Seed, Spade and Sword: The Bible In Context

Helping to illuminate biblical context and background

For this we must again thank my Uncle Rodney Plyles, now a delegate to the House of Delegates in West Virginia, who led us to the Ohio's Gardens of Zoar. 

He noted the sycamore named in the Gospel reading from Luke and asked if it was the tree he knew.

It is not the American Sycamore.
It is the Ficus sycomorus  -- the sycomore fig

This tree is named seven time in scripture: six time in the Old Book, Once in the New

1 Kings 10:27

The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills.

1 Chronicles 27:28

Baal-Hanan the Gederite was in charge of the olive and sycamore-fig trees in the western foothills. Joash was in charge of the supplies of olive oil.

2 Chronicles 1:15

The king made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills.

2 Chronicles 9:27

The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills.

Psalm 78:47

He destroyed their vines with hail and their sycamore-figs with sleet.

Amos 7:14

Amos answered Amaziah, "I was neither a prophet nor a prophet's son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees.

Luke 19:4

So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.


These seen citations present English readers with the ‘sycamore’, but it is not the New World tree with which my American readers are very likely familiar; it is not Platanus occidentalis, aka the buttonball or buttonwood tree.  The sycomore of scripture is does not even share the same family as the American sycamore

The etymology of the bible tree name itself shows how ancient the confusion is. The Greek name actually associates the tree with the mulberry. Thus: our modern the word was coined circa 1350 in Old French sicamor, from Latin sȳcomorus, from Ancient Greek σῡκόμορος ‎(sūkómoros, “fig-mulberry”), from σῦκον ‎(sûkon, “fig”) + μόρον ‎(móron, “mulberry”). Possibly influenced by Hebrew שִׁקְמָה ‎(shikmá, “mulberry”).
 [Did you get all that? I hope someone  is taking notes: this will be on the test…☺]


Here is the American sycamore taxonomy










Nary a Ficus in sight.

The American sycamore (public domain -- wikipedia)

Absolutely not the tree of scripture

That would be this one, the Ficus sycomorus








Ficus sycomorus

Notable of this fig tree is it capability to bear fruit from the trunk. It was probably this feature that caused the Egyptians to name it the ‘Tree of Life’.

Ficus sycomorus is a large tree with a thick trunk and leathery leaves. Because of their size and texture, these may be the kind of fig leaves referred to in Genesis 3:7 (Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.) because no other species of fig is native to the Middle East.

Pliny the Elder writes in his book Natural History - Books XIII Trees

" Egypt has many varieties of trees not found elsewhere - first and foremost the fig, which for this reason, is called the Egyptian fig. Its leaves resemble those of the mulberry in size and appearance. The fig produces its fruit not on branches but on the trunk itself, and the Egyptian variety is exceptionally sweet and seedless. The tree's yield is extremely prolific, but only when iron hooks are used to make incisions in the fruit, which otherwise does nor ripen.  When this is done the fruit is picked three days later, while another fig forms beneath it; the tree thus has seven crops of very juicy figs in a single summer.”

In Ancient Egypt, several types of trees appear in Egyptian mythology and art, although the hieroglyph written to signify tree appears to represent the sycamore fig (ficus sycomorus) in particular, the sycamore fig tree had a special mythical significance. According to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, twin sycamores stood at the eastern gate of heaven from which the sun god, Ra, emerged each morning. Sycamores were often planted near tombs, and burial in coffins made of sycamore wood returned a dead person to the womb of the mother tree goddess. The sycamore was also regarded as a manifestation of the goddesses Nut, Isis, and especially of Hathor, who was given the epithet “Lady of the Sycamore.”

Ficus sycomorus in Egyptian art

Figs at Luxor -- Ushant's Tomb...detail; the bird give us the scale

Remains of the sycomore tree (wood, roots and fruit), discovered in Egypt, date as far back as the predynastic period; i.e., more than 3000 years BC. From Egyptian sources we know that in ancient times the F. sycomorus  was known as the "fig of Pharaoh," and Egypt as "the land where the sycomore tree blooms." The Egyptians considered its shadow as a delight. With its wood they built coffins for the mummies as the sycomore fig is one of the few trees in the region to obtain a girth great enough for this use. The wood, when properly dampened, cracked rocks, including granite. The wood of the sycomore was held in relatively higher esteem than its fruit. It was used extensively in building and wherever long and stout beams were needed.

It is not known when the sycomore was brought to Israel from Egypt, but it is quite evident that this must have taken place very early in history, as the tree was once widespread in Israel in Biblical times.  So great was the value of these trees that David appointed for them in his kingdom a special overseer, as he did for the olives

(1 Chronicles 27:28): " Baal-Hanan the Gederite was in charge of the olive and sycomore-fig trees in the western foothills. Joash was in charge of the supplies of olive oil." - It is mentioned as one of the heaviest of Egypt's calamities that her sycomore were destroyed with frost

Amos 7:14 refers to its fruit, which is of an inferior character; so also probably Jeremiah 24:2

 "One basket had very good figs, like those that ripen early; the other basket had very poor figs, so bad they could not be eaten." 

In the Hebraic texts, the sycomore tree is often accompanied by the olive tree. The two trees both have the same knotty trunk, with the same knots. According to the texts, the major difference lies in their respective properties: the olive tree can withstand many days without being planted in the ground or watered, which makes it easy to transplant; the sycomore tree, on the other hand, dries out quickly. Also, the olive tree symbolizes reproduction while the sycomore tree symbolizes regeneration. The sycomore tree's ability to regenerate is impressive: For example if the wind uncovers its roots, it will grow even deeper into the ground, clinging solidly to it; if the sand covers its branches, they transform themselves into roots giving rise to new trees. 

The sycomore's name in Hebrew - shikma - is drawn from the root sh. k. m.:  to restore, regenerate, reestablish. Accordingly, in Talmudic literature, mainly in the Mishna and the Tosephta, we find many rules governing use of the tree and its products.

The fruiting  Ficus sycomorus – festooned with life.

I’m going to sit back and let Wikipedia take the floor for a bit: “

According to botanists Daniel Zohary and Maria Hopf (1914-2008) the ancient Egyptians cultivated this species "almost exclusively.”Remains of F. sycomorus begin to appear in predynastic levels and in quantity from the start of the the third millennium BCE.  It was the ancient Egyptian Tree of Life.
Zohary and Hopf note that "the fruit and the timber, and sometimes even the twigs, are richly represented in the tombs of the Egyptian Early, Middle and Late Kingdoms." In numerous cases the parched fruiting bodies, known as sycons"bear characteristic gashing marks indicating that this art, which induces ripening, was practiced in Egypt in ancient times."

Although this species of fig requires the presence of the symbiotic wasp Ceratosolen arabicus to reproduce sexually, and this insect is extinct in Egypt, Zohay and Hopf have no doubt that Egypt was "the principal area of sycamore fig development." Some of the caskets of mummies in Egypt are made from the wood of this tree. In tropical areas where the wasp is common, complex mini-ecosystems involving the wasp, nematodes, other parasitic wasps, and various larger predators revolve around the life cycle of the fig. The trees' random production of fruit in such environments assures its constant attendance by the insects and animals which form this ecosystem.

A study in 2015 indicated that the sycamore tree was brought to Israel by the Philistines during the Iron Age, along with opium poppy and cumin.”

This is the original F. sycomorus range.

Definitely an Old World tree, but today, with helping human hands …

Hawaii…? Really? … Yup!

So if you are at an American Bible garden and you see this offered as the syomore of scripture:

Instead of this…

or this 

Or this 

You know there is something wrong with the offered collection.

 It takes far more than the similarity between names to make a biblical plant and any who offer the American Buttonwood tree as the biblical Ficus  sycomorus  ain’t even trying.

about its fruit and reproduction

"The sycomore fig syconium contains short-style and long-style female flowers, and pollen-bearing male flowers. In its native habitat of Central Africa, the symbiotic fig wasp (Ceratosolen arabicus) lays an egg (oviposits) inside the ovary of short-style flowers. Her ovipositor is too short to reach the ovary of long-style flowers, so a seed develops inside each of these flowers. This remarkable strategy (controlled by genes) insures that fig seeds and wasp larvae develop and perpetuate both the tree and its vital pollinator wasp! All the 800+ fig species on earth have this basic arrangement and their own species of wasp pollinator; however, there are variations, including more than one wasp species per syconium. In fact, about half the fig species have separate male and female trees, including the common edible fig (Ficus carica). This is a complex subject that is difficult to explain in a short article or lecture because there are so many exceptions to a generalized summary of fig biology. Some wasp pollinators (including Ceratosolen) even have pollen baskets (corbiculae) that she uses to carry pollen from one tree to another, but again this is not the case on all fig species. Oversimplification of this subject often leads to errors."

As noted, the fruits grow on clusters attached to the bark. The fruit have a very sweet aroma. It tastes different than the common fig, a little sweeter and very aromatic. The fruit of the sycamore fig is not grown commercially. The trees are not as cold hardy as the common fig Ficus Carica. They are usually grown in the warmer regions of the Middle East and Africa.

 Here  is that tree with its sweet, small  fruits up close:

Tiny, tasty fruit

The State of Israel is reestablishing the Fiicus sycomorus as it was in bible times. As this  photo from the garden at Neot Kedumim shows, they enjoy great success, although doing this means also reestablishing the tiny fig wasp in the region.


Little do these tourists know the many miracles they now pass by.

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Tags: Ficus-sycomorus, sycamore, sycomore


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