Locusts are swarming in the Middle East, triggering thoughts of biblical plagues and pestilence.

Here are a few of last week’s headlines warning of major imminent attacks in the Middle East – not by men and weapons of war, but by grasshoppers.

  • Express: “Egypt rocked by BIBLICAL plague of LOCUSTS – ‘Next weeks CRITICAL'”
  • Sputnik News: “Biblical Prophecy in Action? Egypt Braces for Imminent Plague of Locusts”

What is it about locust swarms that make us think of the Bible?

Judging from the linkage, you might think locust attacks were regular occurrences in biblical times. Yet there is only one past locust catastrophe recorded in the Bible. It is the familiar story in Exodus – the creepy, penultimate ninth plague.

Yet, when people hear the word locusts, they are triggered to think “biblical” – and “prophetic.”

There is indeed one scary prophecy referencing some supernatural locusts in the book of Revelation.

Revelation 9:3-11 tells the story of mysterious locusts that come to torment men, not devour grass or trees:

And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power.

And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads.

And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man.

And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.

And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men.

And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions.

And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle.

And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.

And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.

Between Exodus, the second book of the Bible, and Revelation, the last, there are some mentions of locusts – but not a swarm to be found. Most often they are mentioned as warnings, as in 2 Chronicles 6:28, when the children of Israel are advised to pray, confess God’s name and turn from their sin in times of “dearth in the land, if there be pestilence, if there be blasting, or mildew, locusts, or caterpillers; if their enemies besiege them in the cities of their land; whatsoever sore or whatsoever sickness there be.”

I suspect there was a whole lot of praying going on when the largest locust plague in history was recorded in 1875 – not in Africa or the Middle East, but in America.

That’s when flying hordes of Rocky Mountain locusts ravaged farmlands from California to Minnesota to the south of Texas, devouring crops from barley, buckwheat, melons, tobacco, strawberry, spruce to apple trees. When those sources were in short supply the grasshoppers turned to fence posts, laundry hung out to dry and each other. When women threw blankets over their gardens, the locusts devoured the blankets and then feasted on the plants.

Nothing deterred them. Farmers lit fires, blasted shotguns into the swarms and scoured their fields with so-called “hopperdozers,” large metal scoops, smeared with tar or molasses to grab as many locusts as possible. It was all in vain.

At its peak, the swarm was 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide, equaling the combined area of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. Twenty-eight years later, the last collection of Rocky Mountain locust was made. The indestructible enemy had vanished.

China, however, still worries about locust rampages. Recently Chinese researchers discovered locusts can send an olfactory signal when forming large swarms, which can be converted to a toxic chemical to facilitate their defenses against natural enemies – mainly birds.

Researchers from the Institute of Zoology of Chinese Academy of Sciences found that this substance, phenylacetonitrile, or PAN, is a volatile compound detected in all tissue and body fluids of locust swarms, but is absent in single locusts. The compound is very sensitive to the changes of population density. In fact, the amount of PAN released is significantly reduced when locusts are dispersed, but it could be sharply increased after swarming, according to the study.

PAN is catalyzed by a novel gene in locust swarms. When locusts are attacked by birds, PAN is converted to the highly toxic chemical hydrocyanic acid, which can cause food poisoning in birds.

Interestingly, the God of the Bible, who characterizes pork, shellfish, swordfish, many birds and other animals as “unclean” or unfit to eat, has no problem with humans eating locusts. In fact, one of his biblical stars, John the Baptist, favored them smeared with honey.

One of the most popularly cited verses among Christians today is preceded by a harbinger of locusts.

“And the Lord appeared to Solomon by night, and said unto him, I have heard thy prayer, and have chosen this place to myself for an house of sacrifice,” says 2 Chronicles 7:12-13. “If I shut up heaven that there be no rain, or if I command the locusts to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people;”

The next verse is the oft-quoted 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”

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