The Righteous Phoenix

“And she also gave to her husband” (Gen 3.6). The word “also” is a word that suggests she also gave the fruit to others to eat, to cattle, beasts, and birds. All obeyed her, except for a certain bird named hol (phoenix), of which it is said, “I shall die with my nest, yet I shall multiply my days as the hol” (Job 29.18). The school of R. Yannai maintained: The hol lives a thousand years. At the end of a thousand years, a fire issues from its nest and burns it up, yet of the bird a piece the size of an egg is left; it grows new limbs and lives again.

“After their kinds they went forth from the ark” (Gen 8.19). Eliezer (Abraham’s servant) asked Shem, Noah’s oldest son: How did you manage to take care of the many kinds of animals? Shem replied: The truth is, we had much trouble in the ark. The creature whose habit it was to eat by day, we fed by day; the one who ate by night, we fed by night. As for the chameleon, my father did not know what it ate. One day, as my father was sitting and cutting a pomegranate, a worm fell out of it and the chameleon consumed it. After that, he would knead some prickly reeds infested with worms and feed it with them. As for the phoenix, my father found him sleeping in a corner of the ark and asked him: Why did you not request food? He replied: I saw you were busy, and I said to myself that I should not trouble you. Noah replied: Since you were concerned about my trouble, may it be the Lord’s will that you never die. Hence it is said, “I shall multiply my days as the phoenix” (Job 29.18)

from The Book of Legends, William Braude’s very enjoyable translation of Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravnitsky’s Sefer ha-Aggadah, pp. 20 (from Genesis Rabbah 19:3), 28 (from b Sanhedrin 108b).


  1. That is so cool – I see that ‘hol’ is from the word meaning whirl dance give birth etc. I found that verse of Job curious because of the strange word order. I will add a link to your note in my translation of this verse. I followed Tur Sinai’s reading of this verse reading days as ‘seas’. “and as the sand -I will multiply- of the seas” – ‘hol’ as ‘Sand’ also occurs in 6:3. The word group occurs 9 times in Job making it a possible thread – birth pangs as a metaphor for dealing with all sorts of troubles.

    Tur Sinai’s reading has the advantage of support from the parallelism.

    1. Yes, that’s certainly possible, but much less fun!

      I think the YMYM may still be “days” and the XWL may be metonymic, connoting “(number of grains of) sand (of the seashore).” So we can understand: “And like the number of grains of sand on the seashore will I multiply my days.” Either way, your reading comes to the same. The YMYM would be an intentional ambiguity with this reading, homophonic for the more expected “seas.”

      NRSV renders it “Then I thought, I shall die in my nest, and I shall multiply my days like the phoenix.”

      NETS renders it “And I said, ‘My manhood will see old age; I shall live a long while, like the trunk of a palm tree.'” The Greek is: εἶπα δέ ἡ ἡλικία μου γηράσει ὥσπερ στέλεχος φοίνικος πολὺν χρόνον βιώσω. With that στέλεχος in there, it disambiguates the meaning to be that of the palm tree, whether warranted or not. But what’s interesting is that early Christian tradition included belief in the phoenix. BDAG includes bibliography. We find the phoenix reading in much early Christian literature, and that reading didn’t appear out of nowhere. They knew very well that φοίνικος could also be “palm tree”, but read “phoenix.” I almost included quotations from 1Clement, Tertullian, and Lactantius with the above, but the point of their relaying the phoenix story is different, using it as a demonstration toward belief in resurrection. Perhaps there was an edition of Job (Theodotion?) which lacked the στέλεχος? Anyhow, the phoenix remains a part of Christian theology well into the middle ages.

  2. We did an ‘Order of the Phoenix’ Saturday for our neighborhood children this past Easter – very successful – had 35 or so kids attend – a large number for a small High Anglican parish. I wonder what to read into a word or a letter. Phoenix seems too much for the 5th century BC – (but maybe we are out of touch with their thoughts). I like your idea that sand by itself is sufficient – I think that is better than Tur Sinai’s solution. Sand does not require ‘sea’ to be meaningful.

  3. That sounds fun! I was very happy to have seen the phoenix pop up in the Potter stuff.

    Phoenix is certainly not too much for the 5th century BC, though. That’s precisely when Herodotus heard and recorded his version of the tale, of course.

    The Tur Sinai reading would lose the necessary “days” if YMYM were read “seas.” XWL as sand (or phoenix!) can stand alone, as I described, through metonomy, but the )RBH would still need an object. “I would multiply seas like the sand” is hardly likely. It makes no sense.

    As you can still see in the accusative (φοίνικος), the word is really a substantive, a noun built from an adjective: “Phoenician”. Greeks used it as we might say “Levantine” or “Near Eastern”. The people, the color/dye, the tree, and the bird were all of that area, and so bore this description, which eventually became nominal. It’s very interesting!

  4. If yet one more question, sir, and you will be patient with me 🙂

    This verse is ‘difficult’ to say the least. I am thoroughly dissatisfied with “I will die in my nest” as a parallel to any “increase of days like the sand”. So Does the phoenix die in its nest? And could the resurrection motif be a 5th century BC trope? Curious coincidence that prior to this thread I wrote about resurrection this morning.

    I gave up on this verse and translated it:
    my nest a nation I will expire
    and as the sand I will multiply days
    (changing the separated construct as you have suggested)
    or of the seas if a separated construct is feasible

    That parallel at least has some sense to it. But zippo – no one else suggests nation (though I sent all my books back to the library so I can’t check them now.)

  5. No problem, Bob. Both Job contains the most challenging Hebrew in the Bible, with Proverbs a close second. Isaiah is similar in style to Job, but without as many of the vocabulary problems. His context is usually clearer. Job is just all over the place.

    Yes, the phoenix dies in its nest. Here’s is the description of the phoenix from 1 Clement 25:

    Let us see that strange sign happening in the eastern regions, that is, those around Arabia. For there is a bird called phoenix. This is the only existing one, living five hundred years. And now when it has come to the dissolution of its dying, it makes itself a nest of frankincense and myrrh and the rest of the spices, into which it enters in the fullness of time, and dies. And the decaying of the flesh produces a worm, which, nourished by the juices of the dead animal, grows wings. Then, when it has grown strong, it takes over that nest where the bones of the predecessor are, and, picking these up, continues from the Arabian region as far as Egypt, to the so-called Heliopolis. And in daytime, in the seeing of all, it lands on the altar of the sun, placing them there, it starts back. Then the priests examine the records of times, and find that it fulfilled five hundred years in coming.

    So, the nest and the phoenix in Job 29.18 makes perfect sense, in light of that story.

    I don’t think, actually, that your repointing (M helps. The verse makes sense as it is pointed, with the understanding (as HALOT mentions) “nest” as metaphorical for his family or children, at least. So, “And I said, With my nest I will perish, but as the phoenix multiply days” is an acceptable reading, though requiring the understanding of XWL as phoenix. My other suggestion, “And I said, With my nest I will perish, but as the sand will I multiply days”, in paraphrase, “And I said, With my brood I will perish, but I will multiply the days of my life like the number of grains of sand along the seashore.” Either way, we’ve got resurrection in view: a lengthening of life following death. It’s quite striking!

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