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, Torah honey-like substances weren’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