Acacia – Day 10 of 30 Days [Biblically] Wild

Acacia – שִׁטָּה  (shittah)

Acacia near the Tower of London. Source: http://www.londontrees.co.uk/acacia.html

Although it is not a native to the UK, the acacia or the name ‘acacia’ (to my mind at least) is indelibly connected to suburbia and leafy, neatly trimmed, privet-lined gardens of Middle England. Loved by bees, the acacia carries with it the scent of the exotic, which is not surprising as it is more usually associated with much warmer climes.

The tree of the wilderness

The Bible lists שִׁטָּה (shittah), usually translated as ‘acacia’, twenty-eight times. However, as Tristram (1898:392) cautions, we need to be careful not to confuse it with the acacia commonly found in Britain. The types of acacia normally found in the UK generally originate from Australia rather than the Middle East.

Swenson (1995) notes that while there is no shittah tree (botanically), there are number of species of acacia that can be found in the region of biblical Palestine. He also observes that:

Acacia trees are basically trees of dry lands and barren places. Virtually no other tree can survive in the arid areas where these trees seemingly flourish.  

Swenson (1995:156)

This ability to survive in these harsh regions, Swenson (ibid) argues, makes the acacia a highly valued resource for those dwelling in, or passing through, this land for many centuries. Nomadic pastoralists  use the wood for firewood and its foliage for animal food.  

It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the majority of biblical references to the shittah relate to the second half of the book of Exodus which is set in the wilderness. This is generally assumed to be the central zone of the Sinai Peninsula. Hillel (2006:124) describes it as an arid environment that consists of a “series of wide plateaus, strewn with a ‘desert pavement’ of dark flinty gravel” which supports “only sparse xerophytic [dry dwelling] vegetation.” However, these plateaus are:

dissected by shallow wadis in which grows relatively dense vegetation. The plants consist of several species of trees (for example, acacia, tamarix, and ziziphus), shrubs and grasses.

Hillel (2006:124) 

Shittim tree at Engedi. (Acacia seyal Del.) – early 20th Century. Source: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection.

The United Bible Societies (1972:87) states that the area of biblical Palestine supports four species of acacia. Zohary (1982:116) argues that the species referred to in the Bible is most likely to be the Acacia raddiana Savi, as the alternatives tend not to be found in the Sinai region, or are unsuitable as material for construction. Goodfellow (2015:14), however, asserts that two other species (not identified by Zohary) pose as likely contenders. He also suggests that another type, the Acacia gerradii, or the ‘Negev Acacia’, could have been the thorny bush (סְנֶה – seneh) – the burning bush – that Moses encountered in Exodus 3:1-6, as it is common in the Negev and Sinai Peninsula (generally identified as being the biblical wilderness).

2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush [סְנֶהseneh]; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.

Exodus 3:2 (NRSV)

However, Swenson (1995: 157) argues that the Acacia seyal (see picture above) could possibly have supplied the shittim-wood from which the tabernacle and Ark were constructed; the species identified by Tristram (1898:331 and 392) to have been the burning bush.  

Although we cannot be too decisive as to which species exactly the Bible refers (it is quite possibly more than one species), it is nevertheless fairly certain that שִׁטָּה means ‘acacia’. Tristram (1898:391) describes it as:

…a gnarled and thorny tree, somewhat like the solitary hawthorn in its habit and manner of growth, but much larger. It flourishes in the driest situations, and is scattered more or less numerously over the whole of the Sinaitic peninsula.

Tristram (1898:391)

Zohary (1982:116) notes that the common acacia generally grows to a height of 5 to 8 metres and is branched above in the manner of an umbrella. Swenson (1995:156) describes it as “shrubby, gnarled, and twisted with a windblown look.” Its bipinnate leaf stipules form long white sharp spines. Livne (nd) warns that these are capable of puncturing car tyres – not a problem that beset the biblical writers! Nevertheless, he observes that they provide food for camels who can bite the leaves between the thorns. Its fallen fruit (a laburnum-like pod) is eaten by a number of animals including the gazelle. This process aids to the seed to germinate better after it has passed through the animal’s stomach.  

Spiked branch and leaves of the Acacia raddiana. Source: http://www.flowersinisrael.com

Trstram (1898:392) also mentions that, more recently, the tree has become renowned for (and become commercially valuable) as a source gum Arabic that it exudes, particularly in hot weather. Swenson (1995:157) also notes that acacia trees are a valued source for the production of charcoal, as their densely grained wood produces a high quality product. 

Fruit of the Acacia raddiana. Source: http://www.flowersinisrael.com

The ‘Meadow of Acacias’

Five of the biblical references to the shittim (plural of shittah) relate to places. For example, the area east of the river Jordan opposite Jericho. Interestingly, in these instances, modern translations tend to leave the Hebrew in its untranslated form (rather than use ‘acacia’)

[T]hey camped by the Jordan from Beth-jeshimoth as far as Abel-shittim in the plains of Moab.

Numbers 33:49 (NRSV) Emphasis added

On that day
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
   the hills shall flow with milk,
and all the stream beds of Judah
   shall flow with water;
a fountain shall come forth from the house of the Lord
   and water the Wadi Shittim

Joel 3:18 (NRSV) Emphasis added

Incorruptible wood

Table made from (reclaimed) acacia wood. Source: http://www.afundesign.com

Tristram (1898:391-392) during his travels in the area, observed that the acacia was also abundant in the many ravines in the region of the Dead Sea at Engedi and that planks, as much as four feet thick in diameter, could be cut from them. It is this use as a material for construction – construction of sacred items to be more exact – for which this tree is most famous. As it is slow growing, acacia wood is renowned for being extremely hard and resilient (Musselman, 2007:38). Perhaps this is why the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, simply refers to is as ξύλα ἄσηπτα ‘incorruptible wood’. Tristram describes it thus:

The timber is very hard and close-grained, of a fine orange-brown colour, with a darker heart, and admirably adapted for fine cabinet work.

Tristram (1898:392)  

Musselman (2007:38) states that the deep colour of the heartwood is due to “deposits of metabolic wastes”. The advantage of this is that it acts as a natural fungicide, resistant to water, and acts as a preservative. 

It is therefore not surprising that this was the wood that was chosen to used as the structural framework for the tabernacle (a tent-like sanctuary in which Yahweh, the God of Israel, dwelt) and much of its furniture, including the Ark of the covenant.  

They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.

Exodus 25:10 (NRSV)

You shall make upright frames of acacia wood for the tabernacle.

Exodus 26:15 (NRSV)

The density of the wood, while being hard-wearing, could also present a significant obstacle. Musselman (2007:40) suggests that, “if solid wood were used, the structure would collapse under its own weight, and transport of the heavy pieces in the wilderness would have […] been a problem.” Therefore, he argues, for practical purposes the tabernacle frame was probably not solid, but made of smaller pieces joined together.  

Isaiah’s bad botany?

One notable reference to the shittah in the Bible can be found in Isaiah. 

19 I will put [natan] in the wilderness the cedar,
   the acacia [shittah], the myrtle, and the olive;
I will set in the desert the cypress,
   the plane and the pine together, 

Isaiah 41 (NRSV)

The image that Isaiah in intending to convey is clear. The once barren and scrubby lands of the wilderness will become places where the ceder, myrtle and olive can not only grow, but be supported. However, it is unclear why Isaiah adds the shittah to this list as it already grows there and certainly does not need to be introduced or ‘given’ (נָתַן – natan). Zohary (1982:15) suggests that in places like this, the prophet seems to appear a little “doubtful as to certain common [botanical] names he mentions.” 

 

Take part in the Wildlife Trust’s ’30 Days Wild” challenge

References

Goodfellow, Peter. (2015) Flora and Fauna of the Bible: A guide for bible readers and naturalists. Oxford: John Beaufoy Publishing.

Hillel, Daniel (2006) the Natural History of the Bible: An environmental exploration of the Hebrew scriptures. New York: Columbia University Press.

Livne, M. (nd) Acacia raddiana available at: http://www.wildflowers.co.il/english/plant.asp?ID=989 [accessed 5th march 2019]

Musselman, L.J. (2007) Figs, Dates, Laurel and Myrrh: Plants of the Bible and Quran. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Swenson, A. A. (1995) Plants of the Bible: And how to grow them. New York: Citadel Press.

Tristram, H.B. (1898) The natural history of the Bible : being a review of the physical geography, geology, and meteorology of the Holy Land; with a description of every animal and plant mentioned in the Holy Scripture. 9th edn. London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.

Tucker, Gordon, C. (2016) ‘Trees’ in E.M. Yamauchi and M.R. Wilson (eds.) Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity. Peabody Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers. pp.308-334.

United Bible Societies (1980) Fauna and Flora of the Bible. Helps for Translators. London: United Bible Societies

Zohary, M. (1982) Plants of the Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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