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  • Lions, Serpents, and Lion-Serpents in Job 28:8 and Beyond
  • Scott C. Jones

In the 1963 Festschrift for G. R. Driver, Sigmund Mowinckel argued that Biblical Hebrew שׁחל originally denoted a mythical serpent dragon and later came to be used as a poetical term for a lion. That meaning, he believed, was evident above all in Job 28:8.1 He states, "Originally שׁחל may have meant the serpent dragon, the mythical wyvern or 'Lindwurm'. Because of the combination of serpent (dragon) and lion in mythopoetical and artistic fancy, it has also been adopted as a term for the lion."2

Few have been convinced by Mowinckel's argument that שחל denotes a snake, and still fewer by his mythopoetical explanation of the term's resultant double meaning: "lion" and "serpent."3 Mowinckel's position is no doubt weakened by some [End Page 663] of his more far-fetched arguments, such as the identity of שחל and נחׂש,4 or the overstated claim that the meaning "lion" is "impossible" in Job 28:8.5 Yet some of his fundamental points remain cogent: that Semitic terms for "lion" and "serpent" are not entirely distinct, and that the fuzzy lines between these terms result from an ancient worldview in which animal categories were often mixed, even challening modern boundaries between the mythical and the real.

This essay revisits Mowinckel's שחל as a way into the broader issues of conceptualization and classification of lions and serpents in the ancient Near East. After considering comparative philological, literary, and iconographic evidence, I argue that שחל in Job 28:8 evokes both a lion and a serpent, and that semantic parallelism and phonology contribute to the animation of a dragon of which the שחל is an integral part. This specific case suggests the importance of myth, poetry, and imagination in translating ancient Semitic terms for "lions" and "serpents" and the benefit of taking into account ancient conceptions of animals in philology and exegesis.6

I. Etymology

Gesenius-Buhl and its English cousin, Brown-Driver-Briggs,7 follow Theodor Nöldeke in relating the Biblical Hebrew substantive שׁחל to a hypothetical verbal root *שׁחל, comparing Akk. šaḫālu and Arab. saḥala.8 On this line of thought, שׁחל means "howler" or "bellower." However, Akk. šaḫālu is now understood to mean "to [End Page 664] filter" rather than "to call, proclaim," as Nöldeke and others supposed.9 Arabic saḥala refers to paring, peeling, stripping off, or filing, though it may also be used of the rolling sound in the chest of a donkey.10 Edward Lipiński has recently revived this view of Biblical Hebrew שׁחל, though on the basis of different Akkadian evidence. He explains it as "a metaphorical appellation based on the verb šḥl that means 'to smooth' or 'to sharpen.'"11 Lipiński points especially to Akk. šêlu A (<*ŠḤL), which is used of pigs sharpening their teeth and of the sharpening of weapons,12 and he suggests that the parallel in Job 4:10 alludes to the original meaning of the word: "the grinder [of the teeth]."13

Yet other evidence points in a quite different direction. The postbiblical Hebrew verb שׁחל, widely attested in the C-stem, has to do with sliding through holes, threading a needle, and slipping between things.14 As Stephen Geller notes, this "sounds most serpentine."15 Additionally, the Old Babylonian snake god dŠaḫan is used in personal names at Dilbat for the logogram dMUŠ (= dṣēru).16 Finally, modern Egyptian Arabic attests siḥliyyâ, a nominal form of saḥala, meaning "lizard."17 Rather than having to do with sharpening or bellowing, this reptile seems to have been so named because of its ability to peel off its skin. [End Page 665]

Most problematic is the datum offered by Ugaritic. Mitchell J. Dahood considers it likely that Biblical Hebrew שׁחל occurs in the Ugaritic PN šḥlmmt,18 but the meaning of this word, which is attested four times in the Baal Cycle (CTU 1.5 v 19; 1.5 vi 7; 1.5 vi 30 [partially reconstructed]; 1.6 ii 20), is quite difficult to determine. Gregorio del Olmo Lete and Joaquín Sanmartín gloss šḥlmmt as "mythical place of the divine...


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