(Botany determines Jeremiah’s theology; August 2009)
The prophetic books of the Bible contain many metaphors based on natural and agricultural life. The contrast of the pious and the arrogant in Jeremiah 17:5-8 employs a comparison of “a tree planted by water” and something called arar in Hebrew. Following Harold Fisch’s translation in the Jerusalem Bible, we read:
“5. Thus says the Lord: Cursed [arur] be the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm, and whose heart departs from the Lord. 6. For he shall be like the juniper tree [arar] in the desert, and shall not see when good comes; but shall inhabit the parched places [charar] in the wilderness, a salt land not inhabited.
“7. Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. 8. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, and that spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not see when heat comes, but its leaf shall be green; and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, nor shall it cease from yielding fruit.”
What was intended by Jeremiah’s warning that those who lack faith will become like an arar, and what is this plant that represents a failure of faith? Both the classic rabbinic Bible commentators and the Biblical botanists of the twentieth century struggle with this question. Is the arar a well-adapted desert plant that the prophet used to represent a smug, self-sufficient loner, or is it a plant that requires a moister environment and withers and struggles to survive in the desert? We must answer this question in order to understand Jeremiah’s metaphor and the theology that it expresses.
Onkelos’s ancient Aramaic translation and the medieval Bible commentator Rabbi David Kimchi, known by the acronym Radak, agree that arar is an alternate name for the plant also known in Hebrew as acuvit or acuvitah. Avraham Even-Shoshan’s etymological Hebrew dictionary and Avi Shmida’s MAPA Dictionary of Plants and Flowers in Israel both identify acuvit as Gundelia tournefortii. This plant is known in modern Hebrew as acuvit hagalgal and in English as tumble thistle. Acuvit means obstacle or hindrance. Perhaps the plant was given this name in reference to its spiny leaves.
This member of the Aster family is similar to the central Asian tumbleweeds that became common in the deserts of western North America during the nineteenth century, though the two are not closely related. When the tumble thistle’s seeds are mature, the dry plant detaches from its roots and the wind rolls it across the landscape, scattering seeds along its path. Its forbidding spines and rootless, solitary travels as it disperses its seeds make it a promising candidate for Jeremiah’s figure of the lone, faithless desert hermit. Indeed, a literal translation of acuvit hagalgal is “rolling hindrance”, an appropriate name for this tumbling ball of spikes. Even-Shoshan suggests that it may also be identical with the galgal (literally, “wheel”) mentioned in Isaiah 17:13 and elsewhere. The aptness of the metaphor is supported by Shmida’s observation that the genus Gundelia has no close relatives in its family. However, it is less clear why Jeremiah would have chosen this well-adapted desert species to represent one who “will not see when good comes.”
What theology follows from this reading of arar? Radak states that the arar’s thorny exterior conceals a tender, edible heart. The accuracy of this statement as a description of the tumble thistle is debatable. However, it supports the suggestion that Jeremiah intended a plant that would provide a metaphor for isolation. A provocative implication of this reading of Jeremiah is the idea that a lack of religious faith obstructs not only closeness to God, but even interpersonal intimacy. Radak’s comments on verse 5 help to explain this unusual idea. He explains the phrase “who trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm,” to mean that human efforts can succeed only with God’s support or approval. Radak’s interpretation of the tumble thistle is surprisingly close to the metaphor of the sabra, or prickly pear cactus, adopted by modern-day Israelis to represent themselves as externally tough and curt, but tenderhearted and warm at the core. Still, the tumble thistle is not a completely satisfactory candidate for the arar. The parallelism between verses 5-6 and 7-8 contrasts the arar, stymied by its desert environment, with the flourishing “tree planted by the waters”. The tumble thistle is well suited to its dry environment; it does not embody this metaphorical contrast well.
Why did Fisch’s Jerusalem Bible translation render arar as juniper? Bible commentators often use similar words in related languages to explain obscure terms. In Arabic, arar is the juniper. The Phoenician juniper (Juniperus phoenicea) occurs in relatively well-watered Mediterranean regions, including the Galilee and Lebanon, though not in the deserts of Judea and the Negev. It can be seen at the following Web site:
The juniper has one advantage over the tumble thistle as a translation for arar: Its tiny, scale-like leaves are drab and unimpressive, and its foliage is not lush even when the tree is well watered. However, in dry conditions, the foliage is especially sparce, contrasting more clearly than the tumble thistle with the “tree planted by the waters”. These facts lend support to the Jerusalem Bible’s translation. Accepting this translation leads to a different understanding of Jeremiah’s theology: The metaphor contrasts the dismal fate of a juniper in the salt desert and its vigorous growth and reproduction next to a river or stream. The prophet’s moral in this case would be that those who trust in God will flourish and their actions will yield fruit (i.e., success, or perhaps more literally, children). On the other hand, the Creator’s world turns inhospitable to the unfaithful.
The comments of several classic rabbinic authorities provide support for this reading of Jeremiah. Pirke Avot, a Roman-era collection of rabbinic aphorisms, includes a homily (Pirke Avot 3:22) attributed to Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah in which our passage is cited as support for the idea that one whose actions do not measure up to his learning will lack resilience, like a shallow-rooted tree that is easily uprooted and blown away by the wind. Rabbi Elazar’s metaphor contrasts this image with a deep-rooted tree that resists the strongest winds, representing a person whose deeds exceed his scholarship. But how does Jeremiah’s metaphor about water and the ability to withstand drought support a saying about resisting uprooting by wind? The explanation requires an understanding of plant physiology. Roots serve several functions, including anchoring plants in place and absorbing water. These functions are related: The proliferation of roots is stimulated by an adequate supply of water. A deep and extensive root system that provides access to scarce water is one of the adaptations that enable many desert plants to survive. The juniper, however, is not adapted to desert environments, and the growth of its roots would be restricted by such dry growing conditions. Thus, Rabbi Elazar may have intended his metaphor to convey the idea that one who foolishly chooses to trust in man rather than God will be as frail and vulnerable as a juniper that takes root in the desert. On the other hand, it is also possible that Rabbi Elazar understood the arar to be the tumble thistle, which is also “uprooted” by the wind, or more accurately, detached from its roots and blown about by wind. This may explain his vivid description of the wind that “uproots and inverts” the arar (Hebrew “okarto v’hofachto“).
Several of the later commentators support the identification of arar with juniper. Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), the dean of the medieval Jewish Bible commentators, connects arar with the Hebrew ariri, meaning desolate or ruined. Citing his predecessor, the Hebrew grammarian Menachem ben Seruk, he further sugggests that the phrase “like an arar in the desert” refers to a solitary, stunted member of a forest species “whose name is arar,” presumably a reference to the Arabic name for the juniper. Thus, Rashi seems to understand Jeremiah as saying that faith is as necessary to human welfare as water is to the juniper’s; a man without faith is as hopeless as a juniper in the desert. Rashi develops this idea further in his comment on the phrase “who trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm,” in verse 5. With the example of one who farms during the sabbatical year, in violation of the Biblical commandment, Rashi expresses the same idea as Radak, that people can use their strength and knowledge to help themseleves and one another, but only if they act in accord with God’s will.
The nineteenth-century Russian commentary known as Malbim (an acronym for the author’s Hebrew name, Rabbi Meir Lob ben Yechiel Michael) echoes the medieval commentators. Like Rashi, Malbim relates arar to ariri. Emphasizing the sense of ariri as fruitless, he speaks of the failure of the misplaced lone desert tree to reproduce.
Rashi often points out similarities between words, such as arar and ariri, as evidence of shared word origins, and therefore, of shared meaning as well. When such words are found close together or in similar contexts in the Bible, they can also hint at additional meanings. In particular, the similarity of the Hebrew arur (cursed) in verse 5 to charar (parched) and arar in verse 6 suggested to the eighteenth century commentator Rabbi David Altschuler that the arar is in fact a desert tree. (See his companion Bible commentaries Metzudat David and Metzudat Tzion.) In his remarks on the statement in verse 6 that the arar “will not see when good comes,” he explains that “good” here refers to rain: Just as rain does not fall on the desert plant, so, too, will the faithless man fail to receive God’s blessings.
The association of arur in verse 5 and arar in verse 6 also supports an alternative translation. The Sodom apple (Calotropis procera), known in Arabic as the “cursed lemon,” is common in the arid, salty soils surrounding Jericho and the Dead Sea. This small tree produces a fruit that resembles a large lemon in size, shape, and color. However, it is filled with air and dry seeds that carry silky fibers. A composite photo showing the plant, its flowers, and its fruit can be seen at:
In 1938, Biblical botanists Hannah and Ephraim HaReuveni published an article identifying Jeremiah’s arar as the Sodom apple. This conclusion relies heavily on folklore concerning this plant among a Bedouin tribe of the Jericho area. The HaReuvenis’ son Nogah summarized this work in his book Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage. He describes a Bedouin tradition that the Sodom apple was succulent in ancient times, until it was cursed along with Sodom and Gomorrah. When humanity repents, the Sodom apple will be restored to its former juicy, delicious form. The story is especially intriguing in light of a similar account in the Talmud (Yoma 21b and 39b) of fruit trees planted by Solomon at the time that he constructed the temple. These trees are said to have yielded golden fruits for the support of the priests until the desecration of the temple by the troops of Nebuchadnezzar. At that time, the fruits (or perhaps the trees) withered, but they will return in Messianic times.
The silky tufts of the Sodom apple seeds give the plant its Hebrew name, petillat hamidbar (desert silk). These fibers are listed in the Mishna (Shabbat 2:1) among those that may not be used as a wick for Sabbath lights because they burn unevenly. Another essay on Torahflora.org (Drug-Free Sabbath Candles) explains more about this topic.
Relying on the similarity of the words arur and arar to identify the arar as the “cursed lemon” adds a suggestion of repentance and redemption that is not present in Jeremiah’s bleak vision of the future of those who do not trust in God. Both the ability of the Sodom apple to retain its large, green leaves and produce flowers and fruits under harsh conditions, and the messianic aspect of the tradition quoted by the HaReuvenis conflict with the prophet’s description of a tree that “shall not see when good comes”. For these reasons, we must look elsewhere for the arar.
The ancient (and likely the first) Bible translation known as the Septuagint renders arar into Greek as agriomyrike, a tree known in English as the tamarisk or salt cedar (genus Tamarix). This translation is supported by the Arabic name for the tamarisk, arah.
Like the juniper, the tamarisk has a very bland, unappealing appearance, with small, scale-like leaves and a trunk covered with grayish grains. Its flowers and fruits are also small and unimpressive. The tamarisk is a halophyte, one of the few plants that are able to thrive in salty soils. This ability is partly due to its ability to excrete salt from its leaves, branches, and roots, and its extraordinary effectiveness at absorbing deep groundwater. A tamarisk can easily exhaust the local water supply and concentrate salt in the surrounding soil, making it impossible for other plant species to compete. The photo posted at the following Web site shows two tamarisks growing in the western Negev desert, near Nitzanim, Israel. Note the near absence of other vegetation around the trees:
The tamarisk is common in Old World deserts, including the area around the Dead Sea and the Negev desert of southern Israel. Since its importation to the United States in the nineteenth century, it has become an invasive species along rivers and in wet spots within the deserts of the western United States, drying up wet areas and concentrating salt in the soil to the point that native species are eliminated. Because it has become such a problem in the Western US, the Washington State Department of Ecology has collected and published information on the growth and control of tamarisk on a Salt Cedar Web page.
This Web page explains that a tamarisk seedling can grow up to a foot (30 cm) per month in the spring. Its roots also grow rapidly, quickly reaching the groundwater below the soil. Once this happens, the tree is no longer dependent on moisture in the surface soil, and can survive droughts that kill other plants. For the same reason, the tamarisk does not spring to life after a rainfall as other desert plants do, but maintains its dwarf leaves and generally drab, grey-green appearance.
These traits support the suggestion of the late Professor Yehuda Feliks of Bar-Ilan and Tel Aviv Universities that Jeremiah’s arar is the tamarisk. A desert tree that does not respond to rain is a good candidate for the species that “shall not see when good comes”. Unlike the other translations described above, identifying arar as the tamarisk enables us to avoid having to chose between a well-adapted dry-land plant such as the tumble thistle or Sodom apple and one that is not normally found in deserts, such as the juniper. The tamarisk’s ability to monopolize scarce water and inhibit the growth of other plants often results in a solitary growth habit. This isolation and the meager reproduction of the tamarisk are just as Malbim described. If we read Jeremiah with this translation in mind, we see him describing the faithless man as one who has isolated himself from both God and society in the miserable “parched places in the wilderness, a salt land not inhabited”. One could reasonably apply this vision to the alienation and fragmented social relationships experienced by so many in modern secular society.
Some hope is held out for the arar when the word appears in Psalms 102:18. Again, following the Jerusalem Bible:
“He heeds the prayer of the destitute [arar], and does not despise their prayer.”
This translation is based on what may be the root meaning of arar: naked, empty-handed, or childless. (See, for example, Genesis 15:2, Leviticus 20:20-21, and Jeremiah 22:30). The tamarisk may well have been named arar to reflect the meager appearance of its foliage. But how does the metaphor of this psalm reflect the life of the tamarisk? Feliks points out that during a brief period in spring or early summer, the tamarisk produces small white or pink flowers that will eventually yield small seeds. The flowers are not dramatic or impressive, but as the psalm implies, they represent a modest renewal, and as reproductive organs, the possibility of a new generation.
Sigmund Freud is reputed to have said that anatomy is destiny. Perhaps we can paraphrase this famous remark, having shown that sometimes, botany is theology.