Cross-Pollination as a Method of Biblical Interpretation: A Case Study


When we pick up a work of military theory or a history of war, we expect it to be written clearly, factually, and to-the-point.  Metaphors, symbolism, and allegory belong to Du Fu, not to Sun Tzu; to Sophocles, not to Thucydides; to von Goethe, not to von Clausewitz. In most cases, our Torah presents no exception to this rule; though the battles which it recounts certainly involve supernatural phenomena, the style of the text’s narrative voice as it describes those battles is markedly prosaic. Yet at the beginning of Sefer Devarim, as he reminisces upon an attack against the Israelites that took place nearly four decades prior, Moshe uncharacteristically waxes poetic:

[After the sin of the spies] you said to me, “We have sinned against the Lord; we will go up and fight, according to all that the Lord, our God, has commanded us.” So every one of you girded his weapons, and you prepared yourselves to go up to the mountain [and into the land of Canaan, which you had previously rejected]. And the Lord said to me, “Say to them, ‘Neither go up nor fight, for I am not among you, lest you be struck down before your enemies.’” So I spoke to you, but you did not listen, and you rebelled against the command of the Lord, and you acted wickedly and went up to the mountain. And the Amorites, dwelling in that mountain, came out towards you and pursued you like bees, and beat you down in Seir, as far as Hormah.[1]

The incident that Moshe refers to in this passage is first recorded in the fourteenth chapter of Bamidbar. After the sin of the spies, Hashem decrees that the Israelites must wander in the wilderness for forty years. But the people, who by this point have changed their minds about living in Canaan, have other ideas—they decide to conquer the land, even though they have been warned not to, and are easily defeated as a result. It is a fairly straightforward story. What is Moshe adding to it by likening Israel’s enemies to “bees”?

As modern students of Tanakh, there are a number of angles from which we could approach this question. Let us, in this essay, sample a few of those approaches together. First we will examine what the traditional mefarshim have said in regard to our verse, with an emphasis on how their comments remain pertinent nearly a millennium after they were written. Then we will read our verse “intertextually”—a literary method for interpreting Tanakh that has recently gained in popularity—to see how it fits within the Israelite experience in the wilderness, more generally. Finally, we will draw on insights from Ancient Near Eastern mythology (and, to a lesser degree, from linguistics), as a way of situating our verse in its broader cultural context.

Rabbinic Approaches

Probably the best-known interpretation of Moshe’s bee imagery is Rashi’s. According to this French commentator, the Amorites are likened to bees because “just as a bee dies instantly upon stinging a person, so too your enemies, upon touching you, died immediately.”[2] To attack Israel, Rashi implies, is suicidal. His gloss is eerily prescient; until today, those who seek to harm the Jewish people are willing even to take their own lives in the process, if that is what it is required.

Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam, offers a more favorable understanding of the bee simile. In his view, Israel’s enemies are analogous to bees in the sense that they are united: “when one goes out [to attack], all the others follow suit.”[3] Indeed, notes Hizkuni,[4] the Amalekites were not alone when they confronted the Israelites—they were aided by the Canaanites.[5] Hizkuni’s observation is especially interesting when we consider that the Canaanites did not even dwell in the mountains, where the war took place; according to the report of the scouts sent by Moses, they inhabited “the coastal region.”[6] Like Rashi, then, Rashbam elucidates our verse in a way that is contemporarily relevant—whether in the War of Independence, the Six Day War, or the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s neighbors have often been joined in their military campaigns by nations who have no geographical stake in the conflict.

Ibn Ezra, by contrast, appears more sympathetic to Israel’s enemies. He suggests that the Amorites are likened to bees because “anybody who nears the home of a bee is immediately chased and bitten.”[7] Likewise, Rabbenu Behaye states: “It is the nature of bees to pursue anybody who touches their home, and a person endangers himself by doing so.”[8] What these Spanish exegetes seem to be telling us is that the Israelites should have known better than to lay claims to territories that were not theirs. To establish your home in the land of your forefathers and foremothers is a beautiful mitsvah; to launch a reckless attack against a people  to whom you have not offered peace, and whom God has explicitly commanded you to leave alone, is most certainly not.

Intertextual Approaches

While the rabbinic commentators vary widely in their analysis of our verse in Devarim, each of them strives to connect its meaning to the details of the battle described in the book of Bamidbar. Yet perhaps we must return to the moments immediately preceding that battle if we wish to uncover the import of Moshe’s curious reference to “bees:”

[The spies said]:  “We are unable to go up against the people [of Canaan], for they are stronger than we.” They spread a rumor about the land which they had scouted, telling the children of Israel, “The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature. There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”[9]

Only twice in the Torah are humans likened to insects: in our verse, and in the final verse cited above. It would appear that these verses are closely connected. In Bamidbar, a frightened people abandons its plans to conquer the Promised Land when it is told that its members “seem like grasshoppers” in the eyes of the locals. The Israelites ultimately change their minds, but they are routed by the Canaanites all the same. Then, in Devarim, Moshe alludes to the debacle by portraying Israel’s enemies as “bees.” The bee does not prey on other insects, [10] and its cousin, the wasp, generally prefers plant material as well.[11] Yet wasps have been known to eat other insects—including, occasionally, grasshoppers—on one condition: if the grasshopper is already dead, or it has been paralyzed.[12] Perhaps this is the meaning behind Moshe’s “bee imagery.” “There was no reason for us to lose that battle,” he implies. “Only because we became paralyzed by our own fears were we vanquished.”

On the other hand, it is possible that Moshe’s bee imagery includes a more positive undertone as well. Twice in the course of the narrative of the sin of the spies is the land of Canaan referred to as a “land of milk and honey.”[13] This is a refrain that repeats itself throughout Tanakh, and though “honey” in this context is generally understood to refer to fruit syrup, there is no reason to rule out a literal reading. It is striking, at any rate, that of the many enemies who confronted the Israelites in the wilderness, the only ones whom Moshe characterizes as “bees” are those who forcibly prevented their entrance into the land of Canaan. Perhaps this analogy is intended to provide comfort. Do not be surprised that you met resistance when trying to enter into the Promised Land, Moshe intimates. Anything valuable always comes with challenges. Where there is sweetness, there are stings; where there is honey, there are bees.

Linguistic-Cultural Approach

Until now, we have grounded our explanations of Deuteronomy 1:44 squarely within the Tanakh itself, or within the commentary of the traditional Biblical exegetes. An altogether different approach becomes available when we expand our focus and include in our study material outside of the Jewish canon. To that end, we turn now to a rather unlikely source: Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat’s A History of Food. Here are the surprising remarks that we find at the beginning of the author’s discussion on honey:

The Hebrew for bee is dbure from the root dbr, meaning ‘word,’ whence the pretty first name Deborah, indicating the bee’s mission to reveal the Truth. Honey, miraculously made by bees, signifies truth because it needs no treatment to transform it after it has been collected. It does not deteriorate, and until the discovery of sugar there was no substitute.[14]

Though not a work of Biblical scholarship, A History of Food raises an intriguing question: What, indeed, is the etymology of the Hebrew word for “bee?” At first glance, it would seem that דבורה is related to דבר, as in “pestilence.” Nevertheless, the Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, in its entry for דבורה, cites only the Arabic and Aramaic cognates of the word—it does not list a definitive origin.[15] This leaves the door open for us to think more carefully about Toussaint-Samat’s theory.

In her book, Toussaint-Samat spends several pages tracing the mythic symbolism of bees and of honey in the Graeco-Latin tradition. Yet it turns out that bees play a prominent role in at least two Ancient Near Eastern cultures as well. Holly Bishop teaches us about the significance bees held for the ancient Egyptians in her own book, Robbing the Bees:

[The Egyptians] believed that bees were the messengers and incarnations of the gods, who had bestowed honey from on high. A translation of one papyrus reads, “When Ra [the sun-god] weeps again the water which flows from his eye becomes a bee…” Throughout the ancient kingdoms of Egypt, hieroglyphs of bees were used to signify omniscience, power, and deity.[16]

In ancient Egypt, bees were regarded as “incarnations of the gods.” This is consistent with Toussaint-Samat’s claim. Even more noteworthy for our purposes, however, is the importance attributed to bees in Hittite culture. Along with the Amalekites—whom the Torah explicitly identifies as one of the nations that attacked the Israelites in the original account of the battle that we have been studying—the Hittites were one of the indigenous peoples of Canaan’s mountain range.[17] It is telling that bees serve as divine messengers in their mythology as well. Annelise Talbot summarizes the Hittite Myth of the Missing God in her article “The Withdrawal of the Fertility God:”

The myth describes how all life on earth was paralyzed, when the god of fertility disappeared….  All we learn is that the god goes away in great anger… His action has a terrible effect on the world. Fire will not burn; corn will not grow; no young ones are born to the cattle or humans; trees wither, springs dry up, and everybody starves. At a feast the Sun-God gives for the ‘thousand gods’ nobody is satisfied by the food and drink, and the Weather-God suggests the reason must be that his son has gone away in an angry mood and has taken all good things with him…. Now the Weather-God asks the goddess Hannahanna for advice, and she suggests he goes himself. All he achieves, however, is to break the shaft of his hammer, when he knocks at the closed gate of Telipinu’s house, and this makes him give up his quest. In the end Hannahannas sends the bee out to search for the missing god, against the advice of the Weather-God who thinks the bee is too small to be of any use. The bee is ordered to sting Telipinu in his hands and feet to wake him up, then to smear his wounds with wax and bring him back home. The bee finds Telipinu sleeping in a meadow and carries out the order to sting him. Telipinu is furious at being stung; when he is sleeping and nursing a temper, he does not want to be forced to make conversation! He refuses to return and starts to destroy mankind as well as oxen and sheep.[18]

In this Hittite legend, the bee is an emissary of the gods—but it fails in its mission, bringing about destruction instead of peace. Against this backdrop, three verses from our Tanakh take on entirely new meaning:

  1. And I will send hornets [צרעה] before you, and it will drive out the Hivvites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you.[19]
  2. And also the hornets [צרעה] the Lord, your God, will incite against [your enemies], until the survivors and those who hide from you perish.[20]
  3. And I sent the hornet [צרעה] before you, and it drove them out from before you, even the two kings of the Amorites; not with your sword, nor with your bow.[21]

Both the Egyptians and the Hittites treated bees as representatives of the gods. Yet the Egyptian bee is born through a sort of divine accident, and the Hittite bee undermines the aims of those who send it. The upshot is that neither the Egyptian nor the Hittite pantheon is truly omnipotent; its members don’t even exert complete power over a little bee. Perhaps it is in order to dispel these pagan theologies that the Hebrew Bible presents the “bees” as God’s agents—lest anybody mistake who is in control of whom, Hashem adopts the conventions of Israel’s neighbors and turns it on its head.

What all of this means in terms of the verse in our Torah portion, meanwhile, is open for debate. Maybe Moshe compares the Amorites to bees in order to stress that even when the Israelites lose a battle, God is still in charge; our enemies are also His “messengers,” as it were. This is a theme that recurs throughout Tanakh,[22] and particularly throughout the book of Devarim;[23] that it should express itself in our verse would not surprise us. However, explanations that do not invoke this theme are certainly possible, and perhaps worth examining another time.

Other Approaches?

Together we have considered several different approaches to understanding the meaning of Moshe’s bee imagery. These interpretations are by no means mutually exclusive; each grants us access into another dimension of our verse, and each compliments all of the others. “Seventy faces has the Torah,” our sages inform us-—there are numerous many ways to unpack the teachings of our tradition. This is especially true in the twenty-first century, as discoveries in fields ranging from archaeology to zoology provide us with an ever-expanding data set against which to interpret our timeless Torah.

The search for multiple layers of meaning within our texts is, in no small part, what renders its study so enjoyable and personally rewarding for those who engage in it. So too is the development of a novel insight that results from a cross-pollination of multiple sources: Biblical and rabbinic, Jewish and secular, ancient and modern—as the case may be. In the words of King Davd, the toil of Torah is matok mi-dvash ve-nofet tsufim: “sweeter than honey and the drippings of its combs.”[24]


[1] Deuteronomy 1: 41-44.

[2] Rashi to Deuteronomy 1:44 s.v. ka’asher ta’asenah ha-dvorim

[3] Rashbam to Deuteronomy 1:44 s.v. ka’asher ta’asenah ha-dvorim

[4] Hizkuni to Deuteronomy 1:44 s.v. ka’asher ta’asenah ha-dvorim

[5] Numbers 14:45

[6] Numbers 13:29

[7] Ibn Ezra to Deuteronomy 1:44 s.v. ka’asher ta’asenah ha-dvorim

[8] Rabbenu Behaye to Deuteronomy 1:44 s.v. ka’asher ta’asenah ha-dvorim

[9] Numbers 13:31-3

[10] “Bee (insect),” available at:

[11] “Wasp (insect),” available at:

[12] ibid.

[13] Numbers 13:27, 14:8

[14] Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. A History of Food, p. 18. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

[15] Klein, Ernest. A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1987.

[16] Bishop, Holley. Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey, p. 44-5. London, UK: Simon & Schuster, 2006.  

[17] Numbers 13:29

[18] Talbot, Annelise. “The Withdrawal of the Fertility God.” Folklore 93.1 (1982): 31-46.

[19] Exodus 23:28

[20]  Deuteronomy 7:20

[21]  Joshua 24:12

[22] See, for example, Judges 2:11-15 and Jeremiah 25:8-14.

[23] See, for example, Deuteronomy 28:49-69 and 32:19-30.

[24] Psalms 19:11