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LIZARD. Six words in the list of unclean animals (Lev 11:29, 30) are generally thought to refer to reptiles other than snakes. One further name is found in Proverbs 30:28. These are:

Palestine has many lizards and they are the most conspicuous vertebrates other than birds. Some forty species are listed, from desert monitor, which reaches a length of four ft., down to species of about two inches, and they belong to a number of different families. Most languages commonly have at least one general name for such a group, and this is known by most people; also individual names for conspicuous or important genera or species, but these are less widely known. This could be true of the above list; but with only one use each the reasoning is limited largely to philology. The following comments may be made:

Heb. צָ֥ב is not unlike Arab. dhubb, the name given to spiny-tailed Lizards of genus Uromastyx. These reach a length of well over one foot and are heavily built; they live in all types of desert and are partly vegetarian. They are eaten by Bedouins. The tr. tortoise and land crocodile are incorrect.

Heb. אֲנָקָ֥ה is elsewhere tr. “crying out,” “groaning,” “sighing.” Geckos are the only lizards that make a vocal sound. The tr. “ferret” is incorrect.

Heb. כֹּ֖חַ is from root meaning “strength.” (See Chameleon.) The expression “land crocodile” is meaningless. The Vul. stellio is interesting in that the most common large lizard in Pal. has the Lat. name Agama stellio. This is seen on roadsides, on old ruins, etc., sunning and doing “push-ups.”

Heb. לְטָאָ֑ה is prob. from root meaning “clinging to the ground” and all authorities agree that it is a lizard; perhaps general name for Lacertids, a family including many typical diurnal lizards, mostly under one foot long.

Heb. תִּנְשָֽׁמֶת is difficult; perhaps from ‘to breathe.” The tr. “mole” can be rejected. Sometimes identified with chameleon from its habit of inflating itself with air. Elsewhere tr. “swan” (Lev 11:18; Deut 14:16); the use of one name for two different animals is not unknown, cf. Eng. “turtle” for pigeon and water tortoise.

Heb. ֭שְׂמָמִית, “the spider taketh hold with her hands and is in kings’ palaces” (KJV, ASV); “the lizard you can take in your hands” (RSV) The former construction is preferred but many authorities tr. “lizard” or “gecko,” of which several species are closely associated with human habitations in warm countries. The under surfaces of all digits have rows of microscopic hairs which enable a gecko to cling to vertical surfaces and even to ceilings.

If the above suggestions are correct, this list covers most of the major families of Pal. lizards other than the monitors and the skinks, which are streamlined lizards adapted mostly to living in sand, but it must be emphasized that they are largely conjectural.


H. B. Tristram, The Natural History of the Bible, 9th ed. (1898), ch. ix.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

liz’-ard: The list of unclean "creeping things" in Le 11:29,30 contains eight names, as follows:

1. Names:

(1) choledh, English Versions of the Bible "weasel" (which see);

(2) `akhbar, English Versions of the Bible "mouse" (which see);

(3) tsabh, the King James Version "tortoise," the Revised Version (British and American) "great lizard" (which see);

(4) ’anaqah, the King James Version "ferret," the Revised Version (British and American) "gecko" (which see);

(5) koach, the King James Version "chameleon," the Revised Version (British and American) "land-crocodile" (which see);

(6) leTa’ah, English Versions of the Bible "lizard"; compare Arabic laTa’, "to cling to the ground";

(7) chormeT, the King James Version "snail," the Revised Version (British and American) "sand-lizard" (which see);

(8) tinshemeth, the King James Version "mole," the Revised Version (British and American) "chameleon" (which see). In Pr 30:28, we find

(9) semamith, the King James Version "spider," the Revised Version (British and American) "lizard."

Since (1), (3), (4), (5), (6) and (7) occur as names of animals only in this passage, and as the philological evidence available is in most cases not very convincing, their determination is difficult and uncertain. the Revised Version margin to "gecko" (Le 11:30) has "Words of uncertain meaning, but probably denoting four kinds of lizards."

2. Lizards of Palestine:

Among the many lizards of Palestine, the monitor and thorny-tailed lizard are remarkable for their size, and the chameleon for its striking appearance and habits. On etymological grounds, koach, the King James Version "chameleon," the Revised Version (British and American) "land-crocodile," Septuagint chamaileon, has been taken to be the monitor; tsabh, the King James Version "tortoise," the Revised Version (British and American) "great lizard," Septuagint krokodeilos chersaios, to be the thorny-tailed lizard; and tinshemeth, the King James Version "mole," the Revised Version (British and American) "chameleon," Septuagint aspalax, to be the chameleon. On the same grounds, choledh, English Versions of the Bible "weasel," Septuagint gale, might be the mole-rat.

See Chameleon; Tortoise; WEASEL.

The commonest lizard of Palestine is the rough-tailed agama, Agama stellio, Arabic chirdaun or chirdaun, which is everywhere in evidence, running about on the ground, rocks or walls, frequently lying still basking in the sun, or bobbing its head up and down in the peculiar manner that it has. The gecko, Ptyodactylus lobatus, is common in houses. By means of adhesive disks on the under sides of its toes, it clings with ease to smooth walls which other lizards cannot scale. Although perfectly harmless, it is believed to be poisonous, and is much feared. It is called abu-brais, "father of leprosy," either on account of its supposed poisonous qualities or because it has a semi-transparent and sickly appearance, being of a whitish-yellow color with darker spots. It utters a little cry, which may be the reason why the Revised Version (British and American) has "gecko" for ’anaqah; the King James Version has "ferret."

Various species of the genus Lacerta and its allies, the true lizards, may always be found searching for insects on trees and walls. They are scaly, like all lizards, but are relatively smooth and are prettily colored, and are the most attractive members of the group which are found in the country. They are called by the Arabs saqqaiyeh or shammuseh.

The skinks include Scincus officinalis, and allied species. Arabic sa qanqur = Greek skigkos (skinkos). They are smooth, light-colored lizards, and are found in sandy places. They cannot climb, but they run and burrow in the sand with remarkable rapidity. The dried body of Scincus officinalis is an important feature of the primitive oriental materia medica, and may be found in the shops (officinae) of the old-style apothecaries.

3. Identifications:

Semamith (Pr 30:28, the King James Version "spider," the Revised Version (British and American) "lizard") is one of the "four things which are little .... but .... exceeding wise." the Revised Version (British and American) reads:

"The lizard taketh hold with her hands,

Yet is she in kings’ palaces."

The Septuagint (Septuagint) has kalabotes, which according to Liddell and Scott = askalabotes, "a spotted lizard." There is no other lizard which fits this passage as does the gecko. If Gesenius is correct in deriving semamith from the root samam (compare Arabic samma, "to poison"), we have another reason for making this identification, in which case we must rule out the rendering of the Revised Version margin, "Thou canst seize with thy hands."

For none of the names in Le 11:29,30 have we as many data for identification as for semamith. For leTa’ah, English Versions of the Bible "lizard," the Septuagint has chalabotes, which is another variant of askalabotes. If we follow the Septuagint, therefore, we should render leTa’ah "gecko." Tristram quotes Bochart as drawing an argument that leTa’ah is "gecko" from the Arabic laTa’, "to cling to the ground." This view is at least in accordance with Septuagint. It is of course untenable if ’anaqah is "gecko," but (see Ferret) the writer thinks it quite possible that ’anaqah may mean the shrew or field-mouse, which is also in agreement with Septuagint. It will not do to follow Septuagint in all cases, but it is certainly safe to do so in the absence of a clear indication to the contrary.

There seems to be little evidence available for deciding the identity of chomeT, the King James Version "snail," the Revised Version (British and American) "sand-lizard." Septuagint has saura, and Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) lacerta, both words for lizard. Gesenius refers the word to an obsolete chamaT, "to bow down," "to lie upon the ground." Tristram, NHB, cites Bochart as referring to a word meaning "sand." Hence, perhaps the Revised Version (British and American) "sand-lizard." If by this is meant the skink, there is no inherent improbability in the identification.

We have thus more or less tentatively assigned various words of the list to the monitor, the thorny-tailed lizard, the chameleon, the gecko and the skink, but we have done nothing with the rough-tailed agama and the Lacertae, or true lizards, which are the commonest lizards of Palestine, and this fact must be reckoned against the correctness of the assignment. The translation of the Revised Version (British and American) has this to commend it, that it gives two small mammals followed by six lizards, and is therefore to that extent systematic. It is, however, neither guided in all cases by etymological considerations, nor does it follow Septuagint.

As none of the etymological arguments is very cogent, the writer can see no harm in consistently following Septuagint, understanding for

(1) gale, weasel or pole-cat; for

(2) mus, mouse; for

(3) krokodeilos chersaios, some large lizard, either the monitor or the thorny-tailed lizard; for

(4) mugale, shrew or field-mouse; for

(5) chamaileon, chameleon; for

(6) chalabotes, gecko; for

(7) saura, a Lacerta or true lizard; for

(8) aspalax, mole-rat.

On the other hand, if etymological considerations are to be taken into account and Septuagint abandoned when it conflicts with them we might have

(1) holedh, mole-rat;

(2) `akhbar, mouse;

(3) tsabh, thorny-tailed lizard;

(4) ’anaqah, field-mouse;

(5) koach, monitor;

(6) leTa’ah, gecko;

(7) chomeT, skink;

(8) tinshemeth, chameleon.

Neither of these lists has the systematic arrangement of that of the Revised Version (British and American), but we must remember that the Biblical writers were not zoologists, as is seen in the inclusion of the bat among birds (Le 11:19; De 14:18), and of the hare and coney among ruminants (Le 11:5,6; De 14:7).

See also

  • Animals