It’s a real shame there were no entomologists on hand to advise the scholars tasked with translating the Bible for King James. Admittedly insects don’t feature too often. But even so, it’s still a bit like the Today Programme on Radio 4, whenever someone mentions insects, you just know what follows will be nonsense.
First, there’s that business in Leviticus (11: 21-23) about which animals, that have legs above their feet and which goeth upon all four, it’s OK to eat — namely four-legged locusts, bald locusts, beetles and grasshoppers. Yum. All other four-legged insects, it seems, are unclean.
Then Samson makes a rather dubious bet with the uncircumcised Philistine in-laws at his wedding, offering them 30 bedsheets and 30 changes of clothes if they can solve his riddle: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness”. Whilst he’s under the impression it was honeybees, nesting in the corpse of a lion, it was much more likely to be drone-flies (honeybee-mimicking hoverflies) breeding in the putrescent carrion.
Perhaps the best known insect protagonists in the Bible are the plagues rained down by a wrathful god on the Egyptians, in Exodus. Three of the ten plagues appear to be insects. Locusts crop up in plague number 8. Plague number 4 was of flies. John Obadiah Westwood (1805-1893) reckoned they were ‘musquitoes’.
But here we get to it — plague number 3 says ‘lice’. On exactly what discomfort the lice caused, or how they were got rid of, Exodus remains silent. There is no mention of tea-tree oil, or permethrin, or even vinegar. Frogs, flies and locusts seems to have caused more trouble, and at least the narrative tells us what happened to them. Perhaps the plague of lice was a bit of a dud. The Egyptians had perfectly good nit combs; maybe they weren’t too bothered by them.