Seed, Spade and Sword: The Bible In Context

Helping to illuminate biblical context and background

Garden Reverie – The Lowly Reed Raised High

Arundo donax

Out of Ephraim their root is against Amalek. After thee Benjamin among thy peoples. Out of Machir came down lawgivers, and out of Zebulun those drawing with the reed of a writer.

Judges 5: 14

Arundo donax in a Bible Garden..(Bouba at French Wikipedia - photo by Bouba)


What always delights me when I do the research that goes into these ‘Reveries’, are the many surprising facts I learn about the old-world, old friends  that are our Bible plants. A recent problem at the Warsaw Bible Garden led me to look at the amazing Arundo donax – a giant cane or reed.  Learning about A. donax has been perhaps a bit different, because some of the facts are so unexpected. To tell the tale completely requires a confluence of botany and DNA biology and archaeology, with a bit of horticulture thrown in: each field needing at least honorable mention.

This plant was taken up by human agriculture in the Indus valley.  Since it is stiff and strong yet light and flexible at its flowered end, the Harappan culture quickly put it to many uses. A. donax filled the bill for any use needing a sturdy, straight, light rod: arrow shafts & tool handles. We may surmise that arrow and spear shaft were among its first uses, since Neolithic peoples in recent times still used a similar reed for that purpose. Modern archers use it today.

Bronze Age reed arrow, A. donax  now in the Yale collection


The Harappa used it for boat building, too. Taking advantage of its light weight they  bent and bound the flexible ends of sheaves of many canes to make the bows.  They look like the boat depicted below. The earliest example of a reed boat was found at a Neolithic site in Kuwait in 2001. It is 7,000 years old.


Harappan boat made from A. donax on a trade seal stone

The Harappa began to export A. donax to Sumer. We know this because of cuneiform tablets and writings. That is about 6,000 years ago. Perhaps by accident, perhaps by intent, it was transplanted to the Tigris and Euphrates Valleys and to Shatt al Arab where it is now still essential to the way of those living there in the making of boats and construction buildings and fences and basketry.

Boat makking o the Sahtt al Arab, 1914

Another form of reed boat on the Tigris, 1958

Date palms and cane house on an island in a lagoon in the Shatt al Arab:
the style goes back 3,000 years.
 Michael Roaf. Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. New York. Facts on File. 1990

Basketry with A. donax today: only the clothing has changed.


He measured on the east side with the measuring reed five hundred reeds, by the measuring reed.

Ezekiel 42:16

By the time Ezekiel used his reed measuring rod to sort out the dimensions of the Temple, A. donax been a handy and reliable adjunct to living in the Levant for more than two thousand years. It competed with papyrus, but papyrus has its own special uses. No reed grows as tall as A. donax. I doubt any reed is so sturdy.  Look at the wall of these pieces, cut for today’s musical instruments.

A. donax cut for woodwind reed making – step one

It found more uses. When papyrus came along to be written on, giant cane was there to make pens with which to write.

Zebulun used such as these.

Modern calligraphic pens made from A.donax

The earliest flutes still in existence are bone; wood and cane do not last long if not tucked away in a desert tomb, and no sample of a cane flute of any kind has been discovered in Harappa, Sumer, or Assyria. But we think they were there.We’ve the picture to prove it.

Our first flutes were made of bone, but there is a limit to how many notes you can get from a short bone pipe.  When it reached Egypt, clever man had begun to take advantage of the longer, hollow straight tube that is A. donax, and used it for wind instruments: flutes, pan pipes and the first reed instruments, both single and double reed. Reed flutes and shawms could be much longer than bone. It was a small revolution in the music making business.

Musician in Khufu's s tomb, Luxor

Detail of a flute player and listener from the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, 5th Dynasty.
He plays a transverse flute

Most important for the Hebrew musician, reed pipes were guaranteed kosher: not true of any bone flute. All three woodwind instrument types used A. donax.  The reed flute is still made in the Levant and worldwide. You can buy them in the Bazaar in Alexandria or in Los Angeles or online: pan pipes, too.


Jabal's brother was Jubal, the first person to play the harp and flute

Genesis 4:21

You might have seen this girl in any of the cities of the Decapolis. Because her cheeks are puffed out, we know this is a double reed instrument.

This chiton wearing Greek maid plays a two-voice, double reed instrument. One voice is a drone tone against which a melody line is played by the other pipe. High tech -- 2,500 years ago!


Because of its length and strength, the reed found other, sadder uses as memorialized here:

The Mocking of Christ – Carl Heinrich Block (1834-1890)


 And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon His head, and a reed in His right hand: and they bowed the knee before Him, and mocked Him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!

Matthew 27:29


They spat on him and took the reed and struck him on the head

Matthew 27:30


Immediately one of them ran, and took a sponge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him a drink.

Matthew 27:48


False scepter, cudgel, helping hand: ad hoc uses for the ubiquitous giant reed, placing it firmly in our contemplation..



To take advantage of its many uses, this plant is grown commercially today, as this photo of the giant cane harvest in southern France attests.

Harvesting A. donax in southern France – these go to the musical instrument industry

The plant has been well studied. It is a grass. Its flowers are sterile; it breeds asexually from its rhizomes.  Here is its anatomy.

Furthermore, its utility to humans has guaranteed its spread. We have carried it to every continent where in its range it does very well. Since it is sterile, every one you see is a clone. In the USA, all A. donax has the same DNA. They are essential all one plant!  In Eurasia there are slight differentiations, which have allowed researchers to trace its origin back to the Indus Valley.

It thrives in most any soil in hardiness zones 6a through 10b. It need full sun. If you put it in your garden two precautions you must take.

1. It has sharp tough edges; wear gloves.

2. It wants to run. To keep it where you plant it and keep it from spreading through its rhizomes throughout your garden and into your lawn, you must plant it in a container in the ground: large plastic tub or kiddy pool; oil drum sawn in half; special concrete lined pit. Thereafter you must be wary of any stolon it sends out of its bed.

Perhaps our partnership has done too well.  This plant has gotten away from us in America. It now displaces native reeds in river habitats and is taking up agricultural water supply needed for other commercial, edible crops. Several States have declared it a noxious, invasive species and actively seek to eradicate it: a task of growing difficulty. Yet electric generation and energy companies are now looking at A. donax both as a source of burnable ‘biomass’ and for conversion to methanol and biogas. . They run afoul of the plant’s sterility, which they view as an obstacle, and seek ways to make the plant fertile again.  

Where there’s a will…

Harvesting A. donax for biogas conversion in Italy. Hungary is a big player in this area, too.

Bible plants to the rescue!

So there you have it: one of the best gifts given us from the garden. Scripture names it 41 times, not including references to the flute, which is probably also reference to this marvelous reed. (  )

I could write more, but so much has  already been written by those better than me, I’ll just leave you with a bit of wisdom from the Talmud.

 “One should always be as flexible as a reed and not as unyielding as a cedar. This is why a reed merited to have made from it a quill to write a Sefer Torah, tefillin and mezuzot.”

Ta’anit 20b (Talmud)


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Tags: A._donax, Arundo_donax, Ezekiel_Matthew, Giant_reed, cane, reed

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