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Godzdogz

The blog of the Dominican student brothers at Blackfriars, Oxford.

Built on the four pillars of our Dominican life – preaching, prayer, study, and community – Godzdogz offers many resources for exploring the Catholic Faith today.
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Biblical Beasts: Insect

Thursday, July 28, 2011
Three of the ten plagues of Egypt involved insects, a plague of gnats (Exodus 8:16ff), a plague of flies (Exodus 8:20ff), and a plague of locusts (Exodus 10:1ff). On the one hand insects represent something weak, fragile, and easily crushed. On the other hand they represent something mighty and strong, capable of appearing in great numbers and of bringing about great destruction. There are references in the Bible to both aspects, e.g. Isaiah 51:6; Hosea 5:12; Job 4:19 and James 5:2.


Many phobias are connected with insects because of their strange appearance and their capacity to insinuate themselves into people's hair, clothing and food. Many insects bite, sting and poison. We know the withering scorn with which a person can sometimes insult somebody else by calling him an 'insect'. It is not exactly a pet name implying as it does that the person insulted is disgusting and to be dismissed.


In ancient Israel most insects were regarded as abominable and not to be eaten except those 'that have legs above their feet with which to leap on the earth' (Leviticus 11:21). So locusts, crickets and grasshoppers could be eaten - not that they would be everybody's first choice from the menu - but no other winged insect with four feet. The Book of Deuteronomy seems to remove the exceptional clause saying simply 'all winged insects are unclean for you' (Deut 14:19). It is not immediately obvious where the criteria to distinguish clean and unclean animals originated: presumably it was at least partly to do with hygiene, health and aesthetic considerations.


The Hebrews felt like insects compared with the inhabitants of Canaan (Numbers 13:33), a feeling that provokes yet another crisis for Moses and the other leaders of the people. It is an effective way of describing the feeling of impotence and insignificance: a single insect is of no great importance and is easily destroyed (Job 25:6). David challenges Saul, saying that he (David) is not 'a flea', in other words not insignificant (1 Samuel 24:14). The prophet Nahum on the other hand uses the imagery to illustrate the cowardice and unreliability of Israel and its leaders (3:17).


Insects make up one of the great classes of creation (Psalm 148:10) and some science fiction prophesies a time when insects will rule the world. In the Bible, however, they figure for the most part in a negative and paradoxical way: one insect alone is of little or no account but where they turn up in numbers they are formidable.

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