Scripture Garden II

Well and Watering Troughs

Last week we talked a little about the Scripture Garden where my wife and I used to work.  We covered about half of the items in the garden, and this week we’ll take a quick look at the other half.


At our next stop is a narrow stone well surrounded by three low stone troughs.  Above the well is a wooden tripod.  The tripod secures the rope that lowers a pot down to the water.  At the Scripture Garden we would let visitors draw water from the well to have the experience of what it’s like.  The stone troughs around it could be filled with water for animals to drink or for the women to do their washing.  

Wells are mentioned many times in the Bible.  Have you ever wondered how far down the water was in those wells?  We used to take groups to ancient Shechem (modern Nablus) to see Jacob’s well.  Here we would throw water into the well to show how deep the well was.  It took a few seconds for the water to splash down at the bottom:  the well is more than 100 feet deep (35 m).  Just imagine if you had to draw from a well that deep every day!  The well at Beersheba was even deeper:   about 200 feet deep (75 m)!  

Do you remember when Abraham's servant went searching for a bride for Isaac?  The sign that he'd found the right girl was when she offered not only to give him a drink, but to water his camels, too.  It’s mentioned in Gen. 24:14.  Do you remember how many camels the servant had along with him?  Ten (Gen. 24:10).  When you realize that camels can drink fifty gallons at once, that means she offered to draw as much as 500 gallons—for a stranger!  That's quite a miracle; and quite a lot of work for the girl!  In desert society, this kind of strength was associated with beauty:  she was a hardy and hard-working girl, which made her very attractive.  

Remember how the Song of Songs (the Song of Solomon) extols the beauty of a woman whose neck is "like the tower of David" (Song 4:4)?  Women had to be able to carry heavy loads on their heads.  

Wells were capped.  Today this will probably be with a metal lid.  In ancient times it was more likely a stone cap.  This was to keep out dirt, prevent the growth of bacteria, slow evaporation, and keep animals and children from falling in.  Some of these stone caps were large, such as the “large” stone on the mouth of the well where Jacob met Rachel (Gen. 29:2).  But when Jacob saw Rachel, he removed the stone himself and watered her flock (Gen. 29:10).  What was the point of this?  To show off a little and attract her attention.  

Perhaps the most famous encounter at a well was the meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4.  The well of this story is the one we mentioned already at ancient Shechem.  Today it’s in the basement of an unfinished church by Nablus.  How do we know that this is really Jacob’s well?  It’s the only ancient hand-cut well in the area:  cut down through  105 ft (35 m) of solid rock!  Not only was it a lot of work to make this well, it was also a lot of work to draw water here.  

But Jesus offered the woman freely flowing water and promised she would never thirst again (John 4:10,14)!  What a deal!  Not only wouldn’t she have to pull the water out of the well, she also wouldn’t have to carry it all the way home!  What was Jesus talking about?  The water of eternal life, a symbol of the Holy Spirit.  

Bedouin Tent


Okay, let’s move on now to the Bedouin tent.  The tent in our garden was an authentic Bedouin tent, made of black (actually dark brown) goat hair, just like the tents in Bible days.  Why do the Bedouin use black, not only for their tents, but also for their clothing?  Black protects against dangerous UV radiation.  It also keeps you a little cooler.  Someone actually did an experiment and found that it’s one degree cooler under black cloth.  

Goat’s hair cloth is ideal for making tents.  When it gets wet, the hair absorbs water and it expands, making the tent nearly watertight.  In summer, the hair dries and leaves space for the air to circulate.  These tents need to be tied down tightly so they won't blow away.  The Bedouin usually set up their tents in a spot protected from the winds from the west, and had one of their long sides facing east to catch the early morning warmth of the sun.  This east side was often kept open, depending on the weather, and served as the opening or entrance of the tent (sometimes translated the “door” of the tent, Gen. 18:1).  

In the time of the Bible, each family had one or more tents.  Patriarchs with many wives had many tents:  one for each wife and one for himself, where he would entertain guests.  The bridal canopy used in modern Jewish weddings is a memory of the tradition of adding a new tent for newly married bride. 

Among the modern Bedouin, at the beginning of the 20th century, each family had two compartments in a tent:  one was the women's quarters, the other was the men's quarters.  The two were separated by a curtain.  This is where Sarah was standing hidden during Abraham’s conversation with his visitors (Gen. 18:9,10).  

What was in the women's area?  This was used for cooking, storage, and sleeping.  What was in the men’s area?  It was kept very neat and clean, since it served as a reception area for guests.  There were nice mats on the ground.  Why the difference between the two?  It was not simply sexism as many people think at first.  Instead, think of it as a business.  The only way the man could get information vital to the survival of the family was through providing hospitality to guests.  They didn’t have radios in those days, or television, or newspapers.  This was the only way to find out what was going on in the world outside.  And having accurate information could be a matter of life or death.  Remember, the family moved from place to place during the year.  They needed to know where there was trouble, perhaps clan warfare, where there was still grass or water, or what the prices were in the different markets.  So it was crucial that the man sit and entertain his guests, and try to learn all he could from them.  The women were hidden so they wouldn’t attract unwanted attention from visitors.  After all, if your guest took a liking to your wife, he could kill you and take her away with him.  

You know someone in the Bible who made these tents.  The apostle Paul was a tent-maker (Acts 18:3).  This is where the term “tentmaker” comes from that’s used today to refer to a missionary that earns his way by working, instead of raising support.  Paul was originally from Tarsus in Cilicia (Acts 21:39).  The name of this region, Cilicia, comes from the word cilicium, which means woven goat's hair cloth, the same material that Paul worked with to earn a living.  

This material wasn’t just used for tents:  it was also used for the vellum (protective cloth) draped over theaters and coliseums to protect audiences from the sun.  It was used for merchants’ booths in the marketplace, for sacks and bags, and for many other things.  It was even used for the clothing of sailors and fishermen, because it endured well even when wet.  

This was the same sackcloth worn in Old Testament times and later in the Church as a sign of mourning and repentance.  Why was goat’s hair cloth worn as a sign of repentance?  Because it was itchy and uncomfortable.    

In the Bible, tents are a symbol of the transitory nature of life.  As it says in 2 Corinthians 5:1:  "For we know that if our earthly house,  the tent [of our body], is destroyed, we have a [permanent] building from God, a house not made by (human) hands, eternal in the heavens."  This is talking about the difference between these temporary bodies that we live in right now, and the eternal bodies that God has prepared for us.

The symbolic connection between tents and the temporary nature of life makes taking down a tent a symbol of death.  Job says, speaking of the wicked in Job 4:21:  "Is not their tent-cord pulled up within them?  They die, and without wisdom."  

The most famous goat-hair tent in the Bible is the Tabernacle of Moses:  the symbol of God’s presence with us.  It, too, was a temporary, moveable structure; completely unlike the fixed, stone temples of the idols.  The symbolism of the Tabernacle was fulfilled when Jesus tabernacled among us, as it says in the Greek of John 1:14:  God with us, Immanuel (Isa. 7:14, Matt. 1:23).

When you go into a black goat-hair tent in the daytime and look up, you will see a very interesting sight.  The sunlight coming through the tiny gaps in the cloth has the appearance of stars shining in the night sky.  This effect is mentioned in the Bible.  In Psalm 19:1,4-6 it says:  "The heavens are telling of the glory of God.... In them he has placed a tent for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber [within the tent].... Its rising is from one end of the heavens [i.e. the tent], and its circuit to the other end of them; and there is nothing hidden from its heat."

This is the same view of heaven seen in apocalyptic literature:  that the highest heavens are the realm of light behind the firmament of stars.  Many of these writings are concerned with a visionary ascent to these heavenly realms.  The light found there is sometimes described as the light of the first day of creation, or as the uncreated light of Eastern Orthodox mysticism.  

Ancient Cistern


Okay, let’s move on to our next stop.  In a desert land with few springs and wells, the only other way to get water is by catching rain water.  So water channels were built that collected surface run-off water over a wide area.  This water was then brought into plaster-lined cisterns (which were originally covered over).  Water that flowed in directly from rain water like this was considered living water, and could be used in ritual baths (mikvaoth).  In Roman times, some of these cisterns were huge.  Altogether the twelve cisterns at Masada could hold 40,000 cubic meters of water.  

An old, unused cistern appears in the story of Joseph, who was thrown into it while his brothers decided to sell him as a slave (Gen. 37:24).  To drink water from one's own cistern in the Bible is a symbol of peace and prosperity (2 Kings 18:31).  It’s even used as a symbol of chastity (Pro. 5:15).  But a leaky cistern that holds no water is an image of futility (Jeremiah 2:13).  

Agricultural Watchtower


Okay, let’s move on.  In Israel in ancient times, people lived together in small villages, often with a wall around them.  This meant that some had to walk quite a distance to reach the fields where they grew their crops.  As a result, many could not watch their fields from the village to be sure that their crops were safe from thieves and animals.  This was especially a problem just before the harvest.  So that’s when the farmer and his family would move out into a watchtower to be near their fields.  Here they could guard their ripened fruit by day and by night.  On the ground floor was an enclosed room, where they could be safe from rain or cold at night.  On top they could stand and have a great view over their land.  

The problem with animals in the fields is mentioned in the Song of Solomon 2:15:  "Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that are ruining the vineyards, while our vineyards are in blossom."

But not all those watching the fields had such nice accommodations.  Sometimes they had only a simple booth to stay in.  As Isaiah put it in Isaiah 1:8:  "And the daughter of Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a watchman's hut in a cucumber field, like a besieged city."

This symbol of watchfulness is also a symbol of God's protective care.  Psalm 121:4 says:  "Look, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep."  Jeremiah 1:12 says:  "I am watching over my word to perform it."  The watchtower is also a symbol of prayer.  Psalm 130:6 says:  "My soul watches for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning; more than watchmen for the morning."  Habakkuk 2:1 says:  "I will stand on my guard post and station myself on the rampart; and I will keep watch to see what he will speak to me."  Micah 7:7 says:  "But as for me, I will watch expectantly for the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation."  



Okay, let’s move on to the sheepfold.  A sheepfold is a simple stone walled area to keep the sheep safe at night.  When they were in use, the wall was often topped with thorns to discourage foxes and other intruders.  There was also an opening in the wall of the sheepfold for the sheep to enter by and to go out again.  This is the “door” of the sheepfold.  As it says in John 10:1-5:  "The one that does not enter through the door into the fold of the sheep, but goes up at another place, that one is a thief and a robber.  But the one entering through the door is a shepherd of the sheep.  For this one the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and his own sheep he calls by name, and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes in front of them, and the sheep follow, for they know his voice.  But a stranger they will certainly not follow, but rather will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers."

It’s actually true that sheep know the voice of their shepherd.  If two herds stay together in the fold at night, in the morning, they will not get mixed up, but will follow the voice of their own shepherd.  In the same way, Jesus says, we should recognize and follow his voice.

When the sheep are brought into the sheepfold in the evening, the shepherd checks each animal to make sure it’s okay.  They will also sometimes anoint the sheep with oil mixed with things (like sulfur and tar) that help repel biting insects.  As it says in Psa. 23, “The LORD is my shepherd.... You have anointed my head with oil” (Psa. 23:1,5).  Then the shepherd would lay down in the doorway of the sheepfold, to make sure nothing goes in or out without him knowing about it.  In this way, he literally becomes the "door of the sheep."  This is what Jesus meant when he said, "I am the door of the sheep.... If anyone enters through me, he will be saved, and will go in and out, and find pasture" (John 10:7,9).

Sheepfolds were used when the shepherds took their flocks out into the desert in the spring and early summer.  In the fall and winter, when it got colder, they grazed their animals near home; and on chilly nights, the animals were kept indoors.  

Beam-style Oil Press


Ok, next we’re going to talk a little about olives and olive oil.  The first step in making olive oil was to crush the olives in a circular crushing basin.  This first crushing released oil from the olives and the olive pits.  This was the highest quality oil, known today as extra virgin oil.  

Then the crushed olives were placed in a sack.  A heavy rock was then place over the sack, with the additional weight of a long wooden beam.  The weight was increased by hanging heavy stone weights from the beam.  This is what’s known as a beam-type press.  This is the kind of press used in Old Testament times.  In New Testament times, they used a screw-type press instead.  

The first pressing, using the first stone, was the virgin oil used for religious purposes.  It was also mixed with fragrant oils for anointing (like our cologne and perfume).  The second pressing, with two stones, was used for cooking.  The third pressing, with three stones, was the oil used in oil lamps to provide light at night.  This took the whole afternoon.  The fourth and final pressing, with four stones, which lasted through the night, was the lowest quality oil.  It was used for soap.  

The oil was collected in a vat below the press.  Then it was then strained into jars, where the water separated from the oil.  Then the oil was skimmed off and stored.  A single olive tree could yield up to 20 gallons (80 liters) of oil a year.  

I’m sure you remember when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mt. of Olives.  The name of this garden, Gethsemane, means in Hebrew, "Olive Press."  So the Garden of Gethsemane means the “garden of the oil press.”  Here Jesus was “pressed,” spiritually and emotionally, like one of those bags of oil in an olive press.  As it says in Matthew 26:36,38,39:  "Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane.... He said... ‘My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with me.' And he went a little beyond them, and fell on his face and prayed."

Olive Tree Crosses


Okay, next is the crosses.  The cross used for Jesus’ crucifixion was probably a short, rooted olive tree, with a crossbeam attached.  This is very different than the cross is usually pictured in Christian art, with Jesus high up in the sky.  Christian art shows Jesus far off the ground for theological reasons, as a symbol that he is the mediator between God and man.  

But the reality was much less appealing.  His feet would have been just inches off the ground.  He would have been face to face with people walking by, where you could clearly see his agony.  This was, in fact, the purpose of a Roman crucifixion:  to serve as an object lesson, a deterrent.  If you disobey, this is what will happen to you.  It also helps explain why the cross is called "the tree" several times in the New Testament.  

But what about when the soldier lifted up a sponge on a stick to Jesus?  Doesn’t that show that he was high up?  According to John, this was done with a branch of hyssop, which doesn’t grow more than a meter in length.  He put the sponge on a stick not because Jesus was so far away, but rather to show disgust for the “criminal.” He didn’t want to touch him.  

This reconstruction means, of course, that Jesus only carried the crossbar to the place of crucifixion, not the entire cross.  So why did he fall down?  Remember that he had already had the scourging, the whipping, of 39 lashes.  This was done in such a way that it destroyed your back, and you lost a lot of blood.  He had also been roughed up a bit before this, and had the crown of thorns put on his head, all of which meant he had lost even more blood.  Then he had to walk carrying that heavy crossbar up and down the steep streets of Jerusalem in the hot desert sun.  (Today the narrow streets of the Old City have stairs.)  You would tire, too, carrying a load like this for a while, even without a whipping.

This reconstruction helps explain how they were able to crucify as many as 2,000 people in a single day, which happened in the generation before Jesus.  They just sawed off the branches of rooted olive trees along the road.  Olives are very resilient:  even after this kind of treatment, they continue growing.  

The archeological evidence for this reconstruction was found in 1968 at Givat Hamivtar.  Here they found the bones of a man that had been crucified, the only one found so far.  How did they know he had been crucified?  When nailing him to the cross, the large nail hit a knot of wood, and bent.  When it came time to bury him, they couldn't get the nail out.  So they buried him with it.  When they analyzed the tip of the nail, they found it had been nailed into olive wood.    

There was also a strange space between the man’s bone and the head of the nail.  What was this from?  They finally figured out that they had put a piece of wood under the head of the nails to hold him on the cross.  These nails didn’t go through his palms and the soles of his feet, as we often imagine, but rather through his wrists and ankles.  The scientists agree that this is the only way that the nails would hold the body up.  There were two nails for the feet, attaching one foot to each side of the cross.

Little seats or saddles (sedile) on the cross allowed the victim to rest some of his weight on his buttocks.  This was intended to prolong the agony.  It could take days to die.  

Above Jesus’ cross a sign was hung, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews."  This was probably the sign worn around the necks of victims when they were marched through a marketplace on their way to crucifixion.  This was seen by the Romans as a last chance for justice, in case there might be someone in the market that could provide evidence in favor of the condemned.  But normally this was not put on the cross.  In Jesus’ case this was only done because of the specific instructions of Pontius Pilate (John 19:19).  

Fig Tree


Let’s move on now to the fig tree.  Have you ever tasted a fresh fig?  Many people have only eaten dried figs, as in Fig Newtons, which are great.  But the fresh fruit is fantastic.  And the tree produces fruit through much of the year.  The problem is that the fresh fruit doesn’t keep well, and that’s why, if you don’t live near where they’re grown, you’ll only see the dried fruit.  The wood of the fig tree was also highly valued:  it was the only wood used for the fires on the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem.  

The fig tree has the largest leaves of any tree in the land.  This might explain why these were the leaves used as clothing for Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:7).  It also helps explain why "Every man under his vine and his fig tree," is shorthand for peace and prosperity in the Bible:  not only did the fig provide delicious fruit through the year, but also relief from the hot desert sun (1 Kings 4:25, Mic. 4:4, Zech. 3:10). This also made it a popular spot to sit and study the Bible, which might be the meaning of Jesus’ remark to Nathanael:  “When you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (John 1:48).  

The leaves of the fig tree first appear in March or April (at Passover time).  This is later than the other trees.  This is the meaning of Jesus’ saying in Mark 13:28,29 about the time of his return:  "Now learn the parable from the fig tree:  when its branch has already become tender, and it puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, right at the door."  When you see the leaves of the fig, the last of the trees to put out its leaves, you know that summer will soon be here.  So Jesus says, when you see the signs in the heavens that he was talking about, the Son of Man will be about to appear.  

The fruit of the fig appears with its first leaves in the spring.  This hard, unripe fruit is known as a pagee.  This is what the book of Revelation is talking about in Revelation 6:13 when it says:  "And the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind."  This will sometimes happen in April, though it’s an unusual event.  When the last of the rain storms of the season take place, a strong enough wind can tear off the pagee figs.  Since they are hard, they fall with a pop, pop, pop sound.  So what is the Bible describing?  What even today we call shooting stars, not burning up in the atmosphere as they usually do, but striking the earth:  bam, bam, bam.  This is one of the signs in the heavens that Jesus said would precede his return.  

The pagee figs are ripened by the larvae of the fig-wasp which are planted inside as eggs, along with the pollen needed for the fig to ripen.  When the larvae mature, they leave the fig.  (This is a fascinating example of symbiosis, in which neither species can live without the other—something that’s very difficult for evolution to explain.)  

Jesus had an encounter with a fig tree near Bethphage, on the back side of the Mt. of Olives.  Even the name of the village, Bethphage (Bet pagee), means "house of the unripe fig." This tells us there were a lot of fig trees here in Jesus’ day.  Matthew says in Matthew 21:18-19:  "Now in the morning, when he returned to the city [to Jerusalem], he became hungry.  And seeing a lone fig tree along the way, he came to it, and found nothing in it except leaves only; and he said to it, `No longer will there be any fruit from you, ever.'"

What was the meaning of this?  A fig without fruit was an image of calamity and impending doom:  As Micah put it in Micah 7:1,2:  "Woe is me!  For I am like the fruit pickers.... There is not...a first-ripe fig which I crave.  The godly person has perished from the land."  That no figs could be found was a symbol that the righteous had perished from the land.  This was Jesus’ message, too:  that God’s judgment was coming because of unrighteousness.

A fig tree without fruit was also a symbol of drought.  Habakkuk 3:17:  "Though the fig tree should not blossom, and there be no fruit on the vines...yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation."  In Habakkuk this is a statement of faith, that even if things go badly, still I will trust in the Lord.

Blossoming Almond Tree


Okay?  Let’s move on to the almond tree.  In the spring, the branches of the almond tree are the first to awaken the countryside with their beautiful white blossoms.  The Hebrew name for the almond is, therefore, ``awaker."  This explains the vision of Jeremiah, in which the almond (the ``awaker") is a symbol of the Lord's watchfulness or wakefulness (Jeremiah 1:11).  

The buds and blossoms of the almond tree were also selected for the intricate designs on the lampstand in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-34).  This may be intended as a symbol of an alert expectancy to the presence of the Lord in the holy place.  

The "primacy" of the almond's blossoms among the trees—that it was first among the trees to bloom—may also be the meaning of the blossoming of Aaron's rod.  This was the sign of God’s selection of the tribe of Levi and the descendants of Aaron to serve as priests in the Tabernacle.  They were to be first among their brothers.  

The delicate white flowers also appear as a symbol of the whitened hair of old age in (Ecclesiastes 12:5).  

The almond is among the species that do well in times of drought.  This is why Jacob was able to send them as a present to Egypt along with other “products of the land” even during the severe seven year drought in the time of Joseph (Genesis 43:11).  

There are many other things we can learn in the Scripture Garden, but that’s enough for now.  I hope that this short “visit,” both this week and last week, has opened your mind to the symbolism of the Bible.  There is a depth of meaning in the Word of God that comes to life through learning just a little about the land of Israel and the life of the people in Bible times.  May it help bring your Bible reading to life and inspire many productive questions as you read the Word of God.  Let’s pray... 

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