Fly – זְבוּב (zevuv)
Newman University is situated next to a reservoir and, over the last few days, the current system of very warm air over Britain has resulted in the (sort of) annual ‘infestation’ of flies on the Newman campus. I have to admit to rather enjoying the sight of them, dancing lazily in loose veils in the soft afternoon sun and their sudden appearance on a paper I am reading or scurrying across the desk. However, I am also aware that, for those living in halls, it can create feelings that are far less poetic! Nevertheless, it got me thinking about flies in the Bible and the wider Ancient Near Eastern traditions.
If I am in the minority among those living and working at Newman for rather relishing this phenomenon, I also have to concede that I appear to be a bit of an oddity where the ancients are concerned too! At first glance it would seem that flies appear to have been universally disliked, or at least, viewed as worthless pests and nuisances. Goodfellow (2015:94-97) classes them with other “disagreeable insects.” However, as we have seen in numerous posts, when we dig deeper our first impressions tend to get challenged and we begin to realise that our ancient forebears had a much more nuanced – balanced even – view to the environment.
Probably the most famous instances of flies in the Bible relate to those that took part in one of the 10 plagues of Egypt. Immediately following the plague of כֵּן (‘ken’ – gnat’ or older translations ‘lice’), Exodus 8:20-32 describes the third plague as עָרֹב (arov), a swarm. Unfortunately, it does not tell us what exactly it was a swarm of – nor do the subsequent references (e.g. Pss 78:45, 105:31). Jewish and Christian biblical tradition assume that it was a swarm of flies. This is supported by the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint or LXX) that translates this as ‘a large number or multitude) of dog-fly’ (ἡ κυνόμυια πλῆθος) – a species of fly that is known as a blood-sucking pest to all who keep livestock.
The 19th century cleric and naturalist, Canon Tristram (1898), while travelling through the Holy Land, experienced the torment that swarms of flies can create and argues that it is almost irrelevant to precisely which species these texts refer,
The Common Fly is, however, quite tormenting enough to have been of itself the Egyptian plague. Those who have not lived in the East can have but little idea of the irritation and pain caused in some places, and at some seasons, by the countless swarms of these insects, which are far more rapacious than in temperate climates, and many species of which settle on the human body like mosquitoes, and by their bites draw blood, and produce festering sores.Tristram (1898:327)
The association between flies (and particularly swarms of them) with divine punishment is also found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah describes Egypt as the זְבוּב (zevuv – sometimes transliterated as zebub) or ‘fly,’ that the LORD (Yahweh) will use to exert his vengeance.
On that day the Lord will whistle for the fly that is at the sources of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria.Isaiah 7:18 (NRSV)
The neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar is also referred to as a type of fly, this time as a ‘gadfly’ or ‘biting fly’ (קֶ֫רֶץ – qerets), by the prophet Jeremiah.
A beautiful heifer is Egypt—Jeremiah 46:20 (NRSV)
a gadfly from the north lights upon her.
Although not specifically referring to the fly per se, we find one further possible reference to zevuv/zebub in the New Testament. It is the name which Jesus and his opponents give to the ἄρχοντι τῶν δαιμονίων – the ‘ruler or prince of demons’; Beelzebub.
Then he went home; 20and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’Mark 3:19-22 (NRSV) // Matt 9 and Luke 11
Literally translated Beelzebub means baal or ‘lord of the flies’. Space does not allow an exhaustive summary of the commentaries on this point, suffice it to say, this title and its uses here has received a lot of attention over the years. There is a rather enigmatic reference to a בַּעַל זְבוּב (baalzevuv) in 2 Kings 1 where it is referred to as the god who was worshipped at Ekron (a Philistine city).
Tristram (1898:327) adds that the New Testament form, Beelzebul, reflects a derisory play on beelzebub by the Jews who mockingly altered it to beelzebul – lord of the dung hill. An appropriate, if disrespectful, image as dung hills are ideal habitats for flies!
As appealing as this argument might be, we have to note that more recent commentators reject this idea. For example, Mirna Hooker (1991:115) suggests that it could possibly mean ‘Lord of the dwelling’, while the mighty BDAG (1979:173) is firmly agnostic about whether this is a “conscious alteration or merely careless pronunciation.”
The fly also appears, once again, in a negative way, in Ecclesiastes. Here, the Teacher (Quoheleth) tells us that:
Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a foul odour;Ecclesiastes 10:1 (NRSV)
so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.
Other Ancient Near Eastern literature don’t treat the poor fly with any greater respect. Its habit of feeding on corpses and wounds, not unreasonably, closely associates it with death and disease. Yamauchi (2016: 49) notes that one Ugaritic text from Ras Ibn refers to the “expulsion of flies that are the cause of a patient’s sickness.” He also (2016:52) points to the numerous (negative) references to flies in Homer, which again, view these insects as a nuisance (at best) and a malevolent torment (at worse).
Good news for the fly
This rather damning presentation of the fly and its purpose might, if you are a fly, be all rather depressing. After all, research shows that they have an important ecological part to play. Not only are they a vital source of food for many animals (and some plants), they also have an strategic role in pollination, breaking down waste and rotting carcasses, etc. Recent studies on the catastrophic decline in insect populations is extremely worrying. Therefore, it is nice to see that, even in antiquity, not everyone saw them as a worthless nuisance.
In Egypt, flies made of gold were awarded as medals to soldiers (see image above). Yamauchi (2016:50) speculates that this might have been to signify their proximity with death on the battlefield or that they caused the death of enemy soldiers.
It is not until we get to the Rabbinic era do we get an attempt to view the fly in a more positive way. In the Jerusalem Talmud there is a dialogue between the prophet Elijah and Rabbi Nehorai. Elijah asks the Rabbi, “Why did God create insects and creeping things in his world?” To which the Rabbi responded:
They were created to serve a need. When God’s creatures sin, he looks upon them and says, ‘Lo, I sustain those creatures that serve no purpose, all the more must I sustain those creatures that serve some purpose.’
y. Ber.9.2 (from Yamauchi, 2016:55)
The song of the fly
However, my favourite reference to the fly comes from the Jewish, 10th century CE, Perek Shirah that is often seen as a hymn or song that ALL creation sings to God. Among the section recording the ‘songs’ of the flying and swimming creatures we find, once again, the זְבוּב (fly).
The fly, when Israel is not busying itself with the Torah, is saying, “The voice said, ‘Call out.’ And I said, ‘What shall I call out? All flesh is grass, and all its grace is as the flower of the field.’ …The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God shall endure forever.’ ‘I will create a new expression of the lips; Peace, peace for him who is far off and for him who is near, says God; and I shall heal him.”Perek Shirah 4.29
The fly’s song, comprising a composite of texts from Isaiah (40:6,8; 57:19), captures perfectly the ancient associations with death and corruption, but locates them within an attitude of hope and grace.
Bauer, W., Danker, F.W. (1979) A Greek Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. 3rd edn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Goodfellow, P. (2015) Flora and Fauna of the Bible: A guide for Bible readers and naturalists. Oxford: John Beaufoy.
Hooker , M.D. (1991) The Gospel according to St Mark. Black’s Commentary Series. London: A&C Black.
Slifkin, N. (2009) Perek Shirah: Nature’s Song. 2nd edn. Jerusalem: Zoo Torah.
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.
Yamauchi, E.M. (2016) ‘Insects’ in Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity: Volume III I-N. Yamauchi, E.M., and Wilson, M.R. (eds) Peabody Mass: Hendrickson Publishers. pp. 42-60.