[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette given to the UCG Portland congregation on June 27, 2020. The message is based on a previous study of the hyrax done by the author.]
Are you smarter than a Bible scholar? One of the lamentable aspects of critical Bible scholars is that when they are faced with something that is mysterious or odd within the Bible, their immediate tendency is to avoid giving credit to the insights that be found from scripture, and to demand that anything the Bible says be verified and confirmed by outside sources. For example, the city of Nineveh and the empire of the Hittites were long unknown to scholars and so it was figured by them to have been imaginary and fictitious until the ruins of their civilizations and their written documents, which correspond so closely to scripture, were discovered and deciphered. So it is as well that animals that the Bible discusses are not assumed to be real unless they are known from outside sources. Among these mysterious biblical animals that were long thought to have been imaginary is the humble hyrax, the subject of today’s message.
What is a hyrax anyway? It is worthwhile to note something about the hyrax in terms of its biblical name, as that name gives the reader some insight as to its character as far as the Bible is concerned. It is the Hebrew word shafan that is used to describe the hyrax, and this word is related to the Hebrew word for concealed or hidden the way that treasures are. Intriguingly enough, the hyrax’s identity was long hidden to English-language translators who were not aware of the animal, and the animal’s ability to make its home within the rocks of desert cliffs despite being feeble folk (more on that shortly) is something that drew a great deal of praise within the Bible. Indeed, the Bible views hyraxes in a positive sense and draws some lessons that are well worth remembering, suggesting that if hyraxes are obscure for us, that they were definitely something that the Bible finds worthy of paying attention to.
The first two times the hyrax appears by name in scripture is a note about the uncleanness of the animal for eating. Let us begin in Deuteronomy 14:7-8: “Nevertheless, of those that chew the cud or have cloven hooves, you shall not eat, such as these: the camel, the hare, and the rock hyrax; for they chew the cud but do not have cloven hooves; they are unclean for you. Also the swine is unclean for you, because it has cloven hooves, yet does not chew the cud; you shall not eat their flesh or touch their dead carcasses.” Leviticus 11:4-8 has a somewhat longer but generally similar mention: “Nevertheless these you shall not eat among those that chew the cud or those that have cloven hooves: the camel, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you; the rock hyrax, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you; the hare, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you; and the swine, though it divides the hoof, having cloven hooves, yet does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. Their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch. They are unclean to you.” It may very well be that the Bible means by the expression the appearance of chewing the cud even without the reality of it, given that it does not expect the Israelites to cut open the hyrax or other animals to see how many stomachs it has but rather judge it by its visible and obvious behaviors. It is rather telling that the hyrax is here compared to the camel (another animal of the desert like the hyrax is) as well as the hare, which the hyrax was originally confused with by translators who didn’t understand the existence of the hyrax. The obvious lesson here is that God did not create all animals for our consumption as food, so the purposes of the hyrax are not to be consumed by mankind as part of a healthy and balanced diet.
Outside of the law, the hyrax is found in two passages that use the animal as a source of insight and instruction. Psalm 104:16-18 tells us: “The trees of the Lord are full of sap, the cedars of Lebanon which He planted, where the birds make their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees. The high hills are for the wild goats; the cliffs are a refuge for the rock badgers.” Here we see the psalmist praising God’s providential care for creation by looking at the way that animals find their home in the different parts of creation that God has created. God planted the cedars of Lebanon (which, sadly, have long been destroyed due to the improvidence of mankind), and in those trees the stork found a home in the fir trees. High hills and rock cliffs are not habitats that are highly regarded by many people, but they provide a home for the wild goats and rock badgers (another name for hyraxes), respectively. Notably, Psalm 104 is providing us with a lesson concerning creation that we would do well to listen to. That lesson is that God’s creation of the earth is not only for mankind or what can be done for mankind. Rather, God’s creation also shows concern for other creatures whose well-being we may not always be well disposed to respect. To the extent that we develop godly character, we will will care about the well-being of storks, wild goats, and hyraxes just as God does. No animal is too odd or too obscure to be beneath God’s concern and care, and the same should be true regarding our own concern for God’s creation.
The final mention of the hyrax in scripture is from a source that is nearly as obscure as the animal itself, the wise Agur, whose insights about God and man can be found throughout the entirety of Proverbs 30, including one of my favorite messianic prophecies. Among his other insightful comments in Proverbs 30 is a reference to the surprising survival skills of the hyrax as part of a context in verses 24-28: “There are four things which are little on the earth, but they are exceedingly wise: The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their food in the summer; the rock badgers are a feeble folk, yet they make their homes in the crags; the locusts have no king, yet they all advance in ranks; the spider skillfully grasps with its hands, and it is in kings’ palaces.” Here Agur talks about four small but wise creatures. Ants are weak but prepare for the change of the seasons, showing that they are wise. Hyraxes are feeble but can make their home in the crags, showing their skill at surviving in difficult terrain. Locusts have no autocratic leaders (unlike humanity) but are able to maintain unity, something that human beings struggle with. Finally, spiders are small but are skilled and able to make their home even in palaces where their webs catch unwary insects for their meals. Here the lessons are plain that God has created animals who are able to overcome their natural limitations and show themselves to be far stronger and far more powerful than they would be upon first observation. This is something that we would do well to remember, so that we do not underestimate anything that God has created.
Let us now review the lessons from the hyrax as they appear in scripture. Learning these lessons and keeping them in mind will help us to remain smarter than the Bible scholars who disregard the wisdom that the Bible provides us from creation. The first lesson that the Bible provides us is the reminder that not everything that God has created was created for our own consumption, and the worth of the hyrax does not consist in its being fit for food. After this, the next lesson that the Bible provides us is a reminder that God is concerned about providing a place for the hyrax to live in the desolate and obscure areas of the world, the cliffs of the Middle East and North Africa. It is fitting that an obscure creature should have an obscure home, and we ought to be comforted by the way that God provides for even the most unusual creatures, so perhaps he may be believed to provide for the well-being of even the most odd and obscure and unusual among His people as well. Finally, Agur, an obscure but wise fellow himself, reminds us that the hyrax may look weak and feeble from the outside, but it possesses the tenacity and strength to make its home in the harsh environment of rocks and cliffs. We should not underestimate those around us, because other people and creatures often possess strengths that we are scarcely aware of and will not understand unless we approach them with an attitude of respect and curiosity. We would all do well to heed the lessons that God provides us through the humble hyrax.