Trees

How to say “tree” in Scriptural Hebrew

sorted by Strong:

249 ezrakh (bay tree; means “native”)

363 elan (Exclusive to Daniel; Chald/Aramaic)

424 ala (terebinth, oak, elm, other strong tree; Absalom)

730 erez (cedar)

815 eshel (tamarisk tree; Abraham and Saul)

1265 berosh (fir or cypress; often paired with erez/cedar)

1612 gephen (vine, vine tree)

1918 hadas (myrtle tree)

2132 zayith (olive tree; Noah)

6086 ats (generic, ubiquitous, means both the living thing and anything you can make out of it)

6196 armown (chestnut, plane tree, tree stripped of bark; Gen and Ezekiel)

6851 tsaftsafa (willow tree; Ezekiel ONLY)

7416 rimmon (pomegranate)

7574 rethem (juniper or broom tree; Elijah)

8247 shakad (almond tree; rare; Aaron’s rod)

8384 te’en (fig tree; prophets love this one)

8410 tidhar (pine, boxwood, elm; Isaiah ONLY)

8558 tamar and 8560 tomer (palm or date tree; RARE: Judges and Jeremiah)

8598 tappuach (apple tree; Song of Solomon)

So that’s 20, and not exhaustive (I just ran “tree” through Strong’s).  But some observations:

The generic word for tree (ats) can be used to name the living thing, planks you make from it, or (some) objects you make from those planks or in place of that tree.  Unsurprisingly the primary referent is the living thing, just like our English “wood.”  However, in Homeric Greek it’s the other way around: ξύλον first names planks and the like and secondarily means the tree.  Odd.  The interesting ambiguity of this word is what makes it so easy for New Testament writers to associate the Cross with the Tree in Eden and the curse in Deuteronomy: they are the same word.

Jotham’s parable in Judges 9 has a coronation controversy among all the ξύλα (trees) of the world.  Who should they crown as their king: zayith/ἐλαία (olive), te’en/συκῆ (fig), or gephen/ἄμπελος (vine)?  That seems to mark the noblest of the trees and the most essential products of the region: olives, figs, grapes.  When they all decline, the trees select the atad/ῥάμνος (bramble) and disaster follows.

The most famous of the trees is the erez –everyone knows the cedars of Lebanon!  What jumps out when you look at Strong’s is the overwhelmingly priestly/sacrificial role it plays in Scripture.  This makes it all the more interesting when Solomon uses erez to build his palace.  Is this a confirmation that he is a priest-king, or another sign (along with the size of the palace) of his underlying pride?  Like much else in the historical books, the ambiguity is half the fun.

Daniel only ever refers to trees as elan, a Chaldean/Aramaic form.  What’s interesting is that the Septuagint notes the difference and never translates elan as ξύλον, preferring δένδρον.  I’ve seen commentaries refer to δένδρον as more common, and it may well be in later authors, but that is unclear at best given the consistent preference for ξύλον throughout Scripture.  Alas my biblical studies years (and resources) are far behind me and I have nothing but Liddell-Scott and a comfy armchair these days.  A fuzzy memory tells me Xenophon prefers δένδρον.

The first on the list, ezrakh, is a very cool word.  It means “native” or “thing that grew from the ground here” and in Scripture it always means Israelites…except for Psalm 37:35 where it is translated…well, now it’s a game, right?  The Septuagint just makes it cedars of Lebanon except now we know perfectly well how weird that choice is!  Vulgate follows LXX there, unsurprisingly.  Apparently the word can also mean bay tree, but that must be extra-biblical.  But the context of the Psalm makes it really, really interesting–it’s a symbol for the spreading power of the wicked, and echoing “Israelite” there makes for a cool move.

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