Thursday, March 21, 2013

Historicizing the Ten Plagues: Hail, Locusts, Darkness and Mass Death

 The locust swarms that attacked Egypt and Israel this past week have perked the ears of farmers, agronomists and a few Orthodox Yemenite Jews on the hunt for a crunchy kosher treat, but not many others.  Most of us don’t think much about locusts these days.  We have pesticides that do most of thinking—or rather killing—for us. 

But this wasn’t always the case.  Locusts have been at the heart and soul of the region’s history since time immemorial.  References to locusts are littered throughout the Bible, most infamously, in the story of the ten plagues:

“Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will bring locusts into your country tomorrow. They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields. They will fill your houses and those of all your officials and all the Egyptians—something neither your fathers nor your forefathers have ever seen from the day they settled in this land till now.”

Now, a little anecdote to share at your Passover Seder that may just turn some heads: what leads to locust plagues?  The locusts that attacked Egypt as recorded in the Bible—and again this past week—typically live a life of solitude in the mass desert expanse stretching from Morocco in the West to the Bay of Bengal in East.  Most of the time, the vast majority of their eggs—which can number in the many dozens—will die in the dry desert sand, an inhospitable environment for the yet unhatched ovular shaped pods.  But, with enough rain, the desert sand turns moist, and the pods turn into locusts.  That same rain will also give birth to scattered patches of desert vegetation, something the baby locusts will need for food and shelter to grow winged-bodies big and strong enough to carry them out of the desert and lay pillage to anything and everything green throughout the plains and fields of North, West and East Africa, the Levant, Asia Minor, the Arabian Peninsula and beyond.

Now, look back at plague number seven: hail.  Coincidence, I think not. 

Now, turn to plague number nine: darkness.   What could possibly lead to an extended period of darkness?  Locusts!  As Reuters reported on Wednesday last week, “locust clouds darkened [the] skies.”  Indeed, anyone familiar with the annals of the history of locusts—an admittedly small number of people—will agree that this is the single most common description in the historical record. 

Consider, for instance, the single worst locust attack recorded in modern Middle East history, a plague of cataclysmic proportions that befell Greater Syria during World War I.

The New Zealand staff corps stationed at the Suez Canal noted in mid-March 1915, almost exactly 98 years ago—that  “flying about two feet above the ground, and reaching to a height that could not be estimated, these insects came from the desert, making towards the cultivations … wherever one looked were locusts as far as the eye could see.  One was given the impression that a huge dark veil hung over the earth.”

Antun Yamin, a eye-witness from Lebanon, made much the same observation: “On the 9th of April [1915] we could not see the sun that day. Gigantic locusts blocked out all vision, and light became darkness…for an entire week they blocked out all sunlight.” 

And my personal favorite, Wasif Jawhariyya, a Jerusalemite musician and Ottoman conscript who left us his voluminous memoirs, recalled gazing at the sky in Jerusalem and seeing nothing but locusts.  “We could not see the sun at all.  The evanescent locusts looked like dense clouds in the air.” 

Hail leads to locust plagues.  Locusts plagues leads to darkness.  How about the death of first-born?  Historians, I imagine, will struggle with this one. 

What is clear, however, is that locusts have always been an important cause of famine – and hence mass death – in the region.  This was certainly the case in 1915, remembered by survivors as ‘Am al-Jarad (the year of the locust, in Arabic). The locusts, with their insatiable appetites, devoured virtually all of the region’s foodstuffs, including olive groves, fruits, vegetables, fodder fields, almonds, barely and cereals.  By the end of World War I, some 500,000 people had perished throughout the Greater Syria region (1/7th of the population)—in large measure, because the locusts ate all the bloody food. 

So perhaps what was later interpreted as the death of the first-born was simply a mass famine, something entirely plausible based on what we know about locust attacks.

So, if your in Israel/Palestine or Egypt and looking to spice up your Seder: snatch up a few locusts and surprise the little buggers who find afikoman with a treat that almost certainly bring history to life!  

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