The jackal is mentioned several times throughout the Bible, primarily in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word translated as “jackal” is תַּן (tan). This word likely refers to the golden jackal (Canis aureus), which inhabits parts of the Middle East. Here is an overview of the main biblical references to jackals:
Job complains that he has become “a brother of jackals” as a result of his suffering and affliction. This metaphorically describes Job feeling isolated and cut off from human society.
I am a brother of jackals and a companion of ostriches.
The psalmist laments that God has allowed Israel to be scattered among the nations and afflicted. He poetically states that God has made them “a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.” Their humiliation is likened to being exposed as food for jackals.
Yet you have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death.
David prays that his enemies who seek his life would become carrion for jackals. This grim imprecation reveals David’s desire for God’s justice on the wicked.
But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth; they shall be given over to the power of the sword; they shall be a portion for jackals.
In prophesying the destruction coming upon Babylon, Isaiah describes the land as being overrun by wild desert creatures like jackals. Their presence represents the desolation and abandonment of the once great city.
But wild animals will lie down there, and their houses will be full of howling creatures; there ostriches will dwell, and there wild goats will dance. Hyenas will cry in its towers, and jackals in the pleasant palaces; its time is close at hand and its days will not be prolonged.
Similarly, the prophet describes the future desolation of Edom using imagery of thorns, jackals, and other wild creatures inhabiting the ruins.
Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses. It shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode for ostriches. And wild animals shall meet with hyenas; the wild goat shall cry to his fellow; indeed, there the night bird settles and finds for herself a resting place.
Jeremiah warns of the coming destruction of Jerusalem because of Judah’s sins. He prophecies that the holy city will become “a heap of ruins” where jackals roam.
I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals, and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant.”
The prophet describes how the towns of Judah will be overrun by enemies and become like a wilderness haunted by jackals.
A voice, behold, it comes!— a great commotion out of the north country to make the cities of Judah a desolation, a lair of jackals.
In prophesying the judgment coming upon Hazor, Jeremiah declares that it will become a desolate place of jackals.
Hazor shall become a haunt of jackals, an everlasting waste; no man shall dwell there; no man shall sojourn in her.”
The prophet foretells that Babylon will be overthrown and become a dwelling place for jackals, devoid of human habitation.
and Babylon shall become a heap of ruins, the haunt of jackals, a horror and a hissing, without inhabitant.
The people of Jerusalem lament their desperate condition following the destruction of Jerusalem. They describe Mount Zion lying desolate, frequented by jackals.
for Mount Zion which lies desolate; jackals prowl over it.
Through Malachi, God declares His judgment on the land of Edom. He pronounces it will be turned into wilderness territory where jackals roam.
but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.”
Jackals as symbols of desolation
As seen from these passages, jackals are frequently associated with desolation, ruins, and wilderness areas devoid of human habitation. The cry of jackals in the night creates an eerie, mournful tone that reinforces a sense of abandonment and judgment. When the prophets warn of coming judgment on nations or cities, they evoke images of jackals infesting the rubble and scavenging among the ruins. The jackal symbolizes the absence of civilization, order, and God’s blessing. Hearing the yipping and howling of jackals would be a sign that a once thriving location has been reduced to wilderness.
Jackals and demons
While not directly mentioned in Scripture, some scholars theorize that the frequent biblical references to jackals may also relate to ancient traditions linking jackals to demons. The nocturnal behavior of jackals, congregating in ruins and making haunting cries in the night, could suggest demonic activity to an ancient audience. Associating jackals with desolation and judgment may have been a way of signifying that evil spiritual forces had invaded and possessed a location.
The cunning and wild nature of jackals
As wild canine scavengers, jackals have an opportunistic survival instinct that allows them to thrive in desolate areas avoided by most other wildlife. They have an uncanny ability to sniff out carrion and food waste. With their wild, undomesticated nature, jackals represent the antithesis of order, civilization, and human mastery over creation. Hence they serve as a fitting symbol for a land that has reverted from abundance to wilderness due to divine judgment.
Jackals and eschatology
The extensive prophetic association between jackals and locations undergoing divine wrath and abandonment has led to the frequent use of jackals in eschatological literature outside of the biblical canon. The haunting cries of jackals inhabiting ruins conjure up images of the final cataclysmic judgments described in passages such as Revelation 18. Jackals served as part of the symbolic repertoire used to articulate concepts about the end times and final judgment.
Key Themes and Imagery
When reviewing all the biblical references to jackals, several key themes and images emerge:
- Jackals represent desolation, ruin, wilderness.
- Jackals inhabit locations under God’s judgment.
- Their howls and cries evoke mourning and abandonment.
- They scavenge rubble and ruins for food.
- Jackals arrival signifies the absence of humans.
- Jackals symbolize the loss of civilization and order.
- Possible demonic connotations from ancient folklore.
- Jackals are cunning, wild, opportunistic survivors.
- Powerful eschatological imagery related to the “end times.”
When we read biblical verses mentioning jackals, these themes and images come to mind. Though jackals play a small role, their symbolic resonance amplifies their importance. They encapsulate feelings of loss, ruin, and abandonment under divine wrath. The jackal became part of the prophetic vocabulary for communicating the spiritual realities of judgment.
Jackals in the Ancient Near East
It is also helpful to understand how jackals were perceived in the ancient Near Eastern cultural context surrounding the biblical writers. Here are some key points:
- Jackals were one of the most common wild creatures in ancient Israel.
- Their scavenging habits created a negative perception.
- Jackals were associated with the wilderness and lack of civilization.
- Ancient people groups attributed supernatural powers to jackals.
- Myths and folklore portrayed jackals as cunning tricksters.
- Jackals were seen as ominous creatures, associated with death.
- Herodotus and Plutarch claimed jackals could imitate human speech.
- Connections made between jackals and spirits, demons, and netherworld.
These widespread cultural attitudes help explain why biblical authors readily adopted the jackal as a symbol for cursed, desolate locales undergoing divine wrath. The jackal already evoked strong imagery in the minds of ancient Near Eastern readers.
Significance for Contemporary Readers
While modern western readers may be less familiar with jackals, appreciating their biblical symbolism can still enrich our Scripture engagement in several ways:
- Deepens understanding of judgment passages.
- Increases appreciation for biblical metaphor and imagery.
- Reinforces the biblical theme of divine justice.
- Illustrates biblical authors adeptly using symbols of their time.
- Reminds readers of biblical genres like prophecy.
- Signals that apparently minor details often have deeper significance.
- Motivates interest in studying the world of biblical times.
Most importantly, by understanding the jackal’s cultural meaning, readers better grasp the emotional weight and seriousness of biblical warnings about judgment on sin. Appreciating this imagery brings home the passionate concern of prophets like Jeremiah or Isaiah.
Additionally, the jackal’s role reinforces God’s sovereignty over the created order. Their opportunistic survival skills cannot ultimately impede His plans. Where God judges, even the hardy jackal cannot abide. Nor can demons or evil spirits withstand His decreed desolation of the wicked.
The Enduring Relevance of Symbolic Jackals
Jackals may be somewhat exotic to modern believers, especially in western urban contexts, but appreciating their place in Scripture is worthwhile. It represents part of the necessary process of understanding the linguistic and cultural dynamics at play in God’s Word.
The devil is in the details when it comes to accurately interpreting and applying the Bible. Each seemingly minor reference to obscure ancient animals, plants, tools, and cultural practices is part of a rich symbolic tapestry. The biblical authors skillfully wove these details from their everyday environment to communicate theological truth.
Therefore, the lowly jackal’s symbolic potency remains intact. As readers meditate on Scripture, jackals still howl mournfully through prophetic books, reminding us of the wages of sin and the necessity of repentance. Their shadows still stalk the edges of biblical ruins, a personification of desolation under divine judgment. Thanks to their evocative presence in God’s Word, these wild creatures will continue teaching spiritual lessons as long as the Bible is read.