January 3, 2020

Grasshopper Myths

How we see ourselves is not as important as how God sees us.

Gerald A. Klingbeil

Perspective is critical for most things in life.

Perspective can order chaos and offers a framework that enables us to see the big picture.

Two people, looking at the same situation but coming from distinct backgrounds and contexts, may reach surprisingly different conclusions.

In one of my classes on biblical history, I used to show my university students a black-and-white line drawing,1 asking them for a detailed description of what they saw. Inevitably some would describe the profile of an old woman with dominant nose and chin and a light cloth covering most of her hair. Others would protest that description and tell me, emphatically, that they clearly saw a young petite woman, looking to her right, with dark curly hair and a veil covering part of her hair.

Don’t ask me how the artist did it, but once one has heard both descriptions, it’s possible to see both images in the drawing.

The point of the exercise was this: regardless of media and content, most things can be interpreted in more than one way. What we see is not always what is there. Psychologists may offer us a rationale as to why different groups see two completely distinct figures in the same picture. Perhaps it is a question of age, gender, or cultural background. What is clear, however, is that our perception of reality is always limited and subject to other influences.

The Report

A huge crowd pressed forward trying to catch every single word of the report. Forty days earlier 12 men, representing Israel’s 12 tribes, had left the wilderness camp to scout out the land that God had promised to Israel. Canaan! The Promised Land! It sounded right. It felt grand and auspicious. Two of the scouts carried a large cluster of grapes between them hanging over some poles. They also brought plenty of tasty pomegranates and figs. This is the real deal, they said. The land flows with milk and honey (cf. Num. 13:27).

This phrase is the standard description of Canaan in the Exodus and conquest narratives (Ex. 3:8, 17; 13:5; 33:3; Lev. 20:24; Deut. 6:3; Joshua 5:6; etc.). The land is fertile enough to produce milk (from animal husbandry) and honey (produced by bees, though some have thought this a reference to highly concentrated fruit nectar). Intriguingly, recent archaeological discoveries at Tel Rehov, an important 26-acre Late Bronze Age site in the Beth Shean Valley, suggest a robust honey industry in Canaan during the time of the conquest.2

The phrase is also used in later prophetic texts metaphorically as a shorthand for God’s goodness and His gracious covenant dealings with His people (e.g., Jer. 11:5; 32:22; Eze. 20:6, 15).

Somehow, during the period of 40 years, Israel had morphed from a tiny grasshopper to a mighty and fierce locust plague that was covering the face of the earth.

The next word, however, quenches all enthusiasm and excitement. “Nevertheless” translates the New King James Version in Numbers 13:28. The English Standard Version prefers “however,” while the New Revised Standard Version uses “yet.” All versions try to communicate a strong contrast following the description of the goodness of the land. Then it pours out: the people are strong, the cities are fortified and very large, the descendants of Anak live in them.3 The land is good but the general consensus is clear: We can’t attack those people; “they are stronger than we are” (verse 31, NKJV). Verse 33 reiterates this bad report. “There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight” (NKJV).4

We can sense a little of the fear of the 10 scouts. We feel like grasshoppers. The metaphor communicates insignificance and helplessness (cf. Isa. 40:22). We cannot take the land, for we feel too small and inconsequential compared to the people we will face in Canaan.

This sounds familiar. We, too, often look at reality and anticipate defeat and disappointment where God sees possibilities and potential. We, too, often feel like grasshoppers as we face the giants in our lives: a devastating medical diagnosis, the loss of a loved one, the pain of separation and divorce, the terror of being alone, the trauma of financial insecurity. That list could be continued endlessly, for fear and loss and pain are nauseating realities.

The Result

What happens next is well known. Israel follows the majority report and chooses to ignore the minority report of Caleb and Joshua. They shout out their anger and fears. They agitate to return to Egypt. They pick up stones—ready to silence once and for all the echo of God’s gentle voice in their midst.

Moses’ intercession saves most of them from immediate annihilation (Num. 14:13-25). God forgives, and they live—except that they will spend another 40 years in the wilderness (verse 34). God, the gracious, the long-suffering, the merciful, the forgiving, holy, and righteous God—He will bring their children into the Promised Land, the little ones and teenagers who don’t have too many memories of Egypt. The very ones they were so afraid to lose (verse 3) will cross the Jordan by faith and take the land.

The Reversal

Nearly 40 years later we find a new generation encamped on the plains of Moab across from Jericho at the border of the Promised Land (Num. 22:1). This time, however, Israel’s enemies tremble with fear as they look over the seemingly endless rows of tents of the Israelite camp.

We need to pay careful attention to the words of the Moabite King Balak as he describes what he sees below him through his messengers urging Balaam, the well-known prophet for hire, to come and curse this wretched people. “Look, a people has come from Egypt. See, they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me! Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me” (Num. 22:5, 6, NKJV; cf. verse 11, NKJV).

The verse contains a reference that connects directly to the grasshopper imagery found in the bad report of the 10 scouts. In Hebrew the phrase to “cover the face of the whole earth” is a shortcut for a locust plague. The phrase appears in Exodus 10:15 in the context of the eighth plague hitting Egypt. Both Egyptians and Israelites knew that this was not just another localized locust plague. The biblical author recognized this as something entirely unnatural. While most people living in the ancient Near East were familiar with regional locust plagues, this one felt different. It exceeded normal bounds (i.e., it rested on every square inch of Egyptian soil); it is described as unprecedented, something never to be replicated again (Ex. 10:14).5

Balak and his people describe Israel in terms of a locust plague covering the face of the earth. What an ironic intertextual link and reversal! Israel’s perception of its smallness and insignificance (“we are like grasshoppers”) following the disturbing and discouraging report of the scouts is now replicated by Balak’s fearful description of Israel’s (imagined) power to “cover all the earth.”6 Somehow, during the period of 40 years, Israel had morphed from a tiny grasshopper to a mighty and fierce locust plague covering the face of the earth. Perspective truly is key as we look at life and face seemingly insurmountable difficulties.

What Do You See?

The beginning of a new year is often filled with good intentions and ambitious resolutions. We promise to exercise more, eat less, love more, and fear less. The grasshopper-locust stories of unprecedented reversal found in Numbers 13 and 14 and 22-24 contain a number of relevant applications for people living in the wilderness and ready to step by grace into the Promised Land that our Saviour has prepared for those He calls His own.

  1. Our perspectives and angles are always limited. We cannot peek around the corner. We cannot always fathom God’s final schedule. A limited perspective should lead to tentative suggestions—not definite conclusions.
  2. Fear is a bad counselor and clouds our judgment. I know some Adventists already living in fear of the final persecution. Others fear that this movement has lost its way and passion to proclaim our soon-returning Saviour. Fears may vary, but when our judgment is informed by fear, we are prone to make bad decisions.
  3. When God says “yes” He truly means “yes.” God had acted again and again on Israel’s behalf during their wilderness journey—yet it appears as if Israel lived in a constant state of doubt and distrust. They struggled to take God at His word. Perhaps His promises just felt too good to be true.
  4. God’s grace covers even our worst decisions. Israel’s doubt led that generation to die in the wilderness, but God did not abandon them. For 40 years He guided them and dwelt in their midst in the tabernacle. He fed them, He protected them, He revealed Himself to them. The fact that we know very little about these 40 years does not diminish their importance in the lives of the first generation and the new generation getting ready to conquer the land.

Most people are not afraid of a single grasshopper or locust, for it’s a rather small creature. Millions of grasshoppers, however, suddenly become a reality causing fear and trepidation.

Perspective is critical for most things in life.

  1. See the image: www.frontiersin.org/files/Articles/103880/fnhum-08-00566-HTML/image_m/fnhum-08-00566-g003.jpg. Since I don’t know the copyright information we will not be able to print it in the magazine.
  2. The 2005 and 2007 excavations of Tel Rehov have revealed the remains of at least 100 ceramic beehives that were arranged in orderly rows, suggesting that “the apiary was a specialized industrial enterprise whose goal was to recover large amounts of bee honey and wax.” Cf. Leslie J. Hoppe, “‘A Land Flowing With Milk and Honey,’” The Bible Today 51 (2013): 174-179, esp. 175.
  3. Most Old Testament references to Anak refer to a person of large stature (Deut. 2:10, 21; 9:2; cf. Num. 13:33, which links the Anakim to the infamous Nephilim).
  4. Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Bible texts credited to New Revised Standard Version are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
  5. Robert C. Stallman, “’arbeh, locust,” in New International Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), vol. 1, p. 493.
  6. See for more details, Berel Dov Lerner, “Timid Grasshoppers and Fierce Locusts: An Ironic Pair of Biblical Metaphors,” Vetus Testamentum 49 (1999), pp. 545-548.

Gerald A. Klingbeil serves as an associate editor of Adventist Review and yearns to catch God’s perspective.