[Rock] Badger/hyrax – שָׁפָן (shaphan)
You might be able to tell by the subtitle that I am having to take a bit of poetic license on today’s topic. Many of you will have probably guessed that our (European) ‘Mr Brock’ type badger (Meles meles) does not appear in the Bible. While it can be found in Israel, as we shall see, it is unlikely to be the animal to which the texts in question refer. Nevertheless, I felt that it was fitting as the badger is the symbol of the Wildlife Trust who are running the 30 Days Wild challenge which this series of posts is supporting.
Badgers have been in the news quite a lot – generally for all the wrong reasons (as far as they are concerned!). Nevertheless, there is something really special about encountering a badger. There is something reassuringly familiar about them. Just think about the number of children’s stories in which they appear – this is something critics of the badger tend to point out! But there is also something strangely different about them. They are sinewy and much faster than you might expect. I can remember one of the first badgers I ever saw. It was at night from a bedroom window. We had been awoken by a noise in the garden. In the gleam of the torchlight we caught the glint of a long, silvery, supple, body wrapped round a bird table – for all the world looking like a podgy, but lithe, snake – before it shot away. After the initial shock we realised that it was a badger who was trying to knock over (once more) our bird table. The ‘biblical’ badger might be different, but it is no less interesting!
Badger or hyrax?
We first come across the name shaphan in two texts that, for those following this series, will be quite familiar; Leviticus 11 and its parallel in Deuteronomy 14. These are the lists that identify which food is permitted to be eaten (kosher) and which is not.
5The rock-badger, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you.Leviticus 11:5 (NRSV)
7Yet of those that chew the cud or have the hoof cloven you shall not eat these: the camel, the hare, and the rock-badger, because they chew the cud but do not divide the hoof; they are unclean for you.Deuteronomy 14:7 (NRSV)
Although there is some debate between the honey badger (Mellivora capensis) and the hyrax (Procavia capensis – sometimes syrica), most recent works tend to favour translating shaphan as ‘hyrax’ or, using its other name, the ‘rock badger’.
Meet the hyrax
The hyrax is a small animal that superficially resembles a rodent – rather like a large guinea-pig. The United Bible Societies (1980:69) describes it as a “gregarious” animal that is herbivorous and about the size of a hare. However, Slifkin (2015:304) notes that, “anatomically, physiologically, and behaviourally they are entirely different from rodents.” In fact, zoological taxonomy would place them closely related to the elephant!
The 19th century cleric and naturalist, Canon Tristram (1898), provides a rather lovely word-sketch of this creature:
The hyrax or coney is a very singular creature, standing quite alone in its structure and anatomy. Although bigger than a rabbit, and clothed with fine soft fur, it is neither a ruminant nor a rodent, but is classed by naturalists between the hippopotamus and the rhinoceros. Yet in its habits and manners it is very like a rabbit. It has a round head, short round ears, a tail which is so short it can scarcely be detected at all; its fur is a reddish brown or tawny, with a single oblong pale spot on the centre of its back, and lighter on its belly. All over its body a few long black hairs stand out from the fur. Its incisor teeth are conspicuous, chisel-shaped, exactly like those of the hippopotamus. It has no claws, but the four toes of its fore feet and the three of its hind feet are furnished with tiny hoofs, shaped like those of the river-monster.Tristram (1898:75-76)
Slifkin (2015:304) points to a text that we have already looked at in an earlier post (Ant – Day 11) as evidence. The book of Proverbs lists a number of small creatures that we should consider.
24 Four things on earth are small,Proverbs 30:24-26 (NRSV)
yet they are exceedingly wise:
25 the ants are a people without strength,
yet they provide their food in the summer;
26 the badgers [shephanim] are a people without power,
yet they make their homes in the rocks;
Neither the European and honey badger would fit the category of being classed as ‘small’ ( קָטָן – qatan). However, the hyrax would be much more appropriate and they are noted to use holes and crevices in rocks in just the way described in this verse. Tristram (1898) refers to this a couple of times in his section on the hyrax.
They are but a feeble folk, but in these districts the stony rocks are their refuge, and tolerably secure they are in them. No animal ever gave us so much trouble to obtain. They are far too wary to be taken in traps, and the only chance of securing one is patiently to lie concealed, about sunset or before sunrise, on some overhanging cliff, taking care not to let the shadow be cast below, and there to wait till the little creatures cautiously peep forth from their holes. I had the good fortune to see one feeding in the gorge of the and there to watch it as it sat at the mouth of its hole ruminating, metaphorically if not literally, while waiting for sunset.Tristram (1898:77)
One further clue that the shaphan is most probably a hyrax can be found in the beautiful psalm of creation, Psalm 104.
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats;Psalm 104:18
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys [shephanim].
The species of hyrax that are resident in Israel thrive in precisely these places and often are seen in the proximity of wild goats (Ibex). Slifkin (2015) observes:
[Hyraxes] have a multitude of tunnels and hiding places in these rocks, and when danger threatens, they all dart into hiding. Hyraxes are so intimately connected with rocks that they are never found far from them. In fact, the recent increase in piles of rocks in Israel due to construction has led to a population boom of hyraxes.Slifkin (2015:305)
The effect of this increase in population can be seen in a recent article in the Jerusalem Post (26/08/2018) that records a call made by the Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection for the ‘Israeli Hyrax’ to be officially classified as a pest.
The texts with which we began this section from Leviticus and Deuteronomy both emphasised that feet of the shaphan and that it was not cloven. The hyrax’s feet are particularly distinctive and have a heavy, rubbery appearance. The back feet comprise three long toes that give a slightly divided impression, but also include a solid sole. Borowski (1998:192) describes them as “doubly cloven”. The United Bible Societies (1980:70) state that the undersoles have pads that can act like “sucking-discs which enable it to keep its footing on slippery rocks.”
The question of the cud
One immediate problem with identifying the shaphan with the hyrax is that it does not chew its cud – but then, neither does the European or honey badger. We have addressed a similar problem with our earlier post on the hare. Like the hare, it is easy to see why the hyrax was thought to regurgitate its food, by the chewing movements it makes with its mouth. Slifkin (2015:310) notes that zoologists are now interpreting this movement as communication rather than eating or ‘cud chewing.’ The movement of its jaws from side to side has been associated with the hyrax either encountering something new and/or potentially dangerous. The behaviour attributed to cud chewing might, therefore, actually be a threatening gesture and have nothing to do with food.
Our old friend tachash
Peter France’s (1985:18-19) entry on ‘badger’ revolves around the translation of another word that we have encountered in an earlier post on the dolphin: תַּ֫חַשׁ (tachash). As we noted there, some older English versions (like the Authorised Version) rendered the rather puzzling word tachash as ‘badger’. France notes that Tristram (1898:44) did find badger skin for sale in leather shops which he identified as from the European badger (Meles meles). However, this interpretation has now fallen out of favour and is more than likely caused by a confusion between tachash and the Latin word for badger, taxus.
Bright, M. (2006) Beasts of the Field: The revealing natural history of the bible. London: Robson Books.
Borowski, O. (1998) Every living Thing: Daily use of animals in ancient Israel. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.
France, P. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Bible Animals. London: Croom Helm.
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.