THESIS: When Jesus dubbed him “that fox,” the Lord was not stating Herod Antipas possessed cunning; rather, He was calling him an effeminate wild dog that feasts on dead men’s corpses. A creature of this kind dwells in desolate towns and buildings, which in this context is a metaphor for Jerusalem and The Temple.
Here is the pertinent passage in context:
… some Pharisees came and said to [Jesus], “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” And [Jesus] said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on My way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’ O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’”
If you lived during the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ you might have seen Him sling insults toward His enemies. His words were no less forceful than the stone David launched at Goliath. But what if Jesus lived in the 21st century? The curses would be considered libelous in today’s compensation culture. A panel of commentators would classify the Nazarene’s rhetoric as vitriolic communication. This Man’s words are “unhelpful,” they would say. This Man is, like, sooooo pre-exilic! He has become a barricade to societal reform. He taps into the dark minds of sinners who suffer from societal fears and other frustrations. He divides people. Here is a Judean that endangers the progressive designs of imperial Roman. Brothels of lawyers would seize this unique opportunity to litigate on ground of hate speech. The ACLU would insist that the King of the Jews is an anti-Semite. In protest, the PC-USA would call for affable discourse and open a Civility Institute (chaired by Louis Farrakhan and Michael Pflegar).
But Jesus did not preach in our time – and that is exactly the purpose of this article. Conjecture and “what if” allusions as in the above example should not be used to explain or interpret Scripture. Herein we aim to address error of this kind.
… confusion occurs whenever a reader of Scripture fails to interpret the Bible within the intellectual and cultural framework of the Bible itself and uses instead a foreign frame of reference.
James W. Sire
Jesus is the Messiah. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the Supreme Lawgiver — we are not. Not one among us can claim His authority. We are not permitted the harsh language He employed when confronting His adversaries. The Bible in most cases instructs God’s people to use softer rebukes, corrective measures by exercising a “spirit of gentleness” and “complete patience.” We can occasionally find exceptions to this general rule; but when we do so we must be use caution. If we deem it necessary to call someone a fool we should be prepared to answer to Jesus for it. Jesus is a sinless Judge and Author of Life, Who possesses unique insight into the souls of all men. If Jesus calls someone a fool, then they are indeed fools; however, if we do the same using sinful motives (anger and hatred) the insult carries the same moral guilt as an act of murder. To Jesus alone God has bestowed “all authority in heaven and on earth.” To Him alone belongs the right to condemn and curse. Since Jesus spoke with perfect divine authority, He had every right to speak of Antipas in such terms.
“The Rock! His work is perfect, For all His ways are just; A God of faithfulness and without injustice, Righteous and upright is He.
On occasion Jesus of Nazareth likened His foes to unclean reptiles. Jesus was informed about serpents and people. Since He created both creatures He would be acquainted with any parallel. Portraying the scribes and Pharisees as “offspring of vipers” (ὄφεις γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν) the Lord made use of animal imagery to demonstrate the Jewish leaders’ collective demonic nature. Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist, included the Sadducees in the nest of snakes.
The use of conceptual metaphors to describe people, places, situations, and events was not uncommon in Jesus’s teaching. In Luke 13:31-35 the Lord characterized Herod Antipas, as “that fox.” Commentators have long imagined “that fox” as a rhetorical device used by Jesus to depict Herod Antipas as a cunning man.
On the surface, support for the traditional western interpretation seems reasonable: Herod the Great, Antipas’s father, is amply documented as a sly and devious ruler. He is more or less an arch-villain skilled at political intrigue. We find in both Holy Scripture and secular histories record of Herod the Great’s insidious maneuvering and trickery. Herod the Great plotted evil stratagem until the day he died. The best-known example is found in the Gospel of Matthew: Herod the Great is represented as a conniving head of state who initially misled “wise men from the east.” These magi only became aware of Herod the Great’s scheme after being warned in a dream. They are instructed to avoid reporting the Infant Christ’s whereabouts by steering clear of Herod the Great. In secular narrative we find historian Josephus crediting Herod the Great with uncommon strength of intellect and will. He had superb engineering skills and political savvy, attributes also repeated in Tacitus‘s The Histories. Even in popular culture from the time of Shakespeare’s plays to the present age of print, film, radio, and television Herod the Great is everywhere portrayed as an evil genius. But Herod Antipas is always considered the fool.
It would be natural for us to transfer intellectual and personality traits from father to son; however, a different story emerges upon closer examination: Antipas did not possess the prowess of his father, Herod the Great.
We affirm the possibility that Antipas inherited his father’s fondness for grandiose productions — or it may have been lack of personal esteem that drove him to seek grandeur. Since it is not uncommon for sons to abhor comparison to their father’s greatness, perhaps Antipas wanted to make a name for himself. Antipas did expand Herod’s public building projects and even conceived a few of his own. Antipas misstepped, however, when he began work on burial grounds near Tiberius. Since such sites were considered unclean by the Jews, they refused to settle there and thus it became home for foreigners. This may have been intentional on Antipas’ part, although this is doubtful, since he, at other times, was more careful of Jewish tradition. Antipas’s miscalculation on this building project contributes to the ongoing consideration he was an inept leader.
He was also known to be superstitious and overly sensitive. Antipas’s reputation as a weak and malleable simpleton is enlarged when he arrests John the Baptist but is afraid to harm him, fearing protest from his subordinates. Only by manipulation of his illegitimate wife and subsequent pressure from dinner guests does he reluctantly take the Baptist’s head. He later believed John the Baptist came back from the dead to haunt him (Matthew 14:1-2). At Jesus’s show-trial Antipas appeared weak and indecisive again. A man harboring enmity toward the Roman governor, Pilate, Antipas found common ground with Pilate during Jesus’s show-trial; the two remained comrades thereafter. Such a remarkable turnaround is an example of how the most diverse forms of error will converge in shared opposition to the truth. Antipas lacked the political skill or survival instincts of his father, and he was eventually exiled to Gaul by his former friend and ally Caligula.
Hence Antipas was not a cunning man. In fact quite the opposite is true. Jesus used the feminine word recorded in Luke 13:32 “fox” [ἀλώπηξ] to inflate the insult as much as possible. Thus, not only was Herod an unclean animal, he was a female unclean animal (literally a bitch).
What is the probable root cause of the [mis]interpretation of fox = cunning?
Every person carries in his head a mental model of the world – a subjective representation of external reality.
Alvin Toffler, Future Shock
Without exception everyone in this world harbors inescapable presuppositions. When a reader approaches a text of any kind he comes (consciously or unconsciously) with a set of assumptions. Certain professionals, including the men of the press, as do the scientists, like to think of themselves as unbiased observers who arrive at a conclusion after the facts are known; yet they, too, employ implicature like everyone else. This they do whether they admit it or not. All of us read a text and assume an opinion, interpreting the words, based on our predisposition and cultural understanding of the world around us. You are, in fact, doing it now as you are reading this blog! We postulate because we have opinions, however well- or ill-informed. We take for granted that Jesus was calling Antipas a cunning man – a title he might be proud to bear had he heard such flattery explained to him from a modern English commentary.
The conjectural process goes something like this: We form opinions and hypotheses from own predilections or from plausible but incomplete evidence. We suspect something on the basis of predisposition rather than usage of the word at the time it was given. A provisional opinion is thus formed. In short, we are speculators, but we do not like to think of ourselves this way; hence, we (often vehemently) defend our conclusions right or wrong. Hence the error is compounded in each generation of readers the same way as a wall is constructed using bricks of mud. We stack our muddy presuppositions one upon another until, over time, the reality of the matter is sealed off and no longer accessible.
When a new idea comes our way, what are we going to do with it? We have an existing frame of reference that can sort out the known from unknown. This is an ongoing problem in everyone’s life. Nowhere is this problem more clearly illustrated than by an event recorded in the Bible itself: worldview confusion was precisely the problem that arose in Lystra when Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel in that city (Acts 14:8-18). As these two evangelists were speaking, a crippled man, who had never walked, was among the attentive listeners. Paul saw that this man had faith, and so he called to him: “Stand upright on your feet.” When the man jumped up and walked around, the people exclaimed, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” They mistook Barnabas for Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes “because he was the chief speaker.” The people had made a simple but crucial error. They had interpreted Paul’s message and his healing in the framework of their own Greek religion.
My point in the above example (borrowed from James W. Sire, Scripture Twisting) is that somewhere along the way a respected commentator read Jesus’s words in Luke 13. When he encountered “fox” in the biblical text his own cultural understanding of the animal influenced his interpretation. Assuming Herod the Great was an evil genius, so must his son be. It never occurred to the commentator that Jesus was intending to mock Antipas by calling him “fox.” Unintentionally the commentator had paid Antipas a compliment of sorts.
Jesus was not emphasizing Antipas’s artful deviancy but was laughing off the threat. The context seems to support my view. What’s to be afraid of? Antipas is nothing more than a girl dog who hides in a hole in the ground. Jesus does not seem to be concerned with the risk portended by the Pharisees. Jesus knows He must die, and must die shortly. He expects to die, and counts on dying on the third day, but not at the hand of Antipas. In spite of Herod’s threat, Jesus will cast out devils and cure the sick on that very day as well as the next. Jesus’s mission will not be thwarted by a filthy and effeminate dog. Jesus instructs the Pharisees to relay this message back to Antipas. Jesus goes on to remind these messengers that it is Jerusalem where He will die. And speaking of Jerusalem, mind you, this city and its temple which stands there will be left desolate. Any place that Christ leaves is abandoned by God and therefore is considered desecrated and empty – precisely the kind of place you would find a fox.
I warn of the dangers of presupposition, but am unable to resist it myself. I conjecture in the foregoing argument that there exists a misconception about Antipas “that fox.” This mistake is the result from the Anglosphere’s predisposition toward the animal. Our English lexicon overflows with cultural and conversational implicature by way of a steady stream of maxims, fables, and other literary conduits. Aesop’s Fables, though largely unread in our day, have contributed to our misunderstanding of Jesus’s original intent used to describe Herod; thus, our ability to perform a critical examination of the text is hindered. Faithful adherence to the accepted standards of hermeneutical science, specifically grammatical and historical methods, are desired but not practiced in this instance.
What is more, a buoyant cliché dumb/stupid/crazy like a fox compounds the problem. Used for comic effect, the phrase indicates the individual referred to is not crazy at all, rather cunning (like an Aesopican fox). It is used when one appears to be ‘crazy’ but is acting with a hidden motive, in a cunning way. In extreme cases, another American-made zoomorphism ‘foxy lady’ was carried away by the undercurrent of 1960s popular music and it is even more bloated in meaning than the prototype.
The Historical Meaning of ἀλώπηξ
What Jesus meant by the word fox (ἀλώπηξ; pronounced: alopex) must be discerned by reviewing other uses of it in the Holy Scriptures. If we desire a safe, consistent hermeneutic let us look primarily how alopex was exercised in other places by the Great Satirist, Rhetorician, and Master Teacher of all time, the Lord Jesus Christ:
“… Jesus said to [the scribe], “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head …” (Matthew 8:20; Luke 9:58).
A natural reading of the text reveals Jesus is clearly teaching that when He came into the world, He put Himself under such a low condition as to lack the convenience of a simple resting place of His own, which even the poorest and vilest creatures have. Jesus, the Lord of creation, stooped so low as to lay aside His own royal comforts (ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν, Philippians 2:7) in order to sympathize with our own human condition. Thus Jesus is our brother in humanity (Hebrews 2:10-13). It does not seem to me this passage helps us determine why Herod is called alopex. Not finding our answer in the aforementioned New Testament foxhole verse, we move on to the Old Testament — the very texts Jesus Himself knew and used when preaching. Both the Hebrew text as well as the Septuagint (henceforth LXX) are considered.
Before moving forward, however, we must recognize a peculiarity: Foxes, wolves, jackals, hyenas, and wild dogs are not always distinguished in the Bible. On occasion they are collectively called “howling beasts.” I can say with high confidence that always שׁוּעָל = ἀλώπηξ (alopex) = fox. We should contrast the aforementioned שׁוּעָל with אִי = (sometimes) תַּן = wolf.
Furthermore, the Hebrew has nuances to words, as do all languages. Though sometimes fallible, one aid to the task of interpreting the nuances of Hebrew is reviewing how the LXX translated the Hebrew word into the Greek. The LXX should be valued beyond being a mere translation; it is a detailed commentary giving us tremendous insights into the use of word-play in the time of Jesus. Alopex appears at least five times the LXX in place for the Hebrew שׁוּעָל (shuw`al):
Judges 15:4 … καὶ ἐπορεύθη Σαμψων καὶ συνέλαβεν τριακοσίας ἀλώπεκας … (NAS: fox; KJV: fox; ESV: fox; NIV: fox; JB-Jewish translator: fox; JPS-Jewish translator: fox)
SUMMARY: In this passage a 300 pack of foxes (jackals? Both foxes and jackals? Foxes, jackals and wild dogs? All “howling creatures?”) were captured by Samson. He set them ablaze and turned them loose to take revenge on the Philistines. The context does not give us enough information to determine if Alopex is portrayed in a positive or negative light. This verse does not provide any information or support for my thesis.
Nehemiah 4:3 … εἶπαν πρὸς ἑαυτούς μὴ θυσιάσουσιν ἢ φάγονται ἐπὶ τοῦ τόπου αὐτῶν οὐχὶ ἀναβήσεται ἀλώπηξ … (NAS: fox; KJV: fox; ESV: fox; NIV: fox; JB-Jewish translator: fox; JPS-Jewish translator: fox)
SUMMARY: In this passage foxes (jackals?) are portrayed as creatures able to leap tall walls. The point being made by Sanballat the Mocker is that any wall the Jews built would be so flimsy that even the light footsteps of a solitary fox (word in original text is singular) would collapse it. The context does not give us enough information to determine if Alopex is portrayed in a positive or negative light. This verse does not provide any information or support for my thesis.
Psalm 63:10 … παραδοθήσονται εἰς χεῖρας ῥομφαίας μερίδες ἀλωπέκων ἔσονται … (NAS: fox; KJV: fox; KJV: fox; ESV: jackal; NIV: jackal; JB-Jewish translator: fox; JPS-Jewish translator: fox)
SUMMARY: In this passage foxes (jackals?) are portrayed as scavengers feasting on unburied bodies of God’s enemies. If one is of the opinion foxes will not eat flesh of this kind then the context supports an English translation of jackal (or hyena) over fox, though we cannot be sure.
Lamentations 5:18 … ἐπ᾽ ὄρος Σιων ὅτι ἠφανίσθη ἀλώπεκες διῆλθον ἐν αὐτῇ … (NAS: fox; KJV: fox; ESV: jackal; NIV: jackal; JB-Jewish translator: fox; JPS-Jewish translator: fox)
SUMMARY: In this passage foxes (jackals?) are portrayed as creatures who roam desolate areas.
Ezekiel 13:4 … οἱ προφῆταί σου Ισραηλ ὡς ἀλώπεκες ἐν ταῖς ἐρήμοις … (NAS: fox; KJV: fox; ESV: jackal; NIV: jackal; JB-Jewish translator: fox; JPS-Jewish translator: fox)
SUMMARY: As in above text, Lamentations 5:18 , foxes (jackals?) are portrayed as creatures who prowl desolate areas. False prophets of Israel are compared to Alopex; they are mischievous and destructive. Just as Alopex consider building ruins to be a perfectly acceptable home, so also the false prophets are able to flourish in a crumbling society.
Convinced henceforth that Alopex means fox, not jackal nor any of the other “howling creatures,” we press on to summarize and conclude.
In my opinion Luke 13: 31-35 makes sense and flows nicely if ἀλώπηξ is understood to be a female member of the Vulpes Canidae family, specifically either the Blanford’s Fox (vulpes cana) or possibly the Fennec Fox (vulpes zerda). Preferred food sources for foxes of this kind include fruits, plants, insects, rodents, eggs, and small mammals (such as rabbits). The vulpes will eat carrion if no other food source is available. They like to burrow in the sand or hide in abandoned buildings.
In Luke’s last mention of him (9:7-9) Antipas was troubled at the reports of Jesus’s miracles. By having John the Baptist beheaded, Antipas thought he had done away with prophetic opposition. But Jesus, far from being threatened by Herod, called him “that fox.” As we have seen in the commentary above foxes connote cleverness in our modern day; in biblical times they also connoted insignificance:
Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”
Catch the foxes for us,
the little foxes
that spoil the vineyards,
for our vineyards are in blossom.”
Song of Solomon 2:15
Jesus intended to continue his ministry, but not indefinitely. That time was short. Luke strongly conveys Jesus’s sense of purpose and necessity of His journey to Jerusalem. Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem where He would meet the cross and on to glory, and there was nothing this effeminate little fox, Antipas, could do about it.