Tag Archives: Trees in Bible

Native Trees, Wooden Boat

In 1986 two brothers, themselves fishermen, discovered the remains of an ancient wooden boat buried in the mud on the shore of the Sea of Galilee near Migdal. The 7-meter-long boat has been dated to 40 BCE (plus or minus 80 years) based on radiocarbon dating and 50 BCE to 50 CE based on pottery (an oil lamp and cooking pot) and nails found in the boat, as well as hull construction techniques. The boat is now on exhibit at the Yigal Allon Center at Kibbutz Ginnosar.

The ship’s deep, round stern and bow are of fine design, and the planks were affixed to the shell with mortise and tenon joints, locked into place with tapered hardwood pegs. The superior quality of the construction shows that the boat builder was an excellent craftsmen. The boat was constructed of Lebanon cedar with Tabor oak used for the framing. The evidence of repeated repairs shows the boat was used for several decades, perhaps nearly a century. Numerous types of wood were used, a profusion of native trees – Christ Thorn, Carob, Aleppo pine, Hawthorn, Sycamore, Laurel, Willow, Judas tree, Plane tree and Atlantic Terebinth.

Lebanon cedar (Cedrus libani) is a coniferous tree that grows to 40 m tall. The trees were used by the Phoenicians for building commercial and military ships, as well as houses, palaces, and temples. Foreign rulers from both near and far would order the wood for religious and civil building projects, the most famous of which are King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and David’s and Solomon’s palaces. Because of its significance the word cedar is mentioned 75 times in the Bible.

Tabor oak (Quercus ithaburensis) is a deciduous tree that may reach a height of more than 10 meters. A famous group of large, old oaks can be seen at Hurshat Tal. Eurasian Jays (Garrulus glandarius) like to eat the acorns and bury some in the soil as a cache, which turns out to be the proper depth from which they can germinate and grow into a new oak.

Over the years when repairs had to be made a variety of woods were used:

  1. Christ Thorn (Paliurus spina-christi) is a deciduous shrub or small tree growing to 3–4 m tall. The name reflects the view that the spiny branches were used to make Jesus’ crown of thorns.
  2. Carob (Ceratonia siliqua) is a species of flowering evergreen tree growing to 10 m tall in the pea family, Fabaceae. It is widely cultivated for its edible legumes, the seed pod is crushed and used as ersatz chocolate. Most carob trees are dioecious, meaning separate male (male flowers, produce a characteristic odour, reminiscent of semen) and female (flowers that are pollinated by wind and/or insects become fruit) trees.
  3. Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) is  a small to medium-size tree, 15–25 m tall, its leaves/needles appear in pairs (occasionally threes) and its cones are well, narrow conic. The Jewish National Fund has planted the Aleppo Pine extensively in the Yatir forest in the northern Negev, the largest (30 square kilometers) planted forest in Israel. Native forests can be found in the Carmel and Galilee regions.
  4. Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is a small tree that grows in oak forests. It has small, edible fruit like rose hips. This tree may be the one described in Song of Songs, “Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my lover among the young men”.
  5. Laurel (Laurus nobilis) is an aromatic evergreen tree or shrub with green, glossy leaves, native to the Mediterranean region. Its leaves are known as bay leaves used in cooking. The laurel is dioecious.
  6. Willow (Salix acomophylla) comes in 400 varieties (species) of which only a few grow in Israel along river banks. The willow is mentioned as one of the Four Species used on the festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot) along with the palm frond, myrtle and citron. Willows are dioecious.
  7. Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum) is a small deciduous tree with small pink flowers in the spring. The tree gets its name from the legend that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from a tree of this species.
  8. Atlantic Terebinth (Pistacia atlantica, in Hebrew elah) Because of its large size and great age, pistacia trees were planted beside tombs and became well-known landmarks.
  9. Sycamore is a name applied in various times and places to three very different trees. In our case, it is probably Ficus sycomorus, mentioned in the Bible; a species of fig, also called the sycamore fig or fig-mulberry, native to the Middle East and eastern Africa.
  10. Plane tree (Platanus orientalis)is a tall (up to height of 25 meters), deciduous, rapidly growing tree with a thick trunk, with white and green patches. The leaves are large, deeply split into 5 emarginated lobes (common to many species such as the fig, castor oil plant and maples that are not related to each other). In the past people considered it a sacred tree and it was planted in holy places near running water.

 When you’re visiting Kibbutz Ginnosar you can check out these trees as the kibbutz has planted each by the path.

For an interesting read about how the boat was extricated from the mud and preserved see http://www.jesusboat.com/jesusboat-archive/the-galilee-boat-from-jesus-time

For my friend Bob Gottlieb who has built and repaired boats in Maine.

What Tree is the Sycamine?

This blog post is based on an email conversation with Revd Stephen Williams of Harlington church in England.

Dear Shmuel,

I know you are interested in plants, and take great care to label photos of them in your blog. In Luke 17:6 Jesus speaks of a sycamine tree:

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine tree, ‘Be pulled out by the roots and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.“

Might you have a photo (or know where you can take one) I can show my congregation here in UK?
It seems to be different from the Sycomore and the Mulberry. What do you think?

Hello Revd Williams.

Fascinating. I’m familiar with the Mulberry tree (Morus Nigra or Alba), in fact, we have one growing in our backyard here in Jerusalem. I have photos of a large, old Sycomore tree (Ficus Sycomorus) that I shot in a park at the southern entrance to Netanya. This is the tree described in Luke 19:4, συκομορέαν (sukomoraya) which is translated as sycamore-fig and this seems to be the tree that Zacchaeus, the tax collector climbs into.

Sycamore figHere is a closeup shot showing the fruit.

Your question intrigued me so I contacted the Jerusalem Botanical Garden and their head scientist, Dr. Ori Fragman-Sapir. He replied that he is not familiar with a sycamine tree – we don’t know what tree Luke was referring to.

So I looked up sycomore in the dictionary, http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sycomore:


Circa 1350, from Old French sicamor, from Latin sycomorus, from Ancient Greek συκόμορος (sukomoros, “fig-mulberry”), from σῦκον (sukon, “fig”) + μόρον (moron, “mulberry”). Possibly influenced by Hebrew שִׁקמָה (shiqmah, “mulberry”).

I think the translation above that shiqmah is mulberry is a mistake. The translation of shiqmah is sycamore(-fig), mulberry is tut in Hebrew.


sycomore (plural sycomores)

1.    a type of figFicus sycomorus, native to the Middle East; the sycamore tree of the Bible.

Usage notes

Sycomore is an obsolete spelling of sycamore that hearkens closer to the word’s Greek roots. Some writers have used the more Hellenic sycomore when referring to the Biblical tree to distinguish it from other trees now called sycamore.

The Ficus sycomorus, the mulberry (Morus nigra and alba) and the fig (Ficus carica) are related, they belong to the same family Moraceae.

In the Hebrew Bible there are many references to shiqmah which seem to refer to the same sycamores, see

Psa 78:47 He destroyed their vines with hail, and their sycamore-fig trees with driving rain.

Amo 7:14 Amos replied to Amaziah, “I was not a prophet by profession. No, I was a herdsman who also took care of sycamore fig trees.

1Ki 10:27 The king made silver as plentiful in Jerusalem as stones; cedar was as plentiful as sycamore fig trees are in the lowlands. See also 2Ch 1:15 and 2Ch 9:27

1Ch 27:28 Baal-Hanan the Gederite was in charge of the olive and sycamore trees in the lowlands; Joash was in charge of the storehouses of olive oil.

Isa 9:10 “The bricks have fallen, but we will rebuild with chiseled stone; the sycamore fig trees have been cut down, but we will replace them with cedars.”

Dear Shmuel,

You are a star. You have addressed the problem better than I could have hoped, thinking in the same analytical way I like. And the advice of Dr. Ori Fragman-Sapir is an added bonus, naturally.

Thank you so much. As you may have spotted in your searching, there is very little objective addressing of the problem out there – all the writers seem to have fudged it somewhat. But you have clarified a lot. I shall read sycaminos as fig-related, just as sycomorus is, and maybe even the same tree – though I see in Strong’s Concordance that the classical writers knew both words – Luke wasn’t just making the word up, clearly!

The tree in the park is perfect for imagining such a tree being picked up and relocated in the sea. One of the gorgeous hyperbole Jesus seemed to love perhaps?  The other interpretation is that he chose this tree as an illustration not because of its size but because of the bitterness of the fruit, which I wasn’t so convinced by, hence why nailing it down botanically is crucial.

Dear Revd Williams,

You are right, in Luke 19:4 it’s συκομορέαν (sukomoraya) which is translated as sycamore-fig (that’s the photo I emailed you).

But in Luke 17:6 the Greek is συκαμίνῳ (sukamino) which Strong defines as “sycamine tree, having the form and foliage of the mulberry, but fruit resembling the fig”. I checked Avi Shmida’s guide book of Trees of Israel and he mentions a tree, Ficus pseudo-sycomorus which has the leaves of a mulberry and fig-like fruit – this seems to be a better candidate for sycamine. I did find two images at http://www.wildflowers.co.il/english/plant.asp?ID=2354. I will keep my eyes out for a pseudo-sycomorus which according to Shmida grows near Eilat.

Whatever the tree, to taste whether the fruit is bitter you will have to make the trip to Israel. Since you are interested in trees and plants of the Bible I mention the five fruit trees that are listed in the Bible as native to the land of Israel: grape and pomegranate – these ripen by late summer and early fall, there is freshly squeezed pomegranate juice available in the markets and various pomegranate wines; figs – are growing wild in the hills of Jerusalem and you can pick them right off the tree; olive – there are some venerable, old trees I can show you in the Garden of Gethsemane and majestic date palms in the Jordan valley. You can also taste the fruit of the carob tree (St. John’s bread), the almond and pistachio (see Genesis 43:11, where Jacob tells his sons to take of the best products of the land  to Egypt) and the Jujube tree perhaps from which the crown of thorns was fashioned (ziziphus spinachristi). And that concludes my brief treatise of trees in the Bible but you have to come and see for yourself.

Blessings from Jerusalem,

I updated Dr. Fragman-Sapir about my conclusion and received this email in response.

Ficus palmata is the new and correct name for Ficus pseudo-sycomorus, so it is the same plant.
Dr. Ori Fragman-Sapir

There is a column, Plant of the Month on their website with an article about Ficus Palmata that is an interesting read.

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