Luke 13:31-32 “At that hour some Pharisees came and told Jesus, "Leave and get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you!" He told them, "Go and tell that fox, 'Listen! I am driving out demons and healing today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will finish my work.”
Most modern Bible readers assume that in this passage Jesus (Yeshua) is saying that Herod Antipas is sly, cunning, crafty and wise. We associate these things with the fox as an animal. While it is true that this does describe the characteristics of a fox, and even in the ancient Mediterranean world a fox would have been seen this way as well, there is another analogy of a fox that Yeshua is certainly implying here.
Let's examine another Hebraic understanding of the fox that Yeshua would have understood based on 1st century Jewish culture. We turn to ancient Jewish sources for this information.
"A certain scholar, thought at first to be brilliant, was by all outward signs inept, and it was remarked about him, “The lion you mentioned turns out to be a [mere] fox.” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 117a)
By this statement we learn that lions and foxes can be contrasted with one another to show the difference between great men and inferior men. While great men are referred to as “lions”, men of lesser importance are referred to as “foxes”.
In some cases the same analogy was applied to Torah scholars: “There are lions before you, and you ask foxes?” (Jerusalem Talmud, Shevi’it 39a, chpt. 9, halachah 5). In other words, why would you ask my opinion when there are Torah scholars available.
In addition, fox and lion analogies were often used to show pedigree.
“He is a lion the son of a lion, but you are a lion the son of a fox.”[Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 12c, chpt. 10, halachah 5 ] In this statement, the first person was a distinguished scholar and his father was a distinguished scholar, but in the second example the person was a distinguished scholar but his father was not a distinguished scholar. The father was lesser than the son.
The word “fox” can also have moral implications:
“Be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes.” (Mishnah, Avot 4:15.) In other words it is best to be a person of low rank among those who are morally and spiritually superior than to be a person who is morally and spiritual superior among those who are rogue.
By examining these sayings and other ancient Jewish literature, one should be able to see that Yeshua was not calling Herod Antipas a sly, cunning, crafty and wise person. Instead, He was speaking derogatory. He was saying that Herod Antipas didn't matter at all. To Yeshua, Herod Antipas was “a fox”, or a lesser person of moral and spiritual authority and furthermore Yeshua was not worried about threats coming from Herod. Herod Antipas was an “insignificant person” and he had no control over Yeshua to carry out threats upon Him.
Yeshua stated later that no one could have touched Him had the right not been given to them by His Father. At the time that Yeshua called Herod a “fox”, He still had work to do and no “insignificant” person was going to stop Him.
I hope that this short lesson has added light to the Jewishness of Yeshua, His first disciples and the Brit Hadashah (New Testament).
Keep it in context! Shalom!