Questions From Readers
● Why does the New World Translation at Isaiah 14:23 use the term “porcupines” instead of “bittern” or some other term describing a bird?—M. S., U.S.A.
The Hebrew word qippôd at Isaiah 14:23 has been a matter of much dispute as to what it represents, whether a bird such as the bittern or an animal, either the hedgehog, a porcupinelike creature, or the porcupine itself. The prophecy of Isaiah 14:23 relates to the utter desolation that God would bring upon Babylon and reads, according to the New World Translation: “I will make her a possession of porcupines and reedy pools of water, and I will sweep her with the broom of annihilation.” The King James Version uses “bittern,” instead of porcupine, the bittern being a long-necked wading bird of the heron family that inhabits marshy places. The Bible translation by George M. Lamsa reads: “I will make it a possession for owls.” The Revised Standard Version, An American Translation and the translation by Roman Catholic Monsignor Ronald A. Knox all render the word in question as “hedgehog.”
Bible dictionaries and commentaries are often uncertain in their explanation of qippôd. Thus The Interpreter’s Bible simply says: “What creature is meant by [the qippôd] is uncertain; it is mentioned only in connection with desolate places.” Harper’s Bible Dictionary states: “Perhaps a porcupine or some sort of lizard, though not definitely identified.” The Dictionary of the Bible by Dr. William Smith (1888 edition) states: “The Hebrew word has been the subject of various interpretations, the old versions generally sanctioning the ‘hedgehog’ or ‘porcupine;’ . . . the ‘tortoise,’ the ‘beaver,’ the ‘otter,’ the ‘owl,’ have also all been conjectured, but without the slightest show of reason.” The older versions such as the Latin Vulgate and the Septuagint use “hedgehog” or “porcupine.” The Septuagint Bible, as translated by Charles Thomson, revised by C. A. Muses, renders Isaiah 14:23: “I will lay Babylonia waste: that porcupines may inhabit it; and it shall be a desolation.”
Hebrew-English lexicons of recent date generally list the Hebrew word qippôd as meaning either a hedgehog or a porcupine. Moreover, older lexicons such as those by Lee, Parkhurst, Winer, Fürst and Gesenius all give “hedgehog” or “porcupine” as representative of the Hebrew word. Gesenius links the Hebrew qippôd [or kippôd] to the Arabic kunfudh, the porcupine, regarding them as the same.
The reasons some expositors have preferred “bittern” at Isaiah 14:23 are: (1) Porcupines do not frequent reedy pools of water; (2) the creature in question is supposed to be able to climb to the top of capitals of columns, in view of Zephaniah 2:14 and (3) it must be a bird to sing, in view of that same text.
These reasons for preferring “bittern,” however, are not valid. It should be noted that Isaiah 14:23 does not say that pools of water would become the home of the porcupines; it says Babylon will become “a possession of porcupines and [not, in] reedy pools of water.” The idea behind the expressions porcupines and reedy pools of water is that of desolation. As to Zephaniah’s prophecy (Zeph. 2:13, 14), it reads, according to the King James Version: “He will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and will make Nineveh a desolation, and dry like a wilderness. And flocks shall lie down in the midst of her, all the beasts of the nations: both the cormorant and the bittern shall lodge in the upper lintels of it; their voice shall sing in the windows; desolation shall be in the thresholds.”
It is not essential, however, that the qippôd be able to climb to the top of standing columns, since the allusion is rather to the fallen pillars of Nineveh’s palaces, not the capitals of standing columns. The New World Translation renders Zephaniah’s prophecy: “He will make Nineveh a desolate waste, a waterless region like the wilderness. And in the midst of her, droves will certainly lie stretched out, all the wild animals of a nation. Both pelican and porcupine will spend the night right among her pillar capitals. A voice will keep singing in the window. There will be devastation at the threshold.” The thought is that wild creatures would make their home among the fallen pillar capitals of Nineveh, which porcupines might easily do, since they often make their home between rocks. As to the third point, the King James Version says “their voice shall sing in the windows,” but the word “their” is not in the original Hebrew; so the New World Translation says: “A voice will keep singing in the window,” which could be a reference to any bird that would perch in the deserted window or to the sound of wind. The “voice” does not refer back to the pelican or the porcupine, neither of which can be said to have “singing” voices.
The bittern also does not have a singing voice but a booming cry, and this wading bird is not likely to fit in with Nineveh’s foretold “waterless region like the wilderness.” The porcupine and the pelican, however, would fit in here. The pelican, though being a flying water fowl, is also a bird of the wilderness, as the psalmist wrote: “I do resemble the pelican of the wilderness.” (Ps. 102:6) The pelican, an unclean bird according to Leviticus 11:18, not infrequently retires inland to a wilderness spot and sits in a melancholy attitude, its head sunk on its shoulder and its bill resting on its breast. The pelican also selects desert islands and rocky shores remote from the haunts of men as breeding places. The intent of the prophecy is that Nineveh would become utterly desolate. New York, London and Paris would need to become utterly desolate before the pelican and the porcupine could be at home in the midst of these places.
So for both the wilderness of Nineveh and the ruins of Babylon, the porcupine would be a fitting denizen. Indeed, The Imperial Bible Dictionary says of the porcupine: “It is abundant throughout Palestine, Syria, and the Euphrates valley. It is a nocturnal animal, and therefore fit to associate with the ‘doleful creatures’ which are the companions of the kippod. It habitually conceals itself in dark and lonely places, and, as a matter of fact, is found in the ruins of Idumea [Isa. 34:11] and of Babylon. Mr. Rich [a former British resident of Baghdad] expressly says in his attempts to explore the burned mounds of ancient Babylon, which are full of passages and galleries, ‘I found quantities of porcupine quills.’”
Porcupines, the inhabitants of Babylon’s ruined palaces—how fitting! What a terrible end for so great a city! By reason of its habits and its quill-bristling armament the creeping porcupine is a fitting creature to express what has befallen Babylon, as well as Nineveh, in harmony with Jehovah’s prophetic Word—absence of man, utter desolation.