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Trees of the Bible
Nature Bulletin No. 676-A  April 21, 1962
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The King James Version of the Bible mentions seven flowers, seven vegetables, several spices, and thirty-seven differently named trees. Some -- such as cypress, shittah, ash, and teil -- appear only once. Others -- notably the palm, olive, fig, and cedar -- occur many times.

This version was completed in 1611, long before botany became an exact science. Like several others, it was a translation by scholars who were not botanists, had never visited the Holy Land, did not realize that the native plants in that region were far different from plants in northern Europe, and made the mistake of identifying some of those mentioned in the Scriptures with familiar plants in England.

Consequently, the terebinth was called an elm or a teil, aspens were called mulberries, a mulberry was called "sycamine, " a species of fig was called "sycomore, " the Oriental planetree -- related to our sycamore -- was called a chestnut, the apricot became an apple, and the native Aleppo pine was called a fir or even, in Isaiah 44:14, an ash. The words "fir, " "pine, " "cypress, " "juniper, " and sometimes "cedar, " are used so loosely that it is almost impossible to determine what trees are referred to in certain passages.

In the Douay Version, Isaiah 6:13 contains the phrase: "as a turpentine tree, and as an oak. " In the King James Version this phrase became: "as a teil tree, and as an oak. " Teil is an obsolete English name for the linden or lime tree, related to our basswood, which is not native in Palestine. Undoubtedly, this passage refers to the Terebinth, a good-sized deciduous tree that is common on the dry lower slopes of hills in the Holy Land, All parts of it contain a fragrant resinous juice and turpentine is obtained from slashes made on the trunk and branches.

In the Douay Version, Genesis 6:14, God commands Noah: "Make thee an ark of timber planks. " In the King James Version this is written: "Make thee an ark of gopher wood. " Modern scholars believe it means the extremely durable wood of the tall massive evergreen cypresses that, together with towering cedars and oaks, clothed the slopes of the Lebanon and other mountain ranges in Biblical times. "Gopher" is very similar to the Hebrew and Greek words for cypress.

In the King James Version the Lord commanded Moses to build a tabernacle, an altar, an ark of testimony and a table for it, using "shittim wood. " Shittim is the plural of shittah, the Hebrew name (Isaiah 41:19) for an acacia that grows on Mount Sinai and is the most common tree in the Arabian desert where the Israelites wandered for 40 years. Like the mesquite in our Southwest, it is a legume, its branches are armed with spines, and the fruit is a pod. Although gnarled, twisted and shrubby in the desert, elsewhere it becomes 25 feet tall and its hard, close-grained, orange-brown wood is valuable for cabinetwork.

Another legume, very common in the Holy Land, is the evergreen carob or "locust-tree. " Its seed pods, from 6 to 10 inches long, full of a sticky pulp and honey-like syrup when ripe, are used as food for livestock as well as people. Those were the "husks" eaten by the prodigal son (Luke 15:16) and probably the "locusts" eaten by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:4). A third legume, native to Palestine and similar to our redbud, is the famous "Judas-tree, " upon which, according to legends, Judas Iscariot hanged himself.

Palestine, 3000 years ago, was a land of palm trees, especially the date palm that not only produces "bread, wine, and honey" but has, the Arabs say, as many uses as there are days in the year. Outside the walls of cities, wealthy people had "gardens" in which grew olive and fig trees, spices, and perhaps a few trees such as apricot, pomegranate, almond, pistachio, and Persian walnut.

At the foot of the Mount of Olives there was a garden called Gethsemane.

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