Flea – פַּרְעֹשׁ (par’osh)
When you are out enjoying the countryside, if you are unfortunate enough to encounter a flea it is more than probable (and I have my fingers crossed here!) that it will not be a human flea (Pulex irritans), but one of the other strains that parasitise other animals/birds. As with some of the other posts in this series, the flea might not be one of the most obvious animals associated with biblical literature, but then again it is not often associated with calls for ‘getting back to wild’. Nevertheless, they may be discomforting irritation, but they are also an integral part of the ecological landscape.
There is nothing sentimental about nature
One of the greatest challenges facing those who are involved in forming and promoting ways for people to reconnect with ‘nature’ is how to do it attractively and yet honestly. Charities and pressure groups know the power of the ‘panda effect’ and use it to great effect. This is the tendency for people to connect in a stronger way emotionally with animals that are viewed to be ‘cuddly and fluffy’ or have a greater capacity to anthropomorphism. For example, the campaign against the destruction of rain forests for the production of palm oil began to gain significant impact on public consciousness only after the release of the Greenpeace/Iceland Christmas Advert (2018/19) video that followed footage taken by International Animal Rescue (IAR) of an orangutan apparently attacking a digger that was destroying its home. Important as this effect is in creating a heightened awareness of our environment, there are important downsides to its overuse.
Back in the 1960s, writer and activist, Jane Jacobs, was highlighting this issue with scalpel-like precision. In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she (1961:7) noted that one of the greatest ironies of the 20th century was that, while being one of the “most voracious and disrespectful destroyers of the wild and rural countryside”, we are also “the world’s champion sentimentalisers about nature”. Rather than drawing us closer to ‘nature’ this tendency does the exact opposite and reinforces our disconnect, or what Person (2014) describes as, our ‘environmental amnesia’.
Sentimentality about nature denatures everything it touches.Jacobs (1961:447)
With this in mind, today we will acknowledge and explore the place of the flea in the world that we share with the biblical writers.
David and the biblical flea
The authors of the biblical archive can never be criticised for sentimentalising the natural world. They were too close to it; they never lost sight that they were part of it.
Households lived much closer to their livestock and other animals, often during times of bad weather actually physically living with them. It is not coincidental that the Bible often refers to animals (livestock) as members of the family unit. This, together with the lack of modern pesticides, means that it is highly likely that fleas would have been even more of a part in the lives of those living in biblical world than they are today. I remember a conversation with a shocked Christian friend who had just been informed by his (rather progressive) minister that, in all probability, Jesus would have had lice!
Writing at the end of the 19th century, the parson and naturalist Canon Henry Baker Tristram (1898) recounts his experiences with fleas while travelling through Israel:
Fleas are the great pests both of the inhabitants and of travellers in the Holy Land, and it is impossible to keep free from them. They are the only vermin towards which the natives appear to have a thorough animosity, and which can disturb even Moslem equanimity. Their numbers force them to change their camps more frequently than they otherwise would; and if the luckless traveller incautiously pitches upon the site of a Bedouin camp, which has been deserted even for a month, he is soon driven away by the swarms of fleas, which rise from the dust and the refuse stubble on the ground where they are concealed in myriads.Tristram (1898:305)
Along with fleas, leeches, fluke, lice and other parasites would have been an uncomfortable but very real part of daily life in the biblical world, particularly those who were involved with animal husbandry and livestock.
The two instances in which the flea appears in the Bible both relate to words attributed to King David. From a narrative perspective, this is entirely consistent with David’s character and biography as presented in the biblical tradition. We are told he was both a shepherd (an image he retains even as a monarch) and a soldier who was forced to live rough for extended periods. Both situations would have meant that it would have been extremely likely that he had first-hand experience of the irritating presence of the flea (Goodfellow, 2015:97).
Both references relate to the time when David is on the run for his life. The prophet and leader Samuel had anointed him to be the king of Israel in the place of Saul (1 Samuel 16:1-13). David was a popular figure and attracted enough of a following to become a significant threat to Saul (actual king of Israel). Saul was not pleased. David was a marked man and was hiding out in the wilderness caves near En Gedi (for more information, see Spider – Day 13).
1 Samuel 24 describes how Saul slips into a cave to relieve himself not realising that David and his men were already inside. David cuts a portion of Saul’s robe (v.4). Once Saul has left the cave, David calls out to Saul to explain how he had spared Saul’s life and that he was no threat to him. To assure Saul that he was not dangerous, David finishes his speech with:
Against whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom do you pursue? A dead dog? A single flea?1 Samuel 24:14 (NRSV)
The other instance concerns a similar incident in which David, once more, spares Saul’s life. Politically, things are a little more dangerous for David. His influential main supporter, the final Judge of the old tribal system, Samuel, had now died. Once again, David calls out to Saul. Once more, David concludes his speech with reference to the flea:
Now, therefore, do not let my blood fall to the ground, away from the presence of the Lord; for the king of Israel has come out to seek a single flea, like one who hunts a partridge in the mountains.’1 Samuel 26:20 (NRSV)
However, it is often noted by commentators that the reference to the flea here is rather odd, particularly when aligned with the image of hunting partridge. In fact, this verse is identified by the United Bible Societies (1980:29) as one of the “difficult verses”. This is because the text is rather insecure. The ancient translators of this passage into Greek (the Septuagint or LXX) rendered it as: ζητεῖν τὴν ψυχήν μου (‘[he] has come out to seek my soul/life’).
Some English versions and commentaries appear to prefer this tradition, arguing that the occurrence of ‘flea’ can be explained as a scribal harmonisation (or the influence) of the 24:14 passage (for example, see Mauchline, 1971:176).
In the old but venerable International Critical Commentary (ICC) series, Smith (1899) emends the text as:
For the king of Israel is come out to seek my life, as the eagle hunts for the partridge.”Smith (1899:233)
Whether one accepts the reading of ‘flea’ or ‘soul/life’, most commentators interpret David’s point as one of humility and an assurance of his insignificance and weakness compared to superior might of Saul.
Flea – the role model of super heroes
However, this is not the only possible way of reading this. The book of Samuel paints David as a man adept at using psychology for his own ends. Harris (1824) supplies a much more pugnacious reading based on real-life experience – something which anyone who has attempted to catch a flea can sympathise:
David likens himself to [the flea]; importing, that while it would cost Saul much pains to catch him, he would obtain but very little advantage from it.Harris (1824:138)
This idea is developed by Jewish scholar and botanist, Nogah Hareuveni. Noting that the partridge is renowned for its ability to blend with its surroundings, allowing it to be passed unnoticed while (literally) hiding in plain sight, Hareuveni (1991:147) argues that these images (flea and partridge) are carefully chosen to describe David. As a hunter, and living rough while on the run, David would be very familiar with the partridge’s ability of camouflage. Moreover, the flea offers another, highly topical, image. Hareuveni (1991) argues that:
David must have tried, probably without much success, to kill the fleas that annoyed him in the caves where he hid. […] The picture David paints for Saul contains a double message: while emphasising what a lightweight he is in comparison to the king of Israel, David increases Saul’s frustration by comparing his futile pursuit to trying to catch a fleas or the mountain partridge, both of which are champions at quick evasive action and skipping from one hiding place to another.Hareuveni (1991:148)
Judah jumping like a flea
Although the flea is an irritant, if we accept Harris’ and Hareuveni’s reading of 1 Sam 26:20 it is also, in some lights, impressive and inspiring. This idea is picked up in a surprising way within the Haggadah – David is of the tribe of Judah
In the morning, Judah said to Jacob, “Father, thou didst fight the whole of yesterday, and thou art weary and exhausted. Let me fight this day.” When the warriors caught sight of Judah’s lion face and his lion teeth, and heard his lion voice, they were greatly afraid. Judah hopped and jumped over the army like a flea, from one warrior to the next, raining blows down upon them incessantly, and by evening he had slain eighty thousand and ninety-six men, armed with swords and bows. But fatigue overcame him, and Zebulon took up his station at his brother’s left hand, and mowed down eighty thousand of the enemy. Meantime Judah regained some of his strength, and, rising up in wrath and fury, and gnashing his teeth with a noise like unto thunder claps in midsummer, he put the army to flight. It ran a distance of eighteen miles, and Judah could enjoy a respite that night.Ginzberg (1909: 406) (Emphasis added)
The flea jump mystery solved
In case you ever feel the need to emulate Judah’s flea-like ability, researchers, using high-speed cameras, have at long last captured how exactly the flea can accomplish such an incredible feat…
Flea’s jumping ability explained – BBC Earth News
Ginzberg, L. (1909) The Legends of the Jews: Volume 1. Philadelphia: The Jewish publication society of America.
Goodfellow, P. (2015) Flora and Fauna of the Bible: A guide for Bible readers and naturalists. Oxford: John Beaufoy.
Hareuveni, N. (1991) Desert and Shepherd in our Biblical Heritage. H. Frenkley (Trans.). Kiryat Ono, Israel: Neot Kedumim.
Harris, T.M. (1824) The natural history of the Bible ; or, A description of all the quadrupeds, birds, fishes, reptiles, and insects, trees, plants, flowers, gums, and precious stones, mentioned in the sacred scriptures: Collected from the best authorities, and alphabetically arranged. London: T. Tegg.
Jacobs, J. (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House.
Mauchlin, J. (1971) 1 and 2 Samuel. New Century Bible. London: Oliphants.
Person, R.F. (2014) Deuteronomy and Environmental Amnesia. Earth Bible Commentary 3. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
Smith, H.S. (1899) A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Samuel. International Critical Commentary. 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.