Nehemiah chapter 8 tells the story of the Jews cutting wild olive boughs to make booths for the Festival of Tabernacles (Sukkoth).
After Aharuerus’ death, Artaxerxes I (465-425 B.C.) ruled the Persian Empire. His support for the Jews may have been related to a positive relationship with the Jew Mordecai, the chief official during Aharuerus reign. In his 7th year as king, Artaxerxes aided the priest-scribe Ezra to return to Jerusalem (458 B.C.). Ezra’s main contribution to restored Zion was interpreting and exhorting the Jews to keep the Mosaic laws.
Nehemiah was cup-bearer and personal confident of King Artaxerxes I. When Nehemiah heard (circa 445 B.C.) that Jerusalem’s walls were not yet rebuilt, he grieved. The first Jews had returned to Jerusalem over 90 years earlier. Nehemiah secured support from Artaxerxes I to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the city walls. Working almost day and night, the Jews rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls in 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15.). Excavations showed the Jerusalem city wall built in Nehemiah’s time was about 9 feet thick.
After the city walls were rebuilt, the Jews assembled in Jerusalem. At this time Nehemiah was governor and Ezra was chief priest. Ezra read from the Book of Law. Hearing God’s laws and statutes, the listeners became aware of their transgressions and began to weep. Nehemiah told them to stop weeping and to celebrate the restoration of Jerusalem by feasting. The following day, family heads met with Ezra to discuss the Law they heard read. Part of the Law required that the people live in booths during the feast of the 7th month, the feast of Tabernacles or booths. Ezra directed the people to go into the hill country and bring back branches to build the booths. The types of branches were from olive and wild olive trees and from myrtle, palm, and shade trees.
The people built the booths on their roofs, in their courtyards, and in the square by the Water Gate; one booth was built by the Gate of Ephraim. The entire nation became involved in building booths and living in them to commemorate their forefather’s 40 year wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt. Nehemiah recorded that the Festival of Tabernacles was never before celebrated like it was at that time in Jerusalem
The Wild Olive Tree
In the past various Bible scholars translated the Hebrew êtz shamen as oil tree or pine tree; however, today most Bible scholars and botanists agree that êtz shamen is the wild olive tree. The wild olive tree is the Elaeagnus angustifolia, also known as the oleaster and Russian olive. The oleaster was native to southern Europe and western Asia. Dense stands are present in river bottoms where the water table is seldom more than two feet below the ground surface. At the same time, oleaster is drought tolerant and indifferent to wind and heat. In Israel, oleaster is found in woodlands (e.g., around Mount Tabor), shrub-lands, and on Mount Hermon. In some parts of the United States, oleaster has naturalized and is considered an invasive weed. Oleaster is a thorny shrub or small tree. The oleaster tree has several uses. It can be used to make booths for Jewish festivals. The flower produces oil used to make perfume. A gum from the plant is used in calico printing. The hard, fine-grained wood of the trunk and branches is used for posts and beams and for wood carving. The wood makes excellent fuel. In some countries, to include Palestine, oleaster trees are pruned into hedges.
Despite building a secure wall around Jerusalem in a short 52 days, the Jews were aware that their security did not come from rocks and mortar. Their security came from God. As early as the days of King Solomon, the Jews had a proverb that described the source of their security: “He who fears the Lord has a secure fortress, and for his children it will be a refuge” (Proverbs 14:26, NIV-SB, 2002). Just as Old Testament Jews relied on God for their security, so do New Testament Christians. Christians have a secure position based on Christ as savior and redeemer. Still, St. Peter cautioned new Christians to be on guard so that they did not get carried away by lawless men (and women) and fall from their secure position (2 Peter 3:17-18). In addition to guarding against erroneous teaching, Christians are to grow in the knowledge of Christ.
Over the past year, I spent time writing this blog, e.g., reading the Bible story where the plant is located along with its historical setting, researching the plant origins and characteristics, and prayerfully considering the plant’s symbolism. Recently, I’ve become convicted about the time consumed by these activities – albeit Bible-centered activities. They have taken from and taken over my God-focused time and my prayer time. I think Peter would have included my deviation from God-focused devotions as a way to fall from a secure position in Christ.
Reflection: Think over your activities, e.g., church related and possibly even Bible-study related. Are any of them interfering with God-focused time?
I love Bible plants along with their symbolism. If you want to learn more about them, read my two books: 1) Rooted in God and 2) God as a Gardener. You can purchase them from my website: Carolyn Roth Ministry at http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com/
Copyright June 2, 2016; Carolyn A. Roth