Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Plants of the Bible
Symbols, Parables and Healing
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...—
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
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
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
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
—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