Swelling over large areas of the body, abnormal breathing, tightness in the throat or chest, dizziness, hives, fainting, nausea or vomiting, persistent pain or swelling — these are among the symptoms of a reaction to the sting of a wasp or hornet. “Seek immediate attention,” medical authorities warn us, “if you are stung in the mouth or nose, as swelling may block airways.”
This, along with the horrific pain of multiple stings, is what put fear in the hearts of the Canaanites, it seems, when swarms of fierce hornets — the large wasps of the Middle East — attacked them during the Israelite conquest of their country. That, at least, seems to be the meaning of a passage in this week’s portion.
Some modern translators, though, go along with those medieval commentators who take the noun tsir’a in Deuteronomy 7:20 to mean a “plague,” based on a clever association of this noun with the horrific skin disease known as tsara’at , often mistranslated as “leprosy.”
The suggestion also has been made based on the Akkadian word siru (with a harsh “s”), meaning a serpent, that this is a coded reference to an ancient invasion by Egyptians, since a sacred serpent appeared on the Pharaonic crown.
Literary scholar Robert Alter, in his recent translation of “The Five Books of Moses,” suggests reading the word as a play on the verb ra’ats , scrambling the three root letters to yield “the Smasher.” Alter pictures this as a terrifying mythological being. He also notes the assonance of tsir’a and the verb at the beginning of the next verse: “You shall not be terrified [ ta’arots ] by them, for the Lord your God is in your midst….”
Others have understood the word tsir’a to have a transferred sense here, a literal meaning of “hornets” having become a synonym for the “panic” that is to strike the Canaanites during the invasion, as stated later, in verse 23.
Most scholars and translators, though, conclude that the term here simply means what it clearly denotes in post-biblical Hebrew, hornets, giving us this reading: “The Lord your God will send hornets, too, against them, until those who are left and are in hiding from you perish.” That is, not only will God reprise the plagues of Egypt or perform similar miraculous acts to help the Israelites conquer Canaan (as the previous two verses imply), but God also will add a final act of extirpation, accomplished by swarms of hornets. That would culminate in a general panic among the Canaanites as they are routed and destroyed.
This tradition must have been widespread and commonly accepted. We find it twice more in the Bible. Exodus 23 parallels our chapter in many ways: It promises good health to the invading Israelites, it predicts a slow and deliberate conquest, and in verse 28 it predicts, “I will send hornets ahead of you, and they shall drive out before you the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites.” Here, too, commentators debate the sense of the word — illness, insects or resultant “panic” — but the plain sense of “hornet” prevails.
The Book of Joshua provides a third source for our tradition. The account of the conquest of Canaan in Joshua 24 includes the observation that “I sent hornets before you and they drove them out from before you….”
Why are hornets the instruments of divine wrath against the Canaanites and divine favor toward the Children of Israel? First of all, many stories about ferocious swarms of insects as agents of warfare circulated in the ancient Mediterranean basin. Cultures shared stories in changing versions as they spread from place to place and were retold over the generations, so stories from Homer’s “Odyssey” and from Mesopotamia share the same trope as the Israelite story of the conquest of Canaan.
Second, a closer look at our verse enables us to see why hornets, rather than other wild beasts, would be the natural candidates for the task at hand. The Canaanites’ defeat has been predicted already. All that remains to be destroyed are “those who are left and are in hiding from you.” Now hornets, unlike, say, lions or bears, nest under logs, between rocks, even underground — that is, in the smallest and most recondite of hiding places. Those Canaanites hunkered down in nooks and crannies of the landscape even may have disturbed the hornets’ nests themselves. In any case, they don’t stand a chance if it’s hornets that are hunting them down.
The Israelites, for their part, are intended to perceive the hornets as yet another miraculous intervention by God in their history. Living the easy life in Canaan, they should recall that the conquest was accomplished only because of divine intervention and not say to themselves (in the words of Deuteronomy 8:17), “My power and the might of my hand made me this wealth.”
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based teacher, writer and translator. He teaches at Hebrew College Online and at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.