And the Eternal said to Moses: ‘Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt for the locusts that they may come up upon the land of Egypt, and eat every herb of the land, even all that the hail has left.’ And Moses stretched forth his rod over the land of Egypt, and the Eternal brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all the night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts. And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the borders of Egypt; very grievous were they; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such. For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left; and there remained not any green thing, either tree or herb of the field, through all the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 10:12-15)
The eighth of the disasters to come upon the Egyptians was that of the swarms of locusts, completing the devastation of the crops begun by the hail.
I remember the locust cage in the biology lab at school. The bright lights keeping the box warm and the locusts absolutely quiet and still: and the sudden and quite terrifyingly loud jumping and swarming when I put my hand into the box to feed them. The banging and whirring and jumping made my heart pound, even though I knew they were safely contained and anyway would not bite or sting.
That memory stayed with me – I can still feel the sudden violence of the movements, hear the bodies crashing against their confinement and my heart rate echoing their rapid thumping.
Reading the story of the swarming locusts in parashat Bo I can return to that memory and its accompanying visceral anxiety in a heartbeat. And now another layer of understanding is added as I read the reports of the locusts swarming in East Africa. Just like those in the biblical text they are consuming every last bit of vegetation needed for the people and for the animals to survive.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO) this is the worst swarming in Kenya for a biblical sounding 70 years. It estimated one swarm there to be around 2,400 square kilometres (about 930 square miles); it could contain up to 200 billion locusts, each of which consumes its own weight in food every day. They can move up to 150 kilometres (90 miles) in one day. If unchecked, the numbers could grow 500 times by June, spreading to Uganda and South Sudan, becoming a plague that will devastate crops and pasture in a region which is already one of the poorest and most vulnerable in the world.
These locusts are not a phenomenon designed to show the power of God against those who do not recognise it – they are a natural and obvious consequence of the extreme weather events suffered in Africa in the last few years – drought, wildfires, floods, landslides, extreme temperature, fog and storms.
According to data maintained by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Brussels, Africa recorded 56 extreme weather events in 2019 and 45 extreme events in 2018. Nearly 16.6 million people were affected due to natural disasters in 29 African countries last year.
The locusts came this year after a year of extremes which included eight cyclones off East Africa, the most in a single year since 1976. The cyclones themselves are linked to higher-than-usual temperature differences between the two sides of the Indian Ocean – something meteorologists refer to as the Indian Ocean Dipole (or the “Indian Niño”) warmer sea temperatures in the western Indian Ocean region, with the opposite in the east. This unusually strong positive dipole this year has meant higher-than-average rainfall and floods in eastern Africa and droughts in south-east Asia and Australia. We have seen the resulting overwhelming bush fires in Australia, but maybe the news of the heavy downpours devastating parts of East Africa has been less prominent. In the Horn of Africa there was up to 300% above average rainfall between October and mid-November, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. The resultant floods and washing away of villages, soil and people, has also been horrific.
We have a Famine Early Warning Systems Network. We have a Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. We have a Food and Agriculture organisation which is part of the UN. We know what the changes in climate and environment mean, not only for the people currently facing devastation, but for our interconnected and fragile earth. What it means for us all.
I never read the story of the plague of locusts with the same dispassion as that of the frogs. Frogs always seemed dear and sweet beings, who may be found in a cool cellar, or around a garden pond – they are generally seen as symbolising life or harmony, they are beneficial to the garden, they squat patiently in damp corners or sit on lily pads…
But the plague of locusts is fraught with all the visceral and atavistic responses to the harsh rattling of their wings, and the sudden jumping, flying, swarming – let alone the ability to consume their own weight in vegetation every day.
The bible tells us that the locusts would
|וְכִסָּה֙ אֶת־עֵ֣ין הָאָ֔רֶץ וְלֹ֥א יוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ|
“Cover the eye of the earth, and one would not be able to see the earth” (10:5)
The eye of the earth will be covered, and he will be unable to see or understand the land – this is the message Moses will give to Pharaoh before the locusts will come, followed by the deep tangible darkness and finally the death of the first born.
There is a connecting theme of darkness, of blindness, of inability to discern in these final three plagues. It is a theme that resonates for us today – even with all the monitoring and the early warning systems, we are unable – or rather we are unwilling – to discern what the earth is telling us. We are unwilling to really understand and to see that the disasters unfolding in different parts of our world are connected to each other and to us. Like the Pharaoh we stubbornly continue along our path in the face of the increasingly terrible events, until forced to wake up and cede to reality. This is plague number 8, there are two more steps in the biblical narrative until the final and most horrific event of all. There is – just – time for our politicians to wake up and cede to the reality of environmental disasters as a consequence of the change in our climate. Like Moses and Aaron, we must communicate loud and clear to the prevailing powers, if we are to avoid the final devastation.