[Heb., hharehʹ yoh·nimʹ].
The description of the siege of Samaria by Syrian King Ben-hadad relates that the famine created became so severe that “an ass’s head got to be worth eighty silver pieces, and the fourth of a cab measure of dove’s dung was worth five silver pieces.” (2 Ki. 6:24, 25) The cost of an ass’s head was approximately $38 (if the “silver pieces” were shekels) and the “fourth of a cab measure [about one-half dry pint or .3 of a liter] of dove’s dung” was worth about $2.38. This indicates that, due to the scarcity of food, such a thing as the bony, thinly fleshed ass’s head became an expensive food item (although the ass was an unclean animal according to the Mosaic law), and even dove’s dung was very costly. The reference to dove’s dung has occasioned considerable discussion as to whether the term is literal and as to the use to which it was put by the buyer.
Arguments have been advanced that the name “dove’s dung” may have been applied to a certain plant, some basing this view on the fact that the Arabs use the name “sparrow’s dung” with reference to a certain plant eaten by persons of little means, while others argue in favor of the plant growing in the area of Samaria called the “Star of Bethlehem” and known by the Latin name Ornithogalum, meaning “birds’ milk.” However, there is no evidence that either of these plants was ever known by the name “dove’s dung” or that such plants would be accessible to the people bottled up in Samaria by the siege.
Those who acknowledge a literal meaning of the expression are, in turn, divided as to the use made of the substance. Some point out that dove’s dung has long been used as a fertilizer by people in the Near East in the cultivation of melons, but it seems reasonable that persons bordering on death by starvation would be concerned with food for immediate consumption rather than with a crop that would not be available for perhaps several months.
Many prefer the view that the dove’s dung was actually used for food, pointing out that the subject is that of famine and the terrible extremes to which humans are driven by the pangs of hunger. Though purposely extreme and cruel so as to create a weakening fear, the threat by Sennacherib’s officer, Rabshakeh, that a siege by Assyria would cause the people of Jerusalem to have to “eat their own excrement and drink their own urine” may have had some basis in fact. (2 Ki. 18:27) While the thought of using literal dung for human consumption is extremely repulsive, that in itself is no basis for rejecting this view. The fact that the hunger was so great in Samaria that women would boil and eat their own children indicates that they had reached the point of consuming anything available. (2 Ki. 6:26-29) While some point out that dung would have little value as a nutrient, this factor alone would not disprove the possibility of its being purchased for food, for starving persons are frequently irrational, eating anything to deaden the pangs of hunger.
Perhaps an even more likely suggestion is that of certain rabbins who hold that the dung was used for fuel. There is, at least, some Biblical parallel in this, since the prophet Ezekiel was instructed to picture the equally dire siege conditions due to come upon Jerusalem by cooking his food with dung as the fuel. (Ezek. 4:12-17) Dried cattle dung, called by some “cow chips,” serves as a common fuel in many parts of the earth till this day. If this view should be correct, then the account might simply be stating the cost of the food (in this case an ass’s head) and the cost of the fuel for cooking it. The succeeding verses indicate that the people were as yet not eating the flesh raw.