Snail – שַׁבְּלוּל (shabelul)
Snails are fairly hard to miss at this time of the year. Following a June rain shower or on a dewy morning and they are almost everywhere. We are, probably, all familiar with that horribly uncomfortable crunch underfoot as we inadvertently tread on one. As vegetable plots and gardens begin to flourish, the gardeners amongst us will have a particular affinity (or should that be antipathy?) with this rather strange creature; a relationship that quite often can degenerate into all out warfare!
In many ways, the snail is a singular creature and so it is fitting that its appearance in the Bible is no less singular and perhaps even a little baffling.
The singular case of the snail
Although much loved in children’s books (if I remember correctly, often being ridden by pixies), you might be surprised to find snails featuring within biblical literature. Snails, in fact, are also common in Israel. France (1986:139) states that, because of its calcium rich limestone geology, there are, 68 species of the family Helicidae in the area of the Bible lands. However, if you have been unaware of its presence in biblical literature until now, don’t worry as there is a very good reason for this. It only appears once* and even this is a rather obscure, and a somewhat problematic, text!
The reference is found in Psalm 58, which is a precatory hymn, that pleads for divine justice and vengeance. Verse 8 is part of a stanza calling upon God to frustrate and destroy the wicked (or unfaithful). It reads:
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,
like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.
Psalm 58:8 (NRSV)
We are immediately faced with a couple of problems. Clifford (2002:275) goes so far as to say that, owing to textual corruption and the proliferation of rare words, verse 6-9 are “all but untranslatable.”
Lexically, it is not entirely clear to what שַׁבְּלוּל (shabelul) denotes. Some English translations, like the New International Version (NIV), read ‘slug’ – although ‘snail’ is taken as the preferred definition. The United Bible Societies (1980:76-77) also advise that this text might not actually relate to any animal at all, but refer to miscarriage or untimely birth.
In modern Hebrew the word for snail is חִילָּזוֹן (chilazon) – although the image used in the video below is that of a slug, which suggests a certain amount of confusion still remains!
Firmage (1992:1111) notes that 2 species (currently) found in Negev; the desert snail (Erimina desertorum) and the white desert snail (Sphincterochyla boissierii).
The more obvious problem with this text is that snails (or even slugs) don’t תֶּ֫מֶס (temes) ‘dissolve’ or ‘melt’. However, if we are to take shabelul to denote ‘snail’, this undoubtedly must be a reference to the thick, mucus-type, secretion that aids the snail’s locomotion. The secretion has a two-fold function: As a lubricant upon which the snail can slide over rough terrain and as an adhesive to prevent falling from objects. It is also used as a very effective seal to glue the shell to a surface during cold weather – as any gardener who has to peel them off plant pots will testify!
More recent English versions attempt to address this problem – sometimes quite imaginatively. For example:
Like a slug that moves along in slime
Christian Standard Bible
Let them dry up like snails
Contemporary English version
Let them become like a snail that leaves behind a slimy trail
GOD’S WORD® Translation
Slifkin (2009: 420) acknowledges that, although this text is somewhat misleading, later Jewish tradition understands it metaphorically. Therefore, Midrash Shocher Tov teaches that those who slander another person are like snails leaving a residue of slime; the effects of their words remain a long time after their sound has vanished.
The problems raised by this verse have long been known and it is possible that those involved in producing the first Greek translation of the Hebrew texts (3rd century BCE), the Septuagint (also referred to as the LXX), were aware of this difficulty. Instead, the LXX renders this verse as:
They shall be destroyed as melted wax:
the fire has fallen and they have not seen the sun
This form of the text is reflected in some older English versions (for example, the Douay-Rheims Bible).
Let them be as a snail that melteth as it passeth away
Chasing the melting snail
How widespread the belief that snails melt away into slime is unclear. Both Aristotle and Pliny the Elder provide quite detailed accounts on snails, but neither appear to mention this belief.
The parson, naturalist and traveller Henry Baker Tristram (1898:295), in his Natural History of the Bible, suggested that this idea reflected “popular belief” which possibly arose from their habit of “shutting themselves into their shells and remaining dormant during the dry season.” He then goes on to state:
“We find in all parts of the Holy Land myriads of snail-shells in fissures still adhering by the calcareous exudation round their orifice to the surface of the rock, but the animal of which is utterly shrivelled and wasted, ‘melted away.'”
Snails – an excellent gift(?!)
Although unattested, Peter France (1986:139) notes that in “Hebrew lore” the snail provided an example of the way that “God’s creatures all had a purpose on the earth, no matter how insignificant they appeared to be”. He notes that snails were used to cure boils (their mucus is still prized for its apparent beneficial affects on the skin) and that when Jacob sent Benjamin in to Egypt with presents, “the one which it was supposed would excite the greatest admiration was the Murex, the snail from which the dye of Tyrian purple is made.”
There is one further ‘oddity’ about the snail in biblical/Jewish tradition. It is one of the few animals mentioned in the great Jewish hymn of creation, the Perek Shirah, whose ‘song’ actually relates directly to the text in which it is mentioned.
The Snail is saying,
“Like the snail that melts away,
the stillborn of a mole that does not see the sun.”
Take part in the Wildlife Trust’s ’30 Days Wild” challenge
*Some older translations (like the King James Version) also translate חֹ֫מֶט (chomet), in Leviticus 11:30 as ‘snail’. It is now thought to denote a lizard, possibly a sand lizard.
Clifford, R.J. (2002) Psalms 1-72. Abingdon Old Testament Commentary Series. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Firmage, E. (1992) ‘Zoology’. In. Freedman, E. (ed.) The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 6: Si-Z. New York: Doubleday.. pp.1109-1167.
France, P. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Bible Animals. London: Croom Helm.
Slifkin, N. (2009) Perek Shirah: Nature’s Song. 2nd edn. New York: Zoo Torah
Tristram, H.B. (1898) The natural history of the Bible : being a review of the physical geography, geology, and meteorology of the Holy Land; with a description of every animal and plant mentioned in the Holy Scripture. 9th edn. London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.
United Bible Societies (1980) Fauna and Flora of the Bible. Helps for Translators. 2nd edn. London: United Bible Societies.