SO NOW a plague of locusts is not such a bad thing, or at least it's nothing to get terribly agitated about. That's the word from the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which released a study last week concluding that locust infestations (primarily in Africa) aren't really much of a threat to crops and that combating them with insecticides (an activity underwritten by U.S. aid money) can actually do more harm than good to the environment.

Thus is another menace with which the Bible once set people aquiver ("For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees . . .") reduced to a minor nuisance -- at worst, the cause of a little localized crop damage. Scientific inquiry and environmental consciousness have a way of doing that: replacing awe, fear and trembling with a sort of nagging worry, usually over things we can't even see or understand.

Wolves, forest fires, spiders and various other things we loved to fear come to be seen as not only harmless but environmentally good, leaving us to fret about microbes, nitrates, fluorocarbons and saturated fats. A modern rewrite of Exodus would be reduced to such pallid warnings as: "And lo, a great many nonbiodegradable containers shall be upon the land, and there shall be an opening in the ozone through which all thoseshall be smitten who fail to use the correct sunscreen."

In the Bible, it was the locusts that almost got Pharaoh to free the Israelites. But when the plague abated, his heart was hardened for about the half-dozenth time, and further persuasion was required. Nowadays, he would probably just ignore the whole business, replying to each warning of disaster, "Well, now, Moses, that might be a good thing or it might be bad -- depends on whether you believe the Old Testament or the Office of Technology Assessment."