TALKING TURKEYS FROM TARSHISH

If you run a search for “turkey” in the Bible, nothing will come up. And that is to be expected, since the turkey is a New World bird, only known to the Mediterranean after the 16th century. Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the turkey the national bird of the new United States of America, but lucky for us, he was overruled, and we eat turkey at Thanksgiving instead of dining on eagle!


But there is one bird in the scriptures whose Hebrew name sounds like “turkey.” The took-kee, or peacock, appears twice, in 1 Kings 10:22, and 2 Chronicles 9:21. There’s a story, probably apocryphal, in which Christopher Columbus’ translator Luis de Torres, a recent converso from Judaism, christened the turkey from his knowledge of the took-kee in the Hebrew scriptures. The crossover makes a certain sense: turkeys and peacocks are both similarly sized ground-dwellers with brilliant plumage, albeit of different shapes (turkeys and peacocks belong to the phasianidae family of birds).


Both times the took-kee appears in scripture, it is as a part of the lavish tribute received by King Solomon. “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 (1 Kings 10:22).” In our illustrated edition of Solomon, artist Jared Boggess depicted these apes and peacocks together:

In light of our upcoming illustrated edition of Jonah, it is interesting to consider that these took-kee came from the ships of Tarshish. Here there is another mystery, for we don’t actually know the location of the ancient Tarshish. A variety of locations have been suggested through the millenia, from Tarsessus in southern Spain, to Carthage in north Africa, to the island of Sardinia off the coast of Italy, to ports further afield in east Africa or south India. The ancient author Josephus suggested the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor, which would bring the discussion of took-kee full circle, since ancient Tarsus is in modern Turkey!


Even in the scriptures, the location of Tarshish was something of an enigma. It was a place of exotic treasures, perhaps known only to Phoenecians such as King Hiram and their traders on the sea. Thus, when Jonah fled God’s call to Ninevah, he was not only travelling west into the Mediterranean instead of travelling East, he was also travelling to a place of obscurity, from which even he might not know how to return. Jonah was trying to escape God’s call, not only in the moment, but for good.



Art by Matt Chinworth for upcoming JONAH

But God will see his tribute delivered, even if he must use the “east wind” to “shatter the ships of Tarshish” (Psalm 48:7). Now Jonah is the turkey! Or perhaps he is a took-kee. For, like the gold and silver, the ivory and apes, even the took-kees delivered to King Solomon, so God arranged for Jonah to be delivered to Ninevah. With Jonah came God’s most precious gift, then to Ninevah and now to all, the good news of God’s mercy to those who repent.

And so this thanksgiving, whether we eat turkeys or took-kees, let us remember with thanks God’s great tribute from Tarshish, by a prophet who went under for three days but emerged again, the gospel of God’s grace for the forgiveness of sin.


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