Flies were a familiar menace to the people of biblical times. Flies were used against the Egyptians to force their leader to free the Israelites. A powerful pagan god was labeled “the lord of the flies” by the Jews to show his “true” nature. Beelzebub became a symbol of evil itself, including in a popular novel (Lord of the Flies) familiar to English students.
Flies as Plague
Joseph (no relation to this writer, so far as I know) invited his family to reside in Egypt. They came there originally because of a famine. Egypt was the breadbasket of the region, and by means of Joseph’s careful oversight, it had food in reserve. The Israelites stuck around.
Unfortunately, new leaders gained control, leaders who enslaved the Israelites. God put Moses in charge. Moses demanded the Pharaoh, head honcho, to “let my people go.” The Pharoah had a good thing going, however, and refused. He laughed at the idea he should listen to this guy.
God sent ten plagues, all using familiar natural forces for the Egyptians, to force Pharoah’s hand. The plagues included such things as locusts, hail, and flies. The Pharaoh changed his tune.
Flies, swarms of them, were a familiar menace to an agricultural people. They swarmed around animal waste, including dead animals. Flies symbolized impurity, death, and at the very least, a major annoyance even in small numbers. A single fly that sneaks into my apartment is annoying.
Flies and Egypt
The Bible in Exodus references the ten plagues, including the flies, repeatedly to remind people how God used his power to free them from the Egyptians. Israel was a “land of milk and honey.” Egypt was the land of plagues, where the Israelites were held in bondage.
Later on, when a prophet warned that the Egyptians would attack them once more, Egyptians were symbolized as flies (Isaiah 7:18). The symbolism here is a swarm of Egyptian soldiers, who will come to menace the land. The Assyrians, another Middle Eastern power of the day, were symbolized by a bee. It is interesting that the Egyptians had the more disgusting metaphor.
The negative symbolism is shown once more when a philosopher cites a proverb: “Dead flies make a perfumer’s oil stink, so a little foolishness is weightier than wisdom and honor.” (Ecclesiastes 10:1) Flies again are a disgusting thing associated with death and impurity.
Beelzebub: Lord of the Flies
Baal was a god worshiped by the enemies of Jews in the Hebrew Bible. There is also a reference to a “Beelzebub” also called “Baalzebub,” which shows that there is some connection between the two. Both Baal and Beelzebub are cited as rivals of the God of Israel.
The word “Beelzebub” can be translated as “master of the house.” Baal appears to have been a sun god of some importance. One of his powers was to control flies, including getting rid of them. Beelzebub was sometimes portrayed with wings. He was literally “the lord that flies.”
The Jews derogatorily called Beelzebub the “lord of the flies,” but one example of the wicked wordplay that is found in the Bible. He was not a major god; he was the lord only of filth.
New Testament Usage
It is this negative view of Beelzebub that is found in the New Testament.
Jesus cast out demons. Jewish leaders, Pharisees, accused him of using the power of Beelzebub (“the prince of the demons”). Jesus ridicules the idea because his mission was in fact to fight Satan. How could he be using the forces of evil to help fight the force of evil? How silly!
Beelzebub over the centuries became a popular symbol of evil. He makes his most famous appearances in Dante’s Inferno, Paradise Lost, and Pilgrim’s Progress.
Lord of the Flies: High School English Class
Lord of the Flies is a 1954 novel by British author William Golding, which soon became obligatory reading in English classes (including mine). It is about some shipwrecked boys.
The book is filled with symbolism. Simon, who is the Jesus stand-in, at one point has an imaginary conversation with a pig’s head that is covered with insects.
He jokes that this is the “lord of the flies.” Simon realizes the “beast” his fellow classmates fear is not an actual physical monster. It is fear itself and the loss of civilization that they had fallen into. Worrying about an actual beast is as silly as fearing a pig head surrounded by flies.
The true “lord of the flies,” the true devil, according to the book is much less tangible.
People sometimes wonder why God made bothersome things like flies. Pagans might worship “the lord of the flies,” but they are ignorant. There is after all only one true God.
So, why did God make flies? Scientists might argue that flies are an important part of the ecosystem, including the diet of various animals. Theologians might argue flies are punishment for human sin. This does seem unfair to the animals who have to deal with the buggers.
I will leave that question open. I do know flies provide us with a lot of symbolism.