Questions of God: Mosquitos, Ticks, and Tragedies?
Job 38:1-7, 13-18
Once upon a time there was a great flood in the Fertile Crescent, today’s Iraq, where Tigris and Euphrates waters flow. It was the flood of the century, no one had ever seen anything like it. The flood waters carried off homes and villages, and their inhabitants. The floods submerged farms, and covered what seemed to be the whole earth to those who survived.
This flood was legendary. Virtually every Middle Eastern tribe recalled its destructive power. When the flood waters dried up, whole communities had to relocate and start all over again. Yet, despite the flood, some creatures survived, even insects, helpful ones like bees reappeared and in their wake came the apparently unhelpful, annoying, and harmful ones – fleas, mosquitos, ticks, and ants at a picnic.
Sometime later the story of a flood emerged among the Israelite people. According to legend, once upon a time, the people turned their backs on God, they followed the desires and devices of their own hearts – they were interested in power and profit, hedonism, and violent behaviors. They cared little for God’s good earth and debased their fellow humans, enslaving and dominating them. They had been warned, but they did not listen – eat, drink and be merry; seek power and profit; pollute the earth to make a buck. And then the flood came, and like the legend of the great floods of the Fertile Crescent, nearly everything was destroyed, but a remnant of animals, birds, and insects survived.
Now, although many people have tried to prove the factuality of this story, none has been successful. No doubt there was a great flood and some – like legendary Noah – planned for it and survived, and rebuilt human communities after the deluge. While the story of Noah and the ark may not be factual, I believe it is true – it points to the destructive powers of nature, human actions that bringing plague and destruction by the misuse of nature and immoral behaviors, and the challenge to begin again after every catastrophe, and hopefully learn something in the process.
The question was asked, “why did Noah take mosquitos on the ark?” Now, that’s a good question, even if it is above my paygrade and the story is myth rather than fact. In God’s beautiful world, why are there creatures that apparently have no purpose, are annoying, and sometimes harmful to humankind? The humble mosquito or the Canadian black fly can make your life miserable on a summer’s eve and we worry about mosquito and tick-borne diseases. Tiny creatures, of little value to us, can wreak havoc on an evening walk or healthy adult’s life.
Now, I speak as a theologian and pastor, not a scientist on such matters, but as a theologian and bible scholar, I need to return to Job for one possible response. Job suffers needlessly, he doesn’t deserve to lose his family, health, wealth, and reputation. He’s done nothing wrong and according to his religion, God rewards the good and punishes the evil. Job is good; God even says so. But, Job is suffering. Job cries out to God, “Why is this happening? Why the pain? Won’t you answer?”
After what seems like an eternity of silence, God shows up, in a whirlwind, and presents Job with a mystical vision of creation in all its wonder and diversity. Job sees the emergence of galaxies, the spinning earth, the countless creatures that populate the earth, some wild, others domestic; some dangerous, others docile. The world is awesome, and amazing in its glory and tragedy, and God seems to admit, “This is an amazing world, but it’s wild, just look at the creatures and rolling waves; I have to do everything I can to keep the boundaries safe, and that’s not easy. Accidents happen, chaos breaks in, and good people suffer.”
Then, in the midst of Job’s mystic vision, God shows Job an ostrich. God depicts the ostrich as careless, a bit on the daft side, and clumsy, and yet full of wonder in its very existence.
For the past few summers, I’ve walked by a little Toyota parked in front of the Craigville Beach Association. In my own quirky way, I look forward to its return, just to take note of a bumper sticker, “Keep sublime alive!” I am told that the sticker refers to a rock group, more technically a ska band, but I see it as a spiritual message: “Delight in the earth. Have awe at all creation, the large and the small. Pay attention, be amazed, and notice every creature has a place in God’s intricately connected ecology of life.” As Abraham Joshua Heschel proclaimed, “radical amazement” is at the heart of religious experience.
But, how do ticks and mosquitos reflect the glory or wisdom of God? Now, I’m not sure that in the vast expanse of evolutionary creativity, God planned for these annoying creatures. Theologically speaking, I don’t find a conflict between faith and evolutionary theory. Over billions of years, a wise intelligence worked creatively in the universe and our planet, moving through the materials at hand, seeking more and more complex creatures and yet working through creatures that are often at cross purposes – humans and ticks – to bring about the best possible outcome. I’m not sure that God was fully responsible for the meteor that hit our planet, leading to the extinction of dinosaurs and making it possible for our prehistoric, pre-human ancestors to flourish. But, I do believe that God worked through the various remaining species to bring forth beauty and wonder and growth, and this led to us, created in the divine image, able to do great acts of creativity, but also to destroy the fundamental foundations of life on our planet.
In the vast and dynamic ecology of life, the various niches of flora and fauna sustain each other, sometimes competing, other times cooperating.
I did a bit of searching on line and discovered that mosquitos, like bees, are pollinators and thus play a role in the growth of plants and trees. They are also good meals for bats. The worrisome tick, and it may be more trouble than its worth, hosts various micro-organisms. Moreover, ticks thin out through the diseases it carries populations of animals whose unimpeded growth might put ecosystems at risk and cause more damage, and if you look at a tick or mosquito, or housefly in a microscope, your annoyance might temporarily be replaced by awe at its microscopic intricacy and beauty.
That doesn’t mean that should be passive and just let nature take its course: we have a right to live, too, and can appropriately but carefully rid our environments of creatures that do us harm. But, even as we kill, we must remember that deep down all creatures reflect something of divine wisdom, and are awesomely made.
Job is awestruck by the vision God gives him. The vision puts his suffering in perspective without denying it. We live in a wondrous and wild and beautiful and sublime universe that includes swirling galaxies, black holes that suck up galaxies, right whales and swans, human creativity, and also ticks, ants at picnics, house flies and mosquitos…. thanks be to God!