Bees are all the rage these days. Over a dozen books have been published about bees and bee-keeping in the last few years. I personally know several beekeepers here in Asheville, and I have a couple of Facebook friends who regularly post updates about the plight of the bee population. Even Time magazine got in on it with their August, 2013 cover story “A World without Bees.” The world’s bees seem to be giving Pope Francis a run for his money in the media-darling category.
All this got me wondering about bees in the sacred texts. I recently wrote about mosquitoes in the Qur’an, and in the process, I ran across a couple of passages about bees. Besides, my last Bible Unbound column was about birds, so why not bees for this one? You know…the birds and the bees. Bees exhibit a range of behaviors that include the ability to pollinate, swarm, dance, and make honey. Any number of lessons about the divine might be gleaned from them, and I was curious about what the ancient texts might offer. As it turns out, each tradition seems to have its own unique perspective on what bees can teach us.
Bees, themselves, are not depicted favorably in the Bible. They were not one of the ten plagues used by God when convincing the Pharaoh to free the Hebrew slaves from their Egyptian captors (Exodus 7-12). But I wonder if this represents some sort of divine oversight since bees are used, in other Biblical passages, as metaphors for disciplined swarms. They are used to describe the Amorites who defeated the Israelites during their half-hearted invasion of the land of Canaan. (The background for that story can be found in Numbers 13-14).
The Amorites who lived in that hill country then came out against you and chased you as bees do. They beat you down in Seir as far as Hormah. (Deuteronomy 1:44)
They are also used by the prophet, Isaiah, as a metaphor for the exceptionally well-trained Assyrian army that would eventually invade Judah.
“The Lord will bring on you and your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah – the King of Assyria. 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 7:17-18)
In Psalms, bees are presented in a similar light, but in this instance, the “bees” are defeated by trust in God.
All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like a fire of thorns; in the name of the Lord I cut them off! (Psalms 118:10-12)
In the Qur’an, bees, like mosquitoes, serve as yet another reminder of the magnitude of Allah.
And thy Lord inspired the bee, saying: Choose thou habitations in the hills and in the trees and in that which they [men] thatch; (Pickthall, 16:68)
And in the Buddhist Dhammapada, bees represent existence without harm.
As a bee – without harming the blossom, its color, its fragrance – takes its nectar and flies away: so should the sage go through a village. (Pupphavagga: Blossoms, verse 49)
The Tao Te Ching doesn’t really mention bees, except maybe in Chapter 55. That chapter is interesting to me, regardless of the bee reference, because the first line states that those who are virtuous, in harmony with the Tao, or filled with the power of “the way” are like newborns/infants/children. I always think of the Jesus-blessing-the-children story in the Bible when I read it. Anyway, the Tao Te Ching chapter then expands on what it means to be child-like. The second line makes the point that young babies are not attacked by wild animals or stung by poisonous/stinging insects, but at least one translation specifically uses the word bees.
Although bees are referred to rather disparagingly in the Bible, honey is a different story. Throughout the Bible, honey is presented as a delectable food source, a symbol of abundance, and a sign that God is with us. Here are a few of those passages.
But Jonathon had not heard his father charge the troops with the oath; so he extended the staff that was in his hand, and dipped the tip of it in the honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his eyes brightened. (1 Samuel 14:27)
When David came to Mahaniam, [they] brought beds, basins, and earthen vessels, wheat, barley, meal, parched grain, beans and lentils, honey and curds, sheep, and cheese from the herd, for David and the people with him to eat; for they said, “The troops are hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness.” (2 Samuel 17:27-29)
On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands. (Ezekiel 20:6)
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. (Isaiah 7:14-15)
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”…Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3:1, 2, and 4)
The Qur’an makes similar use of honey when it talks about paradise.
(Here is) a Parable of the Garden which the righteous are promised. In it are rivers of water incorruptible; rivers of milk of which the taste never changes; rivers of wine, a joy to those who drink; and rivers of honey pure and clear. In it there are for them all kinds of fruits; and Grace from their Lord. (Yusuf Ali, 47:15a)
It is only in the Biblical book of Proverbs that we are warned of the dangers of too much of a good thing.
My child, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste. (Proverbs 24:13)
If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, or else, having too much, you will vomit it. (Proverbs 25:16)
Good to remember.
Bees are both fascinating and complex, but I find it interesting that getting a complete picture of bees from the sacred texts, requires reading from several of them. They are noted for their swarming and stinging abilities, their organizational behavior, their knack for building hives anywhere, and their skills in making a miracle food. Ancient people, much closer to nature than most of us, were keenly aware the power of the bee, even without a full understanding of their environmental impact. Nevertheless, any one text, taken in isolation, fails to do the bee, and all its behaviors, justice.
In this sense, bees are analogous to the divine. Reading from any one text provides only a glimpse into all that God is, all that God does, and all that God provides. Of course, reading from many different texts still provides only a small window into the Great Mystery, but hopefully, it enables us to expand our view, just a bit. It’s a point that is beautifully made in one of the most ancient of our ancient texts – the Baghavata Purana.
Just as the honeybee takes nectar from all flowers, big and small, an intelligent human being should take the essence from all religious scriptures. (Book 11, chapter 8, verse 10 – part of the Uddhava Gita)
We could all be better spiritual bees. We often lose the essence of our own tradition as we argue about the meaning of individual words, the sanctity of particular rituals, and the correct way of connecting with the divine. We often conclude that extreme versions of a particular tradition are representative of every individual who self-identifies with that tradition. We often focus on the stories and practices of “the other” that seem odd, without viewing our own stories and practices through the same lens.
We need to remember the essence of these traditions: love and compassion toward one another, methods for connecting — and staying connected — with the divine, sage advice from our ancestors who struggled with the same fundamental questions about human existence that we do. Sacred texts and age-old rituals are like nectar because they allow us to spread peace and joy as we fly through this life. Clearly, there is much we can learn from the apian world if we would only take the time. Just ask my teenaged daughter who cheerfully proclaimed last week, “Yeah…bees are the bomb-diggety.”
[The Bible Unbound is a regular column connecting Biblical themes, passages, and stories with ancient texts from other religions. It is representative of our middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, our upper elementary Sunday School curriculum.]
Bhikkhu, T. Pupphavaga: Blossoms. Trans. 1997. Web. 4 March 2014. <http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.04.than.html>
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007. Print.
Pickthall, M.M. The Glorious Qur’an. Trans. Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, Inc., 2000. Print.
Tao Te Ching. Web. 4 March 2014. <http://www.duhtao.com/translations.html>
Uddhava Gita. International Gita Society, Jay Mazo. Web. 4 March 2014. <http://www.gita-society.com/scriptures/THEUDDHAVAGITA.IGS.pdf>
Yusuf Ali, A. The Qur’an. Trans. Istanbul, Turkey: ASIR MEDIA, 2002. Print.
More on Bees – from not-so-ancient texts
Time magazine: The Plight of the Honeybee
The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore by Hilda Ransome
[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]