Seed, Spade and Sword: The Bible In Context

Helping to illuminate biblical context and background

Flowering Pistacia terebinthus . Note the broad crown. The crown above mirrors the roots below.

By one old, old reckoning, it is the year 5,776 and it is the month Nisan: the month of trees.

Here I now honor some of the most important trees of antiquity. Here I honor the trees of the genus Pistacia:  Pistacia palaestina, atlantica, terebinthus and vera. Today I honor Terebinth.  There are many more species of this precious tree, but these are they that figured largely in Bible lands and times. Modernity ‘thinks’ it no longer needs this tree.  Modernity has left Terebinth behind, but as it all too often does, modernity errs.  This grand group of trees still has much to offer a needy world: far more than those tasty, healthful, wholesome nuts by which we know Pistacia vera.

Bide a bit with me and learn anew of this marvelous tree.

Want turpentine? Want soap

Bittim soap – a mixture of Pistacia resin and olive oil: a product of Anatolia and the Levant. You can find this in Turkish bazaars along with all Pistacia nuts and fruits and turpentine. Pistacia products are still valued highly by the poor.

Easy today:  go to the hardware store and buy a can of a petroleum product or go to the market and buy some sweet smelling bars and you’re all set.  Twenty-five hundred years ago… not so easy, but turpentine and soap were there: courtesy of the Pistacia.

Mind you, these gifts weren’t entirely free. It took some cooking and knowledge born of human ingenuity already eons old to come up with the right recipes. yet those recipes were discovered before iron was forged and before bronze was cast. These are recipes humanity carried with it out of the Stone Age, and not just turpentine and soap but perfumes, preservatives, and a multitude of cures for a plethora of ailments, internal and external.

Great are the gifts of the Lord; full of wonders, His creation!

Typical of our early cousins, folk mistook creation for Creator and from time to time and place to place worshiped this marvelous tree.  Ezekiel disapproved of that practice and addressed it thus:

"Then ye shall know I am the Lord, when their slain shall be among the idols round about their altars, upon every high hill, in all the tops of the mountains, and under every green tree, and under every thick terebinth, the place where they did offer sweet savor to all their idols.” (6, 13)”

Jeremiah also disapproved: “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is graven upon the table of their heart, and upon the horns of your altars; Whilst their children remember their altars and their groves by the green trees upon the high hills." (17:1-2)

But being revered by humans has its advantages.  Old, large terebinths apparently survived the deforestation of the Holy Land, from Roman to Ottoman times because people believed them sacred and brought them their prayers and petitions. In fact, some people still do, as seen today by colorful pieces of cloth or even plastic bags tied to such trees.

The Hebrew language also recalls that ancient practice; the word for the Lord ‘El’ is bound into the word for the tree: ‘elah’.   They are remarkable trees. Long lived and distinctive, they were real place markers on ancient maps.  At the time it was written, Samuel’s readers probably knew the location of the Valley of the Elah where Saul’s army confronted that of the philistines and where the Lord’s anointed, David, met their doomed champion Goliath. (1Samuel 17)  The place is still named after that tree: the Wadi of the Terebinth.  The elah would sadly figure again in David’s history, for it was a terebinth that caught Absalom by his hair as he sought to flee from his father after his failed rebellion, and where Joab found him and slew him. (2 Samuel 18).

Abraham’s tale is impossible without the terebinth. (Genesis :: 12:6, 13:18, 14:13. )The ‘Oak belonging to Mamre’ where Abraham built an altar to the Lord and where he settled down, was very likely a terebinth and not an oak (similar spelling – translators error…).

 The “ great tree” of this place was also very likely that same tree clearly identified by Flavius Josephus (Joseph ben Joseph) which according to him had been there since creation (The Jewish Wars, Book IV, 533   Hah!  – beat that, silly Romans with your wolf legends…) 

Besides being an object of veneration and map and border marker, just how important was the terebinth in Bible lands and times?

I take as definitive, that the cargo of the shipwreck of Uluburun – 3,500 BCE, southwest Anatolian coast – contained among other precious commodities a ton of terebinth resin. It was probably headed for Egypt under a royal charter from Queen Nefertiti[i], who no doubt would put it to good use.  Pause a moment and reflect how much human effort went into collecting that ton of tree sap with the methods and tools available 55 hundred years ago.

The Uluburun ship sank in early Bronze Age, but the tale of terebinth and humankind precedes that dating by thousands of years still. The earliest artifacts we can associate with terebinth are shards of wine vessels found in Hajji Feruz Tepe, West Azerbaijan, Iran. On the inner surface of these shards are chemicals traceable to wine and the terebinth resin used as a wine preservative, just as retsina is used today.  These shards date to 5,400 BCE putting them back in the Neolithic period!  So about 7,500 years ago, our family was happily drinking resin flavored wine just as we do today.  This find evidences the mastery over plants our ancestors wielded before they learned to master metals [ii]. P. atlantica seeds were unearthed in an excavation stratum going back some 9,000 years in Jarmo, in northeastern Iraq, near the oil-rich, region of Kirkuk. These seeds were also among seven types of edible nuts found – along with stone tools to crack them open – at Gesher Bnot Ya’akov near the banks of the northern Jordan River, where our prehistoric ancestors ate them some 780,000 years ago. 

This is how Pistacia resin is collected without plastic or metal. The Tree is P atlantica onto which clay cups have been formed and allowed to harden -- a method tried and true for millennia

By applying those methods and processes they had learned , the users of the terebinth made dyes (the flowers and seed hulls) soaps (the resin and the leaves!), oils ( the seeds), gums (the resin), varnishes and lacquers( the resin)  and curative preparations (resin, bark and roots).  

The curative preparations are amazing. “The resin is taken internally in the treatment of chronic bronchial infections, streptococcal, urinary and renal infections, hemorrhage, gallstones, tapeworm and rheumatism. Externally, it is used to treat arthritis, gout, sciatica, scabies and lice. It has also been used in the treatment of cancer. It is a stimulant to kidney function and was sometimes used in mild doses as a diuretic; in larger doses, it is dangerous to the kidneys. It was also used as a carminative, and was considered one of the most valuable remedies in cases of flatulent colic. Terebinth was also used to treat chronic diarrhea and dysentery, typhoid fever, purpureal fever and bleeding, helminthiasis, leucorrhea, and amenorrhea. Turpentine baths were given but arranged in such a way that the vapors were not inhaled by the patient in cases of chronic rheumatism. It was also administered in enema form to treat intractable constipation.  Applied externally as a liniment or ointment, it has been used in rheumatic ailments such as lumbago, arthritis, and neuralgia. It was also used as a local application to treat and promote the healing of burns and to heal parasitic skin diseases.  Because its nuts present a complete and wholesome food, Pistacia also had a repute in the Old World similar to that held by Viagra in the New.

The gall-like bodies found on the P. tereminus (the Turpentine Tree) are the result of the stings of a hemipterous* insect. They have been used for treatment of asthma attacks. For this purpose they are coarsely pulverized and burned in the bowl of a pipe, or in a dish, using a small funnel attached to a rubber tube for inhaling the fumes. Preparations should be made beforehand, so that the smoke may be inhaled at the commencement of the attack. They appear to act by exciting free secretion, probably through the turpentine with which they are saturated. They are said to be useful in chronic bronchitis”[iii].,[iv]

The galls on P. atlantica and the aphids that make them present yet another partnership blessed by the Lord.   The galls host the aphid young and do no harm to the tree, but passing ruminants will not eat pistacia that host these bugs.  Thus the lowly aphids protect the tree from overgrazing. Modern study has also revealed that the galls even release antibacterial and antifungal agents that also protect the tree and can also be used by humans.  Thus, what seems to be puncturing and deforming the leaves of the terebinth – the aphids G*d has set as guardians in their little gall forts – actually defend these trees, helping them thrive from year to year throughout the centuries – if no man cuts them down.

Bittim soap (from P. terebinthus)  is another old recipe available today from southeast Turkey.  This 100% percent natural, organic soap has been prized for its restorative and nourishing properties and is known to be very beneficial for skin and hair. As far as I can tell from my reading, it is handmade and contains olive oil, too. Due to the antiseptic nature of the Bittim soap, it is highly effective in curing skin diseases, eczema, acnes, and fungus.  I’m heading to a Lebanese shop I know and see whether I can find some.

It is the preservative, healing and curative properties of terebinth that gave us its name. In her superb, short paper Resin and Ritual Purification: Terebinth in Eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age Cult, Sabine Beckmann concludes

Tereminthos is an Early Indo-European word meaning something like [Overcomer of the Forces of Growth (and Death)]. It has probably come into early Greek (together with other plant-names like minta) from Minoan as a religious term through the Versailles-effect [copying the speech of the royals…] as described for other terms by Renfrew (2000). All in all it stands to reason that terebinths belong to the holy trees venerated in connection with fertility-rites in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean not only in Canaan, but also in Minoan Crete and in Mycenaean Greece where they were depicted in religious art and probably stand as a religious symbol for the power of life, death, rebirth and ritual purification.” [v]

As a food, the seeds of the genus Pistacia  are complete and wholesome food and the young leaves too are edible when cooked. Pistacia vera are the seeds you know. Their size makes them viable in commerce, but the ancients did not care about size. Everyone ate those sweet, meaty, oily seeds  (16% sucrose, 25% amino acids,  55% fatty acids),  whenever they could get them.  Besides the four fatty acids and protein they contain, the seeds also offered 36 hard to get elements.  A coffee-like beverage known today in Turkey as menengiç kahvesi is also made from the roasted fruit .

That’s pretty awesome for a desert tree; great for the peoples that lived with them.

Zohary[vi] laments at the loss of the many stands of Pistacia once hosted by the Levant. Its durable wood was once highly prized from the Kingdoms of Egypt to the Palaces of Persia, but that wood  is now only available for agricultural and household implements in Iran and Afghanistan. On the other hand, when a joint Israeli-Turkic team sought samples of seed, leaf and resin on which to perform genetic ‘fingerprinting‘, for the most part, they had to look no farther than the local bazaars. This indicates a thriving arbor-culture of a tree too valuable to sacrifice for building materials.

Terebinth was very likely our first source of turpentine and it yields a tannin for leather making.  That turpentine was used in ancient bible lands to make varnishes and paints.

I’m going to let an expert handle starting and cultivating this tree.

“Pre-soak the seed for 16 hours in alkalized water, or for 3 - 4 days in warm water, and sow late winter in a cold frame or greenhouse. Two months cold stratification may speed up germination, so it might be better to sow the seed in early winter. The germination is variable and can be slow. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle and grow on the plants for at least their first winter in a greenhouse. Plant out into their permanent positions in early summer and consider giving some protection from winter cold for their first year or two outdoors.” ( )

Pistacia require a deep well-drained light soil, preferring a hot dry position in full sun. They grows best in a sandy to stony alkaline soil. Many plant species are adapted to desert or summer drought typical of Mediterranean climate, so have a high tolerance to saline soil. They grow well in water containing up to 3.0 to 4.0% of soluble salts.[4] They are quite resilient in their ecological requirements, and can survive in temperatures ranging from −10 °C in winter to 45 °C in summer. They prefer places oriented toward the sun and well-drained soil, but grow well in the bottom of ravines. Though very hardy and drought resistance, Pistacia species grow slowly and only begin to bear fruit after about seven to 10 years from planting, obtaining full development only after 15 to 20 years. The fruit ripens in the Mediterranean from August; only female trees have fruit.

Although some species prefer moderate humidity, they do not grow well in high humidity conditions. They are susceptible to root rot, molds, and fungi, and parasites attack if they receive too much water and the soil has insufficient drainage. They require a period of drought each year for proper development. (wiki )

One thought resonated through me as I wrote this piece; I wrote it earlier; I write it again : 
Great are the gifts of the Lord; full of wonders, His creation!

We have mastered metal and stone and can parse the products of plants down to the very molecule. We are masters of creation or so we think.

Sure you can go to the ‘supermarket’ or hardware store. You can buy the products of the petrochemical and chemical industries and those of ‘Big Pharma’ or you can go to the bazaar.
You can plant a terebinth and let the Lord into your life in a very special, ancient way.

The Lord watched over your forebears and gave them great gifts. The Lord lives and watches you still; His gifts endure forever.

*true-bugs: cicadas, aphids, tree-hoppers and the like

P. vera from a 19th century book. Compare with P. terebinthus, below

P. Terebinthus. Note the pinnate leaves and smaller nuts. Compare with P. Lentiscus, below -a source of mastic chewing gum

P. lentiscus. Source of a thick sweet resin called mastic and chewed as gum

P. atlantica a species that displays the kind of trunk that once made this a precious wood. Such a tree will accept the cutting of the other species such as P. vera.

P. Palaestina.  A classic desert tree in its dry & sandy home.Take some advice from Samuel:
Do not ride your ass under this tree until you've had a haircut...

[i] Her gold cartouche was found among the thousands of items recovered from this fabulous treasure ship.

 [ii] No surprise, really; Neanderthals were using a sophisticated, anaerobic process to make a resinous ‘superglue’ out of birch bark 80,000 years ago. The pitch they made was also useful against toothache. They were able to make it without made it clay or metal vessels. Nifty trick:  it was my search for a similar process among the Levantine peoples that lead me to the magical Terebinth.  The terebinth was freer with its gifts than the birch, but similar processes were applied to its parts.

[vi] Zohary, M., 1952. A monographic study of the genus Pistacia. Palestine J. Bot., 5: 187-228

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Tags: absalom, atlantica, lentiscus, palaestina, pistacia, terebinth, terebinthus, vera


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