Scripture Garden I

Biblical Resources Scripture Garden at Tantur

Today I’d like to share with you the first part of a walk through a Scripture Garden that my wife Karen and I used to work at in Israel.  This garden was located halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  It's no longer there today, but has inspired many imitators that carry on the tradition. What was in the Scripture Garden?  More than two dozen full-sized models and restorations of objects from daily life in Bible times.

The purpose of the garden was to help you understand the imagery of the Bible.  Many times we read about different things like wells or threshing floors or wine presses or olive presses in the Bible, but we really don’t understand what they were or how they worked.  And since so much of the imagery of the Bible depends on this knowledge, we often don’t understand the meaning of this imagery, and so don’t understand the meaning of the verse or section it appears in. 

One of the reasons we don’t understand the imagery of the Bible is that it’s mostly agricultural imagery.  Few of us are involved in agriculture any more.  So it's more difficult for us today to understand the imagery of the Bible than for our grandparents or great-grandparents.   


Another obstacle is the difference between Western, analytical thinking and Middle Eastern associative thinking.  A good example of this is the description of a beautiful girl found in the Song of Songs (7:5):  “Your head is like Mt. Carmel on you...”  To a Western mind, this is not a compliment, but an insult!  We think analytically:  what is a mountain composed of, what is its size, its shape, etc.  For us, to say that a woman’s head is like a mountain is like saying she's got a huge head filled with rocks and dirt! 

But to someone from the Middle East, what’s most important about a mountain is what it’s used for.  In ancient Israel, Mt. Carmel was one of the few places in the country to stay fresh and green all the time, even in the middle of the dry summer.  Because of its elevation, it was cooler, and brought relief from the summer heat.  This is the “majesty of Carmel” mentioned in Isaiah 35:2:  wonderfully cool, beautifully situated, fresh and well-watered;  a true image of beauty to the Middle Eastern mind.  To say that a woman’s head is like Carmel from this point of view is to say that she is beautiful, attractive, and inviting. 

That same verse continues:  “and the hair of your head is like purple cloth...” To a Western mind, this means that your hair has a strange texture and an odd color:  hardly a compliment, unless you’re into punk hairstyles.  But this doesn’t mean that they were dying their hair bright colors in those days.  What’s important to the Middle Eastern mind is not the outward form, but the function, the use.  Purple cloth was extremely valuable in those days.  The color purple was made from snails that lived in the Mediterranean.  It was very expensive.  That’s why the color purple was associated with royalty; they were the only ones that could afford it.  So purple cloth was associated with wealth and beauty.  To say that a woman’s hair was like purple was to say that it had a rich and attractive appearance, an appearance that would fascinate kings:  quite the compliment! 

The verse just before this says, “your neck is like a tower of ivory” (Song 7:4).  To a Western mind, this means that you have an extremely long and hard neck, and implies that you’re a cold and hard person.  But ivory was (and still is) very expensive and highly treasured in the Middle East, in part because it’s so easy for the craftsman to shape and work to make beautiful and intricate designs.  Again, the Middle Eastern mind thinks of the function:  how it’s used.  An ivory neck implies a shapely and desirable form.  To say that a woman’s neck is like a tower of ivory is to say that she has a beautiful and striking appearance.  We misunderstand the imagery, because we don’t understand their way of thinking and their way of life. 

Olive Trees

One last example is the olive tree.  The Bible considers it an image of beauty:  “his splendor will be like the olive tree” (Hos. 14:6).  But when a Westerner looks at an olive tree, it looks short and scrawny.  Its trunk is wrinkled, which gives it the appearance of old age.  Its leaves are a grayish-greenish color. Hardly an image of beauty to us!  It seems more like a gnarly old man.  But to the Middle Eastern mind, what’s important is what the olive tree is used for, what it does.  The olive was one of the most useful of all trees.  It was used for food, for oil, light, medicine, cosmetics, soap, and wood.  It was beautiful because of what it can provide.  And so to say that the splendor of a man, or in this case it’s talking about the nation of Israel, would be like an olive tree implies that it would be very fruitful, productive, and useful:  very attractive, indeed. 

Threshing Floor with Threshing Sled


There are many places in the Bible that mention threshing and threshing floors.  What is a threshing floor?  A threshing floor is a circular bedrock floor (a leveled-off section of rock), usually up on top of a hill, like the floor of a large room.  It was used to separate the kernels of wheat or barley from their husks.  How did it work? 

First, the sheaves of grain were dried in the fields.  Then they were brought to the threshing floor and spread out.  The grain was then crushed by dragging a threshing sled over it that was usually pulled by an ox or a donkey. 

The threshing sled (or sledge) was made of wood, with teeth of rock or, if the farmer could afford it, iron embedded in the bottom.  Often it was weighted with rocks or even children riding on top of it.  As the sled was dragged over the grain, it crushed the kernels between the flat bedrock surface of the threshing floor and the teeth of the threshing sled.  The pressure of the sled on the grain forced open the husk and the kernel fell out. 

The animals pulling the sled were allowed to eat while they worked.  Maybe you recall the verse in Deuteronomy 25:4:  “Do not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.”  Even the ox shared in the joy of the threshing floor.

The next step was known as winnowing.  This was to separate the kernels of grain from the husks and straw on the threshing floor; to separate the grain from the chaff.  This was done by tossing the threshed grain into the air.  They did this with a wooden fork (like a pitchfork) or a wide, shallow scoop (like a shovel).  The breeze carried the lighter chaff away from the heavier kernels, which fell to the ground.  This is why threshing floors in Israel are located high up on a hill, so they can catch the afternoon breeze. 

After doing this for a while, you have two separate piles:  one of grain and one of chaff.   The grain was sifted to remove pieces of stone and dried mud, and stored in large storage jars or stone-lined pits inside the homes for use throughout the year.  If the chaff was not needed for anything, it was often burned.  Otherwise it might be used in animal feed, in pottery or mud-brick, or even mixed with dung for fuel.

The process of winnowing is mentioned in Luke 3:17, when John the Baptist said about the Messiah, “Whose winnowing fork is in his hand to thoroughly clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his storehouse; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  Here threshing is used to describe the separation of the righteous and the unrighteous (the grain and the chaff) at the coming of Messiah. 

It’s also mentioned in Hosea 13:3:  “Therefore, [Ephraim] will be like the morning cloud, and like dew which soon disappears, like chaff which is blown away from the threshing floor, and like smoke from a chimney.”  All are images of things that quickly disappear, implying that Ephraim, too, would disappear from history, as actually happened.

As you can imagine, threshing floors were extremely important to the life of the community. Drought and famine were very real in this part of the world.  So fears about the weather often focused on the threshing floor:  if the threshing floor was full, that meant that a good year was ahead.  If not, it would be a difficult year.  With a good crop, harvest was a time of rejoicing and celebration.  If not, it was a time of mourning.  This is why, for many, the threshing floor was a place of worship. 

The question was, though, which God will you pray to?  The Biblical God of the desert?  Or the pagan god of the storm (Baal)?  You can see why they would be tempted to worship local gods.  This is probably why God put the most important festivals of Israel at the times of harvest:  Passover and Pentecost at the time of the grain harvests in the spring, the Day of Atonement and Tabernacles at the time of the fruit harvest in the fall.

As it says in Deuteronomy 11:13-17:  “And it will be if you carefully obey the commands I am commanding you today,...then I will give you rain on your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, and you will gather your grain and new wine and oil.  And I will give you grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.  [But] be careful lest your heart be deceived and you turn away and serve other gods and bow down to them. Then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and he will shut the heavens and there will be no rain, and the ground will not yield its produce, and you will quickly perish from the good land the LORD is giving you.”

This is also what it’s also talking about in Hos. 9:1:  “For you have played the harlot, away from your God.  You have loved a harlot's wages on every threshing floor of grain.”  What’s that talking about?  Pagan worship at the threshing floors. 

What are some of the famous stories in the Bible connected with the threshing floor?  Perhaps the most well known is the story of Ruth and Boaz.  Remember when Ruth went to Boaz at the threshing floor? 

Ruth 3:6-7:  “And [Ruth] went down to the threshing floor and did according to all that her mother-in-law had commanded her.  And Boaz ate and drank and his heart was glad, and he went to lie down at the end of the heap (of grain); and she came secretly, and uncovered his feet and lay down.”  Why was Boaz sleeping at the threshing floor?  They had had a party there, celebrating the harvest, and he was sleeping by his heap of cleaned grain to protect it from being stolen by anyone. 

Another famous story is that of David and Arunah in Jerusalem.  At the instruction of Gad the prophet, David bought a threshing floor near Jerusalem, and used it as a place to worship the Lord.  Later this became the site of the Temple of Solomon.  As it says in 2 Samuel 24:18:  “So Gad came to David that day and said to him, 'Go up, build an altar for the LORD at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.'  This altar to the LORD probably replaced a pagan altar there. 

Another is the story of Gideon, in Judges 6:11:  “Gideon his son was beating out wheat in the wine press to hide it from the Midianites.”  Why wasn’t Gideon threshing his wheat at the threshing floor?  The threshing floor was on top of the hill, in an exposed area, visible to the Midianites from a long distance away.  But the wine press was at the bottom of the hill, safely hidden by trees and bushes from the enemy. 

Rock Quarry


Our next stop in the Scripture Garden is the quarry.  The Bible constantly mentions buildings made of stone.  How did they cut building stones out of the bedrock?  A narrow metal pick was used to cut out the top and four sides of a block of stone.  This left a narrow stone cut or trench around the stone.  Pieces of wood were then wedged into the cut on one side, and drenched with water.  The expansion of the wood eventually broke the stone free on the bottom side.  The finished stone was then transported to the construction site on carts, sleds, or rollers. 

Why did they go to all the trouble of building their houses out of stone?  Stone was the most plentiful building material in the land.  Bedrock was accessible almost everywhere.  There wasn’t much wood, and that was needed for other things.  Stone was also durable, and provided good protection from the attacks of an enemy.  The presence of stone everywhere, its strength, and its protective characteristics also made it a favorite metaphor for God. 

As it says in Psalm 18:2:  “The LORD is my rock and my stronghold and my deliverer; my God, my rock, I seek refuge in him.”  Or in Psalm 18:46:  “The LORD lives, and blessed be my rock; and exalted be God, the rock of my salvation.”  In prophecy, the Messiah is prophetically called a cornerstone and a stone of stumbling (Isa. 8:14, 28:16; Matt. 11:6; Luke 7:23; Rom. 9:32,33; Eph. 2:20).

Working with stone is probably the kind of work that Jesus did with Joseph, his step-father.  The name of their trade in Greek is tekton, which means builder or construction worker.  This was understood in Europe to mean a carpenter, since most homes there are made of wood.  But in Israel, stone is the primary building material for foundations and walls, with wood used only for roofs.  Jesus and Joseph were therefore primarily stoneworkers, and as a result, strong, robust men. 

Rock is also important in the desert for the protection it provides from the sun. There’s a Bedouin saying, “the shade of a rock is better than the shade of a tree.”  Rock also retains the cool of the evening even in the heat of the day—it’s like natural air conditioning.  This was well known to David the shepherd boy, who spent many hours in the cool shade of the rocky cliffs near Bethlehem. 

This imagery can be seen in his psalms, as in Psalm 91:1:  “He who the shadow of the Almighty.”  Or Psalm 121:5:  “The Lord is your shade on your right hand.”  Or as Isaiah put it: Isaiah 32:2:  “[A righteous king is] like the shade of a huge rock in a weary land...”

Tomb Entrance


Old abandoned quarries were often used as a place for tombs, as for the tomb where Jesus was laid before his resurrection (at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem).  It was not as common as in America and other places to bury people “six feet under,” because it was hard to find places with that much dirt.  And in the few places where there was that much dirt, it was needed for agriculture.  Tombs were instead carved out of the rock, not as single burials, but as family tombs, used over and over again. 

The low entrance and opening shaft were usually a tight squeeze, for which you had to squat down or crawl in on your hands and knees.  Inside, you could stand up in a small room with a stone bench cut out of the rock on three sides.  In Old Testament times, the bodies were laid out on this bench, sometimes provided with carved stone headrests.  The image was that of laying the dead on a bed.  This is the same symbolic connection between death and sleep that we see in the Bible. 

Remember when Jesus said that Lazarus had fallen asleep?  But actually this was the sleep of death:  “After this he said to them, ‘Lazarus our friend has fallen asleep, but I am going so that I may awaken him” (John 11:11).  In fact, Jesus was going to raise him from the dead.  Or as Paul described the resurrection from the dead:  “We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51). 

Once the body decomposed, after a year, the bones were gathered up for a secondary burial.  In the time of the Old Testament, they were put in a small chamber known as a bone repository cut out of the rock under the bench on one side of the tomb.  Here could be found the bones of all the previous generations of the family.   This is the meaning of the phrase, “and he was gathered to his people” (Gen. 25:8; 25:17, 35:29, 49:29,33, Numbers 20:24,26, 27:13, 31:2, Deut. 32:50).  The bones of the dead were literally gathered up and put in the repository with the bones of the person’s ancestors.  A similar expression is, “they were gathered to their fathers” (Judges 2:10, 2 Kings 22:20).  This is probably the source of the description of the place of the dead as the “bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:22).  In New Testament times, the bones were instead put into individual ossuaries (small bone boxes) that were kept in the tomb. 

Because these tombs were used over and over again, the decay of the dead body was something that people saw.  This led to the idea that the place of the dead, Sheol, ate or consumed the dead.  As it says in Psalm 49:14, speaking of the wicked:  “And their form is appointed to the wasting away of Sheol, so that (their soul) has no dwelling.”  Sheol was the place where the body wasted away, so that there was no longer an earthly dwelling for the soul to live in.

Proverbs 1:12, in reporting the words of evil men planning a murder, says, “Let us swallow them alive like Sheol; (let us swallow them) whole, like those who go down to the pit.”  Or in Isaiah 5:14:  “Therefore Sheol has enlarged itself and opened wide its mouth without limit; and Jerusalem's splendor, and her pomp, and her clamor, and the one who is jubilant will descend into it.”

Tombs were usually sealed with a stone plug or small stone wall of various kinds.  But of the hundreds of burials found from the time of the New Testament, only a handful were sealed with rolling stones of the kind mentioned in the gospels.  Every one of these rolling stones was on the tomb of a wealthy person. 

Why is this important?  The New Testament says that Jesus was buried in the tomb of a wealthy man, Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57-60), and that it had a rolling stone door (Matt. 27:60, 28:2; Mark 16:3,4, etc.).  This was in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isa. 53:9:  “And he will make his tomb with the wicked, and with one who is rich in his death, because he will do no violence and there will be no deceit in his mouth.”



Let’s move on to the winepress.  There were many different winepress designs, but all had the same basic elements.  First was a shallow vat or vats that held the grapes as treaders crushed them underfoot.  The juice then flowed out through one or more small channels into a lower vat where the juice was collected.  The wine was then strained through a linen cloth and into storage jars or goat skins for final storage.  Those treading would shout and sing:  it was an exciting time, a time of joy and of blessing.  Some of the Psalms may have intentionally been written to a rhythm that could be sung while treading. 

The winepress is mentioned in Proverbs 3:9-10:  “Honor the LORD from your wealth, and from the first of all your produce; so your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine.”  New wine, or sweet wine as it is often translated, refers to the unfermented grape juice.  In prophecy, Joel says,   “And it will be in that day that the mountains will drip with new wine” (Joel 3:18).  This is a prophecy that in the Messianic age, the rock around the winepresses will be drenched with juice, the sign of an abundant harvest. 

In Hebrew, the juice of the grape is called its “blood” because it looks like blood and stains like blood (Gen. 49:11, Deut. 32:14, etc.).  So the joy of the bursting grapes was also associated with the destruction of Israel’s enemies, often called “treading” on its enemies.  This image was also applied to God's destruction of his enemies. 

For example in Jeremiah 25:30,31:  “The LORD will roar from on high....  with a shout like those treading the grapes, he will answer all the inhabitants of the earth.  An uproar has come to the end of the earth, for the LORD has a controversy with the nations.  He is pleading his case with all flesh...”  Or in Joel 3:13:  “Send out a sickle, for the harvest has ripened; come, descend, for the winepress is full; the vats have overflowed, for great is their wickedness.”  This, too, is a prophecy of God’s coming judgment.

But perhaps the most clear use of this image is in Isaiah 63:2-4:  “Why is your clothing red and your garments like one treading in a winepress?  `I have treaded the winepress alone, and from the peoples there was no one with me; and I treaded on them in my anger, and trampled them in my wrath; and their blood was spattered on my garments, and I have defiled all my clothing.  For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year of my redeemed ones has come.” 

This image of judgment and punishment was given a different twist in the ministry of Jesus, who accepted in his body the treading we deserve for our sin.  This is symbolized in the cup at Communion.  As it says in Isaiah 53:5:  “And he was pierced because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our offenses....”  Or in Matthew 26:27-28:  “And having taken a cup and given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, `Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”  Here Jesus, too, equates the juice of the grape with blood—his own blood. 

Agricultural Terraces


Let’s move on to a place where we can get a good look at the terraces on the hillside.  A large percentage of the agricultural land in Israel is made up of terraces.  These are made by building short walls up and down the side of a hill to hold the soil and stop it from running down the hill.  This is the setting for what we usually call Jesus' parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3-9).  But we could just as well call this the parable of the soils, because it’s really about four different types of soil that receive seed from the sower. 

This parable reflects the ancient method of broadcast sowing, still used today in some places, where the farmer reaches into his bag and throws out seed on his field.  In any terrace, the land furthest back in the terrace is often bedrock or stony ground.  Next comes land that’s too shallow to plow, and has the natural ground cover of thorns and thistles.  There are also the occasional paths that compact the soil, which reduces the water retention, and as a result nothing grows there.  But the soil just behind the terrace wall is the most fertile, the deepest, and holds the most water.  This is the kind of soil that produces the best yield, which can be fortyfold for crops in Israel.  When Jesus mentioned a hundredfold return, that would be a miraculous return. 

In areas with large, flat fields, like in America or Australia, the unproductive soil is a small band around the edge of the field.  But in terrace agriculture, quite a bit of seed falls on unproductive ground. 

So what’s the message of this parable?  A lot of effort in Christian work falls on unproductive ground.  It's discouraging, but it's to be expected.  Some people will just never receive what you have to say.  But there will always be stretches of fertile soil along the way that will have an abundant yield. 



The natural ground cover of Israel—the weeds—as I mentioned, are thorns and thistles.  These are mentioned in many places in the Bible.  For example, Genesis 3:17,18 says:  “The ground is cursed on account of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.  And thorn and thistle it will grow for you; and you will eat the plants of the field.”

Or in Numbers 33:55:  “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it will come about that those whom you let remain of them will become as pricks (of thorns) in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they will trouble you in the land in which you live.”  Isaiah, speaking of God’s judgment of Edom, says:  “And thorns will come up in its fortified towers, nettles and thistles in its fortified cities” (Isa. 34:13).

Jeremiah says:  “They have sown wheat and have reaped thorns” (Jer. 12:13).  And in Hebrews in the New Testament it says,  “For ground that drinks the rain that often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned” (Heb. 6:7,8).  This is talking about believers that are not fruitful, but instead are bearing thorns and thistles: in other words, they are not producing the things God wants in their lives and ministries. 

As mentioned in Hebrews, when dry, thorns burn easily and were often used in starting a fire.  So for example in Isa. 33:12:  “And the peoples will be...cut thorns which are burned in the fire.”  Or in Psa. 58:10:  “Before your pots can feel the burning thorns, he will sweep them away, the living and the burning alike.”  The thorns here are the enemy.  Before you can feel their heat, God will sweep them away:  in other words, God will defeat your enemies instantly. 

Well, we’re out of time for today.  But hopefully we’ll be able to complete our Scripture Garden walk another time.  I hope these images will enrich your Bible study and enable you to read God's Word with greater understanding.  Let’s pray...

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