Blessed are the dung beetles
Kruger National Park, South Africa: Like all visitors to this world famous wild life reserve, my friends and I hoped to see the “big five” – lions, leopards, cape buffalo, rhinoceros and elephants. Well, we didn’t see any elephants, but we did see where they had been.
Elephants need to eat three or four hundred pounds (180kg) of vegetation a day, and they have a “throughput” to match. That is a lot of manure, and presents quite a cleanup problem.
That’s where the dung beetles come in. We noticed that some of the piles of dung along the roads were swarming with beetles. These little creatures, about one inch long (2.2cm), specialize in disposal. After the elephants have finished their part of the operation (I am trying to be discreet here), news gets around and the dung beetles arrive. Some have travelled several hundred yards to start work on a fresh deposit. Once on site, they use their forelegs to roll the dung into a ball about as big as themselves. Then they push, pull and maneuver their prize back home, where they eat some of it, give some to their young and bury the rest. Then they go back for more. It isn’t much of a life, but the little beetles seemed happy enough. Dung disposal is their only trick, but it is a useful one. And we found it fascinating to watch.
After looking around carefully to make sure none of the big five were around, we got out of the truck for a better look. I dropped to my knees to get a close up photo – something you do with due care and attention by a large pile of elephant dung – and suddenly realized that perhaps that was an appropriate position.
God’s invisible qualities
We are naturally awed at the majesty and beauty of the big five, and the other spectacular examples of creation. One cannot be in the company of lions, buffalo, rhinoceros, herds of impala, grazing giraffes, basking hippos and the other stars of Africa’s awesome wildlife without that verse in Romans coming to mind. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…” Romans 1:20
But there are lessons to be learned also from the smaller, humbler creatures. Dung beetles are never going to make the big five. But as they go about their humble task, they do teach us something of God’s “eternal power and divine nature.”
We tend to look for evidence of God’s power to be demonstrated in whatever we might consider the spiritual big five – maybe healings and other miracles, big, growing churches, natural phenomena of biblical proportions, fulfilled prophecies, or powerful preaching to huge audiences. Well, maybe.
God’s work is not always glamorous or spectacular, but he can be seen and heard in the little acts of humble service
But sometimes God shows us his divine nature even more eloquently in smaller, less dramatic ways. This was the lesson the prophet Elijah had to learn. Perhaps you remember the story in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings. In chapter 18, God used Elijah powerfully in a showdown with the pagan priests. Outnumbered 400 to one, Elijah emerged spectacularly triumphant, but shortly afterward found himself fleeing for his life. Discouraged and exhausted, cowering in a cave, he no doubt hoped God would once again intervene in a dramatic way.
“I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty,” he pleaded. “The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (1 Kings 19:10).
God told him to go outside and watch.
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord…” Ah, this was more like it. Except that “the Lord was not in the wind.”
The display of what seemed to be an example of the “big five” continued. “After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake”.
“After the earthquake came a fire”. A tornado, an earthquake and a wildfire…surely God had a message for Elijah in all this. But no – “the Lord was not in the fire.”
But then, “after the fire came a gentle whisper,” and in that gentle whisper, Elijah heard the voice of God.
I thought of this story as I watched the dung beetles going about their humble task. An encounter with Kruger Park’s big five does take your breath away. A few minutes earlier we had come across a rhinoceros, almost as big as our car, grazing by the roadside. It gazed at us impassively for a while as we oohed and aahed, before it lumbered off into the bush.
By contrast, the dung beetles evoked more of a chuckle. There is something comical about them as they scurry about, shoving the (comparatively) huge balls of elephant dung back home. But these lowly specimens of the animal kingdom were performing a very valuable service. As the poet John Milton, struggling to come to terms with his blindness, wrote, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Or push balls of dung around.
Fame and fortune at last?
In the last week of Jesus’ life, his disciples came to Jerusalem expecting big things from him. Surely the Master was about to show his true colors. A showdown with the Romans was imminent – the kingdom was coming, which would catapult them to fame and fortune. They were already arguing with each other about who would get what. But at the Last Supper, Jesus did the last thing they expected. He washed their feet.
This was the task of the lowest slaves – the dung beetles of Roman society. The disciples were appalled, but Jesus knew what he was doing. ”When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17)
Like those first disciples, we look to God to demonstrate his power in dramatic and decisive ways. But Jesus was showing us that that is not how the kingdom comes. It will one day, when God is ready. But until then, Jesus expects us to do what we can, where we can, and take advantage of the opportunities to serve as they present themselves. God’s work is not always glamorous or spectacular, but he can be seen and heard in the little acts of humble service, just as his eternal power and divine nature can be glimpsed in the labors of the dung beetles.
The noted British biologist JBS Haldane, who was an avowed atheist, was once asked whether studying biology had taught him anything about the Creator: “I’m really not sure,” he replied, somewhat tongue in cheek, “except that he must be inordinately fond of beetles, because he made so many of them.”
I think Haldane was right on this point, in spite of himself. I think God looks on the labors of his dung beetles with great appreciation. And perhaps God wants us to learn something from them too.
Reprinted with kind permission of Christian Odyssey.