Almost every book in the Bible mentions trees, whether actual or symbolic. We only have to think of the tree of life in Genesis and Revelation or the centrality of Christ crucified on a wooden cross.
When we think of trees in the Bible, we can confidently identify about one-third of named trees, make a good guess about a further third, but only suggest what the remainder might be based on the biblical context.
Let us look first at a clearly identified tree, the sycomore-fig that Zaccheus climbed (Luke 19:1-10), and then at a tree about which there is much uncertainty. Both examples help underscore the reliability of Scripture.
Luke delights in detail and we are not disappointed. He tells us that the tree the diminutive Zaccheus ran to climb was a sycomore-fig. This tree is common in and around Jericho, Galilee, and the Jordan valley.
It is a tree of the sub-tropics, but for us in Britain it needs stating that it is no relation to the sycamore we know (which is a maple) and Bibles which spell it ‘sycamore’ are wrong.
The tree is a fig and bears such fruits; it is sycomore, or more correctly sycomore-fig (Ficus sycomorus). It is a close relative of the common fig widespread throughout the Mediterranean and, of course, often mentioned in the Bible.
This little bit of botany is helpful, because the sycomore-fig Zaccheus climbed was a common roadside tree, which attains large stature — think of a London plane — so it was easy to climb and big enough compared with a common fig bush.
But there is something else about this tree which is instructive. Its fruit was known as the ‘poor man’s figs’, edible but not as good as the common fig, and they had to be tended in a special way.
We learn this from two references in the Old Testament, where Baal-Hanan the Gederite (1 Chronicles 27:28) and Amos (Amos 7:14) are described as ‘carers or dressers of sycomore fig trees’.
What did this involve? From Hareuveni’s Tree and shrub in our biblical heritage (Neot Kedumim, Lod, Israel), we learn that in biblical times shepherds would move their flocks in late summer from the Judean highlands, down to the vicinity of Jericho and the Jordan Valley, to find pasture.
There the shepherds sought out sycomore-fig trees to climb, to treat the immature figs by piercing them and wiping with olive oil. This helped the fig become sweet when ripe in late autumn. The shepherds from their high vantage point could, too, keep an eye on their flocks!
Thus, in and around Jericho, everyone was familiar with shepherds climbing sycomore-fig trees. So when Jesus came, Zaccheus, the wealthy, chief tax collector, not only demeaned himself by climbing a tree, but was in the eyes of the crowd identifying with lowly shepherds.
So strong was his desire to see Jesus that nothing, no amount of ridicule, was going to stop him. And we know the outcome: repentance and faith, the marks of true conversion, as he met with the Lord.
Think secondly of the curious incident of the miracle at Marah, when Moses was instructed by God to throw in a piece of wood or tree (Exodus 15:22-25) to turn the bitter water to sweet.
We do not know what tree or wood product Moses threw into the waters of Marah. What we can say, at this first resting place after the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea, is that almost certainly moringa trees (ben oil or bean tree) were near the oasis in this part of the desert.
Several species of moringa produce seeds which contain proteins that act as chemical coagulants. When added to dirty water they cause impurities, along with 98 per cent of bacteria, to settle out. Today, aid agencies recommend this water treatment for remote villages in NE Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and parts of India.
What is remarkable is that one tree provides sufficient seeds to purify 30,000 litres (7000 gallons) of water and it only takes about two hours to make it drinkable. I include one or two more details in my book, God’s trees.
We cannot know whether this is what God instructed Moses to do, but it would work. It is no less a miracle and perhaps the incident is not quite so curious.
The above affirm Scripture. At Marah God issued a decree to the Israelites to ‘listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes’ (Exodus 15:25-26), and, at Jericho, Zaccheus met the living Lord Jesus Christ.
Trees had just ‘bit parts’ to play on the far greater stage of life’s journey, but were no less part of the story.
Julian Evans OBE
Professor Evans is currently President of the Institute of Chartered Foresters. He has written many books on forestry, including God’s trees — trees, forests and wood in the Bible (Day One). He was formerly a non-executive director of Tear Fund.