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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.)

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    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 '13 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 '13 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 '13 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 '13 at 12:53
  • I believe Herod's Idumean heritage comes from either Josephus or the church fathers.
    – user3267
    Jan 9 '14 at 22:52
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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.

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  • @ 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 '13 at 10:33
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    Because the NIV Old Testament is translated from the Hebrew, but these are references to the Greek Septuagint.
    – Dan
    Sep 16 '13 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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 at 3:57
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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.

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