by Al Maxey
Issue #791 -------
February 27, 2020
I said to the almond tree, "Sister, speak to me
of God." And the almond tree blossomed.
Nikos Kazantzakis [1883-1957]
Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) was a brilliant Greek writer, considered by many to be the "Father of Modern Greek Literature." He was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in nine different years. You may never have heard his name, but you will most certainly be very familiar with some of his writings. He wrote "Zorba the Greek" (published in 1946) and "The Last Temptation of Christ" (published in 1955). Both of these books were later made into very successful movies. In addition to the quote at the top of this issue of Reflections, Nikos Kazantzakis, while reflecting on almond trees, wrote, "When an almond tree became covered with blossoms in the heart of winter, all the trees around it began to jeer. 'What vanity,' they screamed, 'what insolence! Just think, it believes it can bring spring in this way!' The flowers of the almond tree blushed for shame. 'Forgive me, my sisters,' said the tree. 'I swear I did not want to blossom, but suddenly I felt a warm springtime breeze in my heart.'" The almond tree has long held a rather prominent place in the culture, economy, literature, and even religion of the diverse peoples, both ancient and modern, of planet Earth. Some among them have even speculated, and not without good reason, that the almond tree may very well have been the "favored tree" of our God. Whether the latter be true or not, it is nevertheless a fact that the Lord God has used this particular tree in some very significant ways when interacting with His people, a truth easily discerned as one examines the OT and NT sacred writings. It is this that we will take note of in this present study.
Students of Scripture know that trees are given enormous spiritual and eternal significance from the beginning of Genesis to the conclusion of Revelation. The "Tree of Life," for example, appears a number of times and is intimately connected with the promise of immortality given by God through His Son. For more about this tree and its place in redemption theology, please see my recent study titled "The Tree of Life: A Reflective Perspective" (Reflections #789). In Scripture one will further find the mysterious "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil" (Genesis 2-3), about which much has been written, but little understood. We also find mention of the cedars of Lebanon, of devoted believers sitting under fig trees, of a man named Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10, see: Reflections #606 - "Lessons from a Wee Little Man") who climbed a sycamore tree so as to get a better look at Jesus, and even "fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted" (Jude 12). Jesus cursed a fig tree on one occasion, and that tree was found the next day fully withered (Matthew 21:18f). In several places, Jesus is declared to have died on "a tree" for our sins. Yes, trees are important in the revelation of God to mankind, and we ignore this fact to our own peril as we seek to gain a better understanding of the intent of the Scriptures and the mind of our God.
But, back to almond trees. "Apparently originating in western India and Persia, the almond spread westward in early times and grew in Palestine during patriarchal times" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 97]. The very first mention of "almonds" in the OT writings is found in the account of Jacob sending his sons to Egypt appealing for help during a time of great famine. The official in Egypt with whom his sons were dealing was his long lost son Joseph. The brothers did not recognize him at first, and it appeared that if they were to be shown any consideration they would have to return to him with gifts, especially since Joseph had not shown any real favor to them in the early meetings; indeed, he had treated them rather harshly. Thus, Jacob, also known as Israel, told his sons, "If it must be so, then do this: take some of the best products of the land in your bags, and carry them down to the man as a present: a little balm and a little honey, aromatic gum and myrrh, pistachio nuts and almonds" (Genesis 43:11). This passage indicates that almonds were at this time not only a product of the land in which Jacob lived, but they were also regarded as "delicacies," and thus of great value [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 44]. This passage may also "indicate that the tree was not yet established there in Egypt during the patriarchal period" [ISBE, vol. 1, p. 97]. It was very likely, therefore, that the almond tree was "first introduced into Egypt when Joseph was governor" by his brothers: the sons of Israel [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 108]. Keep in mind that in this passage almonds were delicacies given as a gift for the purpose of helping bring about a peaceful, benevolent relationship between a powerful ruler and a famished people. If successful, it would help facilitate the gift of life itself to a people suffering the effects of a severe famine in the land.
Although the almond, in a great many sources, is said to be mentioned first in the above passage (Genesis 43:11), that is not quite true. Yes, it is the first occurrence of the Hebrew word for "almond" (which is "saqed"), but "the Arab word 'luz' means 'almond' also" [ibid]. In Genesis 28:18-19, after Jacob had his "ladder" dream in which God made a promise to him, he "rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head (for a pillow) and set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on its top. And he called the name of that place 'Bethel,' however, previously the name of the city had been 'Luz'." The word "Bethel" means "House of God." Thus, the place that had been known as "Almond" would become the "House of God." In Genesis 35:6-7, Jacob, true to his word, "came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him. And he built an altar there, and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed Himself to him when he fled from his brother." Again, put this thought in your mind, as it has some symbolism that will become important later: the place of the almond tree would be the House of God!
Just a few words about the almond tree before we notice the next biblical reference. "Three species of the almond tree are found in Palestine: two wild species have bitter and inedible fruit, while the third, a domesticated species, has an edible nut and produces a mild almond oil" [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 44]. "The almond tree was welcomed in Palestine as the harbinger of spring. The beautiful pink and white blossoms that cover it in January and February were a promise of new life and a symbol of hope. In the era of the Maccabees, when Israel seemed to have a new national beginning, the almond was pictured on the shekel. As early as the time of Jacob, the nuts are mentioned as one of the products of the land, and Jordan almonds and their oil are still a well-known export" [Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 1353]. "It is the first tree to bloom (January) and is noted for its pretty white or pink blossoms" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 36]. The almond tree thus represents the concept of "firstfruits," and is the earliest tree to bloom in Palestine (while it is still winter, but with the hope of spring just around the corner). Its blossoms point to the hope of LIFE. Notice again the quote from Nikos Kazantzakis: "I said to the almond tree, 'Sister, speak to me of God.' And the almond tree blossomed." "It blossoms first among the fruit trees, the pink-white flowers appearing before the leaves" [The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 87]. "Somewhat similar to a peach tree, the almond attains a height of about 25 ft., and in Palestine it blooms toward the end of January. Even in antiquity the almond was a welcome harbinger of spring. The blooms precede the leaves, and they vary from pink to pure white. The fruit is an oval drupe with fibrous husk that splits as it ripens. The ancients extracted the oil and esteemed it for its fragrance" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 97].
In the first several verses of Ecclesiastes 12 we find a fascinating, and very poetic, representation of the challenges and afflictions of advanced age. Some have found this to be a very depressing passage of Scripture. I would urge a reading of my article: "Before The Evil Days Come: Qoheleth's Metaphorical Depiction of the Decline, Decay and Demise of Mortal Man" (Reflections #336) in which I deal with this passage in some depth. In verse 5 we find this statement: "Men are afraid of a high place and of terrors on the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags himself along, and the caperberry is ineffective." "The almond tree pictures the white hair of the aged, ... for the general impression of the tree in flower is of a white mass" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1193]. In the "winter" of our lives, our hair "blossoms" like the almond tree: it turns white. Some take this as a negative, and it can be; but, what if we took it as a positive?! Perhaps the white hair is a "harbinger of spring": the promise of a return of LIFE (i.e., eternal life) to those believers in their "winter" years.
In the first chapter of the book of Jeremiah we find information relating to God's calling of this man. To affirm and confirm this divine calling, Jeremiah was given a two-part vision. The second was of a boiling pot (Jeremiah 1:13f). The first vision, however, was of something much different: "And the word of the Lord came to me saying, 'What do you see, Jeremiah?' And I said, 'I see a rod of an almond tree.' Then the Lord said to me, 'You have seen well, for I am watching over My word to perform it'" (Jeremiah 1:11-12). "In Jeremiah 1:11f there is a play on the word 'almond' in which God informs the prophet, who has seen the almond tree ('saqed'), that He will watch over ('soqed') His word to accomplish it" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 97]. "If one of us had seen that almond rod, it would probably have been of no significance. Jeremiah, however, becomes conscious of a deeper meaning in what he sees. This meaning is revealed through a play on words. The Hebrew word for almond is 'saqed.' This word immediately suggests an almost identical Hebrew word 'soqed' which means 'on the alert' or 'on the watch.' The prophet now understands the divine clue. God is 'on the alert' to ensure that His Word will come to pass" [Dr. Norman C. Habel, Concordia Commentary: Jeremiah, p. 42]. Like the almond tree (figuratively speaking), God keeps watch over the seasons of our lives, ever alert to announce the imminent end of winter and the coming of spring, when new life will be joyfully experienced and celebrated. The Babylonian Captivity would be the harsh "winter" of His people; but when the almond tree blossomed, then would come the "spring" of restoration of life to the people of Israel as they returned to their homeland, rebuilt the temple, and once again rejoiced in the presence of their God. Like the figure of the rainbow, the almond tree blossoming would be the sign that judgment was ending and life was about to be restored.
In Genesis 30:25-43 we find a rather unusual account of how Jacob went about increasing his flocks during the time he was working for Laban, the father of his wife Rachel (who had just given birth to Joseph). "Jacob used the almond (KJV - 'hazel tree') as a breeding device to increase his herds" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 36]. The King James Version got it wrong here. It was not a rod from a hazel tree, but rather a rod from the almond tree. "The almond rod (incorrectly 'hazel' in the Authorized Version) is referred to in Genesis 30:37" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 97]. This is a fascinating story that we won't go into here, but I would encourage you to take a look at it. Though the account seems rather fanciful to many, some even characterize it as "magical," the symbolism is nevertheless apparent: the almond rod was used as a fertility/breeding device; it would bring about new life within the flocks of Jacob/Israel. It is this connection of the almond tree with the promise and realization of new life that is significant here.
In Numbers 16 we find the sordid tale of the rebellion of Korah, and the subsequent grumbling of the people of Israel against Moses and Aaron. This state of affairs made it necessary for the Lord to affirm, in no uncertain terms, His choosing of who would serve as leaders of His people. This we find in Numbers 17. A rod was to be given to the heads of each of the tribal households (a total of 12 rods) with the name of each carved on their rod. These rods would then be placed in the sanctuary of the tabernacle. "So, Moses deposited the rods before the Lord in the tent of the testimony" (vs. 7). "Now it came about on the next day that Moses went into the tent of the testimony; and behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds. Moses then brought out all the rods from the presence of the Lord to all the sons of Israel" (vs. 8-9). All the other rods had not changed; they were just bare rods. Only Aaron's rod had been transformed from a dead branch to a living, blossoming, fruit-producing one. Thus, God affirmed and confirmed the tribe of Levi as His chosen ones to minister within the tabernacle (and later the temple). God then instructed Moses, "Put back the rod of Aaron before the testimony to be kept as a sign against the rebels, that you may put an end to their grumblings against Me" (vs. 10). Aaron's budding rod, therefore, became a very powerful and dramatic symbol of God's choosing of those who could come into His presence before the ark of the covenant. Hebrews 9:3-4 tells us that three items were inside the ark of the covenant within the Holy of Holies: the tablets that were given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, a jar containing some of the manna from the wilderness wanderings of the people of Israel, and the budding, blossoming, fruit-laden almond rod of Aaron. These three items were to remain in the very presence of God "inside the veil" of the tabernacle and the temple. This almond rod would be "in the 'lap' of God" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 847], serving as a reminder of His covenant of life for those who believed.
Lastly, in our study of the almond tree as it appears in Scripture, we discover that "the almond flower was an artistic decoration on the seven-branched lampstand" found in the presence of God within the tabernacle [Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 1353]. The detailed description of this golden lampstand (also known as the "Menorah") is found in Exodus 25:31-40 and 37:17-24. This lampstand was in the shape of a tree, and we know further that this tree was the almond tree, for each of the cups were in the shape of almond blossoms. Thus, this tree in the presence of God, with its blossoms heralding the leaving of winter and the coming of spring, the coming of new life, was the almond tree. It was a tree "in the lap of God" that served as a constant reminder of the hope of life in His presence.
Some may not agree with me, but in light of all the above biblical references, I believe a very strong case can be made for the almond tree being the "Tree of Life" that was in the center of the garden in which God had placed Adam and Eve. Just as the lampstand and the budding almond rod were "in the lap of God," so also was/is the tree of life in the paradise of God, in His very presence. Both are powerful figures representing the hope of LIFE following our journey through the harsh winter of our earthly existence. "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse" (Revelation 22:1-3). Do the leaves of the almond tree have healing properties? Even though this tree is symbolic, yet there should be some legitimate link with the known reality which it represents. On one medical web site dealing with the medicinal aspects of "nature's garden," the following was written about the leaves of the almond tree: "The broad leaves are dark green, leathery and glossy in appearance. The leaves contain phytosterols, saponins, flavonoids such as quercetin and kaempferol as well as tannins such as tercatin, punicalin and punicalagin. The leaves can be used for treating and preventing diarrhea, dysentery, cancer and liver diseases." Proof? No, but certainly food for thought.
From a Reader in South Carolina:
Al, I would like to again receive your illuminating articles, if you are still producing them. I changed email addresses and have not gotten them for five years. I am now retired, with some health concerns, and I'm sure that your messages would reassure me concerning our common hope through Christ. All the best to you!
From a Reader in Kentucky:
Greetings Al. Would you please send me your two CD set: "A Fresh, Reflective Study of the New Testament Apostles: History, Character, Mission & Message." Enclosed is my check for this study. Thank you!
From a Reader in England:
Dear Beloved Brother Al, Thank you for this Reflections ("The 1781 Zong Massacre: A Tribute to Granville Sharp" - Reflections #790), and for all the other Reflections you have written. I have been blessed with insights relating to the Scriptures, church, and true Christianity through your Reflections. I was born in Nigeria about 58 years ago, grew up in Greece, and then seven years ago became a permanent resident in the UK. This present Reflections has caused me to shed many tears, especially the part about the young slave beaten by the heartless monster who then threw him into the gutter to die, but who was then rescued, treated and looked after by William and Granville Sharp. I will pay tribute to these men from now onward, and I will keep remembering them for showing the true character of Christ's love. God bless you, Al Maxey, for sharing this bit of history with us.
From a Reader in Arkansas:
Brother Al, thank you for this edition of your Reflections on "The 1781 Zong Massacre." It is impossible for me to imagine how these "civilized" human beings, who were not unfamiliar with the Scriptures, could behave in such a depraved, hard-hearted manner toward those Africans! I pray daily that the Lord will protect us from Satan and his demons. I am fully convinced that Satan is very active today, and that he can corrupt the unguarded human heart and soul to the point where people behave like brute beasts! God bless you, Al.
From a Reader in Texas:
Good Morning Al. Since reading your comments on "The Tree of Life: A Reflective Perspective" (Reflections #789) a few weeks ago, I have had some additional thoughts, and I just want you to know that I really appreciate you stimulating my brain to think on the things of God. One of those questions I'm pondering is: Do angels die? If not, then what has sustained them over the centuries, since I consider only God to be inherently immortal (1 Timothy 6:16)? Also, I'm excited that our auditorium class will begin a study titled "Thin Places," which will look at many things like out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, etc. The question was asked in the promo for this class: Do you believe in life after death? This made me think of the opposite question (one I've never heard asked): Do you believe in death after death?! Thank you once again for all of your wonderful work.
From a Reader in Georgia:
Wow!! I just read your article: "The 1781 Zong Massacre." Some things, like this, very much need to be highlighted, rather than just swept under the rug of history, as too often happens. Well done, Al.
From a Reader in Canada:
Al, your article about Granville Sharp and the massacre aboard the Zong is appropriately written in February, which is, as you point out, "National African-American (Black) History Month." I did not know, until I read this, that an entire month had been set aside for African-American history. Let me relate to you an incident that happened to me many years ago when I was stationed at Brook Medical Center. I had befriended a black soldier who was raised in Mississippi during the 50's and 60's. We were both in the American army training to be medics (after which we were sent to Vietnam). He and I would play chess on base during most of our time off, but one Saturday we decided to go into San Antonio to check out the city. We stopped at a restaurant that had an outdoor plaza that faced the river and sat down at a table to order something to eat. The owner came over and told my black friend he would have to go sit in the back. I got up and asked why he would have to do that, and the owner said, "That's where the blacks sit." I said, "This man is in uniform; willing to fight and die for his country; and you want him to sit in the back?!" Some of the customers rose and started toward us, and my friend grabbed my arm and led me away from the restaurant. I asked him why he did that, and he said there were men who were coming to fight us for what I had said. I still didn't understand why, as I had never had any experience with segregation.
As we went back to our base, he explained to me what it was like growing up as a black child and teenager in Mississippi. I was shocked! I was not raised around such hatred. I told him I grew up with a mother who would invite black students to our house to stay until they could find accommodation near the university they were coming to attend. Later on, one of the students from British Guyana invited my parents to go down and stay on his parent's plantation. Needless to say, I had an upbringing that made me appreciate ALL people as worthy of respect and love. That is why your article hit home as I recalled what my black friend told me about growing up in Mississippi during segregation. Thanks for this study, Al. You know, it still bothers me that some white folks won't go to a black church to fellowship with those who they should see as their brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus. Racism is a great evil. I appreciate all you do, and I knew we were on the same page regarding seeing all people as potential brothers and sisters in the Lord, all made in the likeness of Jehovah. Again, thanks for the great article!
From a Minister in New Zealand:
Thank you, Al, for your latest Reflections on the Zong massacre. Very interesting. Regarding your reader from Virginia, I found your comments to him in the "Readers' Reflections" section interesting also. I have always found this definition of justification very helpful: "Just as if I had never sinned." Yes, we have sinned, and we continue to stumble and sin, but if we walk in the light we are cleansed continually (1 John 1). Romans 7 reveals the wretchedness of man under a legal system and devoid of the Spirit. Such a one is depicted here as a victim of Law, with no hope of mercy, causing him to cry out for a Savior. Now, having been cleansed by that Savior, he walks by the Spirit and puts to death the deeds of the flesh (Romans 8). A saint is one who has been sanctified, and who follows after sanctification, acknowledging it is only by the grace of God that he/she does so! God bless you, brother.
From an Author in Arizona:
Al, your article on slavery is most interesting, as we both know that our God approved of and promoted slavery during the long history of humanity. Even during the early stages of the ekklesia, slavery was permitted by the Lord. As you know, Philemon, a believer, had a slave by the name of Onesimus who had escaped Philemon's custody. Paul and Onesimus made contact and the slave became a believer before Paul sent him back to his master. It is intriguing how "slave" and "slavery" can be defined. If, for example, someone hires me to work for him full-time, he "owns" me to that extent. His instructions are diverse and his "ownership" of me is unquestionable. Most of my life belongs to him. To put it simply: to that extent I am his slave and he is my slave-master. About the only substantial difference between this form of slavery is that this man does not own me in the absolute. My basic point is that, as per biblical and social history, slavery is not in the absolute wrong. Our God of history approved it and endorsed it. The wrong is only committed when slaves are mistreated and when injustices surface during slavery. Paul's letter to Philemon, a slave-master, supports this idea. Also, consider: You and I are slaves of our Heavenly Father.
From a Reader in Alaska:
Al, it may be timely to remind your readers that slave traders (NIV) or menstealers (KJV) were condemned in 1 Timothy 1:9-11 (see vs. 10). Most don't know of this important verse. In fact, I asked over a dozen preachers about such a verse, and only a college professor specializing in Paul's letters knew of it. My point is: on the issue of slavery, the NT does indeed take a stand: if slave traders are condemned, could there be any other verdict than condemnation for slavery itself?! Yet, most churchgoers don't know what the Bible actually says on the subject. Even worse, too many let politics drive their theology. One of the more common blunders in understanding the Bible, especially the NT, is assuming that just because something is mentioned it is thereby approved by God. Such an approach confuses descriptive narrative with normative guidance. There is a difference between normative texts (verses that explicitly state something was/is condemned or sinful) and descriptive texts (verses that merely mention or describe something that existed in society at that time).
Slavery was common at the time; thus, it should be clear that both slaves and slave-owners might be converted to Christ (and both were), even though slavery itself (and "menstealers" and "slave-traders") was ungodly. Scripture guides both masters and slaves as to how to behave after their conversion - that is normative guidance. It has been said that such normative guidance about how both masters and slaves were to behave after their conversion endorses slavery itself. That is an incorrect conclusion! Much like confirmation bias (or "a text without context is a pretext for a prooftext"), many confuse eisegesis with exegesis (which might be worth one of your more extended explanations on the vital differences between these two scholarly sounding terms). Since the NT writings can hardly be described as systematic theology, it's easy to cherry-pick and misinterpret or twist verses to make a predetermined point, as Peter so clearly reminds us in 2 Peter 3:15-18. Blessings, Al, on your multiple ministries.
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