When we read the Old Testament today, we seek to understand its message in light of God’s mission in the world. We also seek to understand what God was saying to Israel and how that message speaks to us today.
The message of the Old Testament was expressed in two languages: Hebrew and Aramaic. What most people who read the Bible today do not understand is that the Old Testament contains several words that were borrowed from many cultures of the ancient world.
In translating the Old Testament into English, or any other language, scholars must deal with each word found in the text, and each word must be understood within the larger context of the text and within the cultural context in which the word was used.
The people of the Old Testament were in contact with many nations of the ancient world and in the process of cultural and commercial exchange, their language acquired words that came from other languages. Since many of these words appear only once or twice in the biblical text, scholars struggle to understand their meaning.
In his book, Foreign Words in the Old Testament: Their Origin and Etymology, Maximilian Ellenbogen has compiled a list of all the foreign words that appear in the Old Testament. The purpose of this post is to study the word thukkiyyîm.
The word thukkiyyîm appears in 1 Kings 10:22 and it is translated as “peacocks” in some translations of the Bible and as “baboons” in a few other translations. Below are two translations of the Bible where the word is translated differently.
New Revised Standard Version:
“For the king had a fleet of ships of Tarshish at sea with the fleet of Hiram. Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.”
New International Version:
“The king had a fleet of trading ships at sea along with the ships of Hiram. Once every three years it returned, carrying gold, silver and ivory, and apes and baboons.”
So, the question is: does the word thukkiyyîm mean “peacocks” or “baboons”?
The reason for the two different translations is that scholars differ on the origin of the word.
The word thukkiyyîm appears in the context of a commercial venture between Solomon, king of Israel, and Hiram, King of Tyre. According to the biblical text, Solomon’s navy brought from Ophir many commodities, including thukkiyyîm.
In his study of foreign words in the Old Testament, Ellenbogen says that the word thukkiyyîm comes from an Indian word that means “peacock” (1962:165). This theory presupposes that the biblical Ophir is India. The identification of Ophir with India was first proposed by the Jewish historian Josephus.
However, Clark, in his article “The Sandalwood and Peacocks of Ophir,” wrote: “The available evidence seems to show that there was no certain tradition among the Hebrews that Ophir was located in India or that thukkiyyîm . . . meant ‘peacock’” (1920:117).
It is for this reason that William F. Albright rejected the view that thukkiyyîm means “peacock.” Albright believes that Ophir refers to a place in Africa and that the word thukkiyyîm is an Egyptian loan-word that means “monkey” (1968: 212, n. 16). Most Bibles that translate the word thukkiyyîm as “baboons” follow Albright’s view.
After all the evidence is presented, scholars still do not agree on the meaning of thukkiyyîm. The study of the word thukkiyyîm reveals one significant fact: that when foreign words appear in the Old Testament, scholars may use a variety of methods to ascertain how the word was used by the biblical writer, but in the end they may disagree with the results and how to translate the word in English.
When I am teaching about the commercial ventures of Solomon, I say to my students that Solomon’s ships of Tarshish brought “peacocks” from Ophir.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Albright, William F. Archaeology and the Religion of Israel. New York: Doubleday, 1968.
Clark, Walter E. “The Sandalwood and Peacocks of Ophir.” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature 36 (1920): 103-19.
Ellenbogen, Maximilian. Foreign Words in the Old Testament: Their Origin and Etymology. London: Luzac & Company, 1962.