Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Wildlife in Leviticus 11:29-30

In Leviticus 11:29-30, a number of animals are listed as cerimonially unclean.

Here how this text is rendered in English by various versions:

(KJV) "..the weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise after his kind, And the ferret, and the chameleon, and the lizard, and the snail, and the mole."

(ESV) "..the mole rat, the mouse, the great lizard of any kind, the gecko, the monitor lizard, the lizard, the sand lizard, and the chameleon."

(NASB) "..the mole, and the mouse, and the great lizard in its kinds, and the gecko, and the crocodile, and the lizard, and the sand reptile, and the chameleon. "

The differences here primarily lie in the difficulty in rendering some Hebrew words which can be very ambigious. All of these varying lists of creatures are quite interesting and are not animals we see mentioned often in the Bible. Each version's list contains 8 creatures. For the purposes of this study, I will refer to the Hebrew words used by the Hebrew text that underlines the KJV Old Testament.

The first creature mentioned is various called "weasel", "mole", and "mole rat". This animal is indicated by the Hebrew word "choled", indicating a gliding motion in and out of holes in the ground. General consenus states that the animal this names points to may be extinct. This is the only Biblical reference to this animal.

The second creature, "akbar" is unanimously (by the 3 translations I've refered to) called a "mouse". This animal is refered to several times in the Old Testament, mainly in the description of the golden depictions of mice on the ark of the Lord (I Sa 6:11)

The third creature, "tsab" is called a "great lizard", though the KJV calls it a "tortoise". This Hebrew word is quite ambigious, but the general thing we get from this name is that it is slow moving a possibly like a "covered wagon". Interestingly enouigh, this word is listed among the things that were part of an offering in Num 7:3.

The fourth creature, anaqah, is called a gecko, but the KJV curiously calls it a "ferret". This almost most certainly does refer to some sort of lizard (which a gecko is), but the Hebrew name seems to come from the groaning noise that this particular species of lizard. Is the KJV translation of this completely unfounded? Possibly not. The Septuagint (early translation of the OT is Greek) and also the Latin Vulgate translate this particular word as "shrew mouse", so perhaps there is a possibility that this is mammal rather than a reptile.

The fifth creature, koach, is probably the most differently translated among various Bible versions, translated as "chameleon", "monitor lizard", and "crocodile". This is a good example of how diverse Hebrew word meanings can be. It can refer to a reptile, but also to wealth and strength. For example, it used to describe Reuben's "might" in Gen 49:3. Some scholars say this is a small lizard, but the translators that picked "monitor lizard" or "crocodile" obviously didn't think so.

The sixth creature, letawaw, is generally termed "lizard" by translations and must have been some species of lizard.

The seventh creature is translated as "sand lizard", "sand reptile", and "snail" by the KJV. The general consensus is that this, also, is some species of lizard.

The eighth creature, tanshemeth, is translated as "chameleon" or "mole" in the KJV. This is an interesting word, because elsewhere it is translated "swan" by the KJV. I'm curious as to why the KJV translates this word so differently in this context.

I'm far too igorant of Hebrew to chime in with any sort of authority, but I find this interesting. Some may think these are insignifanct details, and in some senses they are right--the particular translation of these words may not matter much, practically speaking. But if the Bible mentions them, and we want to know the environment of Bible times, they do definately have some significance.

For those interested in exploring this further, the ISBE has an interesting entry on lizards in the Bible.

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Blogger Paul said...

The link didn't work properly for me..... just thought you'd wanna know.

6:37 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Thanks! Yeah, I missed part of the URL. It should work now

6:54 PM  
Blogger Luke said...

That was an interesting read.

10:14 AM  
Blogger EM said...

Nice article! I am currently exploring the ways Jewish medieval commentators understood these terms (I need it for a translation of a medieval text), and their understanding is very varied (my native language is Hebrew, and I am a "professional" in this field, but all and this changes nothing: these terms are obscure!). Good job!

12:02 PM  

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