Air-breathing arthropods which make up the class Hexapoda. Representatives are found on land and in water. They have three distinct body parts: head, thorax, and abdomen as well as three pair of legs, one pair of antennae, and usually one or two pairs of wings. Fossil studies have shown that insects are among the most ancient of the animals. Their persistence demonstrates their ability to survive under the most difficult conditions. Today insects are the most widely distributed of all the animals. Though their numbers are limited in the polar regions, insects abound in the tropics and temperate regions. Their primary food is green plants, and they are found almost everywhere that a food source is available.
Insects are characterized by their ability to move about. Stimuli such as food, temperature, humidity, and change of season may initiate movement. Not only are insects mobile, but they are also migratory. Migration is usually a seasonal phenomenon. Many insects, such as the monarch butterfly, have an annual migration similar to some birds.
Insects comprise the largest number of species in the animal kingdom, numbering in the millions. They are abundant in population, as well as in species. This is due, in part, to the fact that insects lay enormous numbers of eggs. The average number of eggs laid by an insect is from 100 to 150, though the queen termite can lay sixty eggs per second until several million are produced. The short life cycle of insects also contributes to their great numbers. Most mature within a year. Others such as the red mite, may have several generations in one season.
Some insects are characterized by specialized methods of reproducing. Polyembryony is a process by which hundreds of offspring can be produced from a single egg. Some species are able to reproduce with no mate, a function known as parthenogenesis.
Insects are among the most injurious of the classes of the animal kingdom. Most everything that man grows or manufactures is susceptible to the ravages of insects. Most insects feed on plants, causing much damage to agricultural products. Many attack man and other animals, as well as woodwork, wool, and clothing. Insects also transmit diseases such as malaria, the plague, and typhoid. However, some insects are beneficial, producing honey, wax, silk, pigments, and tannins. They are also a substantial food source for other animals, including man. Other insects are scavengers, helping to dispose of decaying flesh. The pollination of plants is another benefit provided by insects.
Insects occupy a prominent place among the animals named in the Bible. At least six orders are mentioned:
Hymenoptera: Ants, Bees, and Wasps These creatures generally have four wings. The female usually has a stinger as well as an ovipositor, or egg-laying organ, at the tip of the abdomen. Many of the species are social creatures.
1. Ants live in communities, sometimes as large as one-half million individuals. The nest is a maze of tunnels, showing much less planning than the nests of the wasps and bees. Young ants do not develop inside individual cells but are carried about in the nest. The workers are female, having neither wings nor the ability to reproduce. The queen and males have wings. Females are produced from fertilized eggs while males are born of unfertilized eggs. Ants are known to domesticate and enslave other insects, such as aphids and other ants. They also practice agriculture and conduct war on other ants.
The ant (Hebrew, nemalah) appears in the Bible only in the Book of Proverbs.
Proverbs 6:6-8 praises her as the supreme example of industry. The ant's wisdom and ability to provide food though “a people not strong” is noted in
2. Bees have been domesticated for centuries. Herodotus, a Greek historian, wrote of how Egyptian beekeepers moved their hives according to the change of seasons. A beehive may contain 50,000 or more bees. Bees eat pollen and produce a wax which is used to build their combs and nests. A peculiar characteristic of bees and many of their relatives is their ability to determine the sex of their offspring. To do this, the queen bee stores in her body sperm received soon after she hatched. When she lays eggs, she releases one sperm cell for each egg she lays if females are needed. Males develop from eggs which have not been fertilized.
Bees (deborah) are mentioned several times in the Old Testament. They were noted for their antagonism, and armies were compared to swarms of bees (Deuteronomy 1:44). The bee gained fame in the story of Samson, for he ate honey from the carcass of a lion and later tested the Philistines with a riddle concerning the incident (Judges 14:5-18). The bee also is referred to in
Psalms 118:12 and
3. Wasps and hornets (tsir'ah) are generally social creatures but to a lesser extent than bees and ants. They construct nests by scraping dead wood and making a pulp which is used to form paper. The nest, like that of the bee, is made up of individual cells in the shape of a hexagon. Hornets are found in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word may refer also to wasps and yellow jackets, but the precise Hebrew meaning is not known. “Hornet” comes from the earliest Greek translation. Some think the Hebrew word is a more general term for “terror” or “destruction.” These insects are encountered in
Deuteronomy 7:20; and
Joshua 24:12. They were recognized for their venomous stings and were God's instruments for driving Israel's enemies out of Canaan. The reference could be to the hornet as traditional symbol of Egypt or as a symbol of God's terrifying Israel's enemies. The emphasis is on God's powerful action to give Israel the land.
Lepidoptera: Butterflies and Moths This order is divided into two groups: moths which generally fly at night and butterflies which are day fliers. Moths usually have feathery antennae while butterflies have hairlike or “clubbed” ones. The adults feed primarily on nectar. Larvae are called caterpillars and are plant feeders. Both butterflies and moths are characterized by wings which are covered with powderlike, overlapping scales. They have a proboscis or tongue, which may be more than twice the length of the rest of the body. Some moths have mouth parts specialized for piercing fruit and even other animals. While butterfly pupae have no covering, moths spin cocoons.
Moths and their larvae (Hebrew, ash, sas; Greek, ses) were known for their destructive ability (Job 4:19;
James 5:2). For people who had few possessions and no safe places for storage, moth infestation could be devastating.
Diptera: Flies and Gnats The majority of these insects have one pair of wings. The adults feed upon plant and animal juices. Many species are considered injurious, both to animals and plants. Some of these creatures suck blood, transmitting diseases in the process. However, many species of this order are beneficial.
1. Flies are household pests, but they are primarily associated with livestock stables. Breeding in manure, the female may lay 75-150 eggs in the course of a single laying. This process is repeated several times during her 20-day productive period. A fly may lay a total of 2,000 eggs. The eggs hatch in 24 hours, producing larvae known as maggots. The maggots are active for two to three weeks, feeding on decaying matter. Then follows a resting stage in which the transformation into an adult occurs. The life cycle of the fly is relatively short. An egg becomes an adult within 12 to 14 days. Adults may live one or two months during the summer, and longer in the winter.
The Hebrew word for fly, zebub, includes the common housefly as well as other species. As in modern times, flies were great pests for ancient peoples. When combined with poor sanitation and inadequate medical knowledge, flies could be a serious threat to health. The only clear references to this nuisance are found in
Isaiah 7:18. The “swarms” of
Exodus 8:21-31 may have been flies. The text is not clear, since a different word is used. The KJV translators added “of flies” for clarification, indicated by italics. The same is true in
2 Kings 1:1 names the god of Ekron Baal-zebub. Some interpret this name to mean “lord of the flies.” If this interpretation is correct, flies may have been feared to the extent that the people worshiped a “fly-god,” hoping to prevent infestation by the insects.
A cattle-biting fly, perhaps the gadfly (RSV, NIV) is found in
Jeremiah 46:20. Due to the uncertain translation of the word, it also has been called a mosquito, as well as “destruction.”
2. Gnats are another airborne nuisance. These insects are scarcely visible to the naked eye and leave bites which sting and burn. Some species fly at night, while others fly in the day, mainly in shaded woods. Others attack in bright sunlight. Some gnats do not bite, but swarm in dense clouds numbering perhaps a million. The larvae of some species live in water and provide a source of food for aquatic life. The Old Testament writers knew the gnat as kinnam or kinnim. As well as being pests, they also were known to be fragile creatures, as appears to be reflected in
Isaiah 51:6 (RSV). Jesus used the figure of the gnat (konops) to teach the scribes and Pharisees a lesson (Matthew 23:24). The use here simply highlights the small size of the gnat. Ancient people would strain liquids in order to remove gnats which had fallen into the open container. Jesus charged the “hypocrites” with giving attention to such details as tithing their herb gardens while neglecting more important matters.
The Egyptian plague of
Exodus 8:16-18 perhaps should be understood as a plague of gnats or mosquitoes rather than lice. The Hebrew word used to describe the plague is identified by many scholars as pointing to the gnat. The same is true of the usage of the word in
Psalms 105:31. Despite the uncertainty of the exact identification of the insect, the worth of the verses in question remains unaffected.
Siphonaptera: Fleas Fleas are parasites which are particularly fond of birds and mammals as hosts. These insects are quite small and wingless, having a body which is tall and thin. This body shape allows the flea to pass easily between hairs and feathers. The adult female lays eggs on the host or in its nest or bed. Adults suck blood, while the larvae live on decaying animal and vegetable material. Adults usually feed at least once per day if a source of food is nearby, though they have been known to live more than four months without food.
The flea (par' osh) was a plague for people and animals during the time of the early history of Israel. Fleas were recognized both for their bite and for their size. Their small and insignificant nature even led to the formulation of proverbs of jest. Two such comparisons are found in
1 Samuel 24:14;
1 Samuel 26:20. In both instances David stressed the difference in stature between Saul and himself, avoiding a confrontation with the king. Some scholars interpret the plague which fell upon the Assyrians as one caused by fleas, similar to the Bubonic plague (Isaiah 37:36-37).
Anoplura: Lice Lice are found in at least two varieties: chewing and sucking lice. The lice of the Bible are almost certainly sucking lice. Small, wingless insects, they are noted for short legs and antennae, laterally-flattened body, and specialized mouthparts. They have claws and are parasitic upon mammals. Both adults and larvae feed upon blood. They attach themselves to clothing, body hair, and bedding. Thus, they are passed easily from one person to another. Lice are also acknowledged as carriers of some serious diseases, such as typhus and trench fever.
Lice (kinnim) are mentioned in the KJV in two places. The Egyptian plague of
Exodus 8:16-18 is one of dust becoming lice.
Psalms 105:31 reminds the reader of the plagues upon Egypt. As stated above, both these occurrences of lice also could be understood as gnats or another biting insect.
Orthoptera: Grasshoppers and Locusts The flying members of this order normally have two pairs of wings. This group contains grasshoppers, locusts, katydids, crickets, roaches, and mantids. Grasshoppers are powerful fliers with narrow wings and slender bodies. They are known to fly fifteen miles per hour and have been found some 1200 miles at sea. Locusts and grasshoppers are perhaps the best-known insects of the Bible. This group was so prolific that the Bible contains approximately a dozen words which describe them. The numerous words may indicate different species or even different stages of development. Disagreement exists as to the translation of many instances of the words. Thus, the different species cannot be identified positively from the Hebrew words.
One form of the locust, indicated by the Hebrew word arbeh, has been called the migratory locust, or desert locust. It is remembered as the locust of the plague (Exodus 10:4-5). This type of locust invaded agricultural areas in immense numbers, so that they were said to “cover the face of the earth, that one cannot be able to see the earth” (Exodus 10:5). The Egyptians had already suffered a hailstorm, only to have an infestation of insects that would “eat every tree which groweth for you.” (Exodus 10:5). The destructive nature of this locust is highlighted again in
1 Kings 8:37;
2 Chronicles 6:28;
Joel 2:25. Many references point to the great numbers in which the swarms would come (Judges 6:5;
Nahum 3:15). Though the locust was a formidable enemy, it was not mighty in strength. This truth is reflected in
Nahum 3:17. The locust is praised in
Proverbs 30:27 for its ability to work in orderly fashion while having no leader. Not only was the arbeh destructive; it was also edible. Permission is given for its consumption in
The gazam is known as the palmerworm, certainly the caterpillar stage of one of the locust species (Joel 1:4;
Amos 4:9). Each of these citations recalls the destructive nature of the insect.
The haghabh generally is translated “grasshopper,” but is called a locust in
2 Chronicles 7:13. This locust also was edible, as can be seen in
Leviticus 11:22. It is mentioned in
Ecclesiastes 12:5 as being a “burden.” Two Old Testament verses recall the animal's small stature (Numbers 13:33;
The chasil is called a caterpillar and generally is mentioned in conjunction with “the locust.” It has been suggested that the chasil was the second stage after the hatching of the locust egg. Others propose that it is the cockroach. Its voracious appetite is the subject of its biblical occurrences (1 Kings 8:37;
2 Chronicles 6:28;
The chargol is mentioned only in
Leviticus 11:22 and is called a beetle in the KJV. It also was one of the edible varieties. Most scholars propose that it be understood as some species of locust, perhaps a katydid.
The solam is called “the bald locust” in
Leviticus 11:22 and was also allowed for food.
The tselatsal has been called a katydid, cricket, mole cricket, and even a cicada. The KJV translates it “locust” in
Deuteronomy 28:42, where it is one of the curses for disobedience. The great numbers of an infestation of this insect may be reflected in
Isaiah 18:1. In that verse the land “shadowing with wings” reflects a group of Ethiopian ambassadors arriving in Jerusalem to enlist Judah's support in an anti-Assyrian alliance.
The yeleq is called the cankerworm in
Nahum 3:15,Nahum 3:16. It is called the caterpillar (Psalms 105:34;
Jeremiah 51:14) and the rough caterpillar (Jeremiah 51:27). It evidently was some form of locust larvae and was known to plague crops.
Akris is the New Testament word for locust. This insect was food for John the Baptist (Matthew 3:4;
Mark 1:6). The locust also is used in
Revelation 9:3,Revelation 9:7 as an instrument of judgment.
Miscellaneous insects Worms Three Hebrew words and one Greek word are used to describe worms familiar to the biblical writers. The terms are rather vague and do not offer much help in identifying positively the insect in question. Tole ah is used to describe maggot-like worms (Exodus 16:20;
Isaiah 14:11). However, the same word is used to describe worms which probably were moth larvae (Deuteronomy 28:39;
Jon. 4:7). A scarlet dye was obtained from the insect, or perhaps its eggs (Exodus 25:4;
Leviticus 14:4). Other occurrences of this word include
Isaiah 66:24. Rimmah describes maggots in
Isaiah 14:11. It is also used in a more general sense in
Job 25:6. These two Hebrew words are used together in
Isaiah 14:11. Such usage demonstrates that the meanings of the words overlapped. This is understandable, for the exact identification of species was not the intent of the writers of the biblical materials. Zochel was viewed as a worm by the KJV translators in
Micah 7:17, but in
Deuteronomy 32:24 is translated “serpent,” a translation modern translators use in both passages. In the New Testament, only skolex is used to describe a worm. In
Mark 9:44,Mark 9:46,Mark 9:48 reference is made to
Isaiah 66:24. A derivative of skolex vividly describes the fate of Herod (Acts 12:23).
Scale Insects appear in the Bible only in connection with the crimson dye extracted from them or from their eggs. In addition to the scarlet dye made from the worm named above, a coloring material was manufactured from a member of the order Rhynchota known for its red scales. These insects, of the genus Kermes, are pea-sized and of various colors. They generally are found on oak trees. At death, eggs are gathered from the females for the extraction of dye. The biblical references to these insects include
2 Chronicles 2:7,
2 Chronicles 2:14;
2 Chronicles 3:14. Some scholars identify the manna of
Numbers 11:1 as an excretion of scale insects, miraculously provided by God.
Insects are found often in the story of God's dealings with His people. These occurrences help the reader to understand the life of an ancient people. Insects are a part of the Bible because they were a part of life. Yet, the references to these small creatures do more than give information. From them the reader can learn much about God.
God's sovereignty is reflected in His use of hornets to accomplish His divine purpose of driving Israel's enemies out of Canaan. He also could chasten the chosen people with a locust if they should disobey. The absence of advanced methods of insect control reminds us of Israel's utter dependence upon God. The Lord would inspire His servants to use the lowly ant and locust as examples for mankind to follow. The wisdom writers would use even the disgusting fly larva to remind humanity of its mortal nature. Though insects often appear in a negative light within the Bible, its truth is enriched by their presence.
Ronald E. Bishop