In my efforts to overcome my fear of spiders, I’ve been trying to learn more about them. As someone who studies the Bible and biblical tradition, I had to look there too.
There’s a wonderful passage in Proverbs (30:24-28) about the surprising power of creatures that seem weak according to human standards. It’s a great lesson about not discounting what appears small, disadvantaged, or fragile, including our own efforts.
Here’s a translation:
Four things on earth are small,
but they are exceedingly wise:
ants aren’t strong,
yet they provide their food in the summer;
badgers aren’t mighty,
yet they make their homes in the rocks;
locusts have no king,
yet all of them march in rank;
the spider grasps with her hands,
and is in kings’ palaces.
Translators have disagreed over two of the creatures named here, the badger (or hyrax, or rock badger, or coney, or marmot, or rabbit) and the spider (or lizard).
I like Eugene Peterson’s idiomatic translation in The Message:
There are four small creatures,
wisest of the wise they are—
ants—frail as they are,
get plenty of food in for the winter;
marmots—vulnerable as they are,
manage to arrange for rock-solid homes;
yet they strip the field like an army regiment;
lizards—easy enough to catch,
but they sneak past vigilant palace guards.
So, spider or lizard? You can find other people who sort through the evidence, including Keil and Delitzsch. The Hebrew word (sĕmamith) is linked to the root meaning be astonished, awestruck, appalling, causing horror. For me, that’s a spider, not a lizard, but, hey, if it’s lizards you fear, then maybe the passage works better for you with lizards.
The other issue is whether you’re grasping the spider with your hands (which, if you’re not afraid of spiders, is plausible) or whether the spider is grasping with its hands (are all those appendages arms instead of legs? Does that make them less scary somehow? Maybe). Either way, the proverb works. You can catch a spider, but somehow, they still make it into even kings’ palaces. Or, the spider, working bit by bit, one hand after another after another after another . . . , makes it into kings’ palaces.
What a great image!
The first version reminds me of the wonder that all creatures have their own purposes and abilities quite apart from, or in spite of, our desires to control them. We may be able to catch spiders, but they can make it into places we may never go. And even kings’ palaces get cobwebs.
The second reminds me that even small efforts, repeated, eventually pay off.
Don’t underestimate the small or seemingly weak. Even when that’s your own efforts.
Bonus: the rock badger (aka rock hyrax). Native to Africa and the Middle East. Called the dassie in South Africa. They’re mammals about 20 inches (50 cm) in length and weigh about 9 pounds (4 kg), but their closest animal relatives are elephants and sea cows. Amazing!
Photo by Barry Britnell on exploringbiblelands.com. Wikipedia on rock badgers.