The Fox or Jackal
Wood's Bible Animals, 1875
There are several passages in the Old Testament in which the word Fox occurs, and it is almost certain that the Hebrew word Shuâl, which is rendered in our translation as Fox, is used rather loosely, and refers in some places to the Jackal, and in others to the Fox. We will first take those passages in which the former rendering of the word is evidently the right one, and will begin by examining those characteristics of the animal which afford grounds for such an assertion.
Even at the present time, the Jackal is extremely plentiful in Palestine; and as the numbers of wild beasts have much decreased in modern days, the animals must have been even more numerous than they are at present. It is an essentially nocturnal and gregarious animal. During the whole of the day the Jackals lie concealed in their holes or hiding-places, which are usually cavities in the rocks, in tombs, or among ruins. At nightfall they issue from their dens, and form themselves into packs, often consisting of several hundred individuals, and prowl about in search of food. Carrion of various kinds forms their chief subsistence, and they perform in the country much the same task as is fulfilled by the dogs in the cities.
If any animal should be killed, or even severely wounded, the Jackals are sure to find it out and to devour it before the daybreak. They will scent out the track of the hunter, and feed upon the offal of the beasts which he has slain. If the body of a human being were to be left on the ground, the Jackals would certainly leave but little traces of it; and in the olden times of warfare, they must have held high revelry in the battle-field after the armies had retired. It is to this propensity of the Jackal that David refershimself a man of war, who had fought on many a battle-field, and must have seen the carcases of the slain mangled by these nocturnal prowlers: "Those that seek my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth. They shall fall by the sword; they shall be a portion for foxes" (Ps. lxiii. 9, 10). Being wild beasts, afraid of man, and too cowardly to attack him even when rendered furious by hunger, and powerful by force of numbers, they keep aloof from towns and cities, and live in the uninhabited parts of the country. Therefore the prophet Jeremiah, in his Book of Lamentations, makes use of the following forcible image, when deploring the pitiful state into which Judea had fallen: "For this our heart is faint; for these things our eyes are dim because of the mountain of Zion, which is desolate, the foxes walk upon it" (Lam. v. 17). And Ezekiel makes use of a similar image: "O Israel, thy prophets are like foxes in the desert."
But, by far the most important passage in which the Fox is mentioned, is that wherein is recorded the grotesque vengeance of Samson upon the Philistines: "And Samson went and caught three hundred foxes, and took firebrands, and turned tail to tail, and put a firebrand in the midst between two tails. And when he had set the brands on fire, he let them go into the standing corn of the Philistines, and burnt up both the shocks and also the standing corn, with the vineyards and olives" (Judges xv. 4, 5). Now, as this is one of the passages of Holy Writ to which great objections have been taken, it will be as well to examine these objections, and see whether they have any real force. The first of these objections is, that the number of foxes is far too great to have been caught at one time, and to this objection two answers have been given. The first answer is, that they need not have been caught at once, but by degrees, and kept until wanted. But the general tenor of the narrative is undoubtedly in favour of the supposition that this act of Samson was unpremeditated, and that it was carried into operation at once, before his anger had cooled. The second answer is, that the requisite number of Foxes might have been miraculously sent to Samson for this special purpose. This theory is really so foolish and utterly untenable, that I only mention it because it has been put forward. It fails on two grounds: the first being that a miracle would hardly have been wrought to enable Samson to revenge himself in so cruel and unjustifiable a manner; and the second, that there was not the least necessity for any miracle at all.
If we put out of our minds the idea of the English Fox, an animal comparatively scarce in this country, and solitary in its habits, and substitute the extremely plentiful and gregarious Jackal, wandering in troops by night, and easily decoyed by hunger into a trap, we shall see that double the number might have been taken, if needful. Moreover, it is not to be imagined that Samson caught them all with his own hand. He was at the head of his people, and had many subordinates at his command, so that a large number of hunters might have been employed simultaneously in the capture. In corroboration of this point, I insert an extremely valuable extract from Signor Pierotti's work, in which he makes reference to this very portion of the sacred history:
"It is still very abundant near Gaza, Askalon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Ramleh. I have frequently met with it during my wanderings by night, and on one occasion had an excellent opportunity of appreciating their number and their noise.
"One evening in the month of January 18-57, while it was raining a perfect deluge, I was obliged, owing to the dangerous illness of a friend, to return from Jerusalem to Jaffa. The depth of snow on the road over a great part of the mountain, the clayey mud in the plain, and the darkness of the night, prevented my advancing quickly; so that about half-past three in the morning I arrived on the bank of a small torrent, about half an hour's journey to the east of Ramleh. I wished to cross: my horse at first refused, but, on my spurring it, advanced and at once sank up to the breast, followed of course by my legs, thus teaching me to respect the instinct of an Arab horse for the future.
"There I stuck, without the possibility of escape, and consoled my horse and myself with some provisions that I had in my saddle-bags, shouting and singing at intervals, in the hope of obtaining succour, and of preventing accidents, as I knew that the year before a mule in the same position had been mistaken for a wild beast, and killed. The darkness was profound, and the wind very high; but, happily, it was not cold; for the only things attracted by my calls were numbers of jackals, who remained at a certain distance from me, and responded to my cries, especially when I tried to imitate them, as though they took me for their music-master.
"About five o'clock, one of the guards of the English consulate at Jerusalem came from Ramleh and discovered my state. He charitably returned thither, and brought some men, who extricated me and my horse from our unpleasant bath, which, as may be supposed, was not beneficial to our legs.
"During this most uncomfortable night, I had good opportunity of ascertaining that, if another Samson had wished to burn again the crops in the country of the Philistines, he would have had no difficulty in finding more than three hundred jackals, and catching as many as he wanted in springs, traps, or pitfalls. (See Ps. cxl. 5)"
The reader will now see that there was not the least difficulty in procuring the requisite number of animals, and that consequently the first objection to the truth of the story is disposed of.
We will now proceed to the second objection, which is, that if the animals were tied tail to tail, they would remain on or near the same spot, because they would pull in different directions, and that, rather than run about, they would turn round and fight each other. Now, in the first place, we are nowhere told that the tails of the foxes, or jackals, were placed in contact with each other, and it is probable that some little space was left between them. That animals so tied would not run in a straight line is evident enough, and this was exactly the effect which Samson wished to produce. Had they been at liberty, and the fiery brand fastened to their tails, they would have run straight to their dens, and produced but little effect. But their captor, with cruel ingenuity, had foreseen this contingency, and, by the method of securing them which he adopted, forced them to pursue a devious course, each animal trying to escape from the dreaded firebrand, and struggling in vain endeavours to drag its companion towards its own particular den.
All wild animals have an instinctive dread of fire; and there is none, not even the fierce and courageous lion, that dares enter within the glare of the bivouac fire. A lion has even been struck in the face with a burning brand, and has not ventured to attack the man that wielded so dreadful a weapon. Consequently it may be imagined that the unfortunate animals that were used by Samson for his vindictive purpose, must have been filled with terror at the burning brands which they dragged after them, and the blaze of the fire which was kindled wherever they went. They would have no leisure to fight, and would only think of escaping from the dread and unintelligible enemy which pursued them.
When a prairie takes fire, all the wild inhabitants flee in terror, and never think of attacking each other, so that the bear, the wolf, the cougar, the deer, and the wild swine, may all be seen huddled together, their natural antagonism quelled in the presence of a common foe. So it must have been with the miserable animals which were made the unconscious instruments of destruction. That they would stand still when a burning brand was between them, and when flames sprang up around them, is absurd. That they would pull in exactly opposite directions with precisely balanced force is equally improbable, and it is therefore evident that they would pursue a devious path, the stronger of the two dragging the weaker, but being jerked out of a straight course and impeded by the resistance which it would offer. That they would stand on the same spot and fight has been shown to be contrary to the custom of animals under similar circumstances.
Thus it will be seen that every objection not only falls to the ground, but carries its own refutation, thus vindicating this episode in sacred history, and showing, that not only were the circumstances possible, but that they were highly probable. Of course every one of the wretched animals must have been ultimately burned to death, after suffering a prolonged torture from the firebrand that was attached to it. Such a consideration would, however, have had no effect for deterring Samson from employing them. The Orientals are never sparing of pain, even when inflicted upon human beings, and in too many cases they seem utterly unable even to comprehend the cruelty of which they are guilty. And Samson was by no means a favourable specimen of his countrymen. He was the very incarnation of strength, but was as morally weak as he was corporeally powerful; and to that weakness he owed his fall. Neither does he seem to possess the least trace of forbearance any more than of self-control, but he yields to his own undisciplined nature, places himself, and through him the whole Israelitish nation, in jeopardy, and then, with a grim humour, scatters destruction on every side in revenge for the troubles which he has brought upon himself by his own acts.
There is a passage in the Old Testament which is tolerably familiar to most students of the Scriptures: "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes" (Solomon's Song, ii. 15). In this passage allusion is made to the peculiar fondness for grapes and several other fruits which exist both in the Fox and the Jackal. Even the domesticated dog is often fond of ripe fruits, and will make great havoc among the gooseberry bushes and the strawberry beds. But both the Fox and the Jackal display a wonderful predilection for the grape above all other fruit, and even when confined and partly tamed, it is scarcely possible to please them better than by offering them a bunch of perfectly ripe grapes. The well-known fable of the fox and the grapes will occur to the mind of every one who reads the passage which has just been quoted.
There are two instances in the New Testament where the Fox is mentioned, and in both cases the allusion is made by the Lord himself. The first of these passages is the touching and well-known reproach, "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head" (Matt. viii. 201. The second passage is that in which He speaks of Herod as "that fox," selecting a term which well expressed the character of the cruel and cunning ruler to whom it was applied.
The reader will remember that, in the history of the last-mentioned animal an anecdote is told of a semi-tamed wolf that used to come every evening for the purpose of receiving a piece of bread. At the same monastery, three foxes used to enjoy a similar privilege. They came regularly to the appointed place, which was not that which the wolf frequented, and used to howl until their expected meal was given to them. Several companions generally accompanied them, but were always jealously driven away before the monks appeared with the bread.