What does locust mean in the Bible

From plague to delicacy - the grasshopper as a meal and divine air force

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What should soon be available in grocery stores in Switzerland is actually old hat. Thousands of years ago people grilled and fried grasshoppers.

  • Passages from the Bible and the Torah show that locusts were a common meal in ancient times.
  • In Judaism only certain locusts are considered kosher, the consumption of insects is therefore controversial.
  • In the Old Testament, locusts appear not only as food, but also as a divine plague for unbelievers and sinners.

The best food stories about grasshoppers are not provided by modern cooking blogs, but by writings that are more than 2000 years old. For the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians it was natural to eat locusts.

Unlike today, they were neither fashion nor lifestyle products, but everyday food: for example, dried, roasted on coals, boiled in salted water or baked in butter.

A divine air force

The locusts also appear prominently in the Bible. Here they are not only mentioned as food, but also as weapons of mass destruction. If they invade in large swarms, grasshoppers can destroy crops in a very short time and cause famine.

According to biblical tradition, God wanted to punish the Egyptians for enslaving the people of Israel. God sent ten plagues - including the locusts, which ruined the Egyptians' harvest. The locust becomes a kind of divine air force in the Bible.

The New Testament also mentions locusts. John the Baptist lived temporarily in the desert and is said to have fed on locusts and wild honey. Protein and sugar made a very nutritious meal.

Locusts turn into sauces and chips

The locust is more central in the Revelation of John, also called the Apocalypse. Similar to the ten plagues in the Old Testament, the locusts also take on the role of a divine air force here, but the whole thing sounds more martial. We are talking about locusts and their king, Abaddon, who will torment unbelieving people for five months.

In total, the locusts appear in over 50 places in the Bible. They are also a topic in rabbinical writings, explains Basel Rabbi Moshe Baumel. There you will find specific references to grasshopper sauces and grasshopper chips. This suggests a common food culture in antiquity.

Are Insects Kosher?

But it wasn't that simple: Not all locusts are kosher. The Torah only allows the consumption of certain locusts.

Rabbi Baumel suspects that at some point that was too complicated for people. The Ashkenazi Jews, i.e. Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, therefore deleted the locusts from the menu. However, the Sephardic Jews - they come from Spain and Africa - stuck to the tradition.

But that kept causing discussions. In the 19th century, for example, there was a big argument among rabbis in Morocco as to whether or not grasshoppers were kosher, reports Rabbi Baumel.

Rather ethical concerns today

The consumption of locusts is still widespread, especially among Jews from Yemen, believes Rabbi Baumel. In Israel, too, there are many restaurants with kosher locusts on the menu.

According to the Bernese theologian Silvia Schroer, there are not only biblical but also many other testimonies that report on grasshopper consumption. Nevertheless, she is critical of the culinary hype.

"Questions of sustainability are important to me," says the theologian. She points out that the locusts are laboriously bred and then transported to the consumer via sometimes long motorway routes.

For Schroer, eating locusts is less a question of religious history than a question of ethics.

Broadcast: Radio SRF 2 Kultur, Context, May 23, 2017, 9:03 am

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