Then the Amorites who lived in those hills came out against you like a swarm of bees and chased you, and they crushed you at Hormah in Seir. – Deuteronomy 1:44

These are the words spoken by Moses to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan….(Deut 1:1). Thus, the final book of the Torah begins with Moses’ retelling the narrative of the Israelites’ long journey through the wilderness to their encampment along the banks of the Jordan River, including some of the highlights of their encounters with others peoples along the way.

The Israelites’ defeat by the Amorites constitutes one of the most dramatic episodes. By ignoring God’s warning and attacking prematurely, they are routed in battle by their enemy, a socio-economically and probably ethnically diverse population that inhabits Canaan’s hilly regions. In recognition of their great numbers, complex structure and organization, Moses likens the Amorite fighters to an angry swarm of bees (Deut 1:44). In a later age, the psalmist offers a similar image of the armies of enemy nations, but expresses confidence of his victory in the coming battle: They have beset me like bees; they shall be extinguished like burning thorns; by the name of the Lord I will surely cut them down (Ps 118:12)

Biblical mention of bees is not limited to military similes. They also play a role in sustaining those who fight Israel’s enemies, especially the Philistines. Samson finds a swarm of bees which have nested in a lion’s skeleton. He collects the wild honey and eats some on his journey. When he meets his mother and father, he shares the honey with them (Jud 14:8-9). When Saul’s troops come across a stack of beehives full of honey, they resist helping themselves in accordance with his adjuration despite their hunger. Jonathan, who did not hear his father placing a curse upon any soldier who ate before nightfall, put out the stick he had with him, dipped it into the beehive of honey and brought his hand back to his mouth; and his eyes lit up (1 Sam 24-28). It is no wonder, for the judgments (mishpatim) of the Lord are true, righteous altogether…sweeter than honey, than drippings of the comb (Ps 19:10-11).

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