phoenix, palm, sand, Bible exegesis, Juan de Pineda, Rashi, Talmud, Midrash


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Phoenix on the top of the palm tree

Multiple interpretations of Job 29:18

© George Sajo, 8-2-2005

Reflecting on the possibility of the existence of sirens, in an emblem in which he presents us these beings, Antonio de Lorea refers the reader to the Holy Scriptures where “sirens are mentioned just as well as phoenix”.

Putting aside for the moment the complex issue of sirens – to which we will return in a later Silva, armed with the authority of the great Bible commentator Cornelius a Lapide who actually knew a siren in his native Friesland – let us now focus on the phoenix. Lorea cites it in a marginal gloss: “And as the phoenix, I will multiply my days. Job, chapter 29”, and he confesses to having made use of “the Hebrew version”. And this note leads us to intuit a problem of translation.

Indeed, if we look for Job, verse 29.18 in the King James Bible, we read: “Then I said, 'I shall die in my nest, And multiply my days as the sand.'” Checking the same verse in a different translation of the Bible, the Jewish Publication Society’s edition from 1917, we find following wording: “Then I said: 'I shall die with my nest, and I shall multiply my days as the phoenix.'” We get even more confused when we look up the very same verse in the Vulgate, where we find the following: Dicebam que in nidulo meo moriar et sicut palma multiplicabo dies: “And I said: I shall die in my nest, and as a palm tree shall multiply my days”.

One gets the feeling that the translators of the three different versions must have had three completely different sources to translate from. In an attempt to solve this riddle, we turn first to the original Hebrew text of the Bible. Here we find the word chol, the general meaning of which is indeed ‘sand’. This interpretation is supported by other biblical verses where the word occurs, like in the famous promise of God to Abraham, saying: “I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore” (Gen 22:17). So as a starting point, ‘sand’ sounds like a very appropriate interpretation of our verse in question, too. But where do the other two, more exotic translations come from?

Comparing different translations of this verse in different versions of the Bible, it becomes clear very soon that it is principally the Jewish translations that use the translation phoenix instead of sand. This interpretation of the word chol in this particular verse reflects an early Jewish exegetical tradition that we find in several Jewish commentaries. One of the most popular and influential of these from the eleventh century was that of the French Jewish scholar and exegete Rabbi Shelomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi, which was widely read not only by Jews, but also by Christian Hebraists and Bible commentators. Rashi comments on the word in our verse as follows: “It is a bird whose name is chol, and death has no power on it, because it did not taste the fruit from the tree of knowledge. At the end of thousand years it renews itself, and returns to his youth.” Rashi thus speaks about the legendary bird phoenix. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Christian Hebraists were well aware of this interpretation, and several of them refer more or less explicitly to Rashi as their source: Juan de Pineda tells about “Rabbi Salomon”, Johann Clemens Drusius mentions “R. S.” which is an abbreviation of the same, while François Vatable refers to a “certain illustrious Hebrew man”, which I suspect to be the very same Rashi.

Rashi had of course his own sources: the early rabbinical commentaries of the Bible, the Midrashim, on which he relied heavily in his own commentaries. In one of those Midrashim, in Bereshit Rabbah (19:5) we find the following commentary to Genesis 3:6: “[Eve] gave the cattle, beasts, and birds to eat of it [i.e. the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge]. All obeyed her and ate thereof, except a certain bird named chol, as it is written, “Then I said: I shall die with my nest, and I shall multiply my days as the chol [i.e. ‘phoenix’]” (Job 29:18). The School of R. Jannai and R. Judan b. R. Simeon differ. The School of R. Jannai maintained: ‘It lives a thousand years, at the end of which a fire issues from its nest and burns it up, yet as much as an egg is left, and it grows new limbs and lives again.’ R. Judan b. R. Simeon said: ‘It lives a thousand years, at the end of which its body is consumed and its wings drop off, yet as much as an egg is left, whereupon it grows new limbs and lives again.’ ”

Bereshit Rabbah is not the only early Rabbinical source where we find a parallel between a description of the legendary phoenix bird and our examined verse in Job. In the Babylonian Talmud, in the tractate Sanhedrin (108b) we hear a phantastic eyewitness account of the days of the Flood, from the mouth of not less an authority then Shem, Noah’s oldest son. Shem relates with great details the matters of feeding the different kind of animals in the ark. At one point he tells about the phoenix: “As for the phoenix, my father discovered it lying in the hold of the ark. "Dost thou require no food?" he asked it. "I saw that thou wast busy," it replied, "so I said to myself, I will give thee no trouble." "May it be (God's) will that thou shouldst not perish," he exclaimed; as it is written, ‘Then I said, I shall die in the nest, but I shall multiply my days as the chol [phoenix].’ ”

From where does Bereshit Rabbah and Sanhedrin draw the odd idea that Job 29:18 should speak about phoenix, and not sand? We can only guess, as we do not find any ethymological support for this claim. Even Sanhedrin uses a completely different word – urshina – for phoenix in the first part of the story, which is not even distantly related morphologically or ethymologically to chol in Job. We can, however, find a possible explanation by analyzing the structure of the verse in question. If we treat the two halves of the verse as parallels, we find that the word “nest” in the first half calls for a juxtaposition in the second part, by which it is very logical to compare the length of Job’s life with that of a bird. And why exactly phoenix? The order of the two half verses might very well suggest it: in a not very logical manner, Job first speaks of dying, and afterwards about multiplying his days. Now it is obvious that not many living creatures are capable of first dying in their nests and afterwards multiplying their days; but according to the ancient legend, exactly the phoenix can do that trick!

Another interesting parallel verse, or, one might say, prooftext is Psalm 103:5: “Your youth is renewed like the eagle’s”. Not only the symbolics of the verse – the mention of a bird which somehow can return to its youth – shows a striking parallel with our verse in question and thus supports the traditional Jewish understanding of it, but Rashi’s commentary to Job is taken almost word-for-word from Psalm 103:5, as if he wanted to use the verse from Psalms implicitely as a prooftext to his commentary to Job.

The third interpretation of the word chol, namely ‘palm tree’, which occurs in the Vulgate, suprisingly has its origins in the above intrepretation. As we know, St. Jerome consulted both the original Hebrew text and the Greek Septuagint, when working on the Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate. While in many dubious places he preferred the text of the original Hebrew, in this particular case he choosed that of the Septuagint, which has στέλεχος φοίνικος, meaning ‘palm trunk’, where the whole verse translates to English as follows: “And I said, My age shall continue as the stem of a palm-tree; I shall live a long while.” We can immediately see the striking formal similarity between the words φοίνικος and φοῖνιξ, the former meaning ‘palm’, and the latter the bird ‘phoenix’. It is very likely – as it is also partially suggested by the seventeenth-century commentator of Job Philipp Codurcus – that in the time of the compiling of the Septuagint it was a more or less established Jewish interpretative tradition that this verse dealed with the bird phoenix, and the verse was very likely translated in the first versions of the Septuagint according to it. At one point during the copying of the Greek text, some copyist who was not aware of this tradition, might been puzzled by the word, and might came to the conclusion that it must speak about φοίνικος, not φοῖνιξ. To make it unambiguous, he added the word στέλεχος, ‘trunk’, maybe because he found the long trunk of the palm tree being a more obvious depicting of a long life.

That not everyone among the earliest known Jewish Bible interpreters was aware of the above tradition regarding this verse is strongly supported by the earliest Aramaic paraphrase of the Bible, the Targum, which has chala meaning ‘sand’ in our verse of question.

As we have seen, this particular interpretation of the Septuagint was adopted by Jerome, and the early Christian commentators followed faithfully in his path. Thus we find elaborated and edifying parallels between the trunk of the palm tree, and the faith of the Church in the medieval Glossa Ordinaria, written in the most complex and flourishing scholastic Latin. On the other hand the Christian Hebraists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – Drusius, Grotius, Codurcus, as well as Pineda – are fully aware of the weakness of this interpretation, and although they all mention it in their commentaries to Job – just as they all mention the Jewish tradition of interpreting it as ‘phoenix’ - most of them prefer the most literal translation of the word, namely ‘sand’. The Spanish Juan de Pineda, in a really innovative Jesuit spirit, goes as far as synthesizing the Jewish tradition and that of the Septuagint. He summarizes his very elaborate commentary on this verse by expressing his hope of living a long life, not shorter than that of the phoenix, or that of the palm, on which trunk one can count many years.

This interpenetration of interpretations also helps us to understand an otherwise enigmatic composition of this period in Juan de Horozco's Sacra symbola (Agrigento 1601). This Latin emblem book provided with Spanish epigrams, less known, but no less ingenious than the author’s more renowned Spanish Emblemas morales (Segovia 1591) was dedicated to Pope Clement VIII, and thus a great number of its emblems vary on the theme of the Pope’s impresa - which happens to be the phoenix. Thus in Emblem 6 we see a phoenix sitting in his nest on the top of a palm tree, with the motto “Ut vivam”, while the epigram affirms that the phoenix - and the soul symbolized with it - “will not be consumed, but enlarge its life”. Although neither the epigram, nor the commentary refers to the biblical source, it is not difficult to recognize the same conciliatory efforts between the various interpretations of Job 29:18 witnessed above in Horozco’s fellow countryman Pineda.

As the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This prophecy was most definitely fulfilled in the copyist of the commentated translation of the Book of Job, made around 1580 by Fray Luis de León, reputed to be a good Hebraist. The authoritative manuscript of this work (University of Salamanca, ms. 219) reads our verse as follows: “Y decíame: en mi nido espiraré, y multiplicaré como paloma”. In English: “And I said: I will expire in my nest, and will multiplicate as the dove.”

The poor copyist just added one more to the already impressive row of metamorphoses of our Phoenix bird. Just as his Hellenic predecessor did one and a half milleneum ago with the word φοῖνιξ, this time he miscopied the already miscopied word ‘palma’ (palm tree) as ‘paloma’ (dove). He even followed his predecessor’s attitude by making the alteration unambigous by mentioning the dove two more times in the commentary on the verse. Thus we can rightly suppose that this alleged mistake was not at all a mistake, but our pious copyist was guided by divine inspiration to retransform the palm tree of the Septuagint and the Vulgate into a bird - but instead of the fairy bird of those ancient heathens, into one that is more spiritual and mystical, more elevated, and is charged with Christian symbolism: the white dove, the symbol of purity and of the Holy Spirit. Thus the metamorphoses of the Phoenix bird came full circle.

If we look at the more recent Christian translations of the Bible, we do not find any trace of those exciting exegetical battles and discussions about that tiny word chol. There is a broad consensus in understanding the word as ‘sand’, and virtually nobody follows in this particular case the view of the Septuagint and the Vulgate. However, in most Jewish translations of the Hebrew Scriptures, the phoenix still lives and prospers vigorously, and has just entered his third life cicle, for as we know it from “that certain illustrious Hebrew man”, Rabbi Salomon, “at the end of thousand years it renews itself, and returns to his youth”.


Antonio de Lorea, David pecador, Madrid 1680, Discurso 1.2 (Fascinio punit)

Para entender la propiedad, es necesario aueriguar si ay sirenas, porque algunos dizen, que estas son como el aue Fenix, y que como es fabulosa la vna, lo es la otra. De anbas aze mencion el Texto Sagrado. (B)

Marginal note: (B) Et quasi Phoenix multiplicabo dies meos. Iob. 29. Translat. Heb.

Hans Holbein, Historiarum Veteris Testamenti imagines ad vivum expressae, Lyons: Fratres Frellonii 1543

Iob alloquitur Dominus, ostendens ei suam iustitiam ex inscrutabilibus suis operibus.

Biblia sacra polyglotta, ed. Brianus Waltonus, London: Thomas Roycroft 1657, II. 56.

• איוב : כט

ואמר עם־קני אגוע וכחול ארבה ימים׃

Et dicebam, cum meo nido expirabo: & sicut arenam multiplicabo dies.

• תרגום Targum (Paraphrasis Chald.):

ואמרת עם תוקפי בשרכפי אתנגיד וכחלא אסגי יומיא׃

Et dixi: Cum fortitudine mea in nido meo deficiam; & sicut arena multiplicabo dies.

• Versio Graeca LXX. Interpretorum:

Εἶπα δὲ, Ἡ ἡλικία μου γηράσει ὥσπερ στέλεχος φοίνικος, πολὺν χρόνον βιώσω.

Dixi autem, Aetas mea senescet, sicut truncus palmae: multo vivam tempore.

• Versio Vulgata:

Dicebamque: In nidulo meo moriar, & sicut palma multiplicabo dies.

Psalm 103:5

המשביע בטוב עדיך תתחדש כנשר נעוריכי׃

Rashi on Job 29:18

וכחול ארבה ימים - עוף ושמו חול ולא נקנסה עליו מיתה שלא טעם מעץ הדעת ולבסוף אלף שנה מתחד׳ וחוזר לנערותו׃

Bereshit Rabbah 19:15

האכילה את הבהמה ואת החיה ואת העופות הכל שמעו לה חוץ מעוף אחד ושמו חול הה״ד (איוב כט) וכחול ארבה ימים דבי רבי ינאי אמרי אלף שנה הוא חי ובסוף אלף שנה אש יוצאה מקנו ושורפתו ומשתייר בו כביצה וחוזר ומגדל אברים וחי ר׳ יודן בר״ש אומר אלף שנים חי ולבסוף אלף שנים גופו כלה וכנפיו מתמרטין ומשתייר בו כביצה וחוזר ומגדל אברים׃

Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 108b

אורשינה אשכחיניה אבא דגני בספנא דתיבותא אמר ליה לא בעית מזוני אמר ליה חזיתיך דהות טרידא אמינא לא אצערך אמר ליה יהא רעוא דלא תמות שנאמר (איוב כט) ואמר עם קני אגוע וכחול ארבה ימים׃

Biblia sacra cum Glossa ordinaria... et annotationibus de Nicolaus a Lyra, Venice 1603, III. 277.

Codurcus, Annotata ad Iob, Frankfurt 1695, 885.

18. Dicebam itaque] Haec meritò speravit Job, ὃ γὰρ ἐὰν σπείρη ἄνθρωπος τοῦτο καὶ θερίσει, ut ait Apostolus ad Gal. 6. 7. Sed tempus messis patienter exspectandum, & multa ferenda, ἀγαθοποιοῦντες οὖν μὴ ἐκκακῶμεν. Moriar in nido meo.] Hebr. Cum nido meo exspirabo. Unde quorundam Hebraeorum in mentem venit elegantissima interpretatio, quae à Jarrhio affertur. Dicit avem esse cujus nomen est חול quae nunquam moritur, quod de arbore Scientiae non gustaverit; sed post mille annos renovatur, atque iterum cernitur in primo juventae flore. Haec è Rabbinis traduntur in Bereschit Rabba, & in codice Sanedrin, ut refert Baal Haruch, omnes gustasse de arbore Scientiae, unâ exceptâ ave cui nomen est כחול .חול Masora notat bis inveniri. Atque in nostris exemplaribus excusis literae כ attexitur Siman alterius loci על שפת הים. Loca illa sunt 1. Sam. 13. 5. כחול אשר על שפת הים & 2. Sam. 17. 11. Sed Mercerus asserit se in Masora Bibliorum manuscr. Reginae legisse ב׳ בתרו ליש׳, i. bis in diversa significatione. Unde sequitur hîc juxta illam Masoram non significare arenam, quia apud Samuelem id significat. Dubium non est avem illam, esse nostrum fabulosum phoenicem. Hinc manavit error Graeci interpretis, qui חול στέλεχος φοίνικος interpretatur. Acceperat ab aliquo Judaeo חול esse phoenicem quod illi imposuit. Nam Judaeus intellexit avem, Graecus arborem putavit. Latina Vulgata obsecuta est Graeco, & palmam vertit: sed חול nunquam palmam significat. חול apud Rabbinos opponitur Sabbato, estque dies profestus, dies profanus. Vide Eliam in Thisbi. Est quidem scita admodum & lepida illa Rabbinorum interpretatio, sed inani fabula nixa. Tritum est in Scriptura per arenam significari numerum innumerum & copiam maximam, ut Psal. 139. 18. מחול ירבון de Divinis cogitationibus dictum, quarum magnitudo & multitudo arenas superat.

Juan de Horozco y Covarrubias, Sacra symbola, Agrigento 1601, Emblem 6: Ut vivam

En tal fuego de amor santo
No puede ser consumida,
Antes se alarga la vida.

Flamma Dei viuax succenso in pectore veram
Non adimit vitam, quae renouata viget.

Fray Luis de León, Commentated translation of the Book of Job (between 1580 and 1585), MS 219 of the Library of the University of Salamanca (ed. by Javier San José Lera, 1992, II. pp. 632 and 637)

Y decíame: en mi nido espiraré, y multiplicaré como paloma. (f. 329v)

Y decíame, esto es, y prometíame a mí: espiraré en mi nido, esto es, en mi casa y mi descanso, llegaré hasta el día postrero, y multiplicaré mis días como paloma, o como arena, según otra letra; esto es, viviré largos años: porque a la piedad y al bien hazer promete en sus Letras Dios larga vida. (f. 333v)

Juan de Pineda, Commentaria in Job, Cologne 1733 (first ed. 1597-1601), II. 329 and 337.

Et sicut palma multiplicabo dies. Statuebam (inquit) fore, ut diutissime viverem sicut palma. Sed de palma nunc significatione non parva est dissentio: nam eandem vocem originalem Hhol, (חול) Vulgatus interpres vertit arenam, Deuter. 33. 19. & Psalm. 138. 18. Super arenam multiplicabuntur, & Hoseae. 1. 10. Filii Israel, quasi arena maris. Quare hic quidem vertunt: Sicut arena multiplicabo dies: nam cum arena quaelibet, quantumvis maxima multiplicatio numeri comparari solet. Alii post R. Salomonem & antiquiores Hebraeos, Phoenicem vertunt quod sequuntur Tygurina & Cajetanus. Atque hunc etiam Jobi locum Tertullianus de Resurrectione cap. 13. legit: Sicut Phoenix multiplicabo dies, atque adeo Philippus Presbyter hoc loco testatur, idem esse Palma & Phoenicis avis nomen, fortassisque de ave loquutum Jobum, ut sicut illa nidum sibi faciens, in ipso post multa tempora, à semetipsa dicitur concremari, & rursus de ejusdem nidi cineribus resurgere; ita Job dicat se per mortem in cinere carnis, velut in nido pro tempore futurum & inde resurrecturum in gloria, de quo diximus supra cap. 19. v. 25. ubi etiam lectionem illam Psalm. 91. Justus ut Phoenix florebit, ex Tertulliano adduximus. Facitque cum hac expositione, tum quod Phoenix sit symbolum vitae longissimae: nam vivere sexcentis sexaginta annis, scribit Plinius, at vero quingentis, Ambrosius, & Hieronymus, post Herodotum & Ovidium. Hac ubique quinque suae complevit saecula vitae, &c. Quadraginta & quingentis, Solinus, cum quo videtur convenire Mela. Alii mille annos vitae tribuunt, ut Martialis:

Qualiter Assyrios revocant incendia nidos,
  Una decem quotiens saecula vixit avis.

Tacitus scribit esse qui asserant, Mille quadringentos sexaginta vivere. Scribit etiam Plinius auctore Manilio: Cum hujus alitis vita fieri conversionem magni anni. Quamvis (inquit Solinus) plurimi auctores magnum annum, non quingentis & quadraginta, sed duodecim milibus nongentis quinquaginta quatuor annis constare dicant. Recte ergo dici potest per elegantem Hyperbolen, atque comparationem, Sicut palma, Phoenix multiplicabo dies. Facitque pro eodem mentio illa nidi facta, nam videtur non solum vitam longaevam mortemque foelicissimam sibi pollicitus, sed honorificentissimum quoque funus. Nam suum Phoenix rogum, nidumque construit ex thuriferis surculis lignisque odoriferis, in quo concrematur. Atque adeo Herodotus scribit: Phoenicem juvenem gestare patrem paternosve cineres myrrha obvolutos in templum Solis, ibi denique humare. Ergo mors funusque Phoenicis supremi honoris, funerisque honorificentissimi symbolum erit.

Sed Palmam, tamen hoc loco praeter Latinum Interpretem, agnoscunt leguntque Septuaginta: Sicut truncus palmae, multo vivam tempore, ubi forte truncum, dixerunt, tum propter firmitatem tum propter gradatos illos corticis pollices, quos cum faciunt rami decidentes singulis annis, annuis gradibus crescere videtur, adeoque in trunco palmae, multi anni numerantur. Atque sicut rem illam de Phoenice ave juvare videbatur mentio illa nidi, ita rem hanc de Palma confirmat profecto mentio Radicis aperta secus aquas, sententia sequente.

Paraphrasis: ... Et sicut palma multiplicabo dies. Firma quoque spe sustentabar fore, ut non minus diuturnam vitam ducerem, quam Phoenix, cujus est vita longissima; aut quam palma, in cujus trunco multi anni ex decidentibus annuatim ramis numerari possunt.


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