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Jesus talked about lilies, figs, thistles, bitter herbs, grapes, hyssop and other plants in the Bible. They symbolize God's mercy, bounty and judgment; they illustrate Jesus' message of physical and spiritual healing.


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Plants of the Bible
Symbols, Parables and Healing

by Vincenzina Krymow

We don—t usually think about the land and plants of the Bible when we think about Jesus— life, his teaching, his miracles and his final days on earth. Yet the hills, gardens and deserts of the Bible, and the fruits of the land, are more than just a backdrop for the events related in Scripture. They illustrate God—s word, are intertwined with Jesus— life and illuminate our own journey.

Jesus referred to the —lilies of the field— to tell of God—s generous bounty. Warning of false prophets he said, —Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?— When the Jews heard that Jesus was to enter Jerusalem, they took palm branches—symbols of victory and triumph—and came to meet him.

During the Passover supper, at which bread was eaten with bitter herbs, Jesus broke bread and shared wine, his body and blood, with his apostles. He said: —I am the vine, you are the branches.— When supper was over Jesus went across the Kidron valley to a garden on the Mount of Olives. There he was arrested.

When Jesus hung on the cross the soldiers stuck a sponge soaked in wine on some hyssop and raised it to his lips.

Lilies of the field, figs, thistles, bitter herbs, grapes and hyssop—these and dozens more plants are mentioned in the Bible. They symbolize God—s mercy, bounty and judgment; they illustrate Jesus— message. Their products were used for physical healing in biblical times and can be used today for physical and spiritual healing.

The Land of the Bible

From Deuteronomy (8:7-8) we get a glimpse of this land of the Bible: —For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey...— Nearby were also deserts: —...the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land...— (Dt 8:15).

The earliest settlers lived mostly in the valleys and plains, where water was plentiful and the soil was rich. Wild thickets and forests covered the surrounding hills and slopes. When the children of Israel entered the Promised Land, they began the difficult task of clearing the wild, uncultivated hills. Joshua (17:15) tells the tribe of Joseph to —go up to the forest, and clear ground— for themselves.

Over the centuries the landscape changed and the once-fertile land became barren. Forests were cleared to provide timber for industry and fuel. Shepherds burned woodlands, replacing trees with herbaceous plants to improve pasturing for their goats and sheep. In other areas overgrazing stressed existing flora and allowed penetration by foreign species. Soil erosion devastated the land as ancient terrace-type cultivation was abandoned. At one time landowners cut down trees to avoid paying taxes for them to the Romans. Hordes of invaders further destroyed the land. It was not until the late 1940's that efforts to reforest the land and protect endangered species began.

There are two seasons in the land of the Israelites: summer and winter. Summers are hot and dry, with east or desert winds predominating. Winters are cool and wet, with rainfall decreasing from north to south. Transitional months of September and October lead into the rainy season; in March and April the rains taper off.

The lands mentioned in the Bible extend from Italy to Iran and from Greece to Egypt, but most of the biblical events occurred in the area called the land of Israel, or Palestine, on both sides of the River Jordan.

At the southern tip of the area known as the Fertile Crescent lies the land of Canaan, as it was called in biblical times. With the Mediterranean Sea to the west, mountains in the north and deserts to the east and south, this narrow strip of land, smaller than the state of New Hampshire, was blessed with fertile valleys, mild temperatures and adequate rainfall.

Plants in the Bible

Most of the plants named in the Bible are native to Egypt and Palestine. Some, mainly those producing incense and spices, were imported from Arabia, Ceylon and India via established trade routes. The Old and New Testaments mention more than 125 different plants and hundreds more are found in the Hebrew Mishnah, Talmuds and Midrashim.

New plants have been introduced over the centuries and biblical botanists estimate that today there are at least 126 families of plants and more than 2,300 species of plants in Israel. Since the general climatic conditions of the country have changed little since biblical days, many of the native plants still exist.

Identification of the plants mentioned in the Bible has posed problems for biblical botanists and scholars. The writers of Scripture were not botanists and often spoke in general terms, using —lily of the valley— for hyacinth and iris, —lilies of the field— for anemone and crocus. Some plant names were used for more than one species, such as erez (cedar) for the true cedar, the pine, the tamarisk and probably the juniper, while other plants were given several names.

Ancient Medicine and Healing

"On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food....Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing" (Ez 47:12).

Plants were the main source of remedies for healing in biblical times. Primitive people observed wild animals munching on selected grasses and birds becoming inebriated after feeding on certain berries. They experimented with plants to find calming and healing relief for weariness and pain.

Herbal medicines were used in ancient Egypt as far back as 10,000 b.c. and by the end of the fourth millennium b.c. the priest-physicians of Egypt had begun to systematize their traditions of healing. They may not have understood why a specific plant worked, but had learned from experience that its use in treatment was beneficial.

Scribes of ancient Egypt recorded prescriptions on baked clay tablets, tombs of kings and pharaohs and a large number of medical papyri. The Ebers papyrus, from about 1500 b.c., is the most comprehensive of the papyri, containing almost 900 prescriptions for laxatives, elimination of intestinal worms, stomach ailments and eye, heart and other conditions.

The Assyrian Herbal, first published in 1924, incorporates information gleaned from 660 clay tablets containing medical texts thought to be of Babylonian origin from the period 2000-3000 b.c. The Herbal includes 250 medicinal substances, including almond oil, calendula, chamomile, fennel, myrrh, licorice, lupine, mandrake, opium poppy, pomegranate, saffron and turmeric.

Healing in Biblical Times

The Israelites, who spent several hundred years in Egypt before coming to the Promised Land, knew Egyptian medical practices and brought this knowledge with them.

In earliest times, however, their priests taught that people should look to God for health and healing. Disease was seen as a punishment from God to be cured only by God. According to Deuteronomy 28:22: —The Lord will afflict you with consumption, fever, inflammation....— There were no physicians and people relied on herbal folk remedies, simple powders, ointments and salves for treatment.

Medical knowledge was slow to advance since the prophets were not considered healers, though their medical miracles were acknowledged and accepted. It was not until the Hellenistic period (332-152 b.c.) that the Jewish medical profession developed. In about 180 b.c. Sirach tells us:

—The Lord created medicines out of the earth,/and the sensible will not despise them./Was not water made sweet with a tree/in order that its power might be known?... /By them the physician heals and takes away pain; /the pharmacist makes a mixture from them— (Sir 38:4-5, 7-8).

The Talmud, written during this time, identifies some 70 herbs and other plants as having medicinal properties, many for cures, others for prevention. The list includes olives, dates, pomegranates, garlic, hyssop, cumin and other plants used mainly for food. There were remedies for intestinal ailments, blood pressure, skin and liver ailments, hemorrhage, eye problems and scurvy.

Other writings tell us about the knowledge and use of plant remedies. In the Book of Jubilees, written in the first century b.c., we are told that the angels revealed many remedies to Noah, who recorded them in a book.

Healing in scripture

Balm, figs and oil are the only plant products mentioned in the Bible with reference to healing. In Jeremiah the prophet cries: —Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?— (8:22). Isaiah prescribes —a lump of figs— for King Hezekiah—s boil (38:21) and speaks of —bruises and sores and bleeding wounds— that —have not been drained, or bound up, or softened with oil— (Is 1:6).

Michael Zohary, Israeli biblical scholar, states that herbal remedies were numerous and specific in biblical times but are not named in scripture because mentioning the medicinal uses of plants would defy —the belief in God—s exclusive healing power.—

In the Old Testament most of the miracles of healing were the result of God reversing a plague or punishment, as in Numbers 16:46-48 when the plague was stopped after Aaron made atonement for the people. The healing of natural disease was rare and was performed by the prophets. In 1 Kings 17:17-24 Elijah revives the son of the widow of Zarephath and in 1 Kings 5:8-14 Elisha cures Naaman of his leprosy.

In the New Testament all cures are of natural diseases. The gospels record at least 35 instances of Jesus healing individuals as well as groups of people. The first account of Jesus— healing is found in Matthew (4:23): —Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.—

Jesus cleansed lepers, healed people who were blind, deaf, lame and epileptic, and cast out demons. He healed a woman with a hemorrhage, a man with a withered hand and a man with dropsy. He raised Lazarus from the dead.

Faith in Jesus and the kingdom of God seems to have been a condition of healing. The centurion—s servant is healed because of his master—s faith (Mt 8:5-13). Some touched Jesus— person or garment and were healed. The woman suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years touched the fringe of Jesus— cloak, saying to herself, —If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.— And Jesus said to her, —Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well— (Mt 9:20-22). In other cases Jesus— touch healed the person. After he touched Peter—s mother-in-law —the fever left her— (Mt 8:14-15).

Healing was more than physical. Jesus healed the whole person, often forgiving sin as a way of healing the body. James (5:15-16) says: —The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.—

Symbolism of Biblical Plants

Plants were often used as symbols in Scripture. The prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament used trees, vines, fruit and herbs to represent God—s goodness, mercy and wrath. Farmers and herders, who knew well the fruits of the vine, the fields and trees that provided sustenance for them and their livestock, understood the messages conveyed.

Thorns and prickly plants symbolized sin and its consequences. In the Garden of Eden the Lord God tells Adam that the earth will bring forth —thorns and thistles— because he listened to Eve and ate the forbidden fruit (Gn 3:17-18).

Prophets used the fig, olive and vine to express God—s goodness in terms of a fertile land that yielded a bountiful crop. A rich harvest on earth was the reward of righteousness; barren land and trees, the punishment for sinfulness. Abundance of the harvest proved God—s love for man.

Rapidly fading wild plants symbolized the transience of life: —The grass withers, the flower fades...— (Is 40:8). Proud like the cedar, a man was punished with leprosy; once cured, he would be humble like the hyssop (Lv 14:2-4).

Jesus used the parable of the lilies of the field to illustrate the benefits of striving for the kingdom of God (Mt 6:25:33). He compared the kingdom of God to the mustard seed, which when it —grows up...becomes the greatest of all shrubs— (Mk 4:30-32) and used the vine and the branch to represent the relationship between God and humanity.

Stately palm trees were associated with rejoicing on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles and during Jesus— triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Cedar branches, which remain unchanged through the seasons, represented constancy and virtue.

Vincenzina Krymow—s love of plants and the Virgin Mary has found expression in her books, Mary—s Flowers: Gardens, Legends and Meditations, and Healing Plants of the Bible: History, Lore and Meditations. She is a volunteer research assistant at the University of Dayton—s Marian Library and helps care for the biblical garden at Cox Arboretum in Dayton.


Living the Scriptures

How can the lessons gleaned from passages related to plants and healing be applied to our daily lives.
How can we be thankful for and respectful of God's bounty?

Plant a biblical garden or include biblical plants in your garden as reminders of the symbols and lessons represented. Visit a biblical garden; start one in your parish.

 

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