Bible Study

The Hornet in the Bible

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As we open the pages of Exodus, we’re met with a narrative teeming with divine promises, miraculous events, and profound teachings. Among these, Exodus 23:28 stands out with its mention of a hornet sent by God to drive out the inhabitants of Canaan before the Israelites. This passage, while brief, opens up a vista of questions and curiosities. Was this hornet the wasp-like creature we’re familiar with, buzzing menacingly in our gardens? Or does this reference hint at something deeper, perhaps a symbol of divine intervention and power in the lives of God’s people?

The initial query that arises is as intriguing as it is complex. Could a literal insect be the tool through which God fulfils His promises, or is there a layer of symbolism here that beckons us to look beyond the surface? This question is not just a matter of biblical zoology; it touches on the very ways God communicates and acts through His creation. The Bible, after all, is rich in symbols and metaphors, each inviting us to delve deeper into understanding God’s nature and His dealings with humanity.

Our aim in this study is to explore the symbolism of the hornet within the context of God’s providential actions for the Israelites. As we embark on this journey, we’re not just seeking answers to satisfy our curiosity. We’re seeking to understand how God’s promises and actions, sometimes depicted through the smallest and most surprising of creatures, reveal His care, guidance, and provision for His people.

The narrative of Exodus is one of liberation and covenant, where God leads His people out of bondage in Egypt towards a land promised to their ancestors. This journey, both physical and spiritual, is marked by God’s unwavering commitment to His people. In Exodus 23:28, the promise of sending a hornet to drive out the inhabitants of Canaan is a part of this divine commitment. It’s a reassurance that God’s presence and power will go before them, clearing the path and securing the land He has promised.

But why a hornet? In our quest for understanding, we find that the Bible often employs the natural world to convey spiritual truths. From the parting of the Red Sea to the manna from heaven, nature is a canvas upon which God illustrates His sovereignty and His care for creation. The reference to a hornet could similarly be a vivid illustration of God’s ability to use even the smallest elements of creation to accomplish His purposes.

The symbolism behind the hornet, therefore, is not just a matter of theological curiosity. It speaks to the heart of God’s relationship with His people. It suggests that God’s methods and timings often defy human expectations, using the seemingly insignificant to achieve His will. This challenges us to reconsider our understanding of power, victory, and divine assistance.

As we delve deeper into the study of the hornet’s symbolism, we embark on a journey that takes us beyond the literal interpretation of Scripture. We’re invited to explore the captivating world of biblical imagery and symbolism, where each thread leads us closer to the heart of God’s message. Through this exploration, we aim to uncover not just the meaning of a single verse but the broader narrative of God’s providential care and guidance throughout the history of His people.

Scriptural References to the Hornet

In Exodus 23:28, God’s promise to send hornets to drive out the Canaanites highlights His active support for the Israelites. This isn’t just a standalone verse but part of a broader divine covenant showcasing God’s commitment to His people. The hornet symbolises more than a mere creature; it represents divine intervention and the power God holds to fulfil His promises.

Facing formidable enemies and the challenge of conquering a well-established land, the Israelites were reassured of victory through God’s assistance, emphasising reliance on divine power over human strength. This theme is echoed in Deuteronomy 7:20 and Joshua 24:12, where the hornet again signifies divine aid against adversaries, underscoring a consistent motif of God’s intervention.

The recurring symbol of the hornet in these texts underlines its importance beyond the literal, highlighting how God communicates complex spiritual truths. It serves as a reminder of God’s unexpected ways of providing assistance, encouraging readers to recognise His hand at work beyond human understanding.

The narrative positions the hornet as a sign of God’s determination to fulfil His promise of leading His people to their promised land, stressing the importance of trusting in God’s providence. This symbolism urges believers to have faith in God’s higher plans and wisdom, presenting the hornet’s story as a powerful example of divine intervention and care.

The Hornet as a Symbol

The hornet’s symbolism in the Bible goes beyond its literal form, illustrating God’s complex strategies for fulfilling His promises. It merges natural and supernatural realms to guide and safeguard His followers, symbolising divine intervention.

This symbol’s roots in military power are supported by historical evidence, linking it to the Pharaohs’ conquests and suggesting its representation of divine-led armies. This fits the wider biblical use of natural symbols to convey God’s actions in human affairs.

The comparison with other biblical symbols, like flies and bees symbolising invasions in Isaiah, reinforces the hornet’s role in prefiguring divine orchestration of military victories. This consistency enhances our grasp of biblical symbolism, illustrating God’s dominion and His use of natural and human events for His purposes.

This symbolism encourages believers to see divine providence in unexpected forms, urging trust in God’s grand plan and His diverse methods of guidance.

Overall, the hornet embodies the dual use of nature and the supernatural by God to achieve His goals, reminding us of His omnipotence and the intricate ways He interacts with the world to realise His will.

Theological Implications

The hornet symbolism in Scripture provides deep insights into God’s sovereignty and His care for His people, showcasing His active role in guiding and preparing their paths. This goes beyond mere historical or symbolic interest, revealing a God deeply engaged in the world, leveraging both grand and minor elements to fulfil His divine intentions.

Divine providence is vividly demonstrated through the repeated mentions of hornets driving out Canaan’s inhabitants ahead of the Israelites. These narratives illustrate God’s close involvement in His people’s lives, orchestrating events and employing nature itself to ensure their safety and success. Thus, the hornet becomes a symbol of God’s supreme authority over creation and His capacity to utilise all aspects of it for His people’s benefit.

This guidance extends beyond physical protection or territorial conquest, influencing the Israelites’ moral and spiritual development as they learn to depend on God’s strength and wisdom. The symbolism here teaches the importance of divine trust, encouraging believers to rely on God’s care.

For modern believers, the hornet’s symbolism remains highly pertinent, reminding us of the often unexpected manifestations of God’s guidance. It encourages a trust in God that acknowledges His benevolence, His plans for our welfare, and His ability to realise His intentions through any means.

Additionally, the hornet symbolises the unseen ways God operates in believers’ lives, suggesting that, like the Israelites, we may not foresee how God will bring about victory. This mystery should inspire awe and expectancy, not frustration, urging us to remain open to God’s revelations.

In sum, the hornet’s symbolism enriches our understanding of divine providence and guidance, urging us to trust in God’s control over our lives and stay alert to His leading. It offers hope and encouragement, reminding us that the God who led the Israelites continues to guide us today.

Was the hornet literal?

Considering the hornet in its literal sense as an actual insect being used by God to influence the outcome of the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan is an intriguing possibility. While much of the discussion around Exodus 23:28 and similar passages lean towards symbolic interpretation, the idea of God using natural phenomena, including animals and insects, to enact His will is not without precedent in the Bible.

Biblical Precedents for Literal Interpretations:

  1. Plagues of Egypt: The plagues that God brought upon Egypt, as recounted in the book of Exodus, include several instances of animals or insects being used to punish the Egyptians and pressure Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery. Frogs (the second plague), lice (the third plague), and locusts (the eighth plague) are prime examples.
  2. Samson’s Actions: In Judges 14:5-6, Samson is empowered by the Spirit of the Lord to tear a lion apart, and later, he uses the carcass of the lion to house a swarm of bees and honey, which he eats and shares, albeit without revealing its source. This incident, while not directly analogous, shows how animals and insects play roles in the narratives of God’s chosen individuals.

Practical Considerations for Literal Interpretation:

  • Natural Deterrent: Hornets could have served as a natural deterrent, making certain areas inhospitable for the Canaanite inhabitants due to their aggressive nature and painful stings. This could lead to strategic advantages, such as forcing enemies to abandon fortified positions or disrupting supply lines.
  • Symbolic Reality: Even if hornets were used literally, their impact could still carry symbolic weight, representing God’s sovereignty over nature and His protection of the Israelites. The literal presence of hornets could serve as a tangible sign of divine favour, reinforcing the morale of the Israelite people.
  • Historical and Ecological Context: The land of Canaan, being fertile and diverse in its ecosystems, could naturally support large populations of hornets. An unusual increase in their numbers or aggressiveness could be seen as a divine act, especially in a time when natural phenomena were often interpreted as signs from the divine.

While the text allows for a symbolic reading, considering the hornet as a literal instrument of God’s will in the conquest of Canaan is not beyond the realm of possibility. This interpretation aligns with the biblical theme of God’s dominion over creation and His involvement in the historical events of His people. Whether literal or symbolic, the mention of the hornet in the biblical narrative underscores the belief in God’s active presence and support for the Israelites in their journey to the Promised Land.

So what was the “hornet”?

The speculation that the “hornet” symbolises military forces rather than a literal insect could imply several intriguing scenarios of divine intervention in biblical times. Here are some possibilities on how God might have used military forces, supported by historical and biblical contexts:

  1. Local Alliances: God could have orchestrated alliances between the Israelites and neighbouring tribes or nations. These alliances would provide military support against common enemies in Canaan. An example could be the Gibeonites, who, through deception, made a peace treaty with Joshua and the Israelites (Joshua 9). Although not a direct military alliance, it shows how God used other groups to achieve His purposes for Israel.
  2. Divine Strategy and Timing: Military victories often come down to strategy and timing, elements that God could influence to favour the Israelites. For instance, the battle of Jericho (Joshua 6) where the walls fell after the Israelites marched around them for seven days, suggests divine intervention that led to a military victory through unconventional means.
  3. Psychological Warfare: The hornet could symbolise fear and confusion instilled in the hearts of Israel’s enemies, akin to psychological warfare. This is seen in Exodus 23:27, where God promises to “send My terror ahead of you,” which could cause disarray and weaken the morale of the Canaanite armies even before physical battles ensued.
  4. Natural Disasters as Tactical Advantages: Events like storms, earthquakes, or pestilences could be interpreted as divine military forces. These natural disasters, occurring at critical moments, could have significantly hampered the enemy’s capacity to fight or defend their territories. An example can be found in Joshua 10:11, where large hailstones from heaven struck down the Amorites.
  5. Supernatural Phenomena: The Old Testament recounts instances where supernatural phenomena directly influenced military outcomes. One notable example is the angel of the Lord striking down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in the camp of the king of Assyria, as described in 2 Kings 19:35, thus saving Jerusalem from siege without direct military engagement by the Israelites.
  6. Empowering Israelite Forces: Beyond physical armies, God could have empowered the Israelite forces with exceptional strength, courage, and wisdom, far beyond what is naturally possible. The numerous victories achieved by significantly outnumbered or outmatched Israelite forces can be viewed as manifestations of divine empowerment.

In these ways, the metaphor of the hornet could encompass a broad range of divine interventions, from directly influencing the outcomes of battles to altering the geopolitical landscape in favour of the Israelites. These examples highlight the multifaceted ways in which God’s providence and power were believed to manifest, ensuring the fulfilment of His promises to His people.


In our journey through the hornet’s symbolism across biblical texts, we’ve uncovered layers of theological and historical significance. From its first appearance in Exodus to subsequent mentions in Deuteronomy and Joshua, the hornet symbolises much more than a mere insect. It stands as a testament to God’s active role and care in guiding His people, using all aspects of creation to fulfil His promises.

This symbolism, set against the background of ancient Near Eastern culture, reveals the depth of biblical imagery. It shows how God’s sovereignty and providence were communicated through symbols familiar to the people of that time, deepening our appreciation for the diverse ways God interacts with His creation.

Speculating on what the “hornet” might have represented in practical terms, it’s possible that it was not a literal insect. Given the context of military conquests and divine interventions described in these passages, the hornet could symbolise a form of psychological warfare or natural disasters that acted as force multipliers for the Israelites. Alternatively, considering the ancient Near Eastern practice of using animal symbols to represent military power, the hornet could metaphorically represent fearsome and swift military forces that God mobilised to aid His people, akin to the way modern interpretations might view drones or other aspects of warfare that strike quickly and decisively from afar.

As we reflect on our exploration, let us consider how God’s providence might be manifesting in less visible or straightforward ways in our lives today. The hornet’s lesson teaches us about the diversity of God’s methods and the depth of His plans, urging us to trust more deeply in His guidance and to remain vigilant to His workings, both grand and subtle.

This study invites us to recognise God’s hand in every facet of our lives, encouraging a faith that is alive with expectation and openness to the myriad ways God achieves His divine will. Let the hornet inspire us to see beyond the literal, to the profound and often hidden movements of God in the world, reminding us of His omnipresence and our constant journey towards understanding His purpose.

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