His curved tail tipped with a poisonous barb, the scorpion signals peril in Scripture as in life. The word for scorpion (akrab) appears nine times in the Old Testament and five times in Greek (scorpios) in the New Testament. It occurs dozens of times in the rabbinic writings of the Talmud.
We know from fossils that scorpions have inhabited the earth for at least 400 million years, making these creatures the most ancient of all terrestrial arthropods (invertebrate animals with jointed legs and body and external skeleton). They range in length from one-half inch to eight inches, and in color from black, brown or yellow to gray. Twenty scorpion species are known today in Israel and the Sinai desert. About 1,000 species have been described throughout the world. Four of those found in Sinai are dangerous to humans, particularly the yellow scorpion, Leiurus quinquestriatus hebraeus, and Androctonus australis, common in southern Sinai. Their venom causes paralysis of the cardiac and respiratory muscles and can be fatal.
The Hebrews were certainly familiar with the danger of scorpions from their life in Egypt and their wanderings in the Sinai desert. In Deuteronomy, Moses warns the Israelites: “Beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God…who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its seraph serpents and scorpions” (Deuteronomy 8:14–15).
In several biblical references, the term scorpions merely identifies a mountain pass—the Scorpions’ Ascent, or Maaleh-akrabbim, first mentioned in Numbers 34:4: “Your border shall then turn to pass south of the ascent of ‘Akrabbim [scorpions]…” In Joshua 15:3 and Judges 1:36, the site is again mentioned as a territorial boundary. One of the sharpest escarpments in the Negev, the Scorpions’ Ascent lies on the Roman road to Eilat. From its summit you can see from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Eilat (Aqaba).
No one knows exactly how the Scorpions’ Ascent received its name. Most scholars attribute the name to indigenous plants named after the scorpion: the prickly Scorpiurus muricatus or Coronilla scorpiodes, with its elongated fruits in the shape of a scorpion’s tail. But the presence of eight species of scorpions in this area—including three having fatal stings—suggests a more likely source for the name.
This confusion over the plant and the scorpion has led to a questionable translation of a passage in 1 Kings and its parallel in 2 Chronicles. When Rehoboam inherits the kingdom of his father, Solomon, he threatens to beat his people with ‘akrabbim (1 Kings 12:11, 14; 2 Chronicles 10:11, 14), which may be translated as “whips made of thorny branches.” But Rehoboam may have offered a more severe punishment: “My father flogged you with whips, but I will flog you with scorpions.” Rehoboam’s attempt to dominate the people was disastrous, leading to rebellion and to the division of the united monarchy, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
Many generations after this breakup, God assures Ezekiel that not even scorpions should prevent him from delivering God’s prophecy to Israel:
“He said to me, ‘O mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, that nation of rebels, who have rebelled against Me…Do not fear them and do not fear their words, though thistles and thorns press against you, and you sit upon scorpions’”
(Ezekiel 2:3, 6)
The scorpion receives similar treatment in the New Testament, where it represents danger: In Revelation 9:3–5 we read that locusts large as horses and equipped with torment like a scorpion’s sting will afflict those who are not marked as God’s servants. As in the Old Testament, God promises to protect his followers from scorpions. In Luke 10:19, Jesus promises the Seventy immunity: “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall by any means hurt you.”
The Talmud,a like the Old Testament, enumerates the dangers of scorpions, but it also suggests they are a cure for medical problems. I have always been skeptical about such traditional remedies. Therefore, I nearly refused when, in the winter of 1977, a friend asked me to obtain four black scorpions to help save a young woman’s eyesight. He explained that the woman was suffering from a hereditary disease that affected the retina. The medical specialists who had examined her said no remedy was known for the disease—she would inevitably become blind. As a last resort, the woman visited a rabbi known for healing serious illnesses. He assured her there was hope if she could find four black scorpions.
Still dubious, I gave my friend four specimens of the black Buthotus judaicus scorpion. Seven weeks later, Jeanette Shoshan of Ashkelon regained her sight. She told me that the rabbi instructed her to burn the scorpions and bring him the ashes. He then used the ashes to prepare a powder to treat her eyes.
A doctor who had treated Ms. Shoshan for years told the Israeli press, “I consider the fact that Jeanette can see a miracle. She was 100 percent blind; her sight had deteriorated to zero. I had done everything I could for her, and I knew that her sight could not be saved.”b
Curious about the source of this remedy, I turned to the Talmud, where I read the following:
“For a cataract he should take a scorpion with stripes of seven colours, and dry it out in the sun and mix it with stibiumc in the proportion of one to two and drop three paintbrushfuls into each eye—not more, lest he should put out his eye” (Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nashim 7, Gittin 69a).
I have since learned of experiments at Hebrew University, where scientists are evaluating the components of scorpion venom to determine their value as medicine.
Whether peril, promise of divine protection or panacea, the scorpion was clearly a widespread and feared element of the ancient environment, just as it remains today.
For more on the scorpions of Israel, see Pinchas Amitai Scorpions (Jerusalem: Massada, 1980), in Hebrew.
His curved tail tipped with a poisonous barb, the scorpion signals peril in Scripture as in life. The word for scorpion (akrab) appears nine times in the Old Testament and five times in Greek (scorpios) in the New Testament. It occurs dozens of times in the rabbinic writings of the Talmud. We know from fossils that scorpions have inhabited the earth for at least 400 million years, making these creatures the most ancient of all terrestrial arthropods (invertebrate animals with jointed legs and body and external skeleton). They range in length from one-half inch to eight inches, and in color […]