Saturday, August 21, 2021

Apocalyptic? #28: The Plague of “Locusts”: Josephus

In the
same year Vespasian was ascending to Emperor, and thus had taken a break from waging war in Judea, a Jewish rebel picked up the slack and ravaged the countryside of Judea, since the Romans had placed the war on pause.  This plague also occurred in 69 A.D.—the very year John was writing the Book of Revelation.  There is a semblance of “chronological order” at work in the Seals and Trumpets and Plagues of Revelation: 

Firstly, the end of all three seems to be the destruction of Jerusalem and the initializing of the Kingdom of God. 

Secondly, the waters turning to blood seem to be at the first of the war (as Joppa on the Mediterranean and Taricheae on the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan bloodbath all occurred early in the war) are prophesied as early plagues (trumpet 2, trumpet 3, bowl 2, and bowl 3), and, even then, the plague of blood in the “sea,” as in the battle at Joppa, is referred to earlier in trumpet 2 and bowl 2, while the plague of blood in the fresh “water,” as in Taricheae and the Jordan occurring afterwards, are referred to in trumpet 3 and bowl 3. 

Thirdly, now, during the time John is writing the book, in 69 A.D., the plagues of darkness (bowl 5), frogs from the Euphrates (trumpet 6 and bowl 6), and locusts (trumpet 5) are all clumped together just before the end of the Seals and Trumpets and Plagues lists.

The “locusts” in Revelation 9:1-11:

Then the fifth angel sounded: And I saw a star fallen from heaven to the earth. To him was given the key to the bottomless pit. And he opened the bottomless pit, and smoke arose out of the pit like the smoke of a great furnace. So the sun and the air were darkened because of the smoke of the pit. Then out of the smoke locusts came upon the earth. And to them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power. They were commanded not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green thing, or any tree, but only those men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. And they were not given authority to kill them, but to torment them for five months. Their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it strikes a man. In those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will desire to die, and death will flee from them.


The shape of the locusts was like horses prepared for battle. On their heads were crowns of something like gold, and their faces were like the faces of menThey had hair like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth. And they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the sound of chariots with many horses running into battleThey had tails like scorpions, and there were stings in their tails. Their power was to hurt men five months. And they had as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, but in Greek he has the name Apollyon.

The Plague of Locusts in Egypt Transformed into War Terminology                 

Obviously, John is again transforming a natural plague from literal locusts in Egypt into war terminology:  “horses prepared for battle,” “breastplates like breastplates of iron,” and the “sound of chariots with many horses running into battle.”  So, what battle occurred in which the armies “were not given authority to kill”?

The “locusts” mentioned by Josephus:  In the same year in which John wrote Revelation (69 A.D.)—the interval between Nero’s suicide and Vespasian’s ascension to Emperor, an important Jewish rebel leader, named Simon son of Giora, who had at one time been “driven away from that Acrabattene toparchy, which he once had,” by no less than Ananus, the high priest, was leading “now a strong body of men about him” (Wars IV.IX.3-4), now that Ananaus was dead, overrunning villages and the “Acrabat[t]ene toparchy” (where John the son of Matthias—one of the ten “kings” of the land—had, at the first of the war, been made governor).  Simon “enlarged many of the caves . . . as repositories for his treasures, and . . . the fruits that he had got by rapine” (Wars IV.IX.4).  He marched to make “a sudden attack” on Hebron, got “a great deal of prey, and plundered it of a vast quantity of fruit.”  He “laid waste the whole country” and increased his army from 20,000 to 40,000, which was too large of an army for him to feed.  What he was doing was not so much killing Jews, but stealing all their food.  Therefore, writes Josephus:

[I]t came to pass that Idumea was greatly depopulated; and as one may see all the woods behind despoiled of their leaves by locusts, after they have been there, so was there nothing left behind Simon’s army but a desert.  Some places they burnt down, some they utterly demolished, and whatever grew in the country, they either trod it down or fed upon it, and by their marches they made the ground that was cultivated, harder and more untractable than that which was barren.  In short, there was no sign remaining of those places that had been laid waste, that ever they had had a being” (Wars IV.IX.7).


Torment Men but Don’t Kill Them
: Revelation 9:5 says: “And they were not given authority to kill them, but to torment them for five months. Their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it strikes a man. In those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will desire to die, and death will flee from them.  According to the Mayo Clinic, scorpion’s stings are quite painful but rarely life-threatening: “Worldwide, only about 30 of the estimated 1,500 species of scorpions produce venom toxic enough to be fatal.” This rampage of Simon in the countryside took place DURING THE LULL IN THE WAR WITH THE ROMANS, when the throne of the Beast was in darkness.   Perhaps, the reference to “sun and the air [being] darkened because of the smoke of the pit” refers to the Plague of Darkness (blogpost Apocalyptic #26), since it occurred in the same time period.  By the Spring of 69, Simon sought refuge in Jerusalem and the rampage in the countryside ceased.  While the Romans had already raped the countryside in their earlier assaults, I think it is more likely that these “locusts” (in Simon’s army rather than the Roman armies) are the ones John prophesied concerning because Revelation emphasizes that the result of this plague is not primarily death, but torment.  The Romans as they demolished the countryside of Judea were also in the process of massacring thousands of Jews.  Simon’s bands certainly did some killing (as noted in the “Women’s Hair” comment below, for example), but mostly they were just stealing/confiscating the food, livestock, and crops.  Josephus reports: “Thus did Simon unexpectedly march into Idumea, without bloodshed” (Wars IV.IX.7). They didn’t damage the crops and provisions—they stole them.  Therefore, when John states, “They were commanded not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green thing, or any tree, but only those men,” it is a fair depiction of what actually occurred.

Hair Like Women’s Hair
:  Is John offering this piece of information as a MAJOR CLUE to what he is talking about?  It seems, the Jewish rebel leader Simon and his rogue band indulged themselves in strange tactics that Josephus called “feminine wantonness”:  

[T]hey decked their hair, and put on women’s garments, and were besmeared over with ointments; and that they might appear very comely, they had paints under their eyes, and imitated, not only the ornaments, but also the lusts of women . . . .  And thus did they roll themselves up and down the city as in a brothel-house . . . while their faces looked like the faces of women, they killed with their right hands; and while their gait was effeminate, they attacked men . . . became warriors . . . drew their swords . . . ran everybody through (Wars IV.IX.10). 

Five Months:  R. H. Charles (I.243), citing Bochart, states: “The period of the visitation of these demonic locusts is limited to five months.  This limitation is due to the fact . . . that the natural locust is born in the spring and dies at the end of the summer, and thus lives about five months in all.”  It is entirely possible that the “five months” cited by John relates to the lifetime of an actual locust and that John really is just indicating that this plague would have a short duration. However, coincidentally, the reign of destruction of the Jewish rebel leader Simon in the Judean countryside, in 69 A.D. could also have lasted about five months (although he does continue his terrorist ways in the city of Jerusalem, thereafter, including much killing in the city).  Five months or not, his destructive ways were very short-lived.

  Both of these terms—Apollyon in the Greek and Abaddon in the Hebrew—mean “destroyer/destruction.”  This is precisely what this plague of “locusts” accomplished (destruction) in the Jewish countryside—and who Simon son of Giora was (destroyer).  Simon son of Giora and John of Gischala soon became the two primary antagonists in the civil war in Jerusalem which largely destroyed the city (Wars IV.IX.3).  All of these last three plagues we have considered—Darkness, Frogs, and Locusts--now lead us to the Battle of Armageddon, which we will begin to consider in the next blog post.  Since it is this Battle of Armageddon that the bulk of Revelation is pointing toward, we will need to spend multiple blogposts unpacking this battle.

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