριν. οἶσθ᾽ ὅ τι ἐστὶν τοῦτο; Δῆμος] Φιλόστρατος ἡ κυναλώπηξ. Ἀλλαντ.] οὐ τοῦτό φησιν, ἀλλὰ ναῦς ἑκάστοτε αἰτεῖ ταχείας ἀργυρολόγους οὑτοσί• ταύτας ἀπαυδᾷ μὴ διδόναι ς᾽ ὁ Λοξίας. Δῆμος] πῶς δὴ τριήρης ἐστὶ κυναλώπηξ; Ἀλλαντ.] ὅπως; ὅτι ἡ τριήρης ἐστὶ χὠ κύων ταχύ. Δῆμος] πῶς οὖν ἀλώπηξ προσετέθη πρὸς τῷ κυνί; Ἀλλαντ.] ἀλωπεκίοισι τοὺς στρατιώτας ᾔκασεν, ὁτιὴ βότρυς τρώγουσιν ἐν τοῖς χωρίοις. Δῆμος] εἶεν• τούτοις ὁ μισθὸς τοῖς ἀλωπεκίοισι ποῦ; Ἀλλαντ.] ἐγὼ ποριῶ, καὶ τοῦτον ἡμερῶν τριῶν. ἀλλ᾽ ἔτι τόνδ᾽ ἐπάκουσον, ὃν εἶπέ σοι ἐξαλέασθαι χρησμὸν Λητοΐδης, Κυλλήνην, μή σε δολώσῃ. Δῆμος] ποίαν Κυλλήνην; Ἀλλαντ.] τὴν τούτου χεῖρ᾽ ἐποίησεν (Knights 1:1063-1082)

"But this is concerning the navy, about which the oracle speaks, and you must pay close attention to it. Demos, pay attention. But you, read it to my sailors, so they know when their pay will be given first." "All." Aegeus' son, guard against the fox, lest it deceive you, a quick-footed spoiler, gaining much cunning profit. Do you know what this is? "Demos." Philostratus the fox."All." He does not say this, but rather, a ship always demands swift paymasters. Loxias constantly urges you not to give them rest. "Demos." How can a trireme be a fox? "All." How? Because the trireme is both swift and a dog. "Demos." So how was a fox added to the dog? "All." She mocked the soldiers with foxes because they eat the grapes in the fields. "Demos." Let it be so. Where is the pay for these foxes? "All." I'll provide it within three days. But still, listen to this, which Lêtoidês, the Kylleian, said to you, that the oracle must be cleansed, so that it may not deceive you. "Demos." What Kylleian? "All." He made this man's hand [pointing to DEMOS] (Knights 1:1063-1082).

In Aristophanes' play "Knights," the fox is employed as a metaphor to illustrate the political situation of the time, particularly the cunning and manipulation prevalent in Athenian politics. This metaphor symbolically represents the character Philostratus, one of the advisors to the main character, Δῆμος (Demos), who embodies the Athenian populace.

The choice of the fox as a metaphor holds symbolic significance. In ancient Greek culture, the fox was viewed as a clever and intelligent animal often associated with cunning and craftiness. Aristophanes utilizes this metaphor to depict Philostratus as a wily and deceitful individual who employs his cunning to manipulate and deceive the Athenian populace (Δῆμος).

The play satirizes the politics and politicians of the time, illustrating how political figures manipulate public opinion for their own interests. The representation of the fox (Philostratus) suggests his adeptness in political stratagems, deceiving the populace to achieve his objectives.

Hence, in this context, the fox symbolizes sagacity, cunning, and manipulation—traits that Aristophanes employs to satirize the political character represented by the fox in the play.

The character Ἀλλαντίδης (Allantides) mentions the fox (κυναλώπεκος, kynalṓpekos) as a symbolic reference to political strategists or advisors who manipulate and deceive the populace, represented by the character Δῆμος (Demos), a personification of the Athenian people.

The fox metaphor is employed to describe the cunning and shrewdness of political advisors like Philostratus, mentioned earlier in the passage as the "fox." The fox is associated with the ability to deceive, drawing an analogy with foxes that steal grapes from vineyards—a practice considered clever and cunning.

Essentially, the fox symbolizes political astuteness, the ability to manipulate, and the practice of deceiving the populace to achieve personal objectives, often at the expense of the collective well-being.

By employing this metaphor, Jesus engages in satirical commentary on Herod's politics, revealing the cunning strategies and manipulative tactics politicians employed to garner support and sway the public, frequently at the expense of the common good.

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