Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Wisdom of Ants (Proverbs 30:24)

“Though they be little on earth, they are exceedingly wise.” To what does this refer? Ants (Proverbs 30:24).

Ants appear only twice in the Bible, both times in the Book of Proverbs being lauded for their wisdom (Proverbs 6:6-8, 30:24-25). Ants are one of the world’s oldest living creatures and have not changed much since the time of Solomon. The global ant population is estimated at 10,000 trillion, greatly outnumbering any other animal. Proverbs 6:6 commands “Go to the ant, O sluggard,/Observe her ways and be wise (Proverbs 6:6 NASB).”

It is a command few have taken professionally as there are fewer than 500 myrmecologists (ant scientists) in the world. Bert Hölldobler (b. 1936) and E. O. Wilson (b. 1929) won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for their book, The Ants. They lament that ants “run much of the terrestrial world as the premier soil turners, channelers of energy, dominatrices of the insect fauna — yet receive only passing mention in textbooks on ecology (Hölldobler and Wilson, The Ants, 1).”

What have you learned from watching animals? Have you ever observed ants? What is it that made Proverbs deem ants models of wisdom?

Ants are exhorted for their diligence, their initiative without supervision, and their foresight. Proverbs most certainly had economics in mind when venerating ants as each time they appear in the Bible, reference is made to their preparing food in the summer (Proverbs 6:7, 30:25). In the summer, ants accumulate as much food as possible to be eaten during the fall and spring, when they reside underground. (Ants generally hibernate in winter.) This economic strategy fits Proverbs as elsewhere the book advises not to spend all one’s income (Proverbs 21:20) and to save for unforeseen circumstances (Proverbs 27:12).

In an admirable effort to be totally dependent on God, popular Christian guru Francis Chan (b. 1967) has no retirement fund or savings account. In his book, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God (2008), he writes:

“Lukewarm People do not live by faith; their lives are structured so they never have to. They don’t have to trust God if something unexpected happens – they have their savings account. They don’t need God to help them – they have their retirement plan in place. They don’t genuinely seek out what life God would have them live – they have life figured and mapped out. They don’t depend on God on a daily basis – their refrigerators are full and, for the most part, they are in good health. The truth is, their lives wouldn’t look much different if they suddenly stopped believing in God (Chan, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God, 76) .”
Chan then goes on to discuss the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21). There is quite a discrepancy between the standard interpretation of Proverbs and Francis Chan’s financial strategy.

Should Christians save money? What does your budget say of your priorities? Where do you draw the line between faith in God and prudence?

The address “O sluggard” in Proverbs 6:6 (NASB) indicates that the wisdom gleaned from the ant also relates to work ethic. Ants are such diligent workers that a myth has developed that they do not sleep. It cannot be determined whether ants “sleep” in the way humans do. They do not possess eyelids so they cannot close their eyes. They do rest, but trying to monitor their brain activity would interfere with it so much that the results would be inconclusive. It is known that ants do look for food only during the day and that in the winter, their breathing and metabolism slows considerably. Do you work as hard as you should?

Much of ants’ success as a species is attributed to cooperation and task sharing within the context of sophisticated hierarchical social structures. Ants work in teams to move extremely heavy things, capture prey, and they can summon extra workers when an abundant food source is discovered or the colony is in need of defense. Ants can also adapt their duties to overcome an unforeseen problem. In The Lives of Ants (2009), Laurent Keller (b. 1961) and Elisabeth Gordon explain that the key to ants’ society is communication through the use of pheromones emitted by secretory organs. Hölldobler and Wilson commend this as “the most complex forms of chemical communication among animals (Hölldobler and Wilson, The Ants, 1).” These transmissions explain how though single ants are not clever, collectively they are capable of complex tasks. What tasks do you work on with fellow Christians?

One final way in which ants display wisdom is that though each ant has a distinct function, all work collectively towards a singular goal. This is strikingly similar to Paul’s likening the Christian life to functioning as part of the Body of Christ (Romans 12:4-5; I Corinthians 10:17, 12:12-27; Ephesians 1:22-23, 3:6, 4:4-16, 5:30) . All ant species live in colonies centered around one or more egg-laying “queens”. Whereas ants work for a queen, Christians should all be working for a common King.

Have you found your role in the body of Christ?

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