Isaiah’s Palestinian buckthorn

Bible Reference: Isaiah chapter 7.

Isaiah (740-681 BC) began his ministry the year that King Uzziah died. Isaiah ministered during the reigns of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, and early in Manasseh’s reign. The Bible identified Jotham and Hezekiah as kings who walked with God. In contrast, Kings Ahaz and Manasseh were two wicked kings.

From the beginning of his sixteen-year reign, King Ahaz rejected God and worshiped foreign gods. Ahaz sacrificed his son to a false god.  When Arameans and Israelites (ten northern tribes) banded together to attack Jerusalem, Ahaz was shaken “as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind” (Isaiah 7.2 NIV).  Instead of turning to God for rescue, Ahaz turned to the king of Assyria.

When Arameans and the Northern Kingdom joined and attacked Jerusalem, God sent Isaiah to reassure King Ahaz that Jerusalem wouldn’t be overrun by this coalition. At the meeting, God directed Ahaz to ask for a sign of God’s intention to protect Jerusalem.  Ahaz refused saying that he wouldn’t put God to the test.  The first time I read Ahaz’s response, I thought it was a good answer; however, Isaiah had a different opinion.

Isaiah told King Ahaz that the king was trying God’s patience. Then, Isaiah prophesied that in the next twelve-to-thirteen years both Aram and Israel would be laid waste. The Lord would bring Judah devastation from Egypt and Assyria.  Where there were a thousand vines worth a thousand silver shekels, the land would be covered with briers and thorns.  Men would carry bows and arrows for protection when they went among briers and thorns. Where there was once cultivated land, cattle and sheep would run loose in a brier- and thorn-infested land.

Most likely the shrub in Isaiah’s prophecy to King Ahaz was the Rhamnus lycioides (R. palaestinus), commonly known as the Palestine buckthorn. In Israel, the buckthorn is a slow-growing shrub that reaches a height of three-to-six feet; however, in the United States they grow to twenty-feet tall. The Palestine buckthorn is an evergreen shrub in Israel and grows with a many-branched, tangled form, and velvety thin thorns. Young stems and thorns are green. As bark matures it become gray.

Most gardeners don’t plant buckthorn. It’s an unattractive shrub that normally doesn’t grow in cultivated gardens or fields. Buckthorn grows well in poor soil that is gritty and highly eroded. Along with the thistle, the buckthorn is the last species to disappear when livestock over-graze an area. Overall the Mediterranean buckthorn has no value for mankind or livestock. An ancient strategy to eradicate buckthorn is to burn the land.

Isaiah used buckthorn to describe once-fertile agricultural lands in Judah that would be destroyed as a result of God’s judgment.  This particular judgement was an assault from Assyria. Instead of vines and grains, the land would produce thorns and briers. Shayith is a Hebrew word for the thorn.6 A translation of shayith is “trash.”  Trash is debris from plant materials, something worth little or nothing, and something thrown away.3  Trashed is an excellent symbol for what was going to happen in Judah as a result of King Ahaz leading Judahites to reject God.

King Ahaz treated God’s Temple like trash.  When the Arameans and Israelites attacked Judah, Ahaz plundered the Temple for its gold and silver and sent it to the Assyrian king to purchase the king’s military assistance.  Later, Ahaz barred doors to God’s Temple so no one could enter and worship God.  King Ahaz set up worthless idols at street corners in Jerusalem.  In every town in Judah, Ahaz built high places to burn sacrifices to man-created gods.

People that treat God and his laws as trash weren’t confined to the Old Testament.  Paul identified that some people in New Testament times were senseless, faithless, heartless, and ruthless. “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things, but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1.32 NIV). We need only spend an hour watching television to know that many people today act similar to people in first-century Palestine; and, similar to first century Palestinian onlookers, we applaud these degenerate behaviors.

Reflection: Name aspects of God’s laws you treat as trash? Do you ever watch television or read books that God would name degenerate and say, “right on?” When you treat God’s laws as trash, are you helping your country?

Copyright April 4, 2019; All rights reserved.

The Desert Bloomed

From my sister (Julie Roth) back yard in Arizona.

Laughter of Fools

Bible Reference: Ecclesiastes 7.6

Possibly, Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon, one of his offspring, or a learned teacher in the Israelite assembly.  Within Ecclesiastes, the writer referred to himself as “Teacher.” One saying the Teacher wrote was, “Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 7.6 NIV).

Israelite cooking fires were located in outer courtyards or inside homes. The time of year influenced where the fire was located.  In hot weather, the cooking fire was outside the home. In cooler or cold weather, the fire was located inside the home to give heath. Many poorer Israelites cooked over a simple hole in the ground surrounded by rocks (a fire pit). Wealthier Israelites had ovens, either inside the home or in the courtyard.

In ancient Israel, wood was the primary fuel used for cooking; however, in Ecclesiastes 7.6, thorns fueled fire. Thorn bushes burn faster and with less heat than dense wood, i.e., oak, olive. Many times when thorns were collected and burned, green branches were present at the base, even when the thorn bush appeared dry on top and in the middle. When burned, green branches emitted a crackling sound. Thorns, as fuel, made the point of the Teacher’s saying: The laughter of fools is like a short-lived fire fueled by thorns, not dense wood. A fool’s laughter, although perhaps loud, doesn’t last very long. It is relatively valueless or meaningless.

In ancient Israel, wood was the primary fuel used for cooking; however, in Ecclesiastes 7.6, thorns fueled fire. Thorn bushes burn faster and with less heat than dense wood, i.e., oak, olive. Many times when thorns were collected and burned, green branches were present at the base, even when the thorn bush appeared dry on top and in the middle. When burned, green branches emitted a crackling sound. Thorns, as fuel, made the point of the Teacher’s saying: The laughter of fools is like a short-lived fire fueled by thorns, not dense wood. A fool’s laughter, although perhaps loud, doesn’t last very long. It is relatively valueless or meaningless.

The thorn plant of Ecclesiastes is the Sarcopoterium spinosum. Other names are the thorny burnet and prickly burnet.9,10 On the female flower, ovaries are set in four-or-five joined sepals so that female flowers resemble a covered pot. These flower pots are numerous on stems. When the female flower is young, it is green, and turns red-orange at maturity and rusty brown as it dries.  In the heat of a fire, the flower “pots” produce a small explosive sound when they pop open. The sound resembles crackling. On the thorny burnet, thorns grow up to four inches. Individuals who harvest and prepare the thorny burnet for fuel and other purposes have a high chance of being scratched by thorns.

In Ecclesiastes 7.6, the meaning of thorny burnet was futility. Futility implies an action that has no use or purpose.3 Synonyms are ineffective, pointless, and vainness; an  antonym is useful. Although a thorny burnet fire can snap, crackle, and pop, and be pleasing to the ears, the sound adds little to the heat.

Paul identified several ways and situations where man’s thoughts were futile, i.e., useless and ineffective. Two points seem particularly important today.  First, God is revealed through his creation, yet unrighteous men neither glorified God, nor give him thanks. Instead their thinking becomes futile and their foolish hearts  darkened. They exchanged worship of the immortal God for worship of man-made images such as birds, animals,  and reptiles. Most men and women in the twenty-first century don’t worship animals, but, sometimes, they hang onto the words of men/women rather than focusing on God’s instruction for life.

Writing to the Corinthian church, Paul stated that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sin” (1 Corinthians 15.17 NIV). Redemption of our bodies, eternal life in Christ, depends on a risen Lord. When I was in college, The Passover Plot.11 was required reading for anyone trying to be intellectual.  The book argued that Jesus and disciples implemented an elaborate ruse to have Jesus declared Messiah. Jesus never died on the cross. He was taken from the cross and hidden by close associates. Then, Jesus reappeared three days later to fulfill Jews’ expectations for the Messiah.

The problem with The Passover Plot’s argument is the lived experiences of individuals who saw both Jesus’s death and his resurrected body. Evidence of Jesus’s death comes from eye-witness accounts of non-believers as well as believers. In his resurrected body, Jesus appeared at least eleven times to over 500 people.

My reading The Passover Plot allowed me to appear intellectual when I discussed arguments against Jesus’s death during my college years. Yet, my arguments were as the crackle of thorn bushes in a cook fire—not of much value. Recently, I read another book, None Like Him.12 The author said that God is self-sufficient. That means that God doesn’t need my arguments for or against his existence. The phenomenon of Jesus’s death and resurrection may confound the wise, but, that doesn’t make it any less real. My take away message from reading both books, one futile and one valuable for Christian growth, is that reading and believing commentaries on the Bible should never take the place of reading (and believing) God’s word.

Reflection: What are you spending your time doing that isn’t of much value? Let me assure you that it didn’t take me more than a second to come up with several time-wasters in my life. How can you, more importantly, how are you going to eliminate these time-wasters from your life? If you spent more time promoting Christ’s message, how would that benefit the USA?

Copyright April 4, 2019. All rights reserved.

Miracle with Barley

Bible Reference: John 6.1-15

My favorite miracle was Jesus feeding the 5000 plus individuals with a child’s offering of five barley loaves and two fishes. This miracle was the only one described in all four gospels; however, John’s gospel has the most detail (John 6.1-15). Another miracle in which Jesus fed 4000 plus individuals with bread and fish shouldn’t be confused with this one. That miracle didn’t name the type of bread. This miracle identified that loaves of bread were made from barley.

Right before this Bible story, Jesus learned that King Herod murdered his cousin, John the Baptist.  In response Jesus attempted to get away from the crowds and go into an isolated area. Perhaps, Jesus wanted to mourn his cousin or just reflect on how the devil attempts to thwart God’s purpose. In a boat, Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee to a remote area.

Jesus’s plan to get away didn’t work. Crowds followed him to this isolated area. I would have responded, “Go away! Go away! I need a break! Can’t you see that I’m sad?” Instead of being annoyed by the people’s persistence, Jesus felt compassion for them. He healed the sick among them and continued to teach them by word and deed.

Near day’s end, Jesus’s disciples suggested that he send the crowd into surrounding villages, so they could purchase food (John 6.1-15). I imagine the disciples were hungry after all day in the open country. Perhaps, they projected their hunger onto the crowd. Jesus told his disciples to feed the crowd. The disciples looking at each other, thinking “How?” Courageously, Philip responded that it would take more than half a year’s wages to buy sufficient bread for each person to have one bite. Essentially, Philip said that disciples didn’t have funds to buy bread to feed the crowd. Andrew added that there was a boy who had fivebarley loaves and two fishes, and asked, “What are they for so many? (John 6.9 ESV).

Jesus directed the crowd to sit down on the grass and thanked God for the five barley loaves and two fishes. His disciples distributed the food. When all finished eating, bits and pieces of food not eaten were collected. The leftovers filled 12 baskets. The total number of people who miraculously ate could have been up to about 20,000 people. John counted only men, not women or children

Was Jesus God?

Because this blog is about Jesus’s interactions with plants, I am going to focus on barley rather than fish. Before the Israelites entered the promised land, Moses told them that they were entering a land where barley grew (Deuteronomy 8.8). Primarily, ancient barley was made into bread. So close was the association between Israelites and barley, that Midianites referred to Israelites as “cakes of barley” (Judges 7.13-14). Barley was a dependable, disease-resistant crop,  less expensive to grow than wheat. Barley could be grown in less fertile soil than wheat, i.e. on hillsides. Further, barley had a shorter sow-to-harvest cycle than wheat.

Israelites planted barley (and wheat) in autumn, about the time of first rains. Barley seeds were planted by one of two methods. Sometimes, farmers broadcast (strewed, threw) seeds onto unplowed ground and allowed them to germinate where they landed. A more reliable way to get a good barley crop was for the farmer to plow the top 3-4 inches of soil with an ox-drawn plow. Then, broadcast barley seeds by hand. Finally, the farmer plowed a second time, forcing seeds under the soil. Seeds stayed in the soil over winter, sprouted in the spring, and barley was harvested in April.

A  boy offered Jesus the meal his mother packed for him. The boy, perhaps 8-11 years-of-age, could have taken his food, slipped over a hill, and eaten it.  The boy and his family were poor; barley was the bread of the poor in 1st century Palestine. Instead, this boy embraced Jesus’s message to the point that he was willing to give all he had to Jesus.

Reflection: Are you embracing Jesus’s message? How is it changing your behavior?

Copyright 8/17/2018; Carolyn Adams Roth

Thorn Tree Challenge

Bible References: Judges chapter 9.

Ziziphus spina-christi tree. Photo taken in Israel.

Jotham was the youngest son of Gideon, who judged Israel between 1162–1122 BC. One of the many positive characteristics of Gideon was that he refused to be king over Israelites after he defeated the Midianites. His words were, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you” (Judges 8.23 NIV). Gideon was from the tribe of Manasseh and lived on the west side of the Jordan River. He had seventy sons by his wives and one son, Abimelech, by his concubine. Abimelech lived with his mother’s people in Shechem.

After Gideon’s death, Abimelech negotiated with men of Shechem to make him king. Abimelech and a group of paid adventurers murdered Gideon’s legitimate sons with the exception of the youngest, Jotham. On the day that Abimelech was crowned king, Jotham climbed Mount Gerizim and loudly proclaimed a parable to the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo over whom Abimelech was to rule.

Jotham began the parable by saying, “One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves” (Judges 9.8 NIV). The parable continued as trees said to the olive tree, “Come be our king.” The olive tree declined, as did the fig tree and vine. Finally, the trees said to the thorn bush, “Come be our king” (Judges 9.14 NIV). The thorn bush responded, “If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, then let fire come out of the thorn bush and consume the cedars of Lebanon” (Judges 9.16 NIV).

Then, Jotham challenged the men of Shechem, asking whether or not they acted honorable and in good faith to Gideon’s family, the same Gideon who saved them from Midianites. If their answer was “Yes,” Jotham wished them joy in Abimelech’s kingship. If their answer was “No,” then Jotham’s curse was that Abimelech and the citizens consume each other with fire. After telling this parable and giving this curse, Jotham fled the area.

Abimelech ruled area towns and surrounding lands for  three years. Then, God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the people he ruled, most notably Shechemites. The result was that Abimelech attacked and destroyed Shechem. He attacked Thebez, another city in his kingdom. In the attack Abimelech was killed. When Abimelech’s men saw that he was dead, they went home. This story’s concluded that God repaid the wickedness that Abimelech did to his brothers and made the men of Shechem pay for their wickedness.

In his parable Jotham compared Abimelech to a thorn tree. Israel and Middle East botanists identify the thorn tree as the Ziziphus spina-christi tree. In Israel, this  tree is widely distributed in warm valleys and desert oases. The Z. spina-christi is larger than most fruit trees native to Israel. It has a deep and wide-spreading root system. This root system can leach nourishment from surrounding soil. For an orchard to succeed, farmers must first remove all Z. spina-christi prior to planting fruit trees.

Each leaf has a pair of stipules at its base which turn into thorns. One hard thorn is straight, while the other is hooked. The fruit is yellow and small, about one inch in diameter. Each fruit contains a large stone (pit) in the center which is surrounded by a fleshy pulp. Although not very tasty, fruit is eaten by people living in poverty. Fruit is best eaten green and tastes like sour apples. Sometimes, fruit pulp was made into bread.10

The Hebrew word used for thorn tree, âtâd, is derived from an unused root meaning “to pierce.”6 Jotham pierced the conscience of the men of Shechem and Beth Millo, when he asked them if they acted honorably to Gideon’s family. Jotham’s words penetrated their thoughts when he included in his parable the thorn tree’s request that other trees come and rest in its shade. In ancient times, resting in the shade of a king was a common metaphor that referred to a king providing protection for his people. Yet, farmers and travelers among Jotham’s hearers knew it was difficult to rest in the shade of the Z. spina-christi. Often, long hanging intertwined thorn branches made the area under the tree inaccessible.

Figure 3.3, Ziziphus spina-christi (Thorn Tree).

The Israelites had a proverb, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12.18 NIV). Jotham’s parable wasn’t reckless; but, his words pierced his listeners like a sword. Hearing piercing words isn’t always bad. At times, we need to hear words that pierce our conscious, heart, or soul. Frequently, it is easy to accept piercing words from a pastor or friend. It is harder to accept them from an un-friend. Because they are not-friends, we easily discount their words, when what they say may be spot on.

When I was in the work world, I dreaded annual evaluations. Even when the evaluative comments were constructive and kind overall, I cringed when they were offered. At times, I discounted the comments or rationalized my behavior. Now, I know that my attitude was wrong. I should have accepted the comments, carefully evaluating each so that I could grow and accommodate myself to the environment in which I worked.

Reflection: In Jotham’s parable, several trees/plants refused to be king. What about you? Are you working to be at the top of the decision-making tree? What is the down side of being in charge?

Honestly, evaluate your strengths and weaknesses and decide if you have characteristics to be in charge.

Copyright 1, 22, 2019; Carolyn A. Roth

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.

Image

Plant Seed – Bear Fruit

Image may contain: text