We call them “acts of God”—the natural disasters over which we have no control. They fill us with fright and awe: fright at the possible human toll, and awe at the enormous force of nature. If we no longer regard these natural forces as mysterious, this is largely due to advances in scientific knowledge. But what did our ancestors think—who lacked knowledge of plate tectonics or climatic wind patterns, who had no seismographs to measure earthquakes or satellites to track storms.
Most of us who live in sheltered metropolitan areas will never experience, at firsthand, the terror and devastation that can accompany a swarm of locusts. For us, locusts have no more meaning than a phantasmagoric nightmare (if we have thoughts about it at all). But such insect visitations were a grim reality to Israelites in the ancient Near East. Even today, sporadic outbursts of the desert locust devastate isolated areas in North Africa and Asia.a
Nowhere do we find a more vivid, poetic, description of a locust infestation than in the first two of the four chapters of the Book of Joel—an event that Joel must have experienced fully in all of its grotesque forms:
“Listen to this, O elders;
Give ear, all inhabitants of the land.
Has the like of this happened in your days
Or in the days of your fathers?”
“What the cutter has left, the locust has devoured;
What the locust has left, the grub has devoured;
And what the grub has left, the hopper has devoured.”
“They have laid my vines waste
And splintered my fig trees:
They have stripped off their bark and thrown [it] away;
Their runnersc have turned white.”
“The country is ravaged,
The ground must mourn;
For the new grain is ravaged,
The new wine is dried up,
The new oil has failed.”
“The fig tree withers,
Pomegranate, palm, and apple—
All the trees of the field are sear.
And joy has dried up
“How the beasts groan!
The herds of cattle are bewildered
Because they have no pasture,
And the flocks of sheep are dazed.”
In chapter two, Joel describes the approach of this insect army, every sense alert to the impending disaster:
“A day of darkness and gloom,
A day of densest cloud
Spread like soot over the hills.”
“They have the appearance of horses,
They gallop just like steeds.
With a clatter as of chariots.
They bound on the hilltops,
With a noise like a blazing fire
Like an enormous horde
Arrayed for battle.”
“They rush up the wall,
They dash about in the city;
They climb into the houses,
They enter like thieves
By way of the windows.”
“Sun and moon are darkened,
And stars withdraw their brightness.”
Despite his imaginative analogies, there can be little doubt that Joel was describing an actual natural disaster whose impact on his community could be degradation, poverty and famine. Many biblical commentaries, however, dwell only on the poetic description of a locust plague as an allegory, or as a prophecy of future events. While the words of Joel 034are undeniably rich in symbolism, the prophet’s words must also be understood as realistic imagery, accompanied by compassion for the plight of his afflicted people. Indeed, only by a realistic understanding of the imagery can we appreciate the power of the symbolism.
Today, few readers of the Book of Joel are likely to experience a locust plague, because with current eradication methods, a locust swarm in modern Israel is needed a rare phenomenon.
In ancient times, however, the land of Israel was frequently subject to invasions by the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria (SHIS-toh-SER-Kuh greh-GAIR-ee-uh). In 1915 a journalist in Jerusalem, John D. Whiting, standing in almost the same place Joel stood more than 2,000 years before, witnessed a similar event:
“Sudden darkening of the bright sunshine… clouds… so dense as to appear quite black… In an inconceivably short time every leaf is consumed, leaving bare and barked twigs only…. It seemed as if the entire surface of the ground moved, producing a most curious effect upon one’s vision and causing dizziness…. Up and up the city walls and the castle they climbed to their very heights….
“The only vegetables and fruits now available came from the Jaffa gardens … they were so rare that none but the richest could pay the price at which they sold…. Olive oil in this land has been used as fuel for lighting sacred lamps. Because of the locusts, lamps never before dim, hanging in Christian churches in front of icons and altars, are daily being extinguished, Just as the sacrifices of Judah’s Temple were unwillingly suspended after the locust devastation described by Joel,”
And finally, from the same reporter:
“With the annihilation of the grape crop … drinks have doubled in price; so that it is unnecessary with Joel to say, ‘Awake, ye drunkards, and weep; and howl, all ye drinkers of wine” [Joel 1:5], because they are already doing it.”1
The mature biblical desert locust has a wingspan of about 4 inches, and a body length of about 3 inches. Locusts look like large grasshoppers and are, in almost all respects, morphologically the same. Technically, what distinguishes a true locust from a large grasshopper is behavior. When conditions are right, grasshoppers that normally act as solitary individuals learn to swarm. During daylight hours they will rise as a cloud and migrate in search of moist green vegetation. Not all species of grasshoppers can exhibit this type of behavioral transformation. When they do, they can be called locusts.
The desert locust migrates back and forth, around North Africa and the Near East, from about 50 to about 350 north of the equator. (Israel is the northernmost extension of the locusts’ range.) During one day a locust swarm may travel as many as 60 miles, and the locusts may ultimately journey ten times that distance. One swarm can blanket the sky up to an 035altitude of 5,000 feet (nearly a mile) for some tens of square miles.
Locust outbreaks depend on special climatic conditions in those regions where grasshoppers initially congregate. These regional reservoirs may be found in marginal desert areas of the Sinai, southern Arabia and the Sudan. A succession of dry years with a progressively shrinking area of food may force the grasshoppers to crowd together. Then heavy rains, ideal for egg hatching, can lead to a sudden explosive growth in the number of grasshoppers. The chemical and physical stimulation of grasshoppers rubbing shoulders with more grasshoppers triggers a change to the gregarious behavior characterized by swarming and migration.
When a swarm forms, Wind patterns play an important role in determining where the locusts migrate. Locust swarms are generally guided by winds that converge on low pressure areas. Precisely within low pressure areas, rain tends to fall, preparing the moist soil and abundant vegetation that will lead to productive egg laying and the beginning of still another cycle of locusts: hatching, creeping, hopping, marching and, finally, aerial swarming and migration.
In the winter or early spring, the swarm may land in a field of grain. A swarm can contain over a billion creatures that, all together, can weigh more than three million pounds. The locusts lay their eggs, perhaps 80 viable eggs to a pod. Incubation takes about two weeks if the soil is sufficiently moist. Their gestation complete, hungry hatchlings emerge from the soil. Known as hoppers, the hatchlings look somewhat like ants or tiny roaches. The hopper molts several times over a period of about a month, shedding its skin and growing bigger with each molt. Now fully developed, the hopper joins his colleagues to form gregarious marching bands up to ten miles wide and ten miles long. The marching bands move forward at a slow cadence, perhaps no more than 250 feet per hour, and may travel no farther than 15 miles from their staging area. But within their path the hoppers may consume virtually every tender blade of grass or legume. The extraordinary appearance of this marching band with its mass of tiny pullulating bodies can be unnerving, to say the least. In the words of Joel, “Before them earth trembles, Heaven shakes …” (Joel 2:10).
The marching bands are oblivious to obstacles: “They rush up the wall, they dash about in the city; They climb into the houses, They enter like thieves by way of the windows” (Joel 2:9).
Joel uses four different Hebrew words to describe the insects that invade the land: yelek (
The possible meanings of the roots of the Hebrew terms for the locust help to decipher what Joel was describing. Yelek is connected to the Hebrew “to lick up” and corresponds to the tiny hopper stage, when the locust can eat only tender ground vegetation. Hasil has the Hebrew meaning of “near completion.” During the hasil stage the locust completes the destruction of the tender vegetation as it grows bigger and develops broader dietary preferences. Gazam means to prune or clip branches of a tree. At the gazam stage the hopper molts and acquires short wings. At this stage the gazam is large enough to attack tree branches with its powerful mandibles. The term arbeh is close to the Hebrew word for multiplication, and that is exactly what the arbeh attempts to do. The arbeh is the mature locust, the egg-laying female.2
These four stages of the locust life cycle are represented in Joel’s lament: “… what the gazam has left the arbeh eats, what the yelek has left the hasil eats” (Joel 1:4).
The sequence of gazam-arbeh-yelek-hasil in Joel 1:4 differs from the sequence in 2:25, where it is arbeh- yelek-hasil-gazam. The reason for this difference is not clear. Perhaps Joel is using poetic license, but more likely he was referring to more than one cycle. A locust plague may recur year after year in the same general area, which may be why Joel refers to the “years” of the locust (Joel 2:25).
Under natural conditions, swarms of locusts may 037arrive in Israel in the spring when the soils are still wet with the “latter,” or last, rains of spring. Locust eggs require moisture for proper hatching. After the hopper and fledgling stages are over, the swarm may leave, flying south with the normal seasonal southward shift of the major winds in the autumn. The areas to which the desert locust may recede are the Sinai, southern Arabia and the Sudan. Joel seems to be referring to this displacement, back to their desert origins, when he speaks of the locust being “thrust into a parched and desolate land” (Joel 2:20).
Locust plagues have always been sporadic and unpredictable in biblical lands. Winds patterns are not uniform from year to year. Sudden or unusual shifts may cause the locust to move into an area quickly and, just as suddenly and mysteriously, take wing again with a changing wind. Just such an arrival and departure of locusts is described in Exodus 10:14–20,038 when God afflicts the Egyptians with a plague of locusts because Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go.d First “locusts invaded all the land of Egypt and settled within all the territory of Egypt in a thick mass” (Exodus 10:14). Then, “the Lord caused a shift to a very strong west wind, which lifted the locusts and hurled them into the Sea of Reeds; not a single locust remained in all the territory of Egypt” (Exodus 10:19).
Before modern advances in entomology, there was little understanding of the causes of sudden and unpredictable appearances of a locust swarm. In many societies, locusts were regarded not only with dread, but also with superstition. The erratic appearance of swarms fostered traditions of ritual magic and mystery cultic practices. Anthropologists have recorded some examples: In Dahomey, West Africa, people devised a scapegoat ceremony for driving the locust away. One person was selected, dressed in costly garments and ornamented with rich bracelets and other valuables. This person was sent away, out of the country. The belief was that should he try to return home, the locusts would also return, so banishment was forever, on penalty of death.3 In India, Dravidians tried conciliation: The custom was to catch one locust, decorate it revere it and then let it go, with the hope that this locust, so honored, would take the swarm with him elsewhere.4 The ancient Babylonians had a “gods of the watch.”5 In China, cult temples were established to perform rituals to propitiate the gods who were thought to have inflicted plagues upon the people. Shin-Yi Hsu, a geographer who carefully studied this practice, common during the 16th through 19th centuries, observed that the Chinese people “believed that by making sacrifices to locust gods or by performing specific rituals, locusts could be destroyed by supernatural power. And consequently, the individual and communal disasters could be lessened or avoided.”6
Joel, however, a prophet rooted in a monotheistic tradition, does not see the locust plague as the result of demonic forces. He tells his people that even the locusts are under God’s control: “And the Lord roars aloud at the head of His army’ (Joel 2:11). Joel offers the following plan of action:
“Blow a horn [shofar] in Zion,
Solemnize a fast,
Proclaim an assembly!
Gather the people.”
Joel 2:15, 16
The shofar has a raucous sound and was used to signal victory, or alertness, or distress, or courage in the face of distress. Perhaps the shofar’s sound was used to drive the locusts away. Noises, along with smoke and lots of hand-waving have been used by people to try to chase away the locust from individual fields, but usually with little success, for the locust is generally unimpressed. More likely the use of the sound of the horn was analogous to a modern early warning system. It might have signaled to the people to cover their stores of food, and perhaps to gather from the field what they could of ripening crops.
Fasting in the Bible was often undertaken to prepare for doing good deeds (for example, Esther 4:16). Joel’s instruction to fast may have anticipated the need for exemplary acts in response to the locust crisis.
The call to gather all the people in a public assembly is unusual.e Normally, a public assembly will consist only of priests and leaders (elders) or, at most, of all adult male members of the community.f But Joel had in mind a special atzarah (
Some commentators on the Book of Joel interpret the visitation of the locusts as a sign of God’s chastisement of the people for their sins.7 This is no doubt part of it. It is clear, elsewhere in the Bible, as when the eighth plague affected Pharaoh, that locusts were seen as a divine instrument of punishment. To Joel the locust infestation is certainly “an act of God.” Joel’s response, however, is not resignation. Joel requires fasting, public prayer and introspection; without these, the consequences of the plague would be far worse: They would be “acts of men” who allow suffering without offering aid.
We call them “acts of God”—the natural disasters over which we have no control. They fill us with fright and awe: fright at the possible human toll, and awe at the enormous force of nature. If we no longer regard these natural forces as mysterious, this is largely due to advances in scientific knowledge. But what did our ancestors think—who lacked knowledge of plate tectonics or climatic wind patterns, who had no seismographs to measure earthquakes or satellites to track storms. Most of us who live in sheltered metropolitan areas will never experience, at firsthand, the terror and […]