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Trees in the Bible - part 1

Bible overview
Trees in the Bible that help us understanding scripture.
Contributed by Prof. Julian Evans
Story also available on our translated websites: Polish, Hindi
Cedar of Lebanon in the Taurus mountains of southern Turkey.<br/>Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani).<br/>The finest tree known in Biblical times - tallest, majestic and with a wonderful timber that’s fragrant and durable. It was used for all the best buildings including temples and palaces, and also in boat building, for top-of -the-range coffins, indeed, anything where one wanted to impress! Not surprisingly the cedar is also a metaphor for important people and is used as such in the Bible.<br/>Cedar is not native to Israel and was imported as is described in the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. The transport of logs from mountain forest to Mediterranean shore, rafting, and then hauling them up to Jerusalem to build Solomon’s Temple chimes with what we know about the timber trade in classical times. Indeed, this fine timber was imported this way into Egypt as far back as 2500 BC. The Assyrians used much cedar in Babylon and Nineveh.<br/>Only the very best was used to build Israel’s great temple, namely, cedar of Lebanon. – Slide 1
Olives growing in the Garden of Gethsemane still bearing plenty of fruit. <br/> Olives (Olea europea).<br/>Arguably olive is the oldest fruit tree in cultivation yielding food, fuel, lighting, cosmetics and medicines and as indestructible as a tree can be. Some live for up to 2000 years and remain fruitful throughout, quite unlike most other fruit trees. So valued is the olive that clearing or cutting them down is forbidden.<br/>The olive grove in the Garden of Gethsemane is impressive, the trees being about 900 years old, and may come from the very stock of trees among which the Lord Jesus Christ prayed with such earnestness. <br/>Today olives are under great threat from a bacterial disease called Xyllela fastidiosa. – Slide 2
Common fig.<br/>Fig (Ficus carica). <br/>There are two fig species mentioned in the Bible: the common fig with its lovely fruit and the sycomore-fig which grows into a large tree. <br/>The common fig is often mentioned in scripture and identified with rural life, the blessing of cultivating one’s own food, and, indeed, we can surmise Jesus enjoyed them as we are told he went to a fig tree and found no fruit. It was one of the seven species of promise that the Israelites would enjoy on entering the promised land (Deut. 8). Unusual about the fig is that a single mutation leads to cultivars that produce the delicious fruits without requiring pollination or fertilisation, a characteristic called parthenocarpy. <br/>As the picture shows, figs have large leaves, can be sown together, and were the covering Adam and Eve used to hide their nakedness (Gen. 3). The Hebrew for ‘fig’ (t’einah) sounds very like the word for grief or trouble (to-anah) and may be a play on words referring to Adam and Eve’s troubles. Figs are also cited metaphorically to illustrate good and bad. – Slide 3
Large sycomore-fig in Jericho. <br/>Sycomore fig (Ficus sycomorus). <br/>A member of the fig genus that grows into a large tree and is common in the subtropics of Africa and occurs in low lying Galilee and the Jordan valley. Not to be confused with sycamore (spelt with an ‘a’ and is Acer pseudoplatanus) which is a maple. <br/>Sycomore-fig is the tree in Jericho Zaccheus climbed in order to see Jesus (Luke 19:4). Only Luke mentions the incident and how grateful we are for knowing the kind of tree too. This is because in the autumn figs grow on the trunks and thicker branches and shepherds would climb up the trees to scar the fruits and rub in olive oil. This makes them palatable - the poor man’s figs - when gathered several weeks later. It is believed that this is what is meant in the Old Testament as ’tending sycomore-fig trees’ e.g. Amos 7:14. Zaccheus, the wealthy chief tax collector, would have known this and yet was willing to identify himself with this lowliest and marginalised of occupations just so he could see Jesus. And what a change he and his family experienced as a result of the encounter. – Slide 4
The City of Palms - modern Jericho. <br/>The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). <br/>The date palm is the palm of the Bible, not the coconut palm of the humid tropics. It is a wonderful tree of the semi-desert, oases, and river banks in the Middle East and beyond. The palm features in both the Old and New Testaments and, importantly, almost certainly provided the ‘honey’ in the promise ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’. Although we know from Samson’s riddle, for example, that honey from bees was commonplace, it was a sweet, sugary liquid made from dates that was the ‘honey’ being referred to. <br/>The ancient city of Jericho, in modern West Bank, was the ‘city of palms’ (Deut. 34:3) and it is still so today as our picture shows. Near Jericho in the Jordan Valley are thousands of hectares of palm plantations. <br/>For many it is Palm Sunday that is best associated with this tree. According to John’s account (Jn. 12:13) palm branches were waved and spread on the track down which Jesus rode on a donkey. This symbolised praise and victory: indeed, 200 years before the Maccabees adopted the palm as their emblem of victory. Conversely, Roman coinage of Jesus’ day showed a Jewish woman seated beneath a palm signifying subjection by the occupying forces. – Slide 5
Acacia trees in the Negev (with Arabian oryx) Photo. F Leung. <br/>Acacia trees and woodland. <br/>The tree of semi-desert from which so much of the tabernacle, altar and associated furnishings were fabricated (Exod.25-27). There are three species native to Israel and Jordan and all would have been used for firewood, charcoal and building materials. Acacia woodland (Hebrew shittim) also features in place names and was from where Joshua set out to conquer the promised land (Josh. 3:1). <br/>These references affirm the reliability of the Bible. As the Israelites wandered in the desert and built their place of worship, the kind of timber they were explicitly instructed to use was the very one actually available - and it was good for the job too. – Slide 6
Cypress trees behind Domitian’s entrance at Heirapolis in Turkey. <br/>Italian or evergreen cypress (Cupressus sempervirens). <br/>This striking tree, so common around the Mediterranean, is not mentioned by name in the Bible but is a likely candidate from which the wood of the Cross was made. The columnar form with its cigar shaped appearance makes it instantly recognisable. It has a long history or association with graveyards, cemeteries and special places, but the reason why it may have been the wood of the cross is that it was a common tree with a straight trunk. Other candidates would be Aleppo pine or Cyprus pine. <br/>Uncertainty about the wood is that there is so little archaeological evidence for crucifixion, though there are numerous references to this awful means of execution in classical literature. Wood does not survive for long in ground contact so we can’t expect to find old crosses. The one bit of archaeology that does shed some light was the discovery of the bones of a crucified man with a nail still present through the ankle bone. At the head end of the nail was a small plaque or ‘washer’ made from olive wood. Was this to prevent the victim from freeing his foot or, more likely, to staunch the flow of blood to prolong death and inflict further torture? <br/>Cypress wood may possibly have been used for Noah’s Ark as the term ‘gopher wood’ has implications of resinous i.e. a conifer, pitch for caulking etc. – Slide 7
Jerusalem thorn (growing in Kew Gardens, London) - one of several candidates for the crown of thorns. <br/>Crown of thorns. <br/>There are many thorny, prickly and spiny trees and shrubs in Israel which might have been used by the Roman soldiers who hastily fashioned such a mocking and painful crown. Two species, the tree Christ thorn (Ziziphus spina-Christi) and the shrub Jerusalem thorn (Paliurus spina-Christi) have long been suggested as candidates as their scientific names imply, but we shall never know for sure. Both have fearsome thorns: both straight ones, 2-4 cm long, and bent back (recursive) ones on their twigs. <br/>Relics of thorns, supposedly from Christ’s crown of thorns, are invariably long and unbroken. One wonders how they could possibly have survived, many of the thorns would have snapped as they were forced down on Jesus’ scalp or broken when He was repeatedly beaten around the head as Mark’s gospel makes clear (Mark 15:19). Ignore the relics, but not the One who bore the crown. – Slide 8
Tabor oak in northern Israel. <br/>Oaks (Quercus spp) and Terebinths (Pistacia spp). <br/>There are three species of oak native to Israel and Jordan, of which two probably feature in the Bible, and two terebinths that are tree-sized. Oaks and terebinths are long-lived trees and are frequently mentioned in the Old Testament to mark a special place or event or boundary and, regrettably, under which the Israelites committed so much idolatry. The refrain ‘under every spreading tree’ we read about in 2 Kings and in the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. – Slide 9
Great spreading Atlantic terebinth in northern Israel. Oaks (Quercus spp) and Terebinths (Pistacia spp). <br/>Oaks and terebinths are linked in other ways, despite the differences botanically, in that their bark is similar as is the Hebrew word for them: elah and alah for terebinth and elon and allon for oaks. Added to this the ‘el’ or ‘al’ stem suggests ‘god’: certainly oaks and terebinths were not only where idolatrous worship occurred but may well have been worshipped or at least venerated. – Slide 10
Slide 11