Ant – Day 11 of 30 Days [Biblically] Wild

Antנְמָלָה (nemalah)

ant header

This post has been adapted from an earlier post: Verse of the Month: Proverbs 6:6 “Go to the ant…”

A trail of ants along the kitchen floor; a ragged column climbing the legs of the garden chair; picnics spoilt by the steady and unrelenting invasion of this tiny army. Who can forget that itchy feeling on those muggy evenings of flying ants? Unfortunately we usually encounter ants as an often unwelcome irritation to our lives. This is a pity as it means that we can easily overlook their breathtakingly complex and remarkable lives which still keeps modern scientists intrigued.

Go to the ant, you lazybones;
   consider its ways, and be wise. 

Proverbs 6:6 (NRSV)

This proverb not only suggests that the ant can be a guide for living, it can also help us uncover the intriguing world of biblical wisdom literature by giving us an insight into how these types of text were composed, developed and circulated.

A ‘bus load of voices’

The book of Proverbs is an anthology that includes a number of different collections of sayings and instructions that is generally considered to have been compiled (in its present form) within Israel’s post-exilic period (sometime after 538 B.C.E.). The nature of the text means that attempting to find a more precise dating of the individual teachings can be difficult if not impossible (see Hunter, 2006:45).

Classified as ‘wisdom literature’, Proverbs is a collection of succinct sayings (aphorisms), often made memorable by their imaginative use of language and imagery, which instruct the user concerning issues of conduct and attitude in daily life.  It would be wrong to view Proverbs as an instruction manual for life, as it often includes a range of (sometimes competing) perspectives and viewpoints; for example, see Proverbs 6:4 & 5. Generally, wisdom literature does not attempt to give specific answers to particular problems; it rather informs the user of different positions in a debate and then seeks to draw the reader/hearer into that debate. Think of Proverbs as a crowded bus full of people all sharing their views on a particular subject, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing.The book of Job is primary example of this approach applied to the issue of theodicy (God and evil).

Proverbs 6:6 is part of a section (1-19) which, as Martin (2001) notes, comprises four short units and is devoted to practical teaching in the form of warnings. This forms part of a larger collection consisting of ten separate sections (chs. 1-9) and is attributed to King Solomon (1:1) – in fact, the Greek translation of Proverbs in the Septuagint (LXX) is actually titled The Proverbs of Solomon. Whilst this is probably a later attribution, Hunter (2006) notes that these sections could possibly be dated to King Hezekiah’s reign, or just after it (around beginning of 7th cent B.C.E.). However, the underlying message of the teaching (correlation between behaviour and blessing, warnings against the marriage of foreign women etc.) appear to reflect the theology and nationalism of post-exilic writers and editors.

The Industrious Ant

Waltke (2004:336) suggests that although ‘ant’  נְמָלָה  (nemālâ)  is probably meant to refer generically to all ants, it could possibly refer to the ‘harvester ant’ (Messor semirufus) that is prolific in Palestine and is noted for its habit of storing grain in its nest (so too United Bible Studies, 1980:1).

harvester ant
Messor semirufus (harvester ant). Image: Genre Messor

The word ‘ant’  (נְמָלָה , nemālâ) occurs just twice in Hebrew scripture. Its other occurrence (also in the book of Proverbs) is in Chapter 30, where four different creatures are praised for their wisdom despite being “exceedingly small.” As with the proverb in 6:6, the industry of the ant is again highlighted:

24 Four things on earth are small,
   yet they are exceedingly wise: 
25 the ants are a people without strength,
   yet they provide their food in the summer; 

Proverbs 30:24-25 (NRSV)

Tristram (1898) provides us with a fascinating and detailed firsthand account of what this activity entailed (it is worth quoting it in full):

Many difficulties have been raised respecting this, from the fact that the ant tribe are, excepting in hot climates, for the most part dormant in winter, and that their food is not corn, but flesh, insects, and saccharine matter from trees, which cannot be stored. They do, however, fill their nests with all kinds of substances, chiefly for the purpose of lining them and keeping them free from damp; and I have not only seen them in the Holy Land busily engaged in carrying quantities of barley to hoard, but have found the nests full of corn, mingled with chaff, grass, seeds, and all sorts of dried vegetable husks.

Elsewhere, they have been observed, not only to carry seeds to their nests, but, after the rains, when the moisture has penetrated their dwellings, to bring them up again to the surface to dry. The ancients were familiar with the fact that the ant stored up food for winter consumption; and who that has watched the incessant activity of these little creatures, issuing in long files from their labyrinths by a broad beaten track, and gradually dispersing in all directions by pathways that become narrower and fainter as they diverge, while a busy throng uninterruptedly conveys back by the same paths every object which they are able to drag with their powerful forceps[.]

Tristram (1898:320)

However, Tristram (1898) also noted that their industry and skill was not limited to their foraging ability and was obviously extremely impressed with their architectural prowess:

Their skill in architecture is wonderful and varied. Some species build their labyrinths of pellets of kneaded clay, arched and fitted like the most skilful masonry; others employ rafters and beams for their roofs; others excavate the trunks of trees. They fortify their passages against rain and enemies, closing them every night, and opening them in the morning.

Tristram (1898:321)

This high regard given to the ant for their work ethic was not just restricted to the Hebrew writers. France (1986:12) observes that other ancient authors (like Hesiod, Horace and Aesop) also praised them for their industrious foresight and ability to protect themselves against future deprivations.

But it is not simply its industry that appeals to the teacher in Prov. 6:6, it is its sense of self motivation, reliance and autonomous work ethic. Having instructed the “lazy bones” (עָצֵל – ‘sluggard’) to “go to the ant,” they are then then told to observe that:

7 Without having any chief
   or officer or ruler,
8 it prepares its food in summer,
   and gathers its sustenance in harvest.

Proverbs 6:7-8 (NRSV)

The image of independent, self-sufficiency described in these verses runs counter to the complex communal structures found in most ant colonies. Although technically incorrect, this apparent error is probably due to the need for presenting a simplified and memorable trope. It is unlikely that observations of ant behaviour that are detailed enough to establish that they have no leader would then fail to recognise their advanced social structure.

The idea that ants had no “chief”, “officer” or “leader” (v.7) was also mentioned by Aristotle in his History of Animals  where (after noting their social nature) he states:

“the crane and the several sorts of bee submit to a ruler, whereas ants and numerous other creatures are everyone his own master.”

Aristotle, History of Animals (1.1.11)

Although tempting to draw parallels between these two observations, I am not aware of any commentators establishing a specific relationship.

The question of how ants can organise their colonies without an overall leader has received a lot of attention from the scientific community. If you would like to know more and have the chance of running your very own virtual ant colony with Bryn Mawr College’s model simulation, click here.

Bryn Mawr ant site
Screenshot of Bryn Mawr College’s website exploring the social organisation of ant colonies

Ant ethics

Slifkin (2009:422-423) notes that it is not just the industrious work-ethic and sense of cooperation and community that are the reasons why ants are held in such high esteem within Jewish tradition. Drawing upon their mutual cooperation, the Talmud suggests that the level of subjugation of the individual to the community means that the ant will not steal food from its fellow workers.

Rabbi Yochanan said: Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, [the prohibition of] theft from the ant, [the prohibition of] forbidden relationships from the dove, and the proper method of conjugal relations from the fowl.

Talmud Eruvin 100b.

 An alternative view of the natural world?

The teaching contained in Hebrew wisdom tradition is generally distinct from other biblical teaching in that it is predominantly non-revelatory. Here, wisdom is gained from observation of creation rather than through divine revelation. McKenzie (2005) summarises it nicely, stating that:

The basic concept behind [wisdom] is that God has placed the secrets to success and human happiness in the created order, and it is up to humans to discover those secrets by means of observation and intuition.

Mckenzie (2005:93)

This raises some interesting questions. The natural world and non-human life is used in a way that is different from the fables of Greeks, where animals are anthropomorphised to demonstrate various human traits. As McKane (1970:324) notes, creation and the natural world are used within biblical proverbs in a “heavily didactic way.” There is no attempt of anthropomorphising nature.

The use of such a nature-based wisdom appears to be an integral part of ancient Jewish history. The writer of the deuteronomistic history attributed this type of wisdom to Solomon (1 Kings 4), writing:

  32 [Solomon] composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33 He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish.

1 Kings 4:32-33 (NRSV)

However, we would appear to have much earlier evidence of this tradition in the Late Bronze Age Israelite/Canaanite region.

Hebron Amarna Tablet
Amarna Tablet (letter) from Hebron. Image: U.N.E.D

In the Amarna Letters of the 14th century B.C.E., cuneiform clay tablets reveal a correspondence between the Pharaoh (possibly Akhetaten) and his representatives (mayors) in the areas under Egyptian control, including Canaan. One particular tablet, EA 252, is written by a particular mayor/warlord from Shechem (in the northern hill country of Canaan) named Lab’aya (sometimes written as Labayu) – some scholars and archaeologists associate Lab’aya with the biblical King Saul. In his letter to the Pharaoh, Lab’aya defends his actions by arguing that the reason he acted violently was because he had been slighted and “denigrated” in front of the king. He then goes on to explain:

 “Further, an ant, when it is squashed, doesn’t revolt perhaps and bite the hand of the man who squashes it? If I had acted timidly, another city would have been taken today!”

Amarna Letters: EA 252,

It might not be too far a leap to speculate that viewing the natural world as a source of wisdom (as examples and explanations of good/bad behaviour) might have been an early characteristic of formative Israel. Scholars have also identified other possible reflections of Canaanite wisdom tradition and imagery within Proverbs;  for example, see Whybray’s treatment of wisdom as Canaanite goddess (1965:83ff). Whatever the case, the use of creation as a guide appears to be a characteristic that runs through Hebrew teaching and is reflected in Jesus’ teaching (for example, Matt 6:26-30//Lk 12:24-28).

If this is the case, it also provides an alternative reading of creation in biblical literature, in which the natural world can be seen as a guide to living; to which humans should aspire. This is in contrast to the perception of wild nature as something to be tamed (subdued and therefore changed) and with which we are at war (see the ‘war oracle’ of Gen 9:2) or that the whole of creation is tainted by the ‘fall’ (as some have read Romans 8:19-20).

A Misplaced Ant and the Creation of Proverbs

It has been noted for a long time (see Toy, 1899) that the cycle of proverbs, in which the proverb of the ant appears, seems out of place in relation to the main collection (chs 1-9). Unlike the latter collections, the aphorisms found in 1-9 tend to be more ordered and thematic. 6:1-9 appears to abruptly break the flow of the teaching in chapter 5 which then continues in 6:10 (and following). Here the reader is warned against the perils of consorting with foreign women (often rendered in English translations as ‘loose’, ‘immoral’ or ‘adulterous’ women).  Toy (1899) suggests that this section may have been misplaced by an editor or scribe. He further notes that, if this was true, it must have happened quite early as the section appears in this place in all the ancient versions of the book.

Clifford (1999) observes that most commentators judge this section as a later addition. If this is the case, it is one of the indicators that point to the accumulative nature of the wisdom tradition in post-exilic Israel.

Another proverb, also relating to an ethic of work, provides us with even more information about the way wisdom literature and the wisdom tradition developed.

Proverbs 24 reads:

30 I passed by the field of one who was lazy,
by the vineyard of a stupid person;
31 and see, it was all overgrown with thorns;
the ground was covered with nettles,
and its stone wall was broken down.
32 Then I saw and considered it;
I looked and received instruction.
33 A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
34 and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want, like an armed warrior.

Proverbs 24:30-34 (NRSV) Emphasis added

Note how this sequence ends. Verses 33 and 34 are identical to the conclusion of the Proverb of the Ant found in 6:10-11. Whybray (1972:144) suggests that this can give us a clue concerning how “wisdom teachers elaborate traditional  material”, with two teachers independently creating material from the same older saying.

The Greek version of the Hebrew text (the Septuagint) develops this verse further and again points to the way in which the wisdom tradition and its literature continually develops over time. The expanded version also takes a naturalistic approach to nature (rather than fable) and, in the light of Aristotle’s observation (above), includes, perhaps, a significant reference to bees:

Or go to the bee, and learn how diligent she is, and how earnestly she is engaged in her work; whose labours kings and private men use for health, and she is desired and respected by all: though weak in body, she is advanced by honouring wisdom.

Proverbs 6:8b-c (Septuagint)

More information

 For anyone who wants to know more about these fascinating creatures, I have just come across a book that has recently been published. I have not yet had time to get a copy, but it looks extremely interesting!

It is Jacob Ofer’s Holy Land Ants which was published in 2018. Ofer is a former lecturer at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Colleg and has researched ants in Israel over the course of many years. He is internationally known for his research on the Weaver Ant.

There is also a checklist (pdf) of ants in Israel, by Merav Vonshak and Armin Ionescu-Hirsch, that appeared in Israel Journal of Entomology 39 (2009) pp33-55 and comprises 241 species and sub-species. It is available through Research Gate: A checklist of the ants of Israel (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)

Within the last couple of days, this video (below) has been circulating various social media platforms and is a further illustration of the fascinating communal structure of the ant.

Harvester ants (Veromessor pergandei) rescuing sibling from spider web. Source: Science Jun. 7, 2019


Clifford, R.J. (1999) Proverbs: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press

France, P. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Bible Animals. London: Croom Helm.

Hunter, A. (2006) Wisdom Literature. SCM Core Text. London: SCM Press

McKane, W. (1970) Proverbs. Old Testament Library. London: SCM Press

McKenzie, S.L. (2005) How to Read the Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Martin, J. D. (2001) Proverbs. Old Testament Guides. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Slifkin, N. (2009) Perek Shirah: Nature’s Song. 2nd edn. New York: Lambda/Zoo Torah.

Toy, C.H. (1899) A Critical and Exegetical Commentary of the Book of Proverbs. ICC. Edinburgh: T&T Clark

Tristram, H.B. (1898) The natural history of the Bible : being a review of the physical geography, geology, and meteorology of the Holy Land; with a description of every animal and plant mentioned in the Holy Scripture. 9th edn. London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.

United Bible Studies (1980) Fauna and Flora of the Bible. Helps for Translators. 2nd edn. London: United Bible Societies.

Waltke, B.K. (2004) The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1- 15. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans

Whybray, R.N. (1965) Wisdom in Proverbs. Studies in Biblical Theology No. 45. London: SCM Press

Whybray, R.N. (1972) The Book of Proverbs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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