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Haunted by Jackals

by Tim O'Hearn

Anubis is generally called the jackal-headed god of the Egyptians. Although he doesn’t figure in much of Egyptian mythology, he has one very important role. He was eventually considered the god of the underworld. His primary function was to oversee the embalming of corpses and to escort the dead to the underworld, where they could continue to exist in a state resembling their life. His head is generally depicted as a jackal with black fur, black being the color of resurrection or the afterlife. Anubis also presided over the “weighing of the heart” ceremony. The heart of the deceased would be weighed on a balance scale against a feather, representing maat—truth, order, and justice. If their deeds were good in this life, the scale would balance and they would be allowed to enter the realm of the dead. If the heart was heavy with wrongdoing, it would be gobbled up by the crocodile/hippopotamus god, Ammit, and the person would cease to exist. This was considered by the Egyptians to be the ultimate punishment because then one could never be resurrected. Thus the jackal was held in high regard by the Egyptians.

The golden jackal (now scientifically classified as the golden wolf) is closely related to some modern canids, most notably the coyote and then the wolf. They live a solitary, monogamous life, chasing all other jackals except the very young from their territory. Like the coyote, they may live close to humans, sometimes even making dens in abandoned dwellings. Unlike the true jackals of southern Africa, the golden jackal will not usually attack larger animals or people. Their solitary life and willingness to live close to people may be the basis for making Anubis wear a jackal’s head.

The Bible mentions jackals about fourteen times. In the King James Version, the word is generally translated dragon, reflecting the late Middle Ages natural history of the English. Most modern translations, including the New King James Version, translate it jackal. The description of the animal in question more accurately fits the golden jackal.

Sometimes the Bible depicts jackals as living in dry deserts. “I turned Esau's inheritance into a desert for jackals.” (Mal 1:3)

The parched ground will become a pool, and springs of water will satisfy the thirsty land. Marsh grass and reeds and rushes will flourish where desert jackals once lived. (Isa 35:7)

Several references associate jackals with owls. Perhaps this relates to the solitary habits of both animals. Job says he has become “a brother to jackals and a companion to owls.” (Job 30:29) Isaiah says Edom will “become a haunt for jackals and a home for owls.” (Isa34:13) He also says that jackals and owls will thank God for providing water in the wilderness. (Isa 43:20)

Their most common use in the Bible is to depict the utter destruction of cities and nations. Palaces and homes will become dwellings for jackals, following their habit of taking over ruined dwellings.

Isaiah and Malachi predicted that Edom would be a haunt of jackals. (Isa 34:13; Mal 1:3) But Isaiah also said that of Babylon. “Hyenas will howl in its fortresses, and jackals will make dens in its luxurious palaces.” (Isa 13:22) Jeremiah predicted Jerusalem and other towns of Judah would become a ruin, “haunted by jackals.” (Jer 9:11; 10:22; Lam 5:18) He says something similar about the Galilean city of Hazor, which was about ten times the size of Jerusalem. (Jer 49:33) Ezekiel compared false prophets to “jackals digging in the ruins.” (Ezek 13:4)

In the American Southwest it would not be far wrong to substitute coyotes for jackals. Either way, this is another animal that God used in a prophetic way. We can learn from history; we can learn from jackals.