I Am a Worm

Matthew 27.45-46
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?”

Psalm 22.1,6
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.
After my statistics class yesterday one of my students came up to me and wanted to talk about worms.

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.

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10 thoughts on “I Am a Worm”

  1. Maybe my indignant friend who didn't warm to the status of a worm would have a little more sympathy for a female beetle producing a red liquid used for dye but I doubt it. Do the Hebrew language commentaries have any insight on this proposal? Wow! Jesus identifying with a beetle who gave up her life for new life on. Tree,,,,and producing a blood- like substance in the process! Darwinian triumphalism, where art thou? The King James Version really needs revision. But what about the others?

  2. Beats me. My knowledge of these languages is nil. Perhaps some smart person reading can help us out?

  3. Hello brother Richard
    i would like to share with you this
    This morning right after I woke up and still on bed I got this thought

    I believe in TULIP – Total Goodness of God (Lord is good to all his
    tender mercies are over all that he has made – Psalms 145:9)
    provided Unconditional atonement (lamb slain before the foundations of the world – Rev 13:8) because of his

    Limitless Love (God is love – 1 John 4:8), and in his Infinite mercies
    (Psalms 136) Perseveres with Humanity (Love always perseveres – 1
    Corinthians 13:7)
    Peace my friend
    plPS: The word used for tender mercies in Hebrew has the connotations of a young married pregnant Israeli girl having compassions over the child in her womb.

  4. I'm sorry but this seems like a bit of a stretch to me.  The same word (yes, I did take Hebrew in seminary) is rendered as 'worm' in Job 25:6 and Isaiah 41:14.  Both those contexts seem to express the idea of the lowliness of the worm.

    ..."may have less to do with the status of the worm" ...if that is true, than why does the rest of Psalm 22:6 say "a reproach of men, and despised of all the people."?  Keep reading, surely demeaned status is in view there.

    I think this is a case of reaching a bit too far for too small a nugget.  Gordon Fee said that in biblical interpretation that 'the main thing is the plain thing' meaning that great meaning usually isn't hidden this well.

  5. I'm genuinely sorry too, but I can't let this pass: "in biblical interpretation 'the main thing is the plain thing'"? Look around. How much of the world can be understood plainly, without careful investigation? And if it could be, what is school for--including the authoritative note of having taken Hebrew in seminary? If Gordon Fee's words were correct, they would resign biblical interpretation to being the single subject which holds no interest for scholars. It's the kind of thing fundamentalists say to keep people from thinking.

    Here's what struck me as I read this post. I long thought that the "take up your cross and follow me..." quotes in the NT (L. 14.27) were "plainly" interposed by a later editer/writer. It turns out that the phrase was common in Jesus' time. Put that together with the fact that the Gospel According to Mark--the earliest--builds like a symphony that Jesus is directing toward the tremendous crescendo of the cross. One is left wondering--because this main question about the gospels is not at all plain--is what lies behind this push to the cross... 

    I say bravo to the kid who spotted the very interesting symbolism of the Psalm 22 "worm." Sign her or him up.

  6. I think the difference between debasing oneself in a lament (ie. "Be merciful to me, a sinner" -tax collector), and demeaning others ("Lord, I thank thee I'm not as other men are" -pharisee on the street corner) is as different as humility is from humiliation.

  7. Richard, the depth of symbolism built into the stuff of the world is amazing to me.  Not everyone will find significance there, but I think there is much more significance in the world than we recognise.  

  8. While a bit of a stretch if it's just a layman's observation, it seems to be a not uncommon opinion - googling a combination of psalm 22 and worm/towla renders several opinions similar to this one.  I also might disagree with Gordon Fee - there's a lot that is lost in translation and culture, though I think Tracy has said this far better than I already.

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