the "holy land" - quarterly published by the franciscan custody of the holy land

"Holy Land" Spring 1997
Trees in the Biblical Pages

written by Pia Compagnoni
(translated by Fr. Gabriel Garcia, O.F.M.)

A tree, as a man, is a vertical figure projected toward Heaven. It is a symbol, because of its vital strength - annually renewed during the cycle of the seasons, reminding us of the victory of life over death. Because of this, trees have had a deep religious meaning. For ancient people, it represented the divinity and its shadow was a gift from the gods: They offer sacrifice on the mountain tops, burn their offerings on the hills, under oak, and poplar, and terebinth, so pleasant is their shade. (Hos. 4:13).

The tree of paradise is known as "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Gen. 2:9). It belongs to the class of mythical trees that, among the ancient people, played an important role in life. Such was the apple tree in the garden of the Hesperides and the "hom" tree in Iran. The ancient Germans venerated in Fulda the sacred oak that was uprooted by Saint Boniface when the Christian message first arrived in Germany (VII-VIII century).

In the land of Canaan, people once worshipped the sacred forests, located on the high part of the mountains. Trees symbolized fertility because of the fact that they reproduced every year, through the falling of leaves and the sprouting anew, the cycle of death and resurrection. The prophets of Israel condemned the worship of holy trees (Is.17:8; 27:9). Hezekiah, king of Judah, ordered to destroy them: It was he who abolished the high places, broke the pillars, cut down the sacred poles (2 Kgs. 18:4). With the passing of time, the trees lost their mythical value and gained an ornamental value. In this way, the candelabra of the seven branches is nothing more than a tree whose fruits have been substituted by lights.

The Almond Tree, in Hebrew "Light"

The almond tree is the first tree to sprout and the last one to lose its leaves. Its flowers symbolize the cups that crown the seven branches of the Jewish candelabra (Ex. 25:33-36; 37:19-20). In the biblical books, the almond tree is mentioned several times (e.g., Gen. 30:37-39; 43:11; Qo.12.1-5). The prophet, Jeremiah, mentions it in a vision: The word of Yahweh was addressed to me asking, "Jeremiah, what to you see?" "I see a branch of the watchful tree," I answered. Then Yahweh said, "Well seen! I too watch over My Word to see it fulfilled" (Jer. 1:11-12). In this text there is a word game between the Hebrew words shaqed, a/mond tree, and shoqed, I watch. Also, the image of the almond tree, the first tree to bloom, reminds us of the watchful eye of God, that watches over His word to set it to practice. God is the almond tree of Israel.

The Sycamore

The sycamore, the "ficus sycomorus," belongs to the same family of the fig tree. Its name comes from the Greek "sicon," fig and "moros," blackberry bush. That is, the sycamore has leaves similar to the blackberry bush and fruit similar to the fig. In Jesus' time there were a great number of sycamores in the Holy Land. Its wood was commonly used because it is harder than that of the fig tree. Today, it is a rare tree in the Holy Land. We can find sycamores in Jericho and in Gaza. One of them in Jericho is 15 meters high. Let us remember that the fig tree is never higher than 5 meters.

During the time of King Solomon, "the king made silver common as pebbles, and cedars plentiful as the sycamores of the lowlands" (I Kgs. 10:27).

The fruit of the sycamore was considered as humble food. It is confirmed by the prophet Amos, shepherd of Tekoa: I was no prophet, neither did I belong to any of the brotherhoods of prophets. I was a shepherd, and looked after sycamores: but it was Yahweh who took me from herding the flock, and Yahweh who said, "Go, prophesy to My people Israel' (Amos 7:14-15).

The psalmist naming the plagues of Egypt, says: By killing their vines with hail and their sycamore trees with frost . . . (Ps. 78:47). From Egyptian sources we know that in ancient times the sycamore tree was quite common in the Nile valley, and it was known as the "fig of Pharaoh," and Egypt as "the land where the sycamore tree blooms." The Egyptians considered its shadow as a delight. With its wood they built coffins for the mummies. The wood, when properly dampened, cracked rocks, including granite. With granite they made giant obelisks.

The New Testament mentions the sycamore: He (Jesus) entered Jericho and was going through the town when a man whose name was Zacchaeus made his appearance; he was one of the senior tax col/ectors and a wealthy man. He was anxious to see what kind of man Jesus was, but he was too short and could not see him for the crowd; so he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was to pass that way. When Jesus reached the spot He looked up and spoke to him: "Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I must stay at your house today" (Lk. 19:1-5). Here also Zacchaeus, as Nathanael did, goes in search of the truth and climbs a sycamore tree (that belongs to the same family of the fig tree). Zacchaeus takes the first step, climbing on a tree; Jesus takes the second one, calling him by his name.

The Palm Tree

The palm tree is a sign of joy and happiness. It is a symbol of life and announces the one to come. This may be the cause why the huge number of martyrs of the book of Revelations (7:9) were dressed in white robes and holding "palms in their hands."

"Palmeros, " according to Dante, was the name given to those Christians traveling to the Holy Land; "Romeros," were those traveling to Rome; and "Pilgrims" were only those walking to visit the tomb of the Apostle in Santiago de Compostela.

An oriental proverb says that the palm tree's feet are rooted in water and its head in fire. The Holy Land is the country of palm trees. They are found mainly in the valleys of the Jordan and Aravah rivers. Jericho is called "the city of the palm trees" (Deut. 34:3). The Bible often mentions the palm trees (Ex. 15:27; Jdgs.1:16; Joel 1:12). Honey is made from its fruit (Gen. 43:11). The honey was considered one of the basic products of the Holy Land (Deut. 8:8). An ancient document from Babylon names 300 food recipes using sweet dates of the palm tree.

The palm trees were also present in worship: On the first day you shall take choice fruits, palm branches, boughs of leafy trees and wi/lows from the river bank, and for seven days you shall rejoice in the presence of Yahweh your God (Lev. 23:40; Neh. 8:15; 1 Mic. 13:27; 2 Mic. 14:4). The Temple of Jerusalem was decorated with palm branches: All round the Temple walls he carved figures of cherubs, palm trees, and rosettes, both inside and outside (l Kgs. 6:29; Ezek. 41:18).

The psalmist compares the virtuous with the palm tree: So the virtuous flourish like palm trees and grow as tall as the cedars of Lebanon (Ps. 92:13). In the Song of Songs it is said that the bridegroom's locks "are palm fronds and black as the raven" (5:11), while the stature of the bride is "like the palm tree." In Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom is praised: "I have grown tall as a palm in Engedi, as the rosebushes of Jericho" (24:18).

In the apocryphal book "Dormitio Virginis" or "Transitus Beatae Mariae Virginis", written during the second century, it is said that Jesus appeared to His Mother announcing her dormitio within three days. Then He presented a luminous palm so that the Apostles would take it singing hymns, in front of her body. Peter asked the apostle John, to take the palm frond when the procession left Jerusalem toward the Mount of Olives. In this sense, it is convenient to remember that in the church of St. Mark in Florence, the Dormitio and the Burial of Our Lady are represented. In both of them the apostle John is seen with a beautiful palm in his hands.

© copyright 1997

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