Did Solomon Err in Proverbs 6:7?
Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which, having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest. How long will you slumber, O sluggard? When will you rise from your sleep? (Proverbs 6:6-9).
Some have charged the Bible with error because Solomon stated that ants have no “captain, overseer, or ruler”—when “everyone knows” that ants have a queen. As with most allegations leveled against the inspiration of the Bible, a little study and deeper examination beneath the surface would dispel such premature assessments.
First, observe that the first of the three Hebrew terms in verse 7, rendered “captain” in the NKJV, refers to a magistrate or military leader—a person in authority who is the decider.1 The NASB and RSV render the term “chief,” the KJV has “guide,” while the NIV renders it “commander.” The second term, rendered “overseer” in the NKJV, refers to an “official, officer” or “magistrate”2—those who oversee the work of others. The third word means to “rule, have dominion over.”3 Clearly, all three terms used by Solomon in verse 7 connote the exertion of authority over others via guiding, commanding, overseeing, and ruling. These terms certainly characterize the function of most human queens.
Second, one must realize that mere humans—perhaps early entomologists or other naturalists—were responsible for assigning the term “queen” to one particular ant in an ant colony. As we’ve just noted, in the conventional sense of the term, a queen is a ruler who wields absolute power over her subjects. Whatever hierarchy exists between herself and her subjects, all are ultimately subject to her directives, guidance, and oversight of her kingdom. However, a study of life in an ant colony quickly reveals that the queen does not function as a “queen” in the conventional sense of that word. She does not govern, rule, direct, oversee, make decisions, or lead the colony. Keller and Gordon note: “there is neither a central authority at work here nor any hierarchy among the workers. Work arrangements depend entirely on individual initiatives within a system of self-organization.”4 Another writer elaborates: “Indeed, strictly speaking, ant-hives are republics—each individual having their own special office, and each performing it with assiduous diligence.”5
So why have researchers acquiesced to the term “queen”? Because the entire colony depends on her for their existence since she does only one thing: lay eggs. That’s it. Her “job is to lay eggs.”6 She is their progenitor—not leader: “Once she settles in and begins laying eggs, that’s all she does for the rest of her life.”7 Her importance is seen in that the colony would die out if she did not produce more ants. But that function does not accurately translate into her being thought of as a “queen.” No wonder that, toward the end of the 19th century, “some writers had dispensed with the term ‘queen’ altogether, finding it an inappropriate term to describe the founding female of the nest.”8 She wields no apparent authority, makes no decisions for the rest of the colony, or exercises control over them. The term “mother” is more apropos and descriptive of her actual role. As noted 19th-century naturalist and Vice President of both the American Entomological Society and the Academy of Natural Sciences, Henry McCook, explained: “Her queenhood is wholly fanciful, except in the first stages of her independent career. Her motherhood is the great fact of life to her and her fellows. It is as a mother that she is the destined foundress of a new community.”9
Third, a return to the context quickly clarifies Solomon’s point. The context shows that Solomon is addressing the problem of laziness. Ants do not have overlords or bosses that stand over them and direct their activity or keep them working. Instead of sleeping the day away and avoiding work, ants manifest initiative and industry. They do so without coercion from a hierarchy of authority or power. Instead, they manifest remarkable independence and individual responsibility. They do what needs to be done for the survival of the colony without a boss standing over them. So there is no error on Solomon’s part. In fact, his emphatic declaration, coupled with the reinforcement of not one but three specific descriptive terms (“captain,” “overseer,” “ruler”), only adds additional credence to the divine origin of Solomon’s remarks. The surface appearance of error is strictly due to the uninspired selection of the term “queen” to refer to the female ant that is responsible for egg production.
1 Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs (1906), The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004 reprint), p. 892; William Gesenius (1847), Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979 reprint), p. 738.
2 Brown, Driver, and Briggs, p. 1009; Gesenius, p. 517.
3 Brown, Driver, and Briggs, p. 605; Gesenius, p. 817.
4 Laurent Keller and Elisabeth Gordon (2009), The Lives of Ants (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 57-58.
5 “Natural History: The Ant, or Emmet” in James Hogg, ed. (1852), Hogg’s Instructor (Edinburgh: James Hogg), 9:246.
6 “Insects” (2000), Exploring Life Science (Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Corporation), 6:439, https://apologeticspress.page.link/Exploring-Life-Science.
7 L. Patricia Kite (2001), Insect Facts and Folklore (Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press), p. 10.
8 Charlotte Sleigh (2003), Ant (London: Reaktion Books), p. 79.
9 Henry McCook (1909), Ant Communities and How They are Governed (New York: Harper & Brothers), p. 157. Cf. Lori Lach, Catherine Parr, and Kirsti Abbott (2010), Ant Ecology (Oxford: Oxford University Press).