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What’s Eating Your Shade Tree?

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In the last couple of blogs I’ve taken a look at tolah, the Bible’s crimson worm, which I believe is identified in the Old Testament as a type of Christ because of its self-sacrificial provision for its young and other characteristics discussed last time.

So, in addition to Psalm 22, where does the crimson worm show up in the Old Testament?

One interesting place is in the book of Jonah. We all know the story. God sends a reluctant emissary to the nasty and brutish people of Nineveh to warn them of impending judgment. After a detour in the belly of a large fish, Jonah ends up in Nineveh carrying out God’s command to warn the city of the wrath to come. He then retires to a nearby hillside to await the fireworks.

An interesting twist occurs when the people of Nineveh, from the greatest to the least, actually pay heed to his warning, and repent in sackcloth and ashes. Our gracious and merciful God relents of the warned-about judgment and spares the city.

Back to Jonah, sitting on a hill near the city, waiting for fire to fall. Upset that God has relented, he has expressed his anger, as we read in Jonah 4:1-3 …

“Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

God’s response, in verse 4, was simple and patient and to the point: “Is it right for you to be angry?”

It’s interesting that Jonah suspected all along that God might cave and not smack the Ninevites. Why did he suspect this? I think it’s because God has been gracious and forgiving to him. He is getting to know what God is like. He’s not the mean old man the uneducated and ignorant might take him to be. Scripture says God is, to the contrary, “longsuffering and kind.” So much so that Jonah now feels that, as the prophet who warned of destruction, he is in an awkward spot.

So, for a reason I’m not sure I completely understand, other than the fact that we know he’s pouting and angry, Jonah goes off to one side of the city to sit atop a hill and wait. Why? God has already relented. Perhaps he thinks God will choose: him or the Ninevites. “Just let me die.”

This would be baffling except that it strikes a resonant chord somewhere deep within me. So often, when I’m angry and feel wronged, I have a tendency to think self-destructive thoughts. “My wife doesn’t appreciate me. How would she feel if she knew she made me so depressed I crashed this car into a tree? Surely she’d be sorry then that she was so insensitive.” Like small children, we adults certainly know how to pout when we’re mad.

What happens next is almost funny. Sad, but funny. Jonah, who says he’s ready to die, actually gets quite uncomfortable sitting in the sun. (No doubt his skin was bleached by the inside of the fish, and that has to make a sunburn itch.) So Jonah, who earlier in the story was quite ready to die, now seems fairly appreciative when “God provided” a nice leafy plant “and made it grow up over Jonah” to shade his head from the scorching sun. (Hmmm … death suddenly doesn’t look quite so romantic, does it?)

But then, in one of those annoying object lessons which life so readily gives out, Scripture says, “But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

For years I passed over that statement, “God provided a worm …” But, guess what the Hebrew word for “worm” is in this sentence? Tolah.

It is often said that one of the things God is so good at is “comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable.” It’s amazing how quickly Jonah took that leafy green plant (which God provided) for granted. And, of course, once again, he was mad.

However, this time I think the object lesson began to sink in. The final verses of Jonah’s story read:

“But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”

10 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

There are so many lessons in this story. First, it’s interesting how God describes the Ninevites. Their spiritual poverty and ignorance is so great they “cannot tell their right hand from their left.” And we wince (for Jonah) with the irony of God’s not-so-subtle little addendum: “and also many animals.”

Reminds me of O Brother, Where Art Thou? — “No, not the livestock!”

The second lesson is aimed right between Jonah’s (and our) eyes. Even though we don’t deserve everything that we enjoy, that God blesses us with, to make us happy and comfortable and healthy, we still get so attached to them that we come to see them as “rights.” We think, I have a right to food, and medicine, and shelter, and clothing, and fundamentally to be happy and free. God has provided all those things we enjoy, but we take them for granted. Did Jonah say “thank you” for the leafy shade plant?

Tonight I watched a fascinating video called “More Than Dreams.” It presents five true-life case studies of Muslims to whom Christ was sent, through dreams which revealed Him to be the answer to their prayers.

I found it interesting that in each case, their lives were not simply made better. To the contrary, they were cast out by their families, rejected by their societies, abused, scorned, some even suffering attempts on their lives. Their immediate shade, their comfortable circumstances, were destroyed by the newfound reality of Christ in their lives. But a deeper blessing awaited each — a connection with the One True God who had been drawing them to Himself.

We are certainly comfortable. So comfortable that God may choose to provide the Crimson Worm to destroy all that shades us from the truth and expose us to the nitty gritty realities of life. But Jesus didn’t say, “I come that they might be comfortable.” No, He said, “I come that they might have life, and more abundantly.”

Are we willing to let God reclaim the the shade and become truly uncomfortable, if that’s what it takes to make us into the kind of people we need to be?

A Worm, and Not a Man

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The bodies of the female coccus illicis affixed to oak stems. The bright crimson coloration is evident.

The bodies of the female coccus illicis affixed to oak stems. The bright crimson coloration is evident.

6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the LORD,” they say,
“let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

Psalm 22

“But I am a worm and not a man …” Shocking words, considering the fact that Psalm 22 is a Messianic psalm, or one that foretells the advent, life, and death of the Messiah. I always wondered, Why would Jesus say, “I am a worm, and not a man?”

The Hebrew word for worm in this verse is “Tow-lah” (or “Tolah”). This word, and variations of it, appear in numerous places throughout the Old Testament, and refer not to worms in general, but to a specific flying moth-like insect: Coccus illicis in the Latin.

These Latin words bear the unusual meaning: “Crimson — it is finished.” It refers to a specific worm (also known as Kermes) which infests a certain variety of oak tree (the Kermes Oak) in the Middle East. This infestation (by female members of the species, or cochineal) had a specific benefit to Middle Eastern culture. Pregnant cochineal cement their bodies to the wood of the Kermes oak, with a protective shell on the outside and the eggs of their young on the inside. Cochineal are  bright crimson in color, so these shells would be scraped off the wood in large quantities and crushed into a brilliant crimson dye for dying wool garments.

This crimson substance was also used in ancient Middle Eastern societies as an antibacterial agent, as a cleansing agent to purify those ceremonially unclean (because, for instance, they came in contact with a dead body).

The male Tolah is a rather unremarkable moth; but there are two other interesting things to note about the female member of the species:

  • Unlike the male, she does not fly. Her grub-like body is not attractive in any way (to any but the male Kermes, to be sure) and so non-insect-like that the ancients actually thought the cochineals were plant matter rather than insects.
  • She sacrifices herself for her children. As the eggs hatch inside that protective shell, they consume their mother then burst forth through the shell to escape. The brilliant crimson fluid runs down and stains the wood of the tree.
  • After the cochineal has accomplished her objective, her body dries to a white husk. These husks eventually float down off the wood of the oaks, filling the groves with the appearance of snow.

So Christ, in the Messianic Psalm focusing on His suffering, His passion, compares himself to one of these worms. Affixed to the wood of the cross, His blood ran down and stained it crimson. But the result of his sacrifice was that our sins were washed “white as snow.” In so doing, He secured for His children new and eternal life.

“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

Isaiah 1:18

Professor Zohar Amar from the Temple Institute dissolves a single Crimson Worm in a glass of water and shows the dye that results.

Professor Zohar Amar from the Temple Institute dissolves a single Crimson Worm in a glass of water and shows the dye that results.

Follow this link for a very interesting Jewish site documenting a modern-day revival of the practice of gathering crimson from Coccus illicis.

Coming up: We will examine what can be learned from other appearances of the crimson worm throughout Scripture.

Word-Pictures of Jesus

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Female coccus illicis, the crimson worm.

The body of the female coccus illicis, or crimson worm, contains a brilliant scarlet pigment used to dye wool.

The more time I spend reading, reflecting upon, and studying the Bible, the more I discover that it is absolutely full of fascinating word-pictures that help us understand more fully who Jesus was and is … and who, in turn, His Heavenly Father is, the God who created the universe.

For, Christ told His disciples in very plain language: “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father.” Scripture tells us that He is the image of the invisible God. Jesus came to make known to us what God is like.

I’ve decided to name this blog “The Crimson Worm,” because one of the most fascinating word-pictures in the Old Testament used to depict Christ was Coccus Illicis, or (in the Hebrew), Tow-lah … the Crimson Worm.

In coming blog posts I will discuss exactly what the Crimson Worm is, and what it reveals about Jesus. But this will be only the beginning of a series of biblical word-pictures designed to help us get to know God better.

I also invite you, through your comments, to submit your own word pictures that we may discuss. What scriptural metaphors or similes have been valuable to you as you have grown in your understanding of God?

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