Wild Goat, Ibex – אַקּוֹ (akko), יָעֵל (ya’el)
Today’s post is a little bit of a cheat. But I really like goats (they are one of my research topics) and, although I know we don’t really have any wild goats left in the UK, I feel slightly vindicated by a news report covered by the BBC in March this year announcing that ‘Wild goats flock to Llandudno in bad weather‘!
Goats, along with sheep, have long been a part of human culture and economy and therefore also an intrinsic part of the human landscape (for a brief readable overview see Borowski, 1994 or Sasson, 2014). Encountering their rugged form on some bleak wilderness scarp can give us a very real impression of wildness and freedom, even though they are in fact indicators of the exact opposite. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed many a packed lunch on some windswept Welsh mountainside sharing Marmite sandwiches with a feral goat or two.
Love and admiration for the goat
Goats were an integral part of the biblical world and especially its economy. Zooarchaeological data shows that, in ancient Israel, flocks (צֹאן – tson) – although often translated into English simply as ‘sheep’ – were, almost entirely mixed containing both sheep and goats. The suitability of goats to the harsher uplands of central Israel and the southern Negev, and the slightly higher nutritional benefit from their dairy and meat products, meant that goats outnumbered sheep in the majority of flocks (see, Sasson, 2014). If you would like to know more, you can read Ian Paul’s blog on a paper I presented on this subject at the British New Testament Conference (2018): ‘What did Jesus have against goats?‘
It is therefore, not surprising that goats feature a lot in biblical texts and took a significant role within the temple sacrificial system (see, Borowski, 1998:61-65; 211-230). The wild goat, and particularly the ibex, also has an important place within biblical literature, as well as frequently appearing on numerous ancient monuments and seals throughout the ancient Near East (Borowski, 1998:189)..
Deuteronomy 14:5 lists the generic wild goat, אַקּוֹ (akko), as being kosher (foods permitted to eat), before listing specific examples. The wild goat to which the biblical writers referred was the ibex; יָעֵל (ya’el). Borowski (1998:189) states that the Nubian ibex (Capra ibex Nubiana) lives in the mountains of “Arabia, southern Palestine, the Sinai, and southern Egypt.” The ibex is characterised by its untwisted horns that are curved and have pronounced anterior ridges. It is described by Bright (2006:144) as being the “most advanced of all wild goat species.”
Goats are famous for their climbing skills and the ibex is a notable example of this. They are extremely sure-footed and are proficient climbers, being eminently suited to the rugged and mountainous terrain of central and southern Israel. In fact, their name, יָעֵל (ya’el), means ‘he shall ascend’ and, almost certainly, refers to their climbing skills ( Tristram, 1898: 95; Slifkin, 2016: 262). The inaccessible rocky outcrops of the wilderness of En-gedi (Ein Gedi) have, from biblical times, been an ideal location for ibex who give it its name.
When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, ‘David is in the wilderness of En-gedi.’ 2Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel, and went to look for David and his men in the direction of the Rocks of the Wild Goats [lit. ‘Rocks of the Ibexes’; יְּעֵלִֽים – ya’elim].1 Samuel 24:1-2 (NRSV)
This region is now a nature reserve and still supports a (smallish) population of Nubian ibex today.
Their short legs and powerful build make the ibex perfectly adapted to their mountainous environment. The steep hillsides also help them elude predators as well as provide access to resources (food, water and shelter) that is not readily accessible to other species. Tristram (1898:96) also noted that their colouring made them very difficult to spot as they blended perfectly with their surroundings.
The beautiful Psalm 104, recited on Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the new month), picks up on the theme of the ibex and its natural highland habitat.
The high mountains are for the wild goats [יָעֵל (yael)];Psalm 104:18 (NRSV)
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys [probably, hyraxes].
For whom were the high hills made?
From an environmental and ecological perspective Jewish Talmudic tradition draws from this verse an extremely interesting reading. The circa 4th century Berishit Rabbah argues that the wording in this psalm is significant in understanding the place of the ibex within the ecology of creation:
Rabbi Yuden said: It does not state, “In the high hills are the ibex,” but rather, “The high hills are for the ibex.” Why were the high hills created? For the ibex…”Berishit Rabbah 12:9 (emphasis added)
Slifkin (2015) notes that the Midrash adds the following:
The ibex is weak and is afraid of wild beasts. When she wishes to drink, the Holy One causes a spirit of madness to enter her, and she clatters her horns, and the beasts hear the sound and flee.Slifkin (2015: 270 )
These comments illustrate the prevailing attitudes of the ancients to the wild non-human worlds around. It strongly suggests an understanding of the importance of environment (we would call it an ecosystem) to the health and well-being of the animal: The high hills are important not because they are useful to humans, but because they belong (or, at least, have been divinely gifted) to the ibex (and hyrax)! Yahweh may provide for his people, Israel, but he is also seen as the one who provides for the timid ibex. Moreover, even though the ibex was of little value to the ancient Israelites (unlike their cousins, the domestic goat), these texts indicate that, nevertheless, they were viewed as having an intrinsic worth.
You don’t know everything!
One further text mentioning the ibex is also instructive. Of all the biblical creation accounts, for me, the most beautiful is the one found in the book of Job. It is a wild, tumultuous, beautiful and boisterous, account – so very different from those found in Genesis. It provides a clear challenge to the language Genesis 1 that would appear to place humans at the centre (or even pinnacle) of the created order* Chapters 38-41 of Job presents Yahweh’s rather robust answer to Job’s complaint.
‘Do you know when the mountain goats [ יָעֵל (yael)] give birth?Job 39: 1-4 (NRSV)
Do you observe the calving of the deer?
2 Can you number the months that they fulfil,
and do you know the time when they give birth,
3 when they crouch to give birth to their offspring,
and are delivered of their young?
4 Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open;
they go forth, and do not return to them.
On one level, the message conveyed in Yahweh’s response to Job is simple: How can you hope to understand me and my ways, if you are ignorant of even the basic things in the world? The shyness and timidity of the ibex, combined with the inaccessibility of its habitat, meant that, in antiquity, ibex gestation and birthing habits were shrouded in mystery – although the reference to the practice of the animal crouching (כָּרַע – kara; literally ‘bowing’) suggests that it was not entirely unknown.
An interesting Talmudic gloss on this text is discussed by Slifkin (2015:265) that interprets the Ibex’s behaviour as cruel to which God provides a very singular solution!
[God said:] This ibex is cruel to its offspring; when it crouches to give birth, she goes up to the top of a mountain, so that [her offspring] will fall from her and die. But I prepare a vulture for it, which takes its wings and sets it before her. And if it were to be a moment too early or a moment too late, [the newborn] would die immediately.Bava Batra 16a-b – cited in Sliflkin (2015:265)
On a different level, Job 39 reinforces the autonomy of the natural world. The ibex (and all the other non-human life mentioned in this speech) do not require human intervention – in fact, humans (as far as the text is concerned) are mostly ignorant about even the most fundamental aspects of their lives. If we are tempted to read Genesis 1 as a statement of human superiority and dominion over the earth, we are reminded here that we are just one small part of it. If Job wants to claim that he (as an Israelite and human) has a special relationship with his maker, his maker robustly reminds him that others, including the ibex, can also claim the very same thing!
As Katharine Dell (2010) observes in her chapter, ‘The Significance of the Wisdom Tradition in the Ecological Debate’, that these descriptions of the wild, untamed, natural world in the book of Job:
…serve to overwhelm Job with the wonders of creation, to make him see other possibilities that lie outside a human-centred world view…(Dell, 2010:66)
Your beauty can be compared to a… wild goat!
The beauty of the ibex (particularly the young) was not missed by the ancient Hebrew writers. Although it might sound a little strange in English, the writer of Proverbs uses the image of a female ibex (goat) to capture the beauty of the ‘young wife.’
18 Let your fountain be blessed,Proverbs 5:18-19 (NRSV)
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
19 a lovely deer, a graceful doe [יַעֲלָה – ya’alah].
May her breasts satisfy you at all times;
may you be intoxicated always by her love.
Slifkin (2015:266) quotes a later Talmudic text that also uses the female ibex to describe natural beauty:
“Rav Dimi said: ‘This is how they sing for a bride in the West (in the land of Israel): “Without eye-colour, mascara or braiding, and yet a charming ibex.”‘Ketubot 17a)
It is therefore not surprising that יָעֵל (yael) appears as a female’s name. One of the early heroines of Israel is called Jael (יָעֵל). Although, not an Israelite (but a Kenite), the story of Jael is told twice in the book of Judges (4 and 5), where she kills the captain of the Canaanite army, Sisera, by driving a tent peg through his temple.
*Although, see Bauckham (2010:1-36) for a helpful and much more carefully considered reading of this account.
Bauckham, R. (2010) Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the community of creation. London: Darton, Longmann and Todd.
Borowski, O. (1998) Every Living Thing: Daily use of animals in ancient Israel. Walnut Creek: Altamira Sage Press.
Bright, M. (2006) Beasts of the Field: The revealing natural history of the bible. London: Robson Books.
Dell, K.J. (2010) ‘The Significance of the Wisdom Tradition in the Ecological Debate’. In. Horrell, D.G., Hunt, C., Southgate, C. and Stavrakopoulou, F. (eds.) Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, historical and theological perspectives. London: T&T Clark. pp.56-69.
Sasson, A. (2014) Animal Husbandry in Ancient Israel: A zooarchaeological perspective on livestock exploitation, herd management and economic strategies. London: Routledge.
Slifkin, N. (2015) The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom: Volume 1: Chayot/wild animals. New York: Biblical Museum of Natural History.
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.