Growing a Bible Garden (YOTW 2020)

Fresco of garden at the villa of Livia (first century BCE), Prima Porta. Image: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/daily-life-and-practice/herod-the-great-ancient-gardens/

The designation by the Roman Catholic Church for the year 2020 to be the ‘Year of the Word‘ has created the opportunity for a number of exciting initiatives that explore different aspects of the Bible, its use and meaning. There is special focus this year on on the plants and the Bible.

To celebrate this, the Bible Society (one of the co-supporters of the YOTW) is sponsoring the award winning garden designer Susan Eberle to create a garden themed on Psalm 23 for the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Garden Show this year.  

The proposed ‘Psalm 23 Garden’ designed by Sarah Eberle for the RHS 2020 show at Chelsea. Image: https://www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events/rhs-chelsea-flower-show/Gardens/2020/bible-society-the-psalm-23-garden

This is part of a wider project that involves communities and schools developing their own Psalm 23 gardens. Alongside this, the Bible Society are producing a wide range of (practical and spiritual) resources.

Additionally, for the annual 3 day Flower Festival to be held at St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham, on 12th to 14th June the theme will be ‘The God who Speaks’.

Flower display at the 2019 Flower Festival at St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham. Image: https://www.birminghamdiocese.org.uk/news/flower-power-has-arrived-at-st-chads-cathedral

How you can get involved

In support of this, we are producing a set of resources for children and adults to encourage you to grow your own ‘Bible garden’. These might be of particular use for teachers, (grand)parents and guardians. All the plants which we will be featuring are mentioned in the Bible and have been specifically chosen because they are simple to grow and require low maintenance. Seeds can also be purchased cheaply and easily, which makes it an ideal activity for primary and junior schools as well as at home.

I am delighted that Alexandra Leighton, a second year Theology undergraduate from the University of Birmingham who has been working with us as part of her placement, has provided a number of resources for this project. The resources will be paired, with one set being directed to adults and the other to children (see below). They can be accessed through the ‘Plant a Bible Garden‘ tab on the menu bar.

Screenshot of resource for children on growing hyssop

Fostering a feeling of connection with the natural world

There has been a lot of research recently demonstrating the importance of a closer awareness and engagement with the natural world. This has been heightened by the challenges faced by growing concerns over climate and environmental crises. The benefits of physical contact with the soil and being involved with the process of growth that gardening brings cannot be overstated in terms of health and well-being. Research suggests that Mycobacterium vaccae, a microbial bacteria that lives in soil, can enhance feelings of well being and increase the immune system. Getting your hands literally dirty appears to be good for you. Activities also help to foster a feeling of connection and sense of belonging with nature. The benefits do not just apply to children. Research is showing that it is not just children who are positively affected by having a closer relationship with nature. A recent study demonstrates a correlation between older peoples’ engagement with urban green spaces and their mood and mobility.

Schools have been at the forefront of this promotion of engagement with the natural world. Many schools have been developing allotments and flower beds as well as participating in ‘forest school‘ activities. There are further calls, supported by environmental groups like the Wildlife Trusts, to introduce a Natural History GCSE into schools. These help to nurture an awareness and connection within children and young people to the natural world.

Gardening and gardening activities are being promoted as a key feature within primary schools, with a reported 9 out of 10 primary schools running some types of gardening activities. The Horticultural Trade Association (HTA) states that:

94% of primary school heads and deputies believe that school gardening benefits either pupils’ health, mental well-being, social skills, concentration or learning. 

HTA (2010) ‘Benefits of primary school gardening

The full report can be found here: ‘Together we help children grow‘.

More information on how gardening can be integrated into the curriculum can be found on the Getting Started page.

Why a ‘biblical garden’?

The main reason for the biblical garden project is to provide the opportunity to instill and nurture these connections between the natural world and the Bible. By using familiar objects like mint and dill seeds, soil, and water, we are able to reflect upon the physical world in which the Bible was produced, and to see what might be familiar passages in a new light.

The Bible is an archive of literature that is rooted within the land.* It reflects the day-to-day life of a people who were aware that their survival depended upon the seasons, the growth of plants and harvests, the rains coming at the right time, their battles with the stony soil and pests and the heartbreak of drought. It is, to paraphrase Ellen Davis (2009) a deeply agrarian (and ecologically aware) book.

Consequently, the Bible has a lot to say about the environment – how it should be used, and how it should be nurtured. We live in days when we need to hear that wisdom once again. In a small way, our Bible gardens might help to unlock that voice for us.

Gardens and the Bible

The Bible seems to be full of gardens. We begin with the garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8).

And the Lord God planted a garden [גַּן –gan] in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man [Adam] whom he had formed.

Genesis 2:8 (NRSV)

We also have some rather enigmatic references to a garden (sometimes referred later to as the garden of Solomon) in the Canticles or Song of Songs. It is also mentioned in Ecclesiastes:

 5I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 

Ecclesiastes 2:5-6 (NRSV)

Then we have, what has come to be known as, the garden of Gethsemane. Incidentally, the Bible never really refers to it as a garden. Matthew (26:36) and Mark (14:32), who are the writers who refer to Gethsemane, both use the term χωρίον (chōrion), which is usually translated as ‘place’ or ‘field’. However, while John does not specifically refer to Gethsemane, he does describe the location of Jesus’ betrayal as a κῆπος (kēpos) or ‘garden’ (John 18:1)

Finally, we have the garden of the tomb in which the crucified body of Jesus was lain (John 19:41). Significantly, he also records Mary mistaking the resurrected Jesus for the κηπουρός (kēpouros), ‘gardener’ or the ‘keeper of a garden’ (19:15).**

It is therefore tempting to imagine the biblical landscape littered with little garden plots filled with colour and lovingly tended blooms. Unfortunately, the horticulturalists among us we would be rather disappointed. The Hebrew word normally translated as ‘garden’ – גַּן (gan) – generally denotes enclosed parkland or an estate.

A closer idea of ‘gardens’ in the antique and biblical worlds can be gained from looking at the wonderful first century BCE, garden fresco at the villa of Livia.

Gardening in Israel?

For most people living in ancient Israel plant cultivation would have involved growing edible rather than ornamental plants on strips of land just outside their city/town or village. The ground would be cultivated by hand-hoes or – for larger areas – ploughs pulled by cows. This land would tend to be sewn with wheat and barley for winter crops, and millet and beans for summer cropping (see, Harrison and Yamauchi, 2014:37). The plants that we will be featuring, including the herbs, would normally be growing wild (rather than cultivated). This meant that, although herbs were a popular item for cooking and medicinal use, they would be more commonly harvested from the wild. Nevertheless, we do have evidence that, even by the Late Bronze Age, herbs like coriander were being purposefully cultivated (see Megaloudi, 2008: 75).

We also have a reference to what might possibly be a herb garden in the story about King Ahab and Naboth.

Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. 2And Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable [יָרָק – yaraq] garden [גַּן – gan], because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.’

1 Kings 21:1-2 (NRSV)

The story is essentially about land-rights and land acquisition, but what is interesting for us is how the land is described. Most English translations render the word for this plot of land (gan yaraq) as ‘vegetable garden’.*** However, yaraq can equally be translated as herb. Ellen Davis (2009:112-114) makes the point that the permanence (economically as well as physically) of the vineyard is contrasted with Ahab’s desire for the impermanent (seasonal nature) of vegetable cultivation. However, this contrast is even more distinct if we translate this, following Swenson (1995: 95-96), as a ‘herb garden.’

Further evidence of the cultivation of herbs can be found in the writings of the Greek botanist Theophrastus (c.371-c.287 BCE). He identifies a number of plants – principally herbs – as pot or container herbs and discusses their characteristics, merits, and challenges of their cultivation. For example:

Coriander germinates with difficulty; indeed fresh seed will not come up at all unless it is moistened. Savory and marjoram take more than thirty days; but celery germinates with the greatest difficulty of all…

Theophrastus Historia Plantarum 7.1.3

While I am not aware of any archaeological evidence to substantiate this type of practice within ancient Israel (I’d be really interested to hear from anyone if they do), it is quite conceivable that this type of container cultivation could have spread into the Levant by the Hellenistic period.

Although plants were mainly used and cultivated for their usefulness in cooking and medicine, this is not to say that the aesthetic beauty of a plant was never appreciated. The lily (שׁוּשַׁן , shushan), for example, is mentioned 15 times in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and always in regards to its beauty. The Gospel writers (Mt. 6:28; Lk. 12:27) also record Jesus referring to their beauty in his teaching about God’s provision.

More information

If you would like to know more about the concepts of the ‘biblical garden’, Zofia Włodarczyk (2004: 141-147) has written an interesting article on them in Folia Horticulturae. A free pdf can be downloaded here: Biblical Gardens in dissemination of ideas of the Holy Scripture.

For the much more adventurous, to whet your appetite, here is a short video showing the construction of Biblical Garden at Elgin, Scotland, which is maintained by The Moray Council, Moray College UHI horticulture staff and students, The Friends of The Biblical Garden and Moray Rock Garden Group.

Footnotes

*See, for example, the excellent book by Ellen F. Davis (2009) Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An agrarian reading of the bible.

**Until fairly recently, this has often been an overlooked detail. However its significance is being rediscovered. Margaret Daly-Denton’s (2017) John: An Earth Bible Commentary: Supposing him to be the gardener is a lovely eco-critical reading of John’s Gospel that helps to unpack this rather strange observation.

***The term גַן־יָרָק (gan yarak) is also found in Deuteronomy 11:10, where it is unfavourably compared with the fertility and provision offered by the Promised Land.

References

Davis, E. (2009) Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An agrarian reading of the Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harrison, R.K. and Yamauchi, E.M. (2014) ‘Agriculture’. in. E.M. Yamauchi and M.R. Wilson (eds.) Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity: Vol. 1: A-Da. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers. pp. 36-42.

Megaloudi, F. (2005) ‘Wild and cultivated vegetables, herbs and spices in Greek antiquity (900 B.C. to 400 B.C.)’, Environmental Archaeology, 10(1), pp. 73-82.

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

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