The Hebrew term for hyena is tzavua meaning “coloured” or patterned”, which is a good description of both the striped and spotted varieties of the hyena. The hyena has a large head, a mane running down its back, and its front legs are longer than its back legs, giving it a peculiar loping gait.

The sub-species of striped hyena in Israel can be found across the country and the entire national population is estimated to be around 150-200 animals. They are nocturnal, rarely seen, powerful but cowardly, constantly feeding on carrion. In ancient times they were seen prowling around graves digging up bones and carcases.

There are three references to tzavua in Scripture. The first is in 1 Samuel 13:16-18 where the directions of the three companies of marauding Philistines are given. The third group “turned to the way of the border that looketh to the valley of Zeboim toward the wilderness”. The word Zeboim is our word for hyenas and refers to a valley or rugged wadi somewhere near Gibeah in Benjamin (1 Sam 13:18). It was probably the place now bearing the name Wadi Shaykh aḍ-Ḍubʻa, “Ravine of the Chief of the Hyenas”, north of Jericho. The second reference is in Nehemiah 11:34 where a city in Benjamin bears the name of Zeboim.

The other key reference is found in Jeremiah 12:9. The AV has “Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird (Heb: ayit tzavua), the birds round about are against her; come ye, assemble all the beasts of the field, come to devour”. The LXX translates the phrase as “a hyena’s cave”. Another suggestion sees two scavengers: “the bird of prey” (ayit) and “the hyena”. Both ideas perfectly symbolise an inheritance wasted and devasted.