Matthew 27.45-46After my statistics class yesterday one of my students came up to me and wanted to talk about worms.
From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,lema sabachthani?”
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
The worm in question is the worm mentioned in Psalm 22.6: "But I am a worm and not a man."
As we know, Psalm 22 was the psalm Jesus cries out from the cross, "Eli, Eli,lema sabachthani?" ("My God, my God why have you forsaken me?").
Is there a connection between the worm in verse six and Jesus's cry from the cross?
Apparently, the Hebrew word for worm in Psalm 22.6 is towla' which has two meanings, "worm" and "scarlet/crimson."
The connection between the worm and the color red has to do with the fact that this particular worm was the "scarlet worm" (Kermes ilicis or Coccus ilicis). The Kermes worm is where we get the word crimson because this was the worm that was used to create red dye around the ancient Mediterranean. The worm isn't really a worm but a scale insect that attaches itself to trees, generally oaks, to feed off the sap (see picture above). Jesus would have seen the Kermes worm on Palestine Oaks (Quercus calliprino).
While affixed to the tree the female worm would give birth to a brood and then die. Toward the end of this cycle the mother's body would bloat and fill with a red fluid that would stain the tree. The ancients would collect these dead bodies and the eggs to make a crimson dye.
So the worm in Psalm 22.6 is an insect that leaves a crimson stain on a tree.
What is interesting here, theologically, is how the image of the worm, and Jesus's invocation of it, may have less to do with the status of the worm on some hierarchy of beings, with worms being base and lowly, than with the color of blood. And even if this isn't the proper reading it sure is an interesting one.
The worm invokes the red-stained tree of the Crucified One.