Jerusalem Thorn

Bible  Reference: Mark 15.15-20.

After Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested by Jewish leaders, he was taken to Pilate, the Roman ruler of Palestine. The Jewish leaders demanded that Pilate crucify Jesus.  Pilate was reluctant to order Jesus’s death because he could find no crime that Jesus committed.  To placate the Jews, Pilate had Jesus flogged.  Pilate thought that flogging Jesus would be sufficient punishment to satisfy the Jews; however, it made no difference to Jewish leaders.  They continued to incite crowds to call loudly for Jesus’s  crucifixion.  Finally, Pilate ordered Jesus’s to be crucified.

Jesus was turned over to Roman soldiers who took him to their quarters, the Praetorium.  To mock Jesus’s claim that he was a king,  soldiers put a purple (or red) robe on him. Instead of a jewel-encrusted, gold crown or the traditional Roman crown of flowers, the soldiers put a crown of thorns on Jesus’s head. The thorns dug into Jesus’s scalp, adding pain to his whipped and tortured body. The soldiers called out to Jesus mockingly, “Hail, king of the Jews” (Mark 15.18 NIV). Again and again soldiers struck Jesus on the head and face with a reed.  They spit on Jesus in a parody of the traditional kiss given to Roman rulers.

After soldiers had sufficient “fun” torturing Jesus, they removed the robe, put Jesus’s own clothes on him, and led him away to be crucified. The soldiers didn’t remove the crown of thorns from Jesus’s head.  Jesus went to the cross and hung there with the thorn crown on his head.

Although there is some controversy surrounding the plant used as the crown of thorns, credible sourced identified it as the Paliurus spina-christi, called Christ’s thorn and the Jerusalem thorn.7,10  In Jerusalem the thorn was readily available for Roman soldiers to use when making a “crown” for Jesus’s head. Jerusalem thorn buses have a pair of unequal length, hard, sharp thorns. The longer of the two thorns is up to one inch. Stems and twigs are flexible and hairless. The flexibility of stems and twigs in the Jerusalem thorn made it  ideal to plait into a thorn crown.

Symbols of the Jerusalem thorn include grief, tribulation, and sin.  Although these are valid symbols, the situation described in Matthew (27.26-31) and Mark’s gospels (15.15-20) suggested “cruelty.”  A cruel act is one devoid of human feelings as grief, pain, and injury are inflicted.3 Jesus had been flogged and condemned to death.  It was deliberately cruel for Roman soldiers to ridicule and tortured Jesus, to include placing a braided crown of thorns on his head.

Figure 2.6, Paliurus spina-christi (Jerusalem Thorn).

Reflection: Often cruelty is deliberate; but, sometimes cruelty is merely neglect of something we know we should do. Are your cruel to your spouse, children, friends, or co-workers? Are you cruel to your enemies? Is cruelty toward enemies more acceptable Christian behavior than cruelty toward family?  Currently, a politician said that we need only be civil to others once they are civil to us. I don’t believe that, nor did Jesus advocate such a position. Jesus said the we are to love our enemies and to be kind to individuals who deliberately hurt us. At this time it is hard to me to see positives in certain political positions. Do you have that challenge? What can we do?

Copyright April 4, 2019; All rights reserved.

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Plant Seed – Bear Fruit

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Date Palm, Thorny Tree in Ancient Israel

Bible References: Judges chapters 4 and 6.

Before Israelites entered the promised land, Moses told them that it would be filled with milk and honey. Contrary to common belief, most honey-like substance wasn’t produced by bees. Rather, honey was syrup preserved from dates on date palm trees. When Israelites entered the Promised Land, the palm tree was the Phoenix dactylifera.

Deborah was a prophetess and judge over Israel in Canaan. Deborah heard messages from God and transmitted them to Israelites. She settled difficult (mostly legal) cases among individuals, led Israelites in war against enemies, and attempted to keep them from turning to idolatry.  From the tribe of Ephraim, Deborah held court under a palm tree in the hill country between Ramah and Bethel. The site was called the Palm of Deborah.

At the time that Deborah was judging Israel, Israelites had been oppressed for twenty years by Canaanite king Jabin, from the city of  Hazor. God instructed Deborah that Jabin’s yoke of tyranny was to be thrown off under the military leadership of Barak, a man from the tribe of Naphtali. Deborah recruited Barak for this leadership role.

Barak gathered Israelite troops on Mount Tabor, a hill in the Jezreel Valley. The Kishon River passed through the Jezreel Valley. God lured Sisera to the Jezreel Valley by allowing Sisera (Jabin’s war commander) to learn that Barak’s army was camped on Mount Tabor. Probably,  Sisera approached this battle with confidence. After all his army possessed 900 horse-drawn chariots. The flat Jezreel Valley was an ideal place to maximize the advantage of chariots against Israelite foot soldiers; however, Sisera didn’t count on God’s intervention.

God caused a heavy down pour of rain. The result was the Kishon River flooding into the Jezreel Valley making it a muddy quagmire. Sisera’s chariots couldn’t maneuver in the mud. Sisera and troops were killed. The Israelites grew stronger and eventually destroyed King Jabin and obtained  access to the fertile Jezreel Valley.

In the Hebrew language tōmer means palm trunk or tree; tōmer is derived from a root word meaning “to be erect.”  Usually, date palms are thirty-to-sixty-five-feet tall, but at times grew up to 100-feet tall. The P. dactylifera has only a single point of growth – the terminal bud. If the terminal bud is removed, the tree will die. Palm tree leaves (called fronds and branches) grow from near the tree top (crown), resembling an umbrella at the top of the long, slender handle. Each year palm trees grow a new group of leaves. Palm fronds further down tree trunks turned brown and drop from trees. This date palm tree is an evergreen. The date palm tree bears spines/thorns four-to-six inches long.9

About 500 AD date palm trees (P. dactylifera) died or were destroyed in Israel, however, trees remained in large numbers in Syria. Currently, date palm trees growing in Israel were imported from surrounding countries.

To ancient Israelites and early Christians, the date palm tree and/or its branches represented peace, plenty and fruitfulness, grace and elegance, majesty, and military triumph. Crowds waved palm tree fronds to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem at the beginning of the Passover Festival.

Juxtaposition to these positive perspectives is the presence of thorns on palm fronds. Just as the acacia tree used to build the tabernacle had thorns, so did the palm tree under which Deborah acted as judge. When the Israelites didn’t exhibit God’s justice, i.e., God punished them. Their land became thorn-filled and foreign armies decimated it.

Three millennia after Deborah dispensed justice for Israelites. God still expects his people to exhibit justice. For Christians this means that we need to think critically about the meaning of justice and how to act justly. Some synonyms of justice are fairness, evenhanded, honesty, and integrity.3 Are we just persons? Do we show partiality by talking and acting differently around pastors versus our friends and relatives?  Are we assertive, even aggressive, in our work situation, yet act humbly in Church meetings or Bible study groups? The prophet Micah asked: “What does the Lord require of you?” (Micah 6.8 NIV). Then, Micah answered his own question with, “To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Reflection: Think about your behavior today, or if it is early morning, about your behavior yesterday. Did you act justly to people you came into contact with? Did you show mercy to people in your life, particularly your spouse and children? Name one occasion when you acted humbly to others and one when you were humble before  God.

Copyright January 22, 2019; Carolyn A. Roth

Dealing with Thorny People

Acacia wood was the only wood used to build the Tabernacle. The Bible named the wood used in the Tabernacle as shittah, which translates as acacia. Despite acacia’s plentiful presence on the Sinai Peninsula, the tree had a drawback: a pair of straight, light gray thorns at the base of each leaf. When Israelites cut down trees and fashioned boards (planks) for the Tent of Meeting walls, furniture, and poles, they had to contend with these thorns.

God could have supplied trees without thorns for Israelites to make boards for Tabernacle structures. Why did God have Israelites use a tree with thorns? After all, the Tabernacle was an important structure of Israelite worship. Building it should have been easy.

One answer is that acacia tree thorns assisted Israelites to comprehend that just because they were out of Egypt didn’t mean that all would be smooth in their lives. In their new world, plants had thorns that could/would pierce and puncture their skin.

I am a conservative woman  who is a Christian. Similar to Israelites on Sinai, Christian women in the 21st century need to work with what is available in their world. In the Sinai, an acacia tree was available. In my world thorns are persons, political parties, and at times even church. Some days, I think that there are more thorns than flowers in my environment. Some people just have so many thorns (and, of course, I don’t)!

Because opinions differ from mine, doesn’t mean others’ opinions are wrong. Possibly, my opinions and perspective are wrong (gasp!).

God put me in this life to live and interact with what and who is here. My interactions should promote God’s glory. How can we learn to interact with thorny people and institutions? I’ve thought of three ways:

First, we must know what we believe and why. If we claim to be Christian, we need to learn all we can about God and Christ; and know why and what we believe about them.

Second, we need to listen to different perspectives with an open mind; and not to only perspectives we agree with. I am so guilty of this one.

Third, we need to know when to keep quiet.  If you don’t know about a certain issue, keep silent.  You don’t have to have an opinion on every topic.

Importantly, we can deal with thorny problems while not becoming a thorny person.

Copyright: Published in abbreviated for here. Originally published on http://www.politichicks.com

 

Thorns in the Tabernacle

Bible References: Exodus chapters 25, 35-38.

Acacia wood was the only wood used to build the Tabernacle.  Gold covered acacia posts and cross bars stabilized the acacia wood panels and held Tent of Meeting curtains in place. In the Tent of Meeting, the Table of the Presence (Showbread), the Altar of Incense (Golden Altar), and the Ark of the Covenant were built from acacia wood then overlaid with gold. Gold covered acacia poles were placed in gold rings on the four corners of each piece of furniture. When Israelites moved camp, poles were used to lift and carry structures and furniture.

In the Tabernacle Courtyard, the Altar of Burnt Offering (Bronze Altar) was built from acacia wood, then overlaid with bronze. Bronze-cast rings were placed half-way up the Bronze Altar at each corner. Bronze-covered acacia wood poles were inserted into the rings to carry the Bronze Altar. The Courtyard was rectangular (approximately 150 by 75 feet). Unlike the Tent of Meeting, no acacia wood panels or boards were used to construct Courtyard sides. Sides were made of linen; however, the linen curtains were attached to acacia wood posts (top and sides) with silver hooks.

When Israelites traveled from one camp to another, the Tent of Meeting and Tabernacle were deconstructed, then moved. God didn’t permit sacred furnishings and the Tent of Meeting to be transported on wagons or carts. He required that they be carried on shoulders of Levites. Acacia wood is beautiful, light, and practical indestructible. It was ideal for the multiple moves that  Israelites made prior to entering Canaan.

The Bible identified the wood used in the Tabernacle as shittah, which translates as acacia. The genus and species of  acacia tree used in the Tabernacle can’t be established with 100% accuracy. Over the years, several acacia trees were suggested as the wood source. In the early twentieth century, scholars suggested acacia wood was from the Mimosa nilatica. Supposedly, Israelites brought this wood out of Egypt.

Another scholar proposed that the Tabernacle acacia wood was from the Acacia tortillis, which grew in the Judean and eastern Negev Deserts. Jewish rabbinic writings asserted that acacia trees were cut by the patriarch Jacob and acacia wood taken into Egypt.8 During their approximately 450-year captivity, Israelites retained the acacia wood and left Egypt with it. Thus, when Moses asked for offerings to build the Tabernacle, Israelites offered their acacia wood.

Although Mimosa nilatica and Acacia tortillis could have been sources of acacia wood used in Tabernacle construction, many scholars favor the Acacia seyal tree. The A. seyal is indigenous to the dry desert-like climate of southern Sinai. It grows in stony soil at the base of hills. The A. seyal can grow at altitudes from 65–7000 feet and with annual precipitations as low as three-and-one-half to nine inches. The A. seyal tree grows up to thirty-feet tall and has a broad somewhat flat canopy.

Despite A. seyal plentiful presence on the Saini Peninsula, the tree had a drawback: The acacia tree has a pair of straight, light gray thorns at the base of each leaf. When Israelites cut down trees and fashioned boards (planks) for the Tent of Meeting and furniture they had to contend with these sharp projections. Further, when poles were created to carry the Tabernacle and courtyard furniture, sharp thorns had to be removed from poles.

The acacia wood used in the Tabernacle symbolizes the humanity of Jesus, while the gold overlay of the boards and poles symbolizes Jesus’s deity. Isaiah described the  Redeemer as a “a root out of dry growth” similar to the acacia tree growing out of arid desert soil (Isaiah 53.2 NIV).

As Christians, we know that Jesus was fully human. It was in his human strength that Jesus endured unbelievable torture and death on the cross.  Acacia wood is virtually indestructible, but, Jesus is fully indestructible.  In his human body, Jesus died once for all people—those present on the earth when he lived and individuals of all future times.  The indestructible Jesus rose after death and now sits at God’s right hand in heaven.  Burnt offerings on bronze-covered acacia wood altars are no longer needed for sins to be forgiven and for man to be reconciled to God.

Jesus’s death and resurrection invites each of us to become a child of God. Christians “are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 1.10 NIV). Part of our work on earth is to be like acacia wood—virtually indestructible—as we walk out God’s plans for our lives.

God could have supplied trees without thorns for the Israelites to make boards for Tabernacle structures. Why did God have Israelites use a tree with thorns? One answer is that thorns on the acacia tree were to assist Israelites to realize that just because they were out of Egypt didn’t mean that all would be smooth in their lives. Their new world plants had thorns and projections that could/would pierce and puncture their skin.

Similar to Israelites on Sinai, Christian believers in the twenty-first century need to work with what is available in their world. In the Sinai, an acacia tree was available. In a world filled with diverse individuals, social media, and twenty-four-hour news television, Christians find thorns. At times thorns are other persons. Some days, I think that there are more thorns than flowers in my environment. Nonetheless God put me in this life to live and interact with what and who is in my environment. All of these interactions are designed to be for his glory.

Reflection: What are some items, events, people in your life that you need to learn to work with rather than avoid? Some people just have so many thorns (and, of course, I don’t)! How does learning to interact with thorny people enhance your spiritual life?

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Wisdom

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Mustard Trees and Seeds

Jesus seemed to like the tiny mustard seed; he used it to illustrate faith in several settings. One teaching found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, illustrated how the Christian Church would grow. Here’s how Mark recorded Jesus’s words about growth of the Church:

What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade (Mark 4.30-32 NIV).

This illustration described the growth and expansion of God’s kingdom on earth, i.e., growth of the Christian Church. Although the Church began in a small province of the Roman Empire, it grew larger than the mightiest empire on earth.

Another time Jesus used the mustard seed in an illustration, he was in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus wasn’t with disciples when a man asked them to heal his son, possessed by a demon. Disciples were unable to heal the son. Jesus arrived and ordered the demon to leave the boy (Matthew 17.14-21).  After Jesus expelled the demon, disciples asked him why they couldn’t heal the man’s son.  Jesus responded that they had too little faith.  He told them that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could say to a mountain, “Move from here to there” and the mountain would move (Matthew 17.21 ESV).  Jesus’s point was that nothing is impossible with sufficient faith, even when that amount of faith is as small as a tiny mustard seed.

Mustard Tree

In scientific communities, the mustard tree is the Salvadora perisica, commonly called the toothbrush tree.6 Indigenous to Persia (Iran), the mustard tree could have been brought into Palestine by traders. Alternatively, returned Jewish exiles may have brought  mustard tree seeds from Persia and planted them in gardens and fields. The mustard seed grows best in hot, arid climates; high humidity stunts tree growth. The mustard tree is an evergreen that can grow to twenty feet. Often, mustard trees have many branches that start to grow from the tree trunk low to the ground. The mustard tree can grow as wide as tall. Mustard trees reach full size in a few years.

Spread of Christianity

Like branches of a mustard tree, Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and into India and Ethiopia. In a few centuries, Christianity went from unheard of, to being outlawed, to the official religion of an empire. Mustard trees were used for shade because of their low-growing branches. Similarly, people from all nations took refuge under the canopy of Christianity. Unlike thorn trees (Ziziphus spina-christi), mustard trees have no thorns to  deter individuals from resting beneath them. Although wild animals sometimes fed on tree shoots, many branches grew high enough that predators couldn’t reach birds that nested in them.

Warning?????

In Jesus’s teaching about the mustard tree, birds settled in its branches. Some Bible commentators interpreted this clause as a warning to keep the early Christian church pure. In Old Testament scriptures, the phrase “birds of the air” was sometimes used to symbolize demonic forces. From this perspective, Jesus warned disciples to beware that Satan would attempt to encroach on the kingdom of God.

Certainly, Jesus warning became reality. In the first few centuries of the Christian church, Jews (Judaizers) advocated that newly converted Christian could be justified only by observing Jewish laws, i.e., circumcision, adherence to Jewish dietary laws. The Gnostics claimed they possessed elevated knowledge, a “higher truth.” The higher knowledge was acquired, not from the Bible or apostles’ teachings, but, from a higher mystical plain of existence. Individual with this special knowledge, for example, Jezebel in the Thyatiran church, believed they were elevated above other Christians because of their deeper knowledge (Revelation 2.18-25).

Not Really

At times, Bible scholars concluded that the black mustard (Brassica nigra) plant was the source of the mustard seed that Jesus referred to in teachings that used the mustard seed. Very likely, the true mustard tree was the Salvadora perisica.

Many powerful men attempted to stop the spread of “The Way,” the early name for the Christian church. The Jerusalem Jewish leadership tried to stop it when they arrested Jesus and turned him over to Pilate for crucifixion. King Herod attempted to stifle apostle’s teachings when he killed the apostle James and had Peter arrested. Paul was beaten, confined to house arrest, jailed, and finally murdered; however, Paul’s letters, many written while he was confined or jailed, were important to the spread of  the good news of Jesus in the Gentile world.

Despite many deterrents, the fledgling Christian church grew in numbers. Through Paul, Peter, and John’s letters, converts deepened their understanding of Jesus as Son of God. They came to understand the role of the Holy Spirit in individual lives and in the church. Jesus’s  mustard seed illustration came true in early centuries after his death and remains true today. Even with  anti-Christian rhetoric and entire denominations turning from God’s commands, continuance—even extension—of the church Jesus founded is inevitable.

Important for westernized societies is the answer to the question, “Where will Christianity spread next and/or grow even deeper roots?” Will it be in Greece, Rome, or Asia Minor where Christianity was first embraced? Perhaps, Germany and Great Britain, homes to great reformation thought? What about the United States, founded on principles of religious liberty? We need to pray that individuals in all nations experience Christian revival, so they can rest in the shade of God’s love.

Reflection: Will Christianity grow in your sphere of influence?

Copyright 10/03/2018; Carolyn A. Roth