Why pay attention to locusts and grasshoppers?
Animal characters in Hebrew Bible are never random. The authors know their biology. And they know their ecology. And they assume that you do too. So if you know how an animal lives, then you can understand its role in a story, and you can deeply receive the story’s spiritual message.
Today’s animal is…the grasshopper. A strong supporting character throughout Hebrew Bible.
Isaiah invokes grasshoppers…also known as locusts
The Prophet Isaiah says, “Don’t you get it? God dwells above the circle of the earth, and those who dwell on earth are like grasshoppers” (Isaiah 40: 21-22).
From the human perspective, grasshoppers are really small. About the size of an adult’s thumb. From this human perspective, Isaiah reminds us that God is infinitely creative, powerful, everlasting, energetic, and wise – while we are only kinda sorta a little bit creative and wise, with a little bit of power and a little bit of energy.
But from the grasshopper’s perspective, a grasshopper is not small at all. It’s just the right size. The right size to inspect grassy grains, to see how plants grow, and decide what to eat. And the right size to launch a leap with a height 10x the grasshopper’s length…and a distance 20x the grasshopper’s length. The grasshopper is just the right size to vault up…and catch a glimpse of heaven as it travels. Isaiah wants us to know that we may be small, but we can glimpse the infinity of God. Just like the grasshopper!
Grasshoppers carry sparks of divinity
Isaiah’s poetic Hebrew gives us two hints of the grasshopper’s spirituality. Two hints that the grasshopper holds a little spark of the essence of God. Isaiah uses the same word to talk about how God lives, and how the grasshopper lives. God yoshev, dwells, above the earth, and the grasshopper is among the earth’s in-dwellers, yoshveiha. Both God and the grasshopper “dwell.”
Isaiah also draws a connection between where God lives and the word for “grasshopper.” God dwells above the chug, the circle, of planet earth, and earth-dwellers are like chagavim, the grasshoppers. Can you hear the alliteration? Yoshev, yoshveiha; Chug, chagavim. A grasshopper may look small to us, but God’s life and the grasshopper’s life are connected.
Don’t underestimate the grasshoppers
Isaiah presses this message because misunderstanding a grasshopper’s power can have terrible consequences. As it does in this story from the Book of Numbers (Num. 13:1-14:39). The Israelites are camped in the wilderness, somewhere between Egypt and Canaan, the land flowing with milk and honey. God says to Moses, “Get yourself twelve scouts. Twelve distinguished people with good leadership qualities. Send them to scout out this land of Canaan where you’ll be living. You can hear straight from them what kind of a land it is.”
Moses appoints the scouts, and sends them out. Forty days later, the scouts come back. They report to Moses in front of all the people. They say: “This is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey. Just look at these grapes and pomegranates and figs we brought back! They’re gigantic! But so are the people. Next to them, we looked to ourselves like grasshoppers.”
As soon as the people hear the word “grasshoppers,” they start yelling and crying. They become terrified. They rail against Moses and Aaron. “Why did God bring us to the wilderness just to kill us!?! We might as well die right here and now!”
And God says, “You know, you’re right. You are not ready to enter the land. You’ll get your wish to die in the wilderness. When the next generation grows up, they’ll have the opportunity to enter the land flowing with milk and honey.”
When grasshoppers become locusts
Why do the people become afraid as soon as they hear “we looked to ourselves like grasshoppers”? Because they are thinking only of how small the grasshopper’s body is. They’ve forgotten about the grasshopper’s extraordinary jump, and the glimpses it gets of heaven every time it jumps.
And they’ve forgotten one more important thing about grasshoppers. They’ve forgotten about grasshopper transformation. When a big group of grasshoppers get together, their bodies and their minds change. They become migratory locusts.
For years, modern biologists tried to identify the baby form of a migratory locust. But they couldn’t find any babies – until entomologist Boris Uvarov figured it out in the early 20th century. When desert drought gets extreme, and only a few tiny patches of moist grass can be found, grasshoppers congregate there. When the area gets so crowded that the grasshoppers can’t move without rubbing up against one another, their brain chemistry literally changes. Their serotonin levels rise. Their bodies harden. They eat more. Mate more. Develop a group mind. And they fly off together, a billion strong, in search of food. Once they’ve swarmed, nothing can stand in their way. Your field becomes their lunch. Their dinner. And their breakfast.
Biblical locusts are mission specialists
In Hebrew Bible, locust swarms are God’s armies. Their deployment is never random. Locusts are mission specialists. Sometimes people forget that a creative, energetic, and wise God dwells above the chug, the circle of the earth. That’s when the locusts, the community of chagavim, grasshoppers, show up.
They visit Pharaoh in the Exodus story. Pharaoh is not a fan of inclusive community. He feels terribly threatened by immigrants. Especially the numerous Israelites. So he oppresses them, enslaves them, kills them. God sends a message, “Let my people go.” Pharaoh ignores God and ignores God’s message. So God sends a giant community, a swarm of locusts, to strip Pharaoh’s fields. Pharaoh doesn’t get it, but his advisors do. They say, “Let the people go, so they can worship their God!”
Locusts: A powerful community
Locusts visit the Israelites in the time of the prophet Joel. Years of abundant harvest have destroyed Joel’s community. Agribusiness has created huge divisions between exploitive landowners and desperate day laborers. Rich and poor alike have forgotten that their number one religious responsibility is to look out for the welfare of others. So, God sends a giant community, a swarm of locusts, to remind them. When the locusts consume the fields, the prophet Joel sees the power of their community. And he calls his people into community to start over together (Joel 1-4).
And now you see, that Isaiah’s little reference to the grasshopper is not little at all. Isaiah hints at the locusts. He hints at Pharaoh, at Joel, at the power of inclusive community. After mentioning the grasshopper, Isaiah continues. “God brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, when God blows upon them, and they wither. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? The One who brings out their host and counts them, calling them all by name. Because God is great in strength, mighty in power, not one fails to show up.” (Isaiah 40:23-26)
What can we learn from Isaiah’s grasshoppers?
Isaiah just about says that we are the grasshoppers. We’re tiny, in the grand scheme of creation. Sometimes we get lost in our solitary concerns. But when times get tough, we glimpse a different spiritual possibility. We gather into community to support one another. In community, we become strong, we find a political voice, and we inspire other communities.
Isaiah speaks to the community of Judeans returning from exile in 530 BCE. Today, our communities include synagogues, mosques, churches and temples. They can include networks of spiritual groups across traditions. When our connections are strong, no one can divide us for political gain.
Originally presented as a sermon at Highlands United Church, on Vancouver School of Theology Sunday, Feb 4, 2018.