I descend into the gorge of the Wadi Hamam. The rising sun plays hide and seek with the rocks. It is a beautiful morning to be out and about, pack on my back. The air is cool. There is not a soul in sight. The Sea of Galilee glitters in the distance.
I pick my way along the ledge carefully. A twisted ankle (or worse) could ruin a good day in a hurry. The battery on my phone is now dead, but I am not overly concerned. There is no rush. “Take it slow and easy,” I tell myself. “Take no chances.” It is just me, the wind, and the wilds. I drop down deeper into the gorge. Limestone cliffs loom overhead and hide the sun.
A odd whistle reaches my ear. I stop, cock my head. I hear it again. It is more like a trill. Maybe I’m not as alone as I thought? The echo of the place makes it difficult to pinpoint the source.
I look behind, above, down, and see no one.
Then movement catches my eye. A small animal is perched on a rocky finger to my right. He has the shape of a football. Black beady eyes peer back at me. I look closely, then I see more footballs! There are maybe fifteen or twenty of them! A whole troop! I freeze.
I’ve seen these little guys before, but never so many in one place. They are the daredevils of the desert canyons. They climb up and leap from dizzying heights in the gulches of the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea. Their little rubbery feet act like suction cups and allow them to grip impossible places. Agur (“The Count”) of Proverbs numbers them among the mysteries of the created order.
“The conies are but a feeble folk, yet make they their houses in the rocks” (Prov 30:26).
Likewise, the Psalmist identifies the coney with the teeming wonders of the earth (Ps 104:18).
What is a coney? For King James’ translators, it was a rabbit. Closer my time and place, it is a cheesy hot dog. Neither of these works very well in a biblical context. (Rabbits are not known to Israel-Palestine in the Old Testament period. Experts believe they were domesticated and imported there for the first time as late as the Roman period.)
The word translated “coney” in Old English is the Hebrew, shaphan, possibly the “leaper.” Elsewhere it is rendered as “rock badger” or “hyrax” or even “cherogrillus” (Greek for porcupine!). No stock term from a European vocabulary accounts for these creatures limited to Africa and Southwest Asia.
Conies do not belong to the family of the rabbit, badger, or the shrewmouse. They are not rodents or ruminants, but (believe it or not!) are assigned to the same taxon as elephants and manatees! Biologically, they are Procavia capensis. Look close enough, and you can even see their little tusks!
Torah describes the the coney as an inappropriate meal. It “chews the cud but does not part the hoof” (Lev 11:5 and Deut 14:7). The former part of the description is odd, as the coney is not a ruminant. It is, however, among the most social and communicative member of the animal kingdom. More than 21 different vocalizations have been identified in “coney-song,” and these (can you believe it?), in complex patterns. Local dialects have even been discovered! Coney-eze! Could the chatty way of this “small but wise folk” been interpreted as cud-chewing?
I cautiously take a step. Then another. I hold my breath, wondering how close I can come. I pull my camera. Click! Click!
A shrill whistle sounds and the tail-less troop disappears.
I am alone again in the Wadi Hamam.