Locusts in the ancient Near East (Joel 2)

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Illustration: Locust swarm in Trinidad

The book of Joel describes a calamity that befall ancient Judah when it was struck by a locust plague. Locusts in fact can do an astonishing amount of damage to agriculture. Over the past few hundred years, a number of observers have left accounts of the sudden and complete devastation of crops produced by a swarm of locusts in Africa, the Near East and in the American Midwest. The situation in the ancient world was exacerbated by the fact that almost all farming was subsistence farming. Catastrophic crop failure within a single year meant starvation or near-starvation, as importation of food in sufficient quantities to make a difference was not feasible.

Joel 1:4 uses four different Hebrew words to describe the locusts. Translators struggle to distinguish among them. For example, the New American Standard Bible says “What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locusts has eaten; And what the creeping locusts has left, the stripping locusts have eaten” (emphasis added). The NIV puts it this way: “What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten” (emphasis added).One translation is not necessarily better than another; both are trying to bring out the fact that four different Hebrew words for “locusts” . the original meanings of which have been lost – appear in the original.

What do these four words represent? Are four different species of locusts implied? This is possible, but ot may be that the reference is to the different instars (stages of insect  growth) of a single species. Under this scenario, it would appear that the first term (NASAB gnawing locust; NIV locust swarm) is the third stage of growth. The second term (NASB swarming locusts; NIV great locusts) is the fourth and final instar – an adult locust. The third term (NASB creeping locust; NIV young locust) is the larva stage, representing the offspring of larva of the previous generation of locusts as the first instar of the insect. The fourth term (NASB stripping locusts; NIC other locusts) is the nymph, the second instar of the locust. This suggests that a swarm of locusts moved in, devastated the land and laid their eggs. The eggs then hatched, and the voracious larvae and nymph devoured every green thing that remained. The repetition seen in 1:4 clearly makes the point that nothing was left by the time the last stage of locusts had eaten its fill.


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