Willow – עֲרָבָה (aravah)
If I were to describe my most idyllic summer scene it would have to include sweeping meadows of rich green grass, dotted with dandelions, buttercups and daisies (perhaps a clover or two), the sound of doves, the damp scent of soil and meths from a roaring Primus stove, the song of a sky-lark singing under pillowed clouds, and, most importantly of all, a large Weeping Willow tree beside a gently flowing river. I have a real fondness for this tree. Perhaps it is because we had one in the garden when I was lad. It stood beside the pond and from time to time, I would grab a handful its slender branches and use it to swing out over the pond below.
The willow also tends be one of the first trees to bud into leaf and so when I catch sight of that light green haze just discernible among the later-winter browns, I take it as a definite promise that spring is near.
A reminder of our roots
Although the willow features a number of times in biblical literature, in some ways, its importance within Jewish tradition really only comes into prominence after the Bible. As one of the ‘Four Species’ – the ‘four majestic (הָדָר – hadar) trees’ listed in Leviticus 23 that comprise the lulav – it is used in the Jewish festival of Sukkot or the Festival of Booths (Leviticus 23:42-44).
On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.Leviticus 23:40
The festival of Sukkot is a remembrance of the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land when the Israelites had to live ‘rough’ in the wilderness. Branches, of the willow have been chosen in this act of remembrance, Hareuveni (1974:47) argues, because it is found on the banks of the river Jordan and therefore it commemorates their passing of the threshold from the wilderness and into the land that God had given to them.
However, it must also be noted that the yearly agricultural cycle both ends and begins on Sukkot and that the first prayer for rain begins on the first day of Sukkot (Hareuveni, ibid). This is the time when the much needed yoreh (‘former’/’early rains’) begin to fall, ending the dry season and drenching the ground in preparation for seeding. Rain, as we saw in an earlier post – Rain – Day 15 – was (and remains) an absolute essential element for Israel’s survival. Its provision forms part of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 11:14) that is now part of the Shema (the prayer recited each morning and evening). Goodfellow (2015:21) suggests that it is this association between the tree and rain/water that has made the willow the symbol of prayer for rain.
One further note can be added on the symbolism of the willow in the Sukkot tradition. The Encyclopedia Judaica states that:
The willow is one of the Four Species and is characterized as possessing “neither taste nor fragrance,” thus symbolizing those among Israel “who are neither learned nor possessed of good deeds” (Lev. R. 30:12).
No weeping (willow)
Unlike so many of the plants and creatures we have been looking at, Zohary (1986:131) notes that there is little question about identifying the aravah with the willow. However, there is one notable exception and it relates to possibly the most widely known biblical reference to the willow!
1 By the rivers of Babylon—Psalm 137:1-3 (NRSV) emphasis added
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
As attractive as it may appear to picture the scene as depicting a Weeping Willow (although not the easiest of trees to hang harps upon!), as Musselman (2007:308) argues it would be a misnomer to ascribe this to any tree mentioned in the Bible as they are not found anywhere in the region, and are certainly not native to the Euphrates. This text is most probably describing the Euphrates poplar (Populus euphratica), a species which is tolerant to salt water, and which, as Zohary (1986:131) observes, is easy to confuse with the willow having similar foliage.
It is the use of aravah within the specifically Babylonian context that persuades Jensen (2012) to attribute this term to denote Populus eupratica rather than a Salix.
Swenson (1995:187) notes that, not only are the species often confused with the poplar.
“The genus Populus resembles the genus Salix and it can, accordingly, not be precluded that the tree mentioned in some of the verses can be Salix as well, because the two genera are not always distinguished in popular speech.”Jensen (2012: loc cit 2517)
English translators have a similar problem and a quick comparison between different versions will show the diversity of opinion on this matter. The United Bible Societies (1980:170) even lists aravah under “Poplar (Euphrates Poplar)” – while noting that it is sometimes translated as ‘willow.’
Once again, we need to be reminded that in Antiquity terms for things did not always necessarily function with the precision we expect of them today. Although, even today, a crow can refer very specifically to the Corvus corone or to anyone of the crow family in general. As Jensen notes above, we should not always assume that such subtle distinctions between species were reflected in everyday speech: See discussion of terms in Getting Started – Day 1.
Willows by a brook
Rather disappointingly, Tristram (1898) is uncharacteristically dismissive of the willow. Although noting that the Salix octandra was abundant on the banks of the Jordan River, he simply notes that:
“The Willow is by no means a conspicuous or characteristic plant in Palestine: though not rare, it is scattered, local, and unattractive.”Tristram (1898:416)
Nevertheless, it is the association between the willow and running water that the biblical writers emphasise. Of the five references (one of which – Psalm 1 – we have established cannot plausibly refer to the willow), three of them refer to streams or rivers.
The phrase וְעַרְבֵי־נָחַל translated within the NRSV as ” willows of the brook” seems to have been a common trope and occurs a number of times.
On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.Leviticus 23:40 (NRSV) emphasis added
The book of Job also uses this phrase to describe the habitat of the great land ‘monster’, the Behemoth. For some reason, the NRSV translators have decided to opt for ‘wadi’ instead of ‘brook’:
The lotus trees cover it for shade;Job 40:22 (NRSV) emphasis added
the willows of the wadi [ וְעַרְבֵי־נָחַל ] surround it.
It appears again in Isaiah, but this time as the name of a location:
Therefore the abundance they have gainedIsaiah 15:7 (NRSV) emphasis added
and what they have laid up
they carry away
over the Wadi of the Willows.
The final reference, also in Isaiah, rejects נַ֫חַל – nachal (‘torrent’, translated here as ‘brook’ or ‘wadi’) for wording that emphasises an abundance of water; יִבְלֵי־מָֽיִם . Here Isaiah is proclaiming the promise that Yahweh will bless his people, Judah by using the picture of bringing water to a parched and arid land:
3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land,Isaiah 44:3-4 (NRSV) emphasis added
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.
4 They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,
like willows by flowing streams.
Swenson (1995:189) makes one further observation, suggesting that the seven fresh יֶ֫תֶר (yeter), ‘cord’, that have not been dried, mentioned in the account of Samson in the book of Judges, could be referring to braided willow withies.
7Samson said to her, ‘If they bind me with seven fresh bowstrings that are not dried out, then I shall become weak, and be like anyone else.’ 8Then the lords of the Philistines brought her seven fresh bowstrings [yeter] that had not dried out, and she bound him with them. 9While men were lying in wait in an inner chamber, she said to him, ‘The Philistines are upon you, Samson!’ But he snapped the bowstrings [yeter], as a strand of fibre snaps when it touches the fire. So the secret of his strength was not known.Judges 16:7-9 (NRSV)
It is uncertain whether yeter denotes a specific material. Its use in Psalm 11:2 suggests that it as suitable for use as a bowstring (hence the NRSV reading of it here). In fact, although most modern English versions tend to follow the ‘bowstring’ reading, there are a few exceptions.
- Jubilee Bible 2000 – If they bind me with seven green wicker strands that were never dried…
- International Standard Version – If I’m tied up with seven green cords that have never been dried out…
- American King James Version – If they bind me with seven green thongs that were never dried…
- English Revised Version – If they bind me with seven green withes that were never dried…
Niditch (2008:161) translates yeter as ‘gut cord’, while Webb (2012:401) suggests that it “may have been raw sinews, or pieces of animal gut.” They both point to the stipulation that the cordage must be ‘fresh’ is a possible (and ironic) wordplay on the use by Samson of another “fresh” animal part, a donkey’s jawbone, to bring down his enemies. However, the influence of the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version must also be considered. Here, the Greek translators chose to render yeter as νεῦρον (neuron) – ‘sinew’ or ‘tendon’.
Nevertheless, Swenson may find some support for his conjecture in the first century (CE) retelling of Samson’s adventures by the Jewish writer and historian, Josephus (Ant Jud 5.8.11 (308)). Josephus appears to reflect a different textual tradition from that presented in the Greek text and records that Samson was bound with seven tendrils of the ἄμπελος (vine).
If yeter is more generic term that can be used for any type of cordage, there is some weight to Swenson’s suggestion. Fresh willow withies are exceedingly strong. As I noted earlier, they could easily support my weight when I used them as a swing. Seven withies plaited together would produce a very formidable bond.
The extremely supple and slender branches of the willow are flexible enough to be woven together to form wickerwork structures and utensils. Use of wickerwork to build bee hives is well attested throughout the Mediterranean, including Tel Rehov, from the Iron Age onward (see Mazar, 2018:44). Other artefacts include wicker sieves and fencing.
As a lad, I can remember my mother using a wooden ‘mushroom’ to help her darn our socks (knitted by our grandmother). Musselman (2007:310) records that a traditional use for willow wood in Syria was to carve it into an “egg-shaped structure that fits into a sock and easily absorbs darning needle jabs.”
Goodfellow, P. (2015) Flora and Fauna of the Bible: A guide for Bible readers and naturalists. Oxford: John Beaufoy.
Hareuveni, N. (1974) Ecology in the Bible. Kiryat Ono, Israel: Neot Kedumim.
Jensen, H.A. (2012) Plant World of the Bible. Bloomington: Author House. [Kindle]
Mazar, A. (2018) ‘The Iron Age Apiary at Tel Rehov, Israel.’ in. F.Hatjina, G.Mavrofridis and R.Jones (Eds) Beekeeping in the Mediterranean – From Antiquity to the present. Nea Moudania pp40-49.
Musselman, L.J. (2007) Figs, Dates, Laurel and Myrrh: Plants of the Bible and Quran. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.
Niditch, S. (2008) Judges. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Know 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.
United Bible Societies (1980) Fauna and Flora of the Bible. Helps for Translators. 2nd edn. London: United Bible Societies.
Webb, B.G. (2012) The Book of Judges. New International Commentary of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.
Zohary, M. (1986) Plants of the Bible: A complete handbook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.