CCA Ecumenical Retreat Spring 2014 - Wales

The second of two sermons presented by Revd Professor Martin Henig


Fleas, flies, mosquitoes and locusts : Insects are God’s creatures too!

Revd.Professor  Martin  Henig

 

There is a tendency for  those of us who deeply care about animals to narrow our  perspectives to companion animals, domesticated animals and attractive wild mammals and birds. Consideration may also be given to reptiles (especially tortoises and turtles), to amphibians and to fish. Even within these parameters some creatures may be excluded as ‘vermin’, rats, feral pigeons and poisonous snakes for example, even by some of those who would describe themselves as ‘animal lovers’. However, the more perceptive will see such  negative responses as merely reflecting prejudice towards animals which, in imagination or reality, appear to  get in our way.

Invertebrates are another matter. Dr Helen Hall reminded us a year or so ago that squids have quite rich emotional, even intellectual, lives. Outside our immediate circle, the subject of her talk caused certain  (unjustified) merriment when I mentioned it and mine will surely create even greater puzzlement. However, if I had simply changed the first part of my title it would I think have been entirely acceptable, and a bland statement of fact, to everybody who calls herself or himself a theist:

Bees, Butterflies and Ladybirds: Insects are God’s creatures too!

What Christian would dissent about the necessity for bees?  Bees of course provided the only sweetener in regular use in the Ancient World. The Promised Land was described as ‘flowing with milk and honey’.[1]  In the New Testament we find that John the Baptist subsisted on ‘locusts and wild honey’.[2] We will come to the locusts shortly. Even more important if anything is the art that bees play in nature as pollinators and most of the fruits mentioned in the Bible would not exist without the agency of bees, though of course figs, so frequently mentioned in the Bible are pollinated by a species of wasp. Yet for all of  the many references to honey, bees are only cited a few times and then metaphorically as dangerous, stinging creatures. The Amorites chase the sinful Israelites ‘as bees do’. [3] The psalmist writes that an enemy ‘surrounded me like bees’.[4]

Butterflies delight us by their bright colours and gracious flight as they flit from flower to flower and also provide convenient  symbolism for growth and development as they pass from caterpillar to chrysalis and then to the adult form. I joined the Anglican Cursillo movement some years ago, which  has adopted this oarticular metaphor, but somewhat lost patience with the organisation because it was not concerned with real butterflies and the serious threats to them from pesticides and other agents of misuse inflicted on  their  environment.  Ladybirds, whose larvae prey on the aphids which plague our crops (such as broad beans) and garden plants, though much loved by us, especially by gardeners and by children (whose first experience of reading will probably be a Ladybird book, but they do not appear in scripture.

Insects feature in scripture either (in the case of locusts) as food, as exemplars of human action  or as forces in nature, hostile to mankind and to crops. John the Baptist legitimately ate locusts as kosher. The relevant passage in Leviticus  reads:

All winged insects that walk upon all fours are detestable to you. But among the winged insects that walk on all fours you may eat those that have jointed legs above their feet, with which to leap on the ground. Of them you may eat :the locust according to its kind, the bald locust according to its kind, the cricket according to its kind, and the grasshopper according to its kind. But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you.[5]

Apart from anything else the passage exhibits scant powers of observation, for all insects are of course six legged animals.

In the book of Proverbs ants and locusts are singled out as small and yet exceedingly wise:

The ants are a people without strength, yet they provide their food in summer…the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank.[6]

Most references to insects, however, treat them as hostile to humans, though in virtually all instances they are introduced as having been sent by God. Indeed, three of the plagues inflicted on Egypt in the book of Exodus are insect plagues. The third plague is a plague of gnats or mosquitoes:

All the dust of the earth turned into gnats throughout the whole land of Egypt…There were gnats on both humans and animal.[7]

This was immediately followed by the fourth plague, of flies:

Great swarms of flies came into the house of Pharaoh and into his officials’ houses; in all of Egypt the land was ruined because of the flies.[8]

Finally the eighth plague was a plague of locusts:

The locusts came upon all the land of Egypt and settled on the whole country of Egypt, such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever shall be again. They covered the surface of the whole land, so that the land was black; and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees…nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field, in all the land of Egypt.[9]

Locust swarms were clearly endemic in the Near East, and there are a number of references to them, all attributed to God’s anger.[10]

And of course other insects might also destroy plants, for example caterpillars  mentioned by Solomon together with locusts.[11] And there remains one famous example, the ‘worm’ or, perhaps,  a very hungry caterpillar which attacked Jonah’s bush, at God’s behest in order to teach that rather unpleasant prophet a lesson.[12]

And of course the clothes moth then, as now, devoured woollen garments.[13] Most famously Jesus warns us to:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt.[14]

But this hardly considers the moth as part of creation and nor are the myriad other species of moth which do not eat clothes considered.

Before assessing the implications of the Judeo-Christian response to such Biblical passages it is useful to survey other contemporary attitude to insects by other peoples in the Mediterranean area. Most significant is the importance of the dung-rolling scarab beetle in Egyptian culture, as the animal familiar of Kephri, god of the sunrise and rebirth, because the ball of dung was believed to related to the solar orb. Scarabs are familiar from Egyptian art and were adopted by the Phoenicians, Greeks and Etruscans for the backs of  their  seals. The Greeks and Romans, indeed, had a really positive delight in certain insects, well attested in art. Bees, for example,  were sacred to Ephesian Artemis and are shown on coins of  Ephesus, and Virgil writes lovingly of them in the fourth book of his Georgics.[15] As for the cicada beloved for its strident singing through long summer days, it was sacred to Apollo.[16] In the Roman period figures of cicadas sometimes hollowed out as perfume vessels, unguentaria , in rock crystal and other semi-precious stones were often deposited in graves, apparently symbolising immortality.[17] One wonders whether the Maries came to the  tomb of Our Lord bearing  similar pots, only to find that Jesus had already passed through death to Eternal Life. Pre-eminently  the butterfly was seen as Psyche , the soul, and the metaphor of the love of cupid (representing carnal, physical love) and psyche (spiritual love) is well-known.[18] The industrious ant was, amongst other associations, an associate of the corn-goddess Ceres, and appears beside her on gems portraying the goddess.

Undoubtedly acute observation, which is so readily discernable in Classical art from its inception in the 6th century BC coupled with the scientific impetus to classify which we have come to associate with Aristotle, in some ways renders the Graeco-Roman approach to the Natural World more acceptable to us than the Biblical one that attributes so many happenings in the natural world to the direct intervention of God reacting to the actions of humans, but the Greek  approach to creation is inevitably more diffuse, ranging from primitive myth to purely naturalistic explanations which are often frankly mechanistic and have little to offer to theological discourse. For philosophers such as Plato who did evolve a complex theology which has fed into Christianity, it was almost entirely concerned with the human soul.

A very fruitful approach to the natural world , as I  suggested this morning, is that taken by Elizabeth Johnson in her exploration of theology in the light of Darwin’s Origin of the Species.[19] Insects are a good starting point from which to refocus our relationships with nature. The writers of the Bible and even the Greeks knew of comparatively limited numbers of species in contrast with the incredible number of varieties we know today, and even more which must have flourished for millennia only to become extinct, of which we only have fossil records of a few. Moreover in every species that exists or which once existed,  myriad individuals are or have been involved. These will have  existed by living on each other or on other creatures, and in their turn such insects have always been  a major food source  for other animals including, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds. For example the bats which roost in our churches and many of our songbirds depend on insects for sustenance. Plagues of insects often occur when we damage the environment by for example killing songbirds as the Chinese at one time misguidedly did, or keeping too many cats which likewise have such a serious effect on bird populations or through mono-cultural farming and the use of  toxic pesticides.

We have already met some insects in the Bible which have certainly affected humans and other animals throughout history. The mosquitoes which plagued Egypt could well have carried malaria, while flies also spread disease. The locusts and caterpillars would have created famine. But  people in Biblical times were also doubtless often affected by lice, fleas, ticks, mites and bed bugs all of which are parasitic on warm blooded animals, including humans (and can also be vectors of disease). When our attitude to creation is not hopelessly speciesist as it most often is,[20] it does tend to concentrate as I have said on dogs, cats and horses or at best on beautiful birds or cuddly mammals. But, as I said this morning, all nature is singing a continuous hymn of praise to god, and that includes cockroaches and venomous snakes.

As a child I was brought up on nature films starting with Walt Disney’s The Living Desert and progressing to the more mature approach of David Attenborough. Yes, all of nature is wonderful ; I actually had a dream of a nature film I would have loved to make replete with stunning photography and slushy music: instead of rolling corn-lands, I wanted to begin with the heaving hairy chest of a sleeping man, examining in loving detail the life of mites, lice and visiting parasites which find their  sustenance from him. I suppose I was inspired by that wonderful book by Miriam Rothschild and Theresa Clay on  avian parasites.[21]  There is a serious point in how  we are to reconcile creation seen from this angle of predation and parasitism with a generous God who creates and redeems all creation, every bit of it?

Johnson rightly points to those final chapters in the book of Job.[22] As it happens insects are not mentioned here , but they make clear the utter unknowability and otherness of God, who is not any part of creation because he is the creator. We were decidedly not there at the moment of creation, as the author of Job was well aware, and will never know its purposes. Insects, like us, are simply part of that creation.  However,we believe Christ as the Living Word and the Wisdom  of God was present with the Creator from the beginning.

Because in our simple minds we simply cannot resist envisioning God as part of creation, we cannot avoid the temptation to reduce him to the puny measure of our own feeble thoughts. Like the gnat which was created by God in the evolutionary process together with us, we will ultimately (and my guess is long before the gnat) become extinct as a species.  One special event in this very short sojourn of man (with all his parasites) on earth which redeems us, and with us all of creation, is the ministry of Jesus, and those events of Easter which have made all the difference, like a laser beam of light projected into the darkness. This enables us  look forward to the redemption of all creation including the butterfly and the tsetse-fly alongside parrots, dogs, cats, gorillas and, yes, us humans. Do we deserve it? : No! but we have it as a promise, the free gift of God’s Grace. That being so we have no right to reject any of God’s creatures as vermin or (in the case of insects) as pests, simply because they do not fit in with our own arrogance and very limited knowledge. Our relationship with creation in all its diversity is an index of our relationship with Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit to whom be all honour and praise for ever and ever Amen.

 

[1] Exodus 3:8;13:5

[2] Mark 1:6; Matt 3:4

[3] Deuteronomy 1:44

[4] Psalm 118:12

[5] Leviticus 11:20-23

[6] Proverbs 30:23-25,27

[7] Exodus 8: 16-19

[8] Exodus 8: 20-24

[9] Exodus 10: 4-19

[10] E.g. 2 Chron 7:13; Joel 1:4; Amos4:9

[11] 2 Chron 6:28

[12] Jonah 4:7

[13] Cf  for example Isaiah 50:9;51:8

[14] Matt.6:19-20

[15] M.Davies and J.Kathirithamby, Greek Insects (London 1986), 47-72 and fig.11.

[16] Davies and  Kathirithamby, Greek Insects, 113-30

[17] Cf. M.Henig, The Content Family Collection of Ancient Cameos (Oxford, and Houlton, Maine 1990), 116 no.189 and references cited.

[18] Davies and Kathirithamby, Greek Insects, 99-108

[19] Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts. Darwin and the God of Love (London 2014)

[20] Richard R.Ryder, Speciesism, Painism and Happiness (Exeter 2011). Richard Ryder coined the term in 1970.

[21] M.Rothschild and T.Clay, Fleas, Flukes and Cuckoos. A study of bird parasites (London 1957)

[22] Job 38-41


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