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Locusts and Wild Honey
The Old Testament background to John the Baptist's diet
John the Baptist preached in the wilderness and called for people to repent, and those who repented he baptized in the Jordan River (Matt. 3:1-2, 5-6).
So John was a preacher and a baptizer. Aside from these roles, John also dressed and ate in a certain way. It’s good practice for interpreters to notice unexpected details and to ask, “Why is that there? Is there any significance I should see?”
In Matthew 3:4, we’re told: “Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” The first part of the verse is about his dress, and the second part is about his diet.
The “garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt” is an allusion to the prophet Elijah. In 2 Kings 1:8, Elijah “wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” The description of this garment and belt connects Elijah with John the Baptist, for John was the Elijah who was to come (see Mal. 4:5-6; Matt. 11:13-14).
Isn’t it intriguing, though, that we’re also informed about John’s diet? He ate locusts and wild honey. If the first part of Matthew 3:4 was an Old Testament allusion, could the same thing be true of the second part? What if the locusts and wild honey should evoke Old Testament background too?
In Exodus 3:8, God spoke to Moses about the Israelites: “I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” Honey is associated with God’s promise and blessing. It’s a mark of fruitfulness and brings delight.
Locusts are different in what they denote. In the Torah, the threat of locusts was about the judgment of God (see Deut. 28:38-45). If locusts came to the crops, the crops suffered and thus the people suffered (see also Joel 1).
In the Torah, then, honey is associated with blessing while locusts are associated with judgment. A prophetic ministry embodied both notions. Relying on the words of God in the Torah, an Old Testament prophet would hold forth the promise of God’s blessing and the warning of God’s curse. His ministry would, in a sense, be one of honey and locusts.
John the Baptist’s diet represented his spiritual message. His words about the kingdom and about repentance needed to be heeded. Repentance would lead to blessing, while rejection would lead to judgment. His diet symbolized what his message was setting in front of his listeners. Just as his dress (a garment of camel’s hair and a belt of leather) connected him to the Old Testament, so did his diet.
The intake of locusts and wild honey was not a throwaway detail. The food going into John’s mouth represented the message coming out of John’s mouth. Those who received John’s message with faith would taste its sweetness and experience God’s blessing, like honey. Those who refused John’s message would experience God’s judgment, like locusts.
In Matthew 3:4, the Gospel writer has deliberately reported John’s dress and diet. Interpreters should ponder why we need to know about both. In the paragraphs above, I’ve argued that the Old Testament explains why these details matter.
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