Bramble -אָטָד (atad); בַּרְקֳנִֽים (barqanim) חוֹחַ (choach); סַלּוֹן (sallon); צָנִין (tsanin); βάτος (batos)
We are now coming to the end of our 30 Days Biblically Wild challenge that has been inspired by the Wildlife Trust‘s 30 Days Wild campaign and I thought we could look at something that just about anyone, who can get out of doors, regardless of where they live, can appreciate; the bramble (Rubus fruticosus) otherwise known as the blackberry or briar. For anyone who is wanting to get get started with, what used to be referred to as ‘nature spotting’, the bramble is an ideal place to begin. It is EVERYWHERE! You don’t have to travel long distances into the countryside to find them. Any piece of waste ground or plot of land that has been left untended will do.
There is something very inclusive about the blackberry. It can be enjoyed by all. Richard Mabey (1998:74) notes that “[b]lackberrying is the one almost universal act of foraging to survive in our industrialised island and that it has a special role in the relationship between townspeople and the countryside.”
Now (June/July) is a great time to spot them. Although, where I live we are about 2-3 weeks behind the norm, blackberry blossom is beginning to emerge. The petals are beautifully understated pinks and whites, very rose like – and they’re free and everywhere! Not only that, if you look closely you will begin to see little green fruits that will be turning red and then glossy-black. If you are in a sunny, sheltered region, some might be ripening already. And the best thing is that they are sweet and succulent!
Richard Mabey (1998:76) advises that the best fruits to pick are those at the very tip of the stem, as they are the first to ripen and are the most juicy. Berries further down the stalk tend to be drier and less sweet.
A prickly problem
Anyone who has tried to tame a bramble bush will know that they are prolific growers and incredibly resilient. This helps them to survive in the harshest conditions. Its availability, together with their fruit as a very palatable food source, has meant that the relationship between this shrub and humans goes back a very long way. Meers and Hillman (2007:191-192) note that, “blackberry pips are perhaps the most commonly found wild-fruit plant seeds on archaeological sites in Britain.” Mabey (1998:74) also refers to their presence at these locations and adds that, “blackberry seeds have been found in the stomach of a Neolithic man dug up at Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex.”
Archaeological evidence suggests that this is also the case for the regions of the southern Levant. Jensen (2012) states:
Rubus sanctus was found at an excavation of an Early Neolithic site in the Jordan Valley (Kislev 1997). During excavation of the Upper Palaeolithic site Ohalo II on the shore of the Sea of Galilee dated 22,500-23,500 cal BP 175 nutlets of Rubus sanguineus or R. canescens were found (Weiss et al. 2008).Jensen (2012: loc cit. 640)
Zohary (1982:157) notes that Rubus sanguineus is a common in the middle and northern parts of Israel, often clustered in impenetrable thorny thickets along riverbanks and swamps.
Noting the plant’s usefulness – as well as its fruit, Meers and Hillman (2007:192) state the young, spring-growth tips of the shoots provided a nutritious food source and are “excellent steamed or blended into nettle soup.” – it is therefore striking that, like the nettle (Nettle – Day 5), references to it are singularly negative. If the bramble is noted, it is because of its thorns not because of its other more positive attributes.
However, when we look at the texts, we encounter a similar problem to the one we had with ‘fish’ (see Fish – Day 27). The biblical writers appeared to have a long and exhaustive vocabulary for spiny/thorny/spiky/prickly plants and shrubs, but we are not too sure which species each denotes – or even if they were used in that way (United Bible Societies, 1980:184-185).
Having noted that the Bible contains at least 18 different Hebrew words for thorny or spiny shrubs, Canon Tristram (1898) reflecting on the landscape argues that perhaps we should not be too surprised that this is the case:
To those who have noticed the plants of Palestine, how truly it is in its shrubs and weeds alike a land of thorns and briers, it can be no matter of surprise that our Hebrew vocabulary, scanty as it is on most subjects of natural history, should here be so rich. The combined heat and dryness of the climate seem to develop a tendency to form thorns, even in groups like the Astragalus, where we should least expect them.Tristram (1898:423)
Although there is a kind of logic to Tritram’s argument, I am not sure whether it can be verified botanically. Nevertheless, Tristram’s observations serve to illustrate the number and range of spiny/thorny plants that were present in the landscape of the Bible writers.
The United Bible Societies (1980:185) remains agnostic on whether the Hebrew terms denote actual species and, if they do, what they are. Instead they advise that phrases such as ‘thorns and thistles’ function as literary tropes rather than botanical explanations.
Weaponising the bramble
Zohary (1982:157) contends that צָנִין (tsanin) and cognates is probably “identical to the true bramble.” However, he does not explain why.
55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns [tsanin] in your sides; they shall trouble you in the land where you are settling.Numbers 33:55 (NRSV) emphasis added
Interestingly this order is revered in Joshua
13 know assuredly that the Lord your God will not continue to drive out these nations before you; but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a scourge on your sides, and thorns [tasnin] in your eyes, until you perish from this good land that the Lord your God has given you.Joshua 23:13 (NRSV) emphasis added
The viciousness of the bramble’s thorns would have been well known. However, it is more than simply getting scratched. Brambles can ensnare and entrap. Sheep farmers today are still wary of bramble patches near their land. Mabey (1998:77) reports, at one point, they were known as ‘lawyers’, “because of the trouble you have in escaping their clutches.”
The image of the bramble capable of inflicting injury takes a much darker turn in the account of the exploits of Gideon in the book of Judges.
7Gideon replied, ‘Well then, when the Lord has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, I will trample your flesh on the thorns of the wilderness and on briers.’ […] 16So he took the elders of the city and he took thorns of the wilderness and briers and with them he trampled the people of Succoth.Judges 8:7 & 16 (NRSV) emphasis added
Tristram (1898) believes that the reference here to briars denote the ‘common bramble’. He argues:
Barkanim must be some thorn that could be used to scourge with, and is perhaps the Common Bramble Rubus fruticosus), as common in many parts of Palestine as in England. About the fords of Succotash, tho Sisyphus now grows in impenetrable thickets, and we remarked, on descending thither from by the route Gideon would take, that the Bramble was very common, while lower down the Jordan valley we did not observe it.”Tristram (1898:430)
The United Bible Societies (1980:186) mark Judges 8:7 and 16 as ‘a difficult text’. They note that some translators prefer to translate barqanim in this instance as ‘threshing sledges’.
(Another) burning bush?
In an earlier post we looked at the question of Moses’ burning bush (Acacia – Day 10). The striking image above by Yoram Raanan depicts the bush as an acacia. However, we return to the subject again here. Jensen (2012: loc it. 620) notes that among the various contenders species of blackberry appear.
There is a link between Rabbinic tradition and the bush. The Jerusalem Talmud (Ma’as 1.3, 48d) states that the fruit of the סְנֶה (seneh), the word used for the bush in Exodus 3:3-4, grow first red and then black in the manner of the bramble.
There is also a rather lovely legend that Jensen records:
In St. Catharine’s Monastery, which is close to Mount Horeb in Sinai, a Rubus-species is growing which a monk in 1999 told me was according to tradition the plant that Moses saw burning. Zohary (1982) claimed, “The bramble in the garden of the monastery of St. Caterina in Sinai is a cultivated one, planted by the monks”.Jensen (2012: loc cit. 620)
It has to be conceded that Jensen is rather sceptical of this claim and cites Hepper’s comment that if the burning bush was indeed Rebus sanguineus, the only remarkable fact was “… that it can grow in Sinai”.
However, there is one further, albeit rather tentative, link between the Moses’ bush and the bramble. Mark records an altercation between Jesus and his opponents. In it Jesus responds by referring to this incident.
26 And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”?Mark 12:26 (NRSV) emphasis added
The word used for bush, βάτος (batos), is, at times, translated elsewhere as ‘bramble’ or ‘briar’. Luke also uses it a further three times in reference to Moses.
Jesus and the briar
Thorns and thistles appear a number of times in the New Testament. For the most part they reflect, understandably, their use within the Hebrew texts. With the exception of the reference to Moses, they tend to be presented as images of neglect or punishment, rather than references to actual plants.
One particularly notable instance:
44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush [batos]. 45 The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.Luke 6:44-45 (NRSV) emphasis added
Matthew’s version of this teaching (7:16-20) has the more common ἄκανθα (akantha) instead of batos. This might be suggestive of a deliberate use of batos to denote something more precisely. Musselman (2007:68) and Goodfellow (2015:74) agree that, in this instance, bramble or briar is intended. Although he cites the verse in his entry on the bramble, Zohary (1986:157) does not refer to it in the text.
Celebrating the humble bramble
Whatever one may say about it, one has to admire it for its tenacity and ability to flourish. Its abundance might be part of its downfall. We tend to take note of species that are rare, struggling, and need of our protection. Species that don’t are often just a nuisance. However, if for some reason we needed to put the bramble on the endangered plant list, I am sure we would soon begin to appreciate once more the delicate and colourful beauty of its flowers, the sweetness of its fruit and even, perhaps, admire the cleverness of its thorns that it uses to protect, but also to anchor itself and help it climb!
Goodfellow, P. (2015) Flora and Fauna of the Bible: A guide for Bible readers and naturalists. Oxford: John Beaufoy.
Jensen, H.A. (2012) Plant World of the Bible. [Kindle] Bloomington: Author House.
Mabey, R. (1998) Flora Britannica Book of Wild Herbs. London: Chatto and Windus.
Meers, R. and Hillman, G. (2007) Wild Food. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
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.
Zohary, M. (1986) Plants of the Bible: A complete handbook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.