Caterpillar – חָסִיל (chasil)
There is a general air of ambivalence surrounding the caterpillar…
France (1986:35) suggests that, being “nurtured with the notions of the woolly caterpillar of Little Arabella Millar and the amiable [really??!] and bumbling creature of Alice in Wonderland“, we have a somewhat romanticised view of the humble caterpillar. While it is true that this literary tradition continues to the present (with the popularity books like Eric Carle’s (1969) The Very Hungry Caterpillar), I am not totally convinced that most people view them quite so benignly. Despite the love that is often accorded to butterflies, my experience is that people tend to be rather squeamish of them and react in a similar way to spiders or worms.
What is noticeable is that, although there are possible references to caterpillars in the Bible, there are no references to butterflies at all. Israel hosts a large number of resident and migrant species – as well as moths (which do receive mentions in both the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and New Testament.
In March this year (2019) there were news reports coming from Israel describing an estimated ten million (although some reports place this number much higher) painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) that were migrating from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia “blanketing” parks and nature reserves in Israel (Lazarus, 2019). A useful website listing these species can be found on Israel’s Nature Site: Butterflies.
From caterpillar to grasshopper and locust
A quick look at a concordance or using an online search tool will reveal a number of Bible verses that refer generically to the caterpillar. However, if one compares different English translations, it becomes evident that there is quite a lot of doubt about the creature that is being referred to. For example, let us compare different versions of Psalm 78:46. This psalm reflects upon the divine dealings with the Egyptians and recounts the various plagues and calamities it experienced at the hand of God.
- NRSV: He gave their crops to the caterpillar, and the fruit of their labour to the locust.
- KJV: He gave also their increase unto the caterpillar, and their labour unto the locust.
- NIV: He gave their crops to the grasshopper, their produce to the locust.
- EST: He gave their crops to the destroying locust and the fruit of their labor to the locust.
- ESV: He gave their crops to the destroying locust and the fruit of their labor to the locust.
- CEV: God let worms and grasshoppers eat their crops.
- Good News: He sent locusts to eat their crops and to destroy their fields.
- Brenton Septuagint Version: And he gave their fruit to the canker worm, and their labours to the locust.
- Douay-Rheims Bible: And he gave up their fruits to the blast, and their labours to the locust.
Psalm 78:46 Emphasis added
This range of translations is indicative of the uncertainty we have with the Hebrew term which is being used here; chasil.* As far back as the late 19th century doubts about precisely what chasil denoted was being voiced. Tristram (1895:300-301) argues that tole’ah, often translated as ‘worm’, more closely signifies the caterpillar. The United Bible Societies (1980:53-54) lists chasil as ‘locust’ and France (1986:34) also notes that this term should be understood to relate to the locust family.
Destroyer of crops
It is clear from the context in which the six times this word is used that it relates to crop destruction and pestilence, with the end result being famine; for example 1 Kings 8:37 (and its parallel 2 Chronicles 6:28)
‘If there is famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, mildew, locust, or caterpillar [chasil]; if their enemy besieges them in any of their cities; whatever plague, whatever sickness there is;1 Kings 8:37 (NRSV)
The three remaining instances relate to the prophetic books (Isaiah 33:4; Joel 1:4; 2:25). Its use by Joel is particularly affecting. Initially it relates to the description of the devastated land the Israelites face following the destruction by Assyrian and the neo-Babylonian incursions and conquests. Joel 1 is a lament for the precious land that they once owned and is now seemingly destroyed. Locusts function both literally as well as figuratively of the political land-grab and its consequences:
What the cutting locust left,Joel 1:4 (NRSV)
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust [chasil] has eaten.
However, its second occurrence is much more positive. Drawing upon the language of Joel 1, this oracle (or prophecy) describes how the devastated land will one day be healed.
I will repay you for the yearsJoel 2:25 (NRSV)
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer [chasil], and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.
A locust caterpillar?
The word chasil means the consumer (its close relative, חָסַל – chasal, means ‘to consume’) and it is easy to see why ‘caterpillar’ has been adopted for this term (Tristram, 1898:313). I am also not entirely convinced by France’s (1986:35) argument that caterpillars are only a minor threat, more in terms of a nuisance to gardeners. Having personally experienced, a couple of years ago, the devastation a handful of cabbage whites wrought upon our crop of brussel sprouts, the impact upon a subsistence agrarian farmer could be severe.
Nevertheless, all the references group it alongside the locust and it is therefore now tending to be viewed as a subgroup of this species. Tristram (op cit) suggests that “it probably denotes the locust in the larva or pupa state” (France also takes this view, 1986:34). In this case, the threat is, perhaps visible and even imminent, but nevertheless in the future.
Friend of foe?
Like all forms of life (including human) found within biblical literature, there is a certain ambivalence, or frankness, about how the chasil are portrayed. On one level, the chasil – whether as leaf-munching caterpillar or locust larvae – can be read as a profoundly destructive and negative creature. However, they are also the creatures that the God of Israel uses to punish the opponents of his people and created devastation in their lands. In that respect they are useful and remain on ‘God’s side.’
Theology aside, I think many of us can relate to that ambivalence when we come across caterpillars in our gardens and vegetable plots. Our hearts can sink when we spot the tell-tale signs of butterfly eggs and know the potential destruction of our tender plants that will be caused once these are hatched. However, we also know that they will grow into much valued creatures that are facing a devastating decline in numbers and that it is essential that we preserve them as important pollinators and natural pest-controllers.
Butterfly Conservation is one of a number of groups that are committed to preserving the 56 species of butterfly that reside in the UK. More information about their work can be found by linking on the image below.
*For more information on the challenges posed to translators when addressing terms for animals and plants, see post for Day One.
France, P. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Bible Animals. London: Croom Helm.
Lazarus, D. (2019) ‘A Billion Butterflies visit Israel.’ Israel Today. (March 22, 2019).
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 Societies. (1980) Fauna and Flora of the Bible. Helps for Translators. 2nd edn. London: United Bible Societies.