The Greek term that is translated in virtually English translations as “fox” (exceptions: Passion Translation of 2014 with “deceiver” and The Voice of 2012 with “sly fox”) presents an intriguing example of the complexity of translation and meaning across different cultures.
Edward Hope (2003, p. 64ff.) describes the occurrence of the fox and its meaning in the Bible as an inferior rather than crafty animal (click or tap here to see the details)
“In biblical times, and even today, there are three species of fox found in Israel and one type of jackal. An additional type of fox was found in Egypt. In the Bible the Hebrew word shu’al and its Greek equivalent alōpēx refer to any of these animals. These are members of the same animal family, which includes the wolf and the dog. The word “jackal” was borrowed from the Arabic jakal, which is from the same Semitic root as the Hebrew word shu’al. In the days of the King James Version the word “jackal” had not yet been introduced into the English language, and so in that version “fox” is used throughout for shu’al. (…)
“Both foxes and jackals are extremely intelligent animals, and their quick-witted, crafty opportunism is legendary in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. The fables of Aesop, a North African philosopher and storyteller, which feature the crafty fox, date from about the time of Daniel. The fox also figures in Greek and Roman fables. Similar fables about opportunistic jackals have been widespread in Africa and the Middle East for centuries.
“In ancient Arabic literature and in the Talmud and Midrash, the word ‘lion’ stands for a truly great and powerful person. In contrast, ‘jackal’ is used to designate an insignificant but self-important person. Since this figurative usage of ‘lion’ (or ‘lioness’) is also common in the Bible, there is a strong probability that the term ‘jackal’ or ‘fox’ used as a metaphor in the Bible for a person carries the connotation of self-important insignificance.
“However, the main symbolism associated with the jackal in the Bible is related to its habit of living among ruins and feeding on carcasses. To say that a certain place would become the dwelling place of jackals meant that the place would become deserted and lie in ruins, as the result of war. The jackal was thus a symbol of death and desolation, as well as insignificance and opportunistic craftiness. (…)
“[When in Luke 13:32 the term] alōpēx is used figuratively, it is more important to retain the inference associated with the word than to signify the exact animal. The word is slightly insulting, and the main exegetical decision to be made here is whether Jesus is using the term with the Greek connotation of ‘crafty opportunist’ or with the Semitic connotation of ‘insignificant but self-important person.’ Either would fit the context. If the former is in focus, Jesus is inferring that even though Herod Antipas is a crafty opportunist, his plans are known. If the latter sense is intended, as seems more likely, then Jesus is inferring that Herod does not have the power to stop him doing what he has to do. Some commentators have argued that both inferences are intended since both the Greek and Hebrew metaphors would have been known.
“If the Greek inference is decided upon, then the word alōpēx could be translated ‘crafty fox’ or ‘crafty jackal.’ If the Semitic inference is preferred, the word could be translated ‘insignificant jackal.’ In either case the word for a local animal that symbolizes crafty opportunism (for example, baboon) or self-important insignificance (for example, rabbit) can be used in the text, with a footnote to indicate that the original word means fox or jackal.”
Due to a lack of understanding of the above-described differences in the meaning of “fox” as a metaphor in Hebrew and Greek culture, early versions of translations tended to emphasize the craftiness of the metaphor:
Harry McArthur (in Notes on Translation 1992, p. 16ff), who had worked on a translation of the Aguacateco New Testament in the 1970s and then revised that version in the 1990s describes the original translation of this passage as one of “the few places where, when I was translating, I did not understand the original text (or the translations of it). (…) The helps we had at that time told us that the point of comparison was that Herod was a ‘cheater.’ We have since come to understand from the use of the word ‘fox’ on many other Biblical passages that Jesus was calling him a small or inconsequential man: a better rendering would be “go tell that poor benighted soul…”
An early Swati version translates “fox” as “nyoka“: “snake” (in the 1996 Swati translation it says “mphungutja“: “jackal”). Eric Hermanson comments on this: “This change, however, rather than bringing out what was intended in the original utterance, made it suggest even more strongly that Jesus was calling Herod a twisty schemer than is indicated when ‘fox’ is used as a metaphor in English. What happened in this case. then, was that replacing a metaphor from the original language with a different metaphor from the second language resulted in readers and hearers having different thoughts and ideas than were intended by the original author. (…)
“In Zulu and other African languages, however, itnpungushe (‘the jackal’) is also seen as an insignificant animal; and referring metaphorically to a king as itnpungushe instead of as iSilo or iNgonyama (‘the lion’), the normal praise-names of a paramount chief, has the same effect (…) that was intended by Jesus.” (Source: Eric Hermanson in The Bible Translator 1999, p. 235 ff..)
The German translation by Jörg Zink (1965) translates “dieser Fuchs, dieser Verderber”: “that fox, that spoiler (or: destroyer)”.