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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Scorpion (2)

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SCORPION (σκορπίος).—A real nuisance in hot countries, especially in Bible lands, scarce and comparatively innocuous in Southern Europe, the scorpion is unknown save from hearsay in Central and Northern Europe. It has, however, left its mark in the familiar expression in cauda venenum, as well as in astronomical science, where it counts amongst the constellations of the Zodiac.

1. Zoological description.—The scorpion is an arthropod, of the class of Arachnoidae, of the subclass of Arthrogastra, of the order of Scorpionidae. It has four pairs of legs, and in front one pair of extremely strong claws (palpi). Its abdomen consists of 7 anterior segments, broad and intimately connected with the cephalo-thorax, and of 6 posterior segments, which are narrower, and constitute the tail (or post-abdomen). The last of these 6 posterior segments is incurved underneath, and terminates in a pointed hook surrounded by two powerful venomous glands. The scorpion catches its prey with its strong claws, curves its tail towards it above its own back, and inflicts the death sting. The scorpion’s sting is very painful even for man; it may prove fatal when the insect belongs to one of the big tropical species; and even with minor species life may be imperilled when the throat is concerned; cf. Tristram (Nat. Hist. of Bible8 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , p. 303), who has ‘known one instance [in Palestine] of a man dying from the effect of the scorpion’s sting.’

There occurs in Southern Europe, sometimes even in Switzerland and Southern Germany, a species of scorpion relatively innocuous—the scorpius Europaeus. In the Mediterranean peninsulae as well as in the South of France, another more dangerous species is to be found, the Buthus occitanus. In the Eastern lands of the Bible there are six, eight, perhaps even twelve different species of scorpions belonging to the genera Buthus and Androctonus. They reach a length of 5 to 6 inches (in tropical countries 12 inches; cf. Morris, Bible Natural History, Calcutta, 1896, p. 101). Palgrave (Central and Eastern Arabia, 1883, p. 28) was stung in Arabia by one of the numerous ‘desert scorpions,’ which he describes as ‘curious little creatures, about a fourth of an inch in length, and apparently all claws and tail, of a deep reddish-brown colour, and very active.’ The Talmud of Jerusalem (Ber. 9a) says that the scorpion’s sting is even more dangerous than that of the snake, because it repeats it. Conder (Tent Work6 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , 1895, p. 113) tells that he was stung by one scorpion ‘in six places along the leg.’

Scorpions are exclusively carnivorous, feeding upon insects and worms. They are useful in destroying mosquitoes. Not infrequently they devour each other. The female scorpion eats up the male after fecundation.

Ancient authors (Aristotle, Pliny) report that scorpions devour their own parents. This assertion is connected with a false etymology of the Heb. word עַקְרָב (true etymology unknown), as if it were derived from עָקַר ‘to exterminate,’ and אָב ‘father.’ Thomson (LB [Note: The Land and the Book.] ii. 480) ‘tried the experiment of surrounding a scorpion with a ring of fire, and when it despaired of escape, it repeatedly struck its own head, and soon died either from the poison or its Satanic rage—I could not be certain which—perhaps from both combined.’

There are differently coloured scorpions: some are black, others brown, reddish, yellowish, grey or white, some are striped. They are frequently found in Palestine under stones, among ruins, in crevices of walls, in dung-heaps, and empty cisterns. Travellers camping in tents or lodging in the houses of natives, as well as archaeologists conducting excavations, have to be careful to guard themselves and their men from scorpions; for even when the sting is not fatal, it is a cause of acute pain, and prevents walking and working.

According to a popular superstition, a man who has eaten a scorpion is immune against the sting of any of these animals, and able to relieve a victim by sucking the wound (Conder, l.c.). It is also believed that by applying to the wound a squashed scorpion, or by reading some magic formulae over the patient, a cure is effected.

2. OT references.—In geography, scorpions gave their name to a place mentioned in the OT—the ‘Ascent of Scorpions,’ ma’ăleh ‘Akrabbîm (Numbers 34:4, Joshua 15:3, Judges 1:36), at the limit of the territory of Judah, towards Idumaea, south-west from the Dead Sea; it is probably the pass now called Nakb es-Safû, leading to Wady-Fikreh, or another pass near the same wady.

This place afterwards gave its name to a toparchy (1 Maccabees 5:3, Josephus Ant. xii. viii. 1), the Idumaean Akrabattene which is not to be confused with another toparchy also called Akrabattene (Josephus BJ ii. xii. 4, xx. 4, xxii. 2, iii. iii. 5, iv. ix. 3, 9), from its chief city, Akrabatta—in the Onomasticon Ἀκραββείν (cf. Pliny, HN v. 14), in the Chronicon Samaritanum Akrabith, in modern times Akrabeh—9 Roman miles (8 English miles) east from Nâblus, on the way to Jericho (Robinson, BRP [Note: RP Biblical Researches in Palestine.] ii. 280, iii. 290 f.; Guérin, Samarie, ii. 3–5; SWP [Note: WP Memoirs of the Survey of W. Palestine.] ii. 386, 389; PEFSt [Note: EFSt Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1876, p. 196). There is also near Damascus a village Akraba, which has given its name to the Akrabani, a canal of the Barada (Robinson, BRP [Note: RP Biblical Researches in Palestine.] iii. 447, 459).

Once only in the OT is there mention of scorpions in the proper sense, Deuteronomy 8:15, where they are named as one of the plagues of the desert of the wanderings.

In 1 Kings 12:11; 1 Kings 12:14 (and v. 24 in LXX Septuagint , a verse missing in Massoretic Text ) and 2 Chronicles 10:11; 2 Chronicles 10:14 the word ‘scorpion’ occurs in the threats of King Rehoboam to his subjects. In this case scorpion may be simply a metaphor; but it is also possible that under this name the Israelites were acquainted with some instrument of torture, either a whip consisting of several thongs loaded with knobs and books of metal, or a knotty stick armed with prominent nail heads. The Romans had such an instrument; cf. Isidorus of Sevilla (Origines, 27): ‘Virga nodosa et aculeata.’

In Ezekiel 2:6 scorpions symbolize (with briars and thorns) the vexations inflicted on the prophet by his companions. In Sirach 26:7 the wicked woman is compared with the scorpion; in 39:30 scorpions are numbered among the plagues God uses for chastising the ungodly. In 4 Maccabees 11:10 a man fastened in the torture-wheel is compared with a scorpion curving its body. Finally, in 1 Maccabees 6:51 a kind of machine of war for throwing projectiles is mentioned under the (diminutive) name of σκορπίδια (cf. Caesar, BG vii. 25).

3. NT references.—The Gospels mention scorpions twice. (1) In Luke 11:11-12 we have three questions concerning a father giving to his son a stone instead of a loaf, a serpent instead of a fish, a scorpion instead of an egg. In the parallel passage (Matthew 7:9-10) the third question is omitted (and in certain Manuscripts and Versions of Luke the first question); hence it has been asserted that the saying of Jesus in its primitive form contained only two questions or perhaps one. But Jesus may have given more than one or two illustrations of His meaning, and we have to remember that bread, fish, and eggs were (and are still) the usual food of the inhabitants of Galilee. It has been frequently asked whether a scorpion bears such a likeness to an egg that a confusion between the two would be natural. But there is no question of likeness or confusion in this third case any more than in the case of the loaf and the stone, the fish and the serpent. It is not at all satisfactory to say with Thomson (LB [Note: The Land and the Book.] ii. 479), that ‘old writers speak of a white scorpion; and such a one, with its tail folded up … would not look unlike a small egg.’

The Greeks had a proverb resembling the text of the Gospels we are discussing—ἀντὶ πίρκης σκορπίον, and they used to interpret it by saying: ἐπὶ τῶν τὰ χείρω αἱρουμένων ἀντὶ τῶν βελτιόνων. The existence of that proverb does not prove that Jesus necessarily associated in one single sentence the fish and the scorpion, and that ᾠόν has to be corrected into δψον.

(2) Jesus says (Luke 10:19) that He has given His disciples τὴν ἐξουσίαν τοῦ πατεῖν ἐπάνω ὄφεων καὶ σκορπίων. There seems to be in these words an allusion to Psalms 91:13, where the LXX Septuagint has (Psalms 90:13) ἐπʼ ἀσπίδα καὶ βασιλίσκον ἐπιβήσῃ, whereas the Massoretic Text has ‘lion’ and ‘adder.’ The Hebrew and Greek disagreeing, it is not impossible that in another transmission the scorpion has been substituted for one of the terms signifying serpent. It is certainly more natural to combine Luke 10:19 with Psalms 91:13, than with Deuteronomy 8:15 or with Ezekiel 2:6 : both these texts are more similar ad verbum, not ad sensum.

Another question is whether ‘serpents and scorpions’ means here animals in the proper sense of the word (Mark 16:18 and Acts 28:3-6 might be quoted in support of this interpretation), or if it is a metaphor indicating the powers of evil. This alternative, however, does not correspond to the notions of the ancients, who did not, as we do, make a rigorous distinction between terrestrial and supra-terrestrial beings. Joh. Weiss (Sehriften des NT, ad loc.) says rightly that an excellent illustration of this passage of the Gospel is given in the famous verse of Luther’s hymn: ‘Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär …’ Moreover, we have to observe that Revelation 9:3; Revelation 9:5; Revelation 9:10 describe supernatural destructive beings similar, at least partially, to scorpions. This has to be brought into conjunction with an antique Babylonian conception. In the epic of Gilgamesh (Table ix. cols. ii.–iv.) we find the mention of two scorpion-men, one male and the other female, terrible giants, keepers of a door (cf. P. Jensen, ‘Assyr. [Note: Assyrian.] -Bab. [Note: Babylonian.] Mythen und Epen’ in KIB [Note: IB Keilinschriftliche Bibliothek.] vi. p. 205 ff., and the same writer’s Das Gilgamesch-Epos in der Weltliteratur, i. pp. 24–27, 79, 93). A. Jeremias (Izdubar-Nimrod, 1891, p. 66 f.) and F. X. Kugler (‘Die Sternenfahrt des Gilgamesch,’ in Stimmen aus Maria Laach, lxvi., 1904, p. 441 ff.) have shown that those two celestial scorpions—reproduced in Babylonian sculptures—were the two zodiacal constellations Scorpio and Sagittarius. We might also see, but less probably, in the second scorpion, the constellation of the Balance, which was called by the ancient Greeks Chelae, i.e. the ‘Claws’ of the Scorpion (cf. Ideler, Sternnamen, pp. 174–178).

In Christian art the scorpion has received a symbolical character, as an emblem of the anti-Christian power. Thus a scorpion is to be seen on the shield of a Roman soldier in B. Luini’s celebrated fresco, ‘The Crucifixion,’ in Santa Maria degli Angeli, Lugano.

Literature.—Bochart, Hierozoicon, ii. pp. 632–645; Petermann, Reisen im Orient 2, 1865, ii. pp. 272, 465; Wood, Bible Animals, 1869, pp. 640–643; PEFSt [Note: EFSt Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1869, p. 148; Van-Lennep, Bible Lands, 1875, pp. 309–311; Tristram, Nat. Hist. of the Bible8 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , 1889, pp. 301–303; Doughty, Arabia Deserta, 1888, i. pp. 328, 438; R. Hertwig, Lehrbuch der Zoologie 4, 1897, p. 441 ff.; J. H. Fabre, Souvenirs entomologiques, ix. pp. 229–343 (extremely patient, accurate, and interesting observations).

Lucien Gautier.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Scorpion (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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