Moses’ glowing description of the Promised Land for his returning Egyptian exiles is as enticing as any modern travel brochure:
“…God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valley and hills, of wheat and barley, of vines, and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.” (Deuteronomy 8:7-8)
Moses knew water’s vital role in feeding a desert nation. Heat and cold, drought and rain would become central Biblical themes. Both cereals and most fruits dried well for preservation against lean times. And naturally, honey was a desirable sweetener byproduct of pollination by bees.
Moses could never imagine that these foods would in time be spread to Europe, the Americas and around the world.
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An astonishing 2,600 different plants grow in tiny, half desert Israel/Palestine. Only the most important 110 of them are mentioned in the Bible. In Genesis (1:11), “Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind” set the stage for the first Bible-named plant, the fig, in Genesis 3:7.
Fig (Ficus carica): Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness after eating the forbidden fruit. The strongest candidate for the serpent’s offering was not the fig, nor even the apple, but likely an apricot. Since the Bible doesn’t name the fruit, we’re free to choose our own favorite. Find fresh California figs at Gig Harbor green grocers now, but unfortunately most Americans know them only as fig newtons.
Pomegranate (Punica granatum): The most beautiful of Biblical fruits — with many food and ritual uses — is most popular today as a highly nutritious juice.
Wheat (Triticum sativum) and Barley (Hordeum vulgare): The first foods mentioned by Moses are cereals in one of the largest plant families, the grasses. Now cultivated around the world, but native to the Middle East, bread would become the staple for all three major religious groups there. Barley was cultivated on drier, less fertile soils and was harvested earlier than wheat. Their harvests would be celebrated in festivals. Sheaves of barley were offered in the temple at Passover; seven weeks later summer wheat at Pentecost; and the fall ingathering of fruits for the Tabernacles Festival. Jesus would later proclaim himself “the Bread of Life (John 6.35).”
Vines (Vitus vinifera): Grapes and their products: wine, syrup, raisins and vinegar are the Bible’s most mentioned plant. Native to the whole Mediterranean region, careful pruning and protection from grape-loving foxes were vital for ample fruit production. Where water supplies could fail or be contaminated, wine production preserved grapes indefinitely. Bread and wine or grape juice were basic in the Last Supper and Christian Communion services through the ages.
Olive (Olea europaea): After the fig, Genesis 8:11 first cites the olive’s significance when a dove carrying an olive sprig signaled for Noah the end of the Great Flood, and the olive leaf remains today a symbol of peace and friendship. Because it kept so well, olive oil was an important item of domestic and international trade; and stored against famine. Olive oil was the only source of illumination in thick-walled dwellings that excluded light along with midday heat. People made olive soap and oil preserved leather.
In a hot dry climate, anointing oneself with olive oil was nature’s skin softener, sunscreen and insect repellent. Like so many other Hebrew customs, this practical cosmetic self-anointing became ritualized; eventually institutionalized and sanctified. Golden Rule applications included oiling guests’ feet and scalps at feasts, soothing the sick and preparing the dead for burial. The Good Samaritan medicated his patient’s wounds with a mixture of oil and wine.
Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera): Also has multiple uses: fibrous wood for rough construction and leaves for baskets, mats, roofing. Most important were the high sugar content dates for eating, storage or fermenting. Cultivation was simplified since only a few male trees are needed wind-pollinate a whole grove of female fruit-bearers. Symbolic throughout the Mediterranean, palm motifs decorated both Solomon’s and Ezekiel’s temples. Palm leaves laid in Christ’s path by Passover visitors were rooted in Judeo-Roman customs. Palm leaves were a traditional part of Roman military processions when a victorious general triumphator was celebrated on his entry into Rome wearing the palm leaf-embroidered tunica palmate. Since the palm was the official emblem of independent Jerusalem in Jesus’ time, embarrassed officials feared possible Roman intervention.
Our Western Washington climate supports the cultivated Himalayan Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei), but not the Date Palm grown in California and Arizona. In palm-less England, our Palm Sunday was celebrated as Willow Sunday.
Despite vast cultural, climate and time differences between the Holy Land then and America today, these seven foods are important in our winter Holiday celebrations and throughout the year; now basic to our culture. Better understanding nutrition, we now appreciate these foods’ qualities. The delicious Mediterranean Diet is now deemed one of the healthiest.
(Bibliography: Musselman, Lytton J. Figs, Dates, Laurel and Myrrh: Plants of the Bible and Quaran, forward by Garrison Keillor, Timber Press, Portland, OR, 2007.)
This essay is condensed from a 2014 series for St. John’s Episcopal Church, Gig Harbor. Frank Knight can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.