Newman University is situated next to a reservoir and, over the last few days, the current system of very warm air over Britain has resulted in the (sort of) annual ‘infestation’ of insects on the Newman campus. I have to admit to rather enjoying the sight of them, dancing lazily in loose veils in the soft afternoon sun and their sudden appearance on a paper I am reading or scurrying across the desk. However, I am also aware that, for those living in halls, it can create feelings that are far less poetic! Nevertheless, it got me thinking about flies in the Bible and the wider Ancient Near Eastern traditions.
[This post also appeared on the Newman Research Centre for the Bible and its Reception: 02/04/2017]
If I am in the minority among those living and working at Newman for rather relishing this phenomenon, I also have to concede that I appear to be a bit of an oddity where the ancients are concerned too! Flies appear to have been universally disliked, or at least, viewed as worthless pests and nuisances.
Probably the most famous instances of flies in the Bible relate to those that took part in one of the 10 plagues of Egypt. Immediately following the plague of כֵּן (‘ken’ – gnat’ or older translations ‘lice’), Exodus 8:20-32 describes the third plague as עָרֹב (arov), a swarm. Unfortunately, it does not tell us what exactly it was a swarm of – nor do the subsequent references (e.g. Pss 78:45, 105:31). Jewish and Christian biblical tradition assume that it was a swarm of flies. This is supported by the LXX that translates this as ‘a large number or multitude) of dog-fly’ (ἡ κυνόμυια πλῆθος) – a species of fly (Stomoxys calcitrans) that is known as a blood-sucking pest to all who keep livestock.
The association between flies (and particularly swarms of them) with divine punishment is also found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah (7:18) describes Egypt as the זְבוּב (zevuv) or ‘fly’ that God will use to exert his vengeance. The neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar is also referred to as a type of fly, this time as a ‘gadfly’, or ‘biting fly’ (קֶ֫רֶץ – qerets) in Jeremiah 46:20.
The fly also appears, once again, in a negative way, in Ecclesiastes. Here, the Teacher (Quoheleth) tells us that:
Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a foul odour;
so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.
Eccl 10:1 (NRSV)
Other Ancient Near Eastern literature don’t treat the poor fly with any greater respect. Its habit of feeding on corpses and wounds, not unreasonably, closely associates it with death and disease. Yamauchi (2016: 49) notes that one Ugaritic text from Ras Ibn refers to the “expulsion of flies that are the cause of a patient’s sickness.” He also (2016:52) points to the numerous (negative) references to flies in Homer, which again, view these insects as a nuisance (at best) and a malevolent torment (at worse).
Good news for the fly
This rather damning presentation of the fly and its purpose here on earth might, if you are a fly, be all rather depressing. After all, research shows that they have an important ecological part to play. Not only are they a vital source of food for many animals (and some plants), they also have an strategic role in pollination, breaking down waste and rotting carcasses, etc. Therefore, it is nice to see that, even in antiquity, not everyone saw them as a worthless nuisance.
Although still possibly because of the negative association between the fly and death we do have instances of a more positive use of the fly. In Egypt, flies made of gold were awarded as medals to soldiers. Yamauchi (2016:50) speculates that this might have been to signify their proximity with death on the battlefield or that they caused the death of enemy soldiers.
It is not until we get to the Rabbinic era do we get an attempt to view the fly in a more positive way. In the Jerusalem Talmud there is a dialogue between the prophet Elijah and Rabbi Nehorai. Elijah asks the Rabbi, “Why did God create insects and creeping things in his world?” To which the Rabbi responded:
They were created to serve a need. When God’s creatures sin, he looks upon them and says, ‘Lo, I sustain those creatures that serve no purpose, all the more must I sustain those creatures that serve some purpose.’
y. Ber.9.2 (from Yamauchi, 2016:55)
However, my favourite reference to the fly comes from the Jewish 10th century CE Perek Shirah that is often seen as a hymn or song that ALL creation sings to God. Among the section recording the ‘songs’ of the flying and swimming creatures we find, once again, the זְבוּב (fly).
The song of the fly
The fly, when Israel is not busying itself with the Torah, is saying, “The voice said, ‘Call out.’ And I said, ‘What shall I call out? All flesh is grass, and all its grace is as the flower of the field.’ …The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God shall endure forever.’ ‘I will create a new expression of the lips; Peace, peace for him who is far off and for him who is near, says God; and I shall heal him.”
The fly’s song, comprising a composite of texts from Isaiah (40:6,8; 57:19), captures perfectly the ancient associations with death and corruption, but locates them within an attitude of hope and grace.
Slifkin, N. (2009) Perek Shirah: Nature’s Song. 2nd edn. Jerusalem: Zoo Torah
Yamauchi, E.M. (2016) ‘Insects’ in Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity: Volume III I-N. Yamauchi, E.M., and Wilson, M.R. (eds) Peabody Mass: Hendrickson Publishers. pp. 42-60.