Tag Archives: Bible Study

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.

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

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?

I will stand my watch

Bible Reference: Book of Habakkuk

I will stand at my watch
and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me (Habakkuk 2.1)

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior (Habakkuk 3.17-18).

Grapes from Thornbushes

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus averred that a man can’t gather grapes from thorn bushes. The second time that Jesus spoke of thorns in gospels was in the familiar parable of the sower and the seed. Most of us can recite this parable:

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.  Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.  Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty (Matthew 13.3-8 ESV).

In the first century, many farmers scattered (broadcast) seed on top of the soil rather than plow soil, scattered seeds, then re-plowed soil to cover seeds.  The challenge with broadcasting seed is that seed falls various places, i.e., on a pathway, in thin soil, among thorns. Seeds sprouted and grew; but, thorns can surround good seedlings and choke their growth. Jesus’s interpretation of seed which fell among thorns is: “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matthew 13.22 ESV).  

Thornbush

First century Palestine contained several types of thorns and thorn bushes. The Bible names several to them, i.e., Jotham’s thorn tree in Judges, crackling thorn bushes in Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah’s buckthorn (Rhamnus lycioides, R. palaestinus). In Israel, buckthorns grow in wood, shrub-lands, and the mountain vegetation of Mount Hermon.  The buckthorn is a slow-growing shrub, rarely reaching a height of six feet.

The Palestine buckthorn is evergreen.  It grows with a many-branched, tangled form, and velvety thorns.  Young stems are green; with maturity, bark turns gray. The buckthorn fruit is a small (1/4 inch), oval berry. Initially, the berry is green, but, turns black when ripe. Berries are poisonous to humans, but a good source of food for birds.

Symbolism: Trash

A Hebrew word for thorn is shayith1 which translates as trash, scrub, and thorn.  Trash is debris from plant materials, something worth little or nothing, and something thrown away. Trash is an excellent symbol for individuals who make a commitment to Jesus; then, quit living a Christian life because worldly cares choke their commitment. God’s judgment will fall on people who treat God and his laws as worthless, i.e., as if they are trash.  If individuals want to be something thrown away like trash, God will allow them to be this way (Romans 1.28).  God will give them over to a reprobate mind.

Reflection: How do you behave in a “trashy” manner?

Copyright: 10/2/2018; Carolyn Adams Roth

Zillah, wife and plant

Bible Reference: Genesis chapter 4.

In Genesis chapter four, we read about the offspring of Cain. The chapter provides a contrast to chapter five in which the offspring of Seth is outlined. In the offspring of Cain, Lamech, a seventh-generation grandson of Adam, had two wives simultaneously.  This is the first time that plural wives were identified in the Bible.  Lamech’s second wife was named Zillah. One source identified that Zillah was a third cousin of Lamech. Zillah birthed at least two children: Tubal-Cain, who forged tools from bronze and iron, and a daughter named Naamah.

Although we know little about Zillah, we know that her husband was a murderer. He admitted to his two wives that he murdered a young man for injuring him. Lamech averred that if God planned to take sevenfold vengeance on anyone killing Cain, then he, Lamech, should be avenged 77 times. Contemplating Lamech’s words, readers aren’t sure whether his is bragging about his actions or admitting his wrong. Whichever Lamech did, most certainly his  wife Zillah, reaped  consequences.

Zillah was named after a spiny, woody shrub (Zilla spinosa) that grows in desert, to include extreme desert, regions.7  Stems can grow up to five feet tall. The zilla grows as wide as tall so that the zilla appears rounded. Stem and spine color are bluish-gray. Fruit resembles chickpeas (garbanzo beans). When mature, the plant  loosens from soil. Winds blow it  across the desert similar to a tumbleweed in western United States.

In contrast to the overall unpleasant stems and spines, Zilla spinosa produces a lovely four-petal lavender, occasionally pink, flower. I imagine that Zillah was named after the flower rather than after the spiny plant.

The website, Flowers in Israel,7 included that the brier named by Ezekiel is the zilla plant: “No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbors who are painful briers and sharp thorns. Then they will know that I am the Sovereign LORD” (Ezekiel 28.24 NIV). Ezekiel’s complete prophecy against Sidon is in Ezekiel 28.20-26. Sidon was a  Phoenician city.  Originally, Sidon was included in the inheritance of the tribe of Asher, but Asher didn’t conquer it. Sidon  gloated when Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon.

If I identified one word that encompassed the story of Zillah in Genesis and the prophecy of Ezekiel against Sidon, that word would be malicious. Malicious means a desire to cause pain, distress,  or injury to another.3 Maliciously, Lamech  injured a young man in the process of murdering him. Most likely, Lamech’s action caused distress to the young man’s family and distress to his wife, Zillah. Sidon’s gloat over Judah’s pain, injury, and distress was malicious. I can just imagine Sidonians rubbing their hands together and laughing when Jerusalem fell.

The take-away message from the Zilla spinosa is that beautiful flowers may occur simultaneously with spines which cause injury. Importantly, we can stop pondering how loved ones hurt us and reframe our thinking. How do we, although beautiful individuals, have the capacity to  injure and distress others with our words and behavior.

Reflection: A dear friend told me recently that a mutual friend’s words hurt her through what she said. At about the same time, the mutual friend shared that she was hurt by my dear friend’s words. I need to always look at my own behavior and make sure that I don’t cause pain, injury, or distress to others. Do you find it easier to criticize others than to take accountability for what you do?

Copyright: December 1, 2018; Carolyn Adams Roth