Spider – עַכָּבִישׁ (akkavish)
Most people tend to encounter spiders indoors rather than outside. However, sit on a piece of grass for even a short length of time and you will soon see this, tiny and often overlooked, scurrying figure. Dewy late summer mornings, when the sun is still low, or frosty autumn and winter days can provide us with a wonderful display of webs that show how abundant and prolific this creature is. Sunrise can turn some meadows into fields of shimmering silver.
The proliferation of spiders is not just a European phenomenon. The United Bible Societies (1980:78) states that there are between “600 to 700 species of Archnida in present-day Palestine.”
Tristram (1898) is uncharacteristically vague in his discussion, suggesting that the number of species of spider found in Palestine is likely to be “as great” as that found within Britain. However, he does elaborate to describe one species that he finds particularly extraordinary:
[T]he Mason Spider (Mygale cementaria) which excavates a home in the earth, lines it, and forms a trap-door with a silken hinge, which closely fits the aperture, and is constructed of webs with earth firmly embedded in them, and agglutinated. The door fits so closely, and so exactly resembles the surrounding soil, that detection is impossible.Tristram (1898:304)
Slifkin (2009:299) cites the suggestion by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch that the spider is called, in Hebrew, Akkavish as the word is formed by the letter ayin that is a prefix to the word covesh, meaning ‘to capture something.’
Spiders tend to evoke quite strong emotional responses that can range from dislike to pathological fear (arachnophobia). This phenomenon is not new. The medieval Jewish aggadic tradition states that:
The spider is the creature most hated by man.Yalkut Shimoni
The webs we weave..
Noting the general dislike of the spider and that it is the web rather than the creature itself that is most visible, it is understandable that it is the web that is the focus of the biblical writers. Both times that Akkavish occurs in biblical literature it is in reference to the flimsy appearance of the web. For Job and Isaiah, the web is the perfect metaphor for something that is insubstantial and fragile.
The first instance is found in the book of Job, where one of Job’s companions, Bildad, describes the fate of those who “forget God”.
13 Such are the paths of all who forget God;Job 8:13-15 (NRSV) emphasis added
the hope of the godless shall perish.
14 Their confidence is gossamer,
a spider’s house their trust.
15 If one leans against its house, it will not stand;
if one lays hold of it, it will not endure.
Interestingly, the word translated here as web is, in fact,
בַּ֫יִת (bayit) meaning ‘house’. ‘House’ is correctly used in the NRSV and, from a quick check of alternative English versions, it appears to be the only one to do so. The image is nonetheless clear.
The other reference is found in Isaiah where the more accurate
קוּר (qur) – meaning ‘web’ – occurs. The context of this reference is a description of those who are involved in oppressing the poor and vulnerable.
Isaiah 59:5-6 emphasis added
5 They hatch adders’ eggs,
and weave the spider’s web;
whoever eats their eggs dies,
and the crushed egg hatches out a viper.
6 Their webs cannot serve as clothing;
they cannot cover themselves with what they make.
Their works are works of iniquity,
and deeds of violence are in their hands.
The choice of web as metaphor is clear to anyone who has encountered spiders’ webs. However, as Goodfellow (2015:97-98) argues that, although not as strong as steel, it has a similar tensile strength meaning that it can be subject to similar loads before it breaks. Slifkin (2009) develops this further, noting that:
“[S]pider silk is four-millionths of an inch thick, elastic enough to stretch to twice its original length, and can holed five times more weight than a piece of steel of the same diameter.”Slifkin (2009:298)
King David and the spider
The motif of spiders coming to the aid of heroic figures by using webs to hide them from their enemies is a fairly common theme and Jewish tradition is no exception. The Otzar Midrashim 47 describes how, while on the run from King Saul, David hid in a cave. A spider then covered the cave’s opening with a web and Saul’s soldiers, seeing the undisturbed webbing, assumed that the cave must be unoccupied. The 19th century, Methodist, commentator, Adam Clarke (1832), claims that this event occurred during the encounter between David and Saul in the caves of En-gedi (1 Samuel 24:1-7). The biblical account is characteristically frank. Saul needs to ‘heed the call of nature’ and to relieve himself, Therefore, he nips into a handy cave for a bit of privacy (as you would, if you were the king!). However, unbeknownst to Saul, this is the exact cave in which David (together with his men) is hiding. Clarke (1832) argues that it is strange that Saul (and presumably his bodyguard) were not aware of the presence of David and so draws upon the story of the spider’s web to explain this problem.
“God, foreseeing that Saul would come to this cave, caused a spider to weave her web over the mouth of it, which, when Saul perceived, he took for granted that no person had lately been there, and consequently he entered it without suspicion.” This may be literally true; and we know that even a spider in the hand of God may be the instrument of a great salvation.Clarke (1832)
Interestingly, the story of David has some similarities with a story found in Islamic tradition.
… Their Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was accompanied by his best friend started their journey in the depths of the night. They managed to leave Makkah, despite being hunted down. They hid in a cave. It was late at night and they were in danger. Alhamdulillah, Allah is the Most Merciful. Even while in the cave, they were nearly caught by the Quraysh…their assassins who were hot on their heels. Then there was a spider. It spun a web to protect Prophet Muhammad and Abu Bakr Siddique. The Quraysh people came and they saw a spider’s web worth days and days of work. So there was no doubt that the two men could have hidden in the cave without such a large spider web in front of it.
Similar stories can be found across many cultures. As a lad, I remember visiting a stately home (although can’t remember where)* where we were shown a priest-hole. This was the (often ingenious) hiding places where Catholic priests were hidden during the time of the English Recusancy laws. The guide told us how, a priest in hiding was saved by a spider who cast its web over the entrance fooling the soldiers who were searching for him.
The story of David and the spider has an added element with it being preceded by a scene from David’s boyhood. While tending his flock, David was thrilled by all the wonders of nature until he came across a spider in its web. He challenged God what the purpose of its creation was. The incident at the cave taught David a valuable lesson.
One element of this tradition that does appear to be characteristic of Jewish tradition (in relation to animals) is that it functions pedagogically in teaching us to appreciate creatures that are often over-looked or despised. The Perek Shirah – see below – is a good example of this. The midrashic story of David questioning God’s wisdom in creating the spider that appears to have no purpose (the other animal is the wasp!). God uses the incident in the cave to prove to David that all living creation has its uses!
The spider that is not
Older translations also record one more reference to spiders which can be found in Proverbs 30:28. Here the Hebrew word used is
שְׂמָמִית (semamit). The text is connected to King Solomon and is (arguably) a positive portrayal of a creature that is generally disliked. The Semamit is part of a list of living things that, while being small (the Hebrew is
קָטָן – qatan – which can also mean unimportant, but which are, nonetheless, praised for their great wisdom.
Proverbs 30:24-28 (NRSV)
24 Four things on earth are small,
yet they are exceedingly wise:
25 the ants are a people without strength,
yet they provide their food in the summer;
26 the badgers are a people without power,
yet they make their homes in the rocks;
27 the locusts have no king,
yet all of them march in rank;
28 the [semamit] can be grasped in the hand,
yet it is found in kings’ palaces.
Although there is a long midrashic tradition for reading semamit as ‘spider’ (Rashi, Radik, Metzudat David, Metzudat Tziyon, Ralbad, Malbim, etc – see Slifkin, 2015:390), most modern translators agree that it more probably denotes a lizard or gecko (see United Bible Societies, 1980:52,78; France, 1986:143). Slifkin (2015:388) also suggests that another possible contender is the monkey.
One further interesting development with this reference is that more recent translators prefer the sense that the creature can easily be caught in [one] hand. However, older translations favour the meaning that it is the creature itself that has the ability to use its hands with which to catch things (in the case of the spider all eight!). This can be seen in the King James Version that also render semamit as ‘spider’:
The spider taketh hold with her hands, and is in kings’ palacesProverbs 30:28 (KJV)
The spider’s song
It is this verse, and the older reading of it, that forms the basis of the inclusion of the spider in the medieval Jewish song of creation: the Perek Shirah. In the song, the spider is presented as a creature that loudly praises God, aided (no doubt) with it eight hands.
The spider is saying, “Praise Him with sounding cymbals! Praise Him with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150:5)Slifkin (2009:297)
Rabbi Natan Slifkin (2009) argues that the image that is given is that of an overlooked and often despised creature that, nevertheless, manages to take up residence within the royal palace and through her cleverness in capturing her prey (the flies that can cause so much irritation) is possibly tolerated because of her effectiveness. Slifkin’s commentary on this song concludes:
The song of the spider is the triumphant sound of the one who has made it to the royal palace by virtue of his cleverness, overcoming the hatred that many feel towards him. It is the song of the royal instruments: “Praise Him with sounding cymbals! Praise Him with loud clashing cymbals!”Slifkin (2009:300) also see Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez to Proverbs 30:28
*In my defence I was VERY young and VERY bored at the time.
Clarke, A. (1832) Commentary on the Bible. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press.
France, P. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Bible Animals. London: Croom Helm.
Goodfellow, P. (2015) Flora and Fauna of the Bible: A guide for Bible readers and naturalists. Oxford: John Beaufoy.
Slifkin, N. (2009) Perek Shirah: Nature’s song. 2nd edn. Jerusalem: Zoo Torah
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.
United Bible Societies (1980) Fauna and Flora of the Bible. Helps for Translators. 2nd edn. London: United Bible Societies.