Foxes and Hogs



Beasts, Plants, and Mountains in the Bible

by Fr. Claudio Doglio


The Fox and the Hog

Since it was impossible that a prophet died outside Jerusalem, Jesus told the Pharisees to go tell Herod that He meant to continue his ministry for all the necessary time, even though the tetrarch didn’t want Him to.

"Go and tell that fox, 'Behold, I cast out demons and I perform healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day I accomplish my purpose.' ” (Luke 13,32)

In that phrase Jesus used an animal metaphor to depict the character of Herod Antipas negatively. In this case, the image of the fox did not call to mind shrewdness but filth. Because the fox was an unclean and impure animal that unearthed dead bodies and lived in tainted places.

In our language, we instead employ the pig as the animal symbol of dirtiness, therefore Jesus’s expression should be translated as “Go tell that pig….”

Linking an animal to a person means to highlight a trait of that animal that one wants to attribute to that person. In the case of the fox (or the hog) the figurative reproach concerns dirtiness, that is, an unscrupulous, irregular, dishonest, filthy, and obscene behavior. Therefore, the unclean animal evokes all that is ugly, ignoble, and indecent in someone’s conduct.

In Israel’s ancient tradition, according to the rules about purity codified in the Book of Leviticus (Leviticus 11-16), some animals are considered impure and may not be eaten by the Israelite. The empirical criterion of distinction is so formulated: “Any animal that has hoofs you may eat, provided it is cloven-footed and chews the cud.” (Lev 11.3).

On the basis of that rule, the hog is qualified as impure because it: "does indeed have hoofs and is cloven-footed, but does not chew the cud….” (Lev 11,7). That means one may not eat its meat or touch its dead body.

The given theological motivation for these diet rules is rather generic. Israel is called to share the sanctity of the Lord its God and, therefore, must be equally holy, that is, separated from everything that is unclean: “For I, the LORD, am your God; and you shall make and keep yourselves holy, because I am holy. You shall not make yourselves unclean….” (Lev 11,44).

The observance of these rules was strict even in Jesus’ time to the point that all “unclean” animals were banned from the entire Judaic territory.  In Israel, therefore,  there were no pigs. In fact, the episode of the devil-possessed man of Gerasene (Mark 5, 1-20), in which there appears a large, two-thousand hog herd, is set in the Decapolis on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, outside the borders of Judea.

In the Evangelical tale, Jesus’s journey into pagan territory is an anticipation of His future ministry to heathens, to whom is offered the same possibility of salvation that Christ offered Israel. The pagan demoniac of the story is a man possessed by “impure spirits” who called themselves a “legion.” That was a military word that indicated a unit of the army of the “Roman pigs.” The possessed man dwelt among the graves, which was another unclean place for the Jews. The demons cast out by Jesus wanted to enter the pigs and then the foul herd, taken over by the demonic legion, self-destroyed by jumping in the lake.

The episode is full of symbolic reminders meant to point out how Jesus can free men from the power of evil which, regardless of its fury, ends up turning against itself.

Romanesque art, 12th century. St. Martin’s Church, Zillis, Graubünden, Switzerland

The hogs also figure in the tale of the two sons, where it’s told how the younger brother left home and is forced to work as a pig-herder: “So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.” (Luke 15, 15.)  This narrative clue means to tell us that he was in a foreign place, away from his religious fatherland, and reduced to a painful and extremely shameful state. And it is from that humiliating debasement that the climb back up of the prodigal son begins: When he realizes that he is fallen to the level of pigs, the son wishes to return to the house of his father.

Another characteristic of unclean animals is that they are also harmful. The wild hogs, for example, besides being filthy are also dangerous and bad for the farmers’ fields. There is a psalm that elaborates on this image to express a lament on the sad state of Israel, compared to a vineyard devastated by wild animals. The psalmist invokes the salvific intervention of God against corruption. The beautiful and florid vineyard (planted by God) is now without a fence: “Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes? Boars from the forest ravage it….” (Psalm 80, 12-13.) These are like the painful and bad things that we, too, experience in our Church. Unfortunately, even among us there are people who, like wild boars, damage our fields. And if they are people in leading positions of authority, the damage caused is even greater.

The Exsurge Domine Papal Bull, written in the year 1520 by Pope Leo X to condemn Martin Luther’s thesis and his writings, began just with this image of devastation caused by wild animals: “Arise, O Lord, and judge your own cause. Remember your reproaches to those who are filled with foolishness all through the day. Listen to our prayers, for foxes have arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard whose winepress you alone have trod.” The reference to the foxes is a quote from the Song of Songs (2,15.)  The damage of heresy is compared to the work of foxes and, right after that, Pope Leo mentions the wild boars: “The wild boar from the forest seeks to destroy it and every wild beast feeds upon it.” (Psalm 80,13.)   Whether the biblical quotes were correct in that historical situation is debatable.  But there are filthy beasts that damage our Church.

            Let’s pray that the Lord helps us cleanse ourselves and our Church so that we can rid ourselves of foxes and pigs.


    This post is another translation, from Italian, of a chapter of Fr. Claudio Doglio's book  Il Giardino di Dio (The Garden of God), published in Italy by Effatà Editrice. 

    I translated several other chapters from that book. To read them,  search my blog for "Claudio Doglio." 

    Many thanks to Janice A. Jenkins Pavese for reviewing the English text.

    The picture of the fox, under the title is by Ester De Boer.

    Your comments, as usual, we'll be greatly appreciated.


    L. Pavese 


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