October 1, 2013

Biblical Bugs and Canonical Creepy-Crawlies

Insects are usually beneficial to ecosystems and other natural phenomena. Occasionally, they are a tad annoying. Regardless, they were created by God for reasons that inevitably give Him glory. When we read the pages of Scripture we are often introduced to some of the smallest of God’s creation in the form of insects. Yet these rather infinitesimal living specks can often play rather large roles in the flow of history. In some cases, insects have even aided in altering and changing history. They are sometimes the source of the change itself or the inspiration of the change. 

Exodus 8:16-17 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats in all the land of Egypt.’” And they did so. Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. All the dust of the earth became gnats in all the land of Egypt.

The third and fourth plagues in Egypt in the time of Moses were insect related. The first of the two being gnats (more properly understood as lice). Anyone that has had a few buzzing around their heads or flying in their eyes or nose knows exactly how annoying these little things can be. The implication in the Hebrew word for gnats / כֵּן is that the insect referred to here actually bites. It was a biting insect not just a dive-bombing one. So not only were they everywhere in a swarm…they were probably biting people too annoying the living daylights out of people.

Exodus 8:24 …There came great swarms of flies into the house of Pharaoh and into his servants' houses. Throughout all the land of Egypt the land was ruined by the swarms of flies.

The next infestation came in the form of flies. What type of fly is unknown for certain. In the Hebrew text it is only designated as הֶעָרֹֽב or “swarms”. The Septuagint on the other had is more specific term stating κυνομυια or “dog fly”. This would be a far worse infestation than the assumed mosquito infestation often interpreted here. Why? The dog fly is similar in attributes to a biting horsefly. Its bite is exceptionally painful and causes severe inflammations and sores that generally result in putting the bite victim at risk of secondary skin infections which were never a good thing in the time of Moses. If these were akin to blowflies it is quite possible that the larvae (maggots) would’ve infested any refuse or offal and causing disease (including human skin). What made this more obvious as a divine retribution is at the same time in the area of Goshen (where the Israelites were)…there were no flies. It would then be clear that the Egyptians were guilty and a sovereign God was the one punishing them.

Exodus 8:22-23 ~ But on that day I will deal differently with the land of Goshen, where my people live; no swarms of flies will be there, so that you will know that I, the Lord, am in this land.  I will make a distinction between my people and your people. This sign will occur tomorrow.’ ”

In Leviticus 11 we see which foods are permitted and which are prohibited. We then have entomology that doubles as cuisine in verse 20-23. Yummy! The following insects are listed in Leviticus as being edible: locusts, bald locusts, beetles, and grasshopper. I don’t suppose I will be trying to eat any of them any time soon but I guess it is good to know if you are starving and wanted clean foods approved by God. In should be noted that John the Baptist as a form of Old Testament prophet ate locusts too.

Leviticus 11:20-23 ~ “All winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you. Yet among the winged insects that go on all fours you may eat those that have jointed legs above their feet, with which to hop on the ground. Of them you may eat: the locust of any kind, the bald locust of any kind, the cricket of any kind, and the grasshopper of any kind. But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you.

Matthew 3:4 ~ John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.

In John’s eating of this insect we see that it was not uncommon within the poorer classes of people to eat insects and it appears that it is not frowned upon or seen as disgusting since it is a prophet of God that eats them. It is as God says to Peter in Acts 10:15, 11:9, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” In other words: If God said it is good to eat, you had better not turn your nose up to it in disgust. This gives new meaning to those times with my parents when I didn’t want to eat fried liver and Brussels sprouts. It can also be concluded that locusts contained substantial nutritional value as they are considered an acceptable meal. Frankly, I just don’t know for sure because I never checked the nutritional labeling on the last container of grasshoppers that I bought and ate. Oh yeah, that’s right, I never bought or ate any bugs before…silly me. Sorry God, unless I have to, I don’t think I’ll be eating locusts any time soon.

Technically scorpions are not insects they are arthropods/arachnids in another phyla but I could not resist putting them in this post. I seriously doubt I will be doing an "Arthropods (like Spiders) of the Bible" post so for the sake of this post, scorpions will be officially consider an insect in the strictest sense.

In Deuteronomy Moses states clearly that there were and still are scorpions in the wilderness which is God’s way of saying that He  led them through this dangerous and harsh place into the pleasant and abundant place they now resided in in the time of writing Deuteronomy (or the second giving of the Law to the next generation after exodus). Even while they were in the wilderness they were protect and provided for supernaturally (Manna, His presence in the pillar of smoke and fire). They are never to forget what God has done for them without risk of perishing due to disobedience to Him.

Deuteronomy 8:15 ~ “He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint.

What we see in this sovereign protection and supernatural sustenance is God’s grace to an undeserving people who had already been freed from slavery and rebelled against their God. It was a tremendous grace that He would even allow this second generation into the Promised Land after the sins of their fathers and mothers in the previous generation. They are reminded of just how hard life can be (with serpents and scorpions). They need to see when things are good and need to recognize that it is God’s mercy and grace that allows them this ease of life that they currently enjoy. They are called to remember because in the lack of persecution and hardship, people soften and forget just how good they have it. I suggest that is exactly how it is for much of the pampered western world today that has had it too easy for too long to realize just how good they have it. We need only look at the recent suicide bombings in Christian churches and the Islamic siege in the Nairobi Mall in Kenya to realize how bad persecution and hardship can be for a true Christian.

In Proverbs we see King Solomon singing the merits of an ant’s industriousness. Solomon by implication exhorts people to do likewise or at least think along the same lines as the ant behaves.

Proverbs 6:6 ~ Go to the ant, O sluggard, observe her ways and be wise…
Proverbs 30:25 ~ The ants are not a strong people, but they prepare their food in the summer

Solomon is essentially calling the lazy man to awake to his laziness. Like God who gave Solomon the wisdom, we see the use of the creature as teacher. The king draws on nature to teach a necessary human truth and sends the lazy bums to the school of the ant. “Go to the ant…” The man has to go to the ant because the ant is currently busy and has no time for dallying with the man. The ant is hard-working and the man is a slothful creature. The “lower” mindless creature shames the “higher” so-called intelligent one simply through doing what is correct in God’s order of things. Why does it shame the man? Because the lazy man is not doing what he was created to do—which was work. The ants and their colonies are the result of unceasing well-planned behavior.

Genesis 2:15 Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate [work] it and keep [attend] it.

In the later verse about ants in Proverbs 30:25 we see an inference that there is a pattern or art to their storing up and harvesting, carrying of burdens and building. In the end the lazy human is to walk away ashamed of their slothfulness.

The leech is mentioned in Proverbs 30:15 just before Solomon’s second mention of the ants. Specifically it is a horse leech from the word Hebrew עלוקה which means "to stick."

Proverbs 30:15 ~ The leech has two daughters, “Give,” “Give.” There are three things that will not be satisfied, four that will not say, “Enough”

Solomon, having mentioned those that devoured the belongings and assets of the poor as the worst of all the generations which he had specified, proceeds to state the unquenchable greed and gluttony with which they prosecuted their schemes of plunder. As the horse-leech had two daughters, cruelty and thirst of blood, which cannot be satisfied, so the oppressor of the poor has two dispositions, intense greed and materialism, which, never say they have enough. They will continually demand more and more gratifications because enough is never enough for them.

There are also the locusts mentioned prominently in the book of Joel's. 

Hear this, you elders; listen, all who live in the land. Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your ancestors? Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation. What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten. Wake up, you drunkards, and weep! Wail, all you drinkers of wine; wail because of the new wine, for it has been snatched from your lips. A nation has invaded my land, a mighty army without number; it has the teeth of a lion, the fangs of a lioness. Joel 1:2-6

Joel utilizes a whole host of styles delivering his prophecy and many are on display in the very opening of his book. He does this first to communicate the severity of the locust plague in verses 2-6. As with many prophets, Joel uses many rhetorical devices and vivid imagery to get is point across. We must remember that he was trying to reach people already beginning to apostatize or people that already had apostatized. People who's mind had already began the long slow separation from God. Kind of like us today in the United States and other countries worldwide. They were replacing Him with monetary, material and sensual concerns. We would be well advised to take heed to this prophecy even though it was not specifically written for us.

Joel was trying to drive home his point...things are really bad and you should take heed to my warning! He then goes on to emphasize how bad the recent plague was by stating that they should pass it down generation to generation. Ironically Joel then uses a parallel image for the insects themselves in verse 4. We see a step-down of entomological generations: What the locust swarm left…great locusts have eaten…what they left…the young locusts have eaten, and so on. There are four different Hebrew terms used here for locusts. There appears to be a focal point of time involved here or an image of successive waves of destruction over time, a natural disaster that incapacitates the entire society (Chisholm 54-55). Within this passage we see locusts as metaphor / analogy for punishment and judgment. A locust plague would be a sobering thought for drunks because locusts would eradicate the vegetation setting off a chain reaction leading to starvation and disease (not to mention wiping out vineyards. These happened often in Joel’s time.

The shifted imagery to drunkards who have their booze taken from them because of the destruction of vineyards/vegetation shows the predicted aftermath of drunks caught off guard by plague due to their mental acuity being dulled by booze. There is then another metaphor of a lion/lioness which is analogous of an army armed with weaponry (fangs, teeth). I tell you something, if I had been on a month long bender and I saw a swarm of Biblical proportion bearing down on me I certainly would've either sobered up quick or wondered what was really in the liqueur I was drinking.

When we jump into the New Testament we see one of the epitomes of evil in Herod Agrippa, his unceremonious death and his subsequent consumption by worms. A rather disgusting and demeaning way to go if you ask me...but deserved for mocking God with his haughtiness.

Acts 12:21-23 ~ On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.

What should really be mentioned about Herod Agrippa’s death is that it is not some fanciful redacted revisionism by Luke. It is indeed a document eyewitness account of Herod’s unseemly death. There is non-canonical corroboration in the form of Josephus’ historical account of the same event.
 After the completion of the third year of his reign over the whole of Judaea, Agrippa came to the city of Caesarea,...[where] he celebrated spectacles in honor of Caesar. On the second day of the spectacles, clad in a garment woven completely of silver so that its texture was indeed wondrous, he entered the theatre at daybreak. There the silver, illumined by the touch of the first rays of the sun, was wondrously radiant and by its glitter inspired fear and awe in those who gazed intently upon it. Straightway his flatterers raised their voices from various directions—though hardly for his good-addressing him as a god. “May you be propitious to us,” they added, “and if we have hitherto feared you as a man, yet henceforth we agree that you are more than mortal in your being.” The king did not rebuke them nor did he reject their flattery as impious. But shortly thereafter he looked up and saw an owl perched on a rope over his head. At once, recognizing this as a harbinger of woes just as it had once been of good tidings [cf. Antiq. XVIII, 195, 200 (vi.7)], he felt a stab of pain in his heart. He was also gripped in his stomach by an ache that he felt everywhere at once and that was intense from the start. Leaping up he said to his friends: “I, a god in your eyes, am now bidden to lay down my life, for fate brings immediate refutation of the lying words lately addressed to me. I, who was called immortal by you, am now under sentence of death. But I must accept my lot as God wills it. In fact I have lived in no ordinary fashion but in the grand style that is hailed as true bliss.” Even as he was speaking these words, he was overcome by more intense pain. They hastened, therefore, to convey him to the palace; and the word flashed about to everyone that he was on the very verge of death.... Exhausted after five straight days by the pain in abdomen, he departed this life in the fifty-fourth year of his life and the seventh of his reign (Antiq. XIX, 343-50 [viii.2]).
The accounts of Herod Agrippa’s death from both Luke [canonical] and Josephus [non-canonical] differ just enough from one another that neither can be considered corroboration with the other but both speak of a similar incident. Luke’s reference to worms is probably intestinal roundworms which can which grow as long as ten to sixteen inches and feed on fluids in the intestines. Clumps of roundworms can eventually obstruct the intestines, causing severe pain, vomiting of worms, and death. It is not ironic that both attribute Agrippa’s death to the king’s sinfulness and therefore God’s judgment. Where Josephus generally speaks of the outward illness issues with a hint of the internal, Luke speaks of the inward both physical and spiritual with only a hint of the outward. It is what we would expect from a spiritual vs. secular source text.

My last mention of insects in the Bible will again involve Jesus as I always try to end on the topic of Jesus as He is our Messiah and our Savior.  As usual we see friction between Jesus and the religious leaders of His time. Jesus is accused the scribes and Pharisees of straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel. It is the same passage I used in a previous post when referring to trees and plants mentioned in the Bible.

Matthew 23:23-24 ~ “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

So what is Jesus saying here? Simple. The Law on tithing specifies grain, wine, and oil. As a Jew there was certainly first century debate about how far the law of tithing should extend. The consensus was to include greens and garden herbs.  Although Jesus does not condemn scrupulous observance in these things, He does insist that the fuss over smaller things like those while neglecting the more important matters of the law is absurd. These larger issues of the Law according to Jesus are justice, mercy, and faith/faithfulness which lie behind all the Law. As Jesus says… they strain out a gnat but swallow a camel in their legalistic blindness. Jesus thereby hammers them for fussing and laboring over the unimportant things while simultaneously neglecting the true intent of the Law which was to be to the benefit of Israel, not its detriment which it had now become.

Gaebelein, Frank Ely. The Expositor's Bible Commentary : Matthew, Mark, Luke, with the New international version of the Holy Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1984. Print.

Longenecker, Richard N.. Acts. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1995. Print.

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