Despite its relatively small size, ancient Israel had a rich and varied flora, a function of its topographic and climatic diversity and the associated variations in soil type and rainfall (see Geography of Palestine). The Bible, however, mentions only 110 names of plants, for many of which the identification is unknown or uncertain, notwithstanding the recent advances of archaeologists, botanists, and biblical scholars. Thus, the tappûaḥ (e.g., Song of Sol. 2.3, 5; 7.8; Prov. 25.11; Joel 1.12) has been identified as an apricot, quince, and apple, the ambiguity stemming both from the vagueness of the biblical texts and the lack of certainty concerning the dates when these fruits were present in Israel. Similarly, the famed šôšannâ of the Song of Solomon (2.6; 4.5; 5.13; 6.2–3; 7.2; šôšannâ of the valleys, 2.1) has been identified as a white lily, hyacinth, narcissus, crowfoot, chamomile, and rose; one can state with certainty only that it was a showy flower, or group of flowers, of some kind. Furthermore, there is no necessary correlation between the number of times, if any, that a plant is mentioned in the Bible and its importance in the agriculture or ecology of Israel. For example, the foreign cedar of Lebanon, the wood of gods and kings, topics of special interest to biblical authors, appears seventy times, more than twice the number of references to wheat, one of the major cereal crops of ancient Israel and an essential dietary staple. The probably abundant carob tree is not mentioned at all in the Bible. In general, the Bible mentions plants only in passing. It contains no system of plant classification (though such may have existed: see 1 Kings 4.33), and rarely offers descriptions of sufficient detail for identification. It is not always certain whether a plant name refers to an individual species or to a larger category such as thorns and thistles. A study of the plant terminology in such ancient translations as the Septuagint and the Vulgate and in the commentaries of the rabbis and church fathers often adds to the uncertainty, since translators and commentators frequently identified biblical plant names with local flora with which they were familiar, many of which were not even found in Israel. Over the centuries, many peoples outside the region have given biblically sounding names to flora that are not native to Israel (such as the Joshua tree [Yucca brevifolia] of North America), again contributing to the confusion. On the other hand, the botanic data that can be derived from present‐day studies, given the absence of significant climatic change in Israel since the Bronze Age, the growing body of evidence from archaeological excavations concerning the dates by which many wild and cultivated plants were present, and comparative data from Egypt and Mesopotamia have all contributed substantially to the current understanding of the biblical flora. Exhaustive compilations of biblical plant names and their possible or probable identifications can be found in a number of Bible dictionaries and encyclopedia articles and in such books as Michael Zohary's Plants of the Bible (Cambridge, England, 1982).
Although the biblical authors did not mention specific plants in great number or detail, they vividly portrayed the centrality of plants and their cultivation for ancient Israel, whose well‐being depended on the successful harvesting of such cereal crops as wheat, barley, and emmer, as well as varieties of legumes, fruit trees, and vines (see Deut. 8.8). Plants are described as the basic food in the first creation account (Gen. 1.29). The well‐watered and fruitful garden was understood as the best of all places (Gen. 2.4–3.24; Song of Sol.). This characterization is not surprising: the early Israelite community sought sustenance from land often beset by drought and composed of poor soil, with a topography that necessitated such labor‐intensive forms of cultivation as terrace‐farming. The challenges and frustrations of the Israelites may be reflected in the punishment meted out by God to the first man at the end of the second creation account: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field” (Gen. 3.17–18). The biblical authors envisioned God's blessings and favor as yielding rainfall and abundant harvests. Thus, Micah 4.4 depicts peace and prosperity as all sitting “under their own vines and under their own fig trees” (cf. 2 Kings 18.31; Zech. 3.10; 1 Macc. 14.12). But when Israel violated her covenant with God, she experienced drought, blight, and barren fields (Deut. 28.22–24; Isa. 17.10–11; Amos 4.9; 5.11).
Israelite law reflected a concern with and some understanding of the ways in which crop production could be well managed. Thus, the Israelite farmer was forbidden to harvest immature fruit trees (Lev. 19.19), and was expected to allow his fields to remain fallow during the sabbatical year. Vegetable and incense offerings were an essential component of the system of sacrifice and atonement, a central piece of Israelite religion until the destruction of the Temple by the Roman army in 70 CE (Exod. 30.34–48; Lev. 2; 7.9–10; 16.12–13; 24.5–9; Num. 15.1–10). The Bible also abounds with similes, metaphors, and parables rooted in the plant world. The images are as diverse as the flora itself. Thus, in addition to fertility, abundance, and continuity, plants are used to represent life's frailty, brevity, and transitory nature (Isa. 40.6–8; Job 14.2; Ps. 90.6; 1 Pet. 1.24). Biblical symbolism draws also on the characteristics of individual plants, such as the great height and longevity of the cedar tree (Ps. 92.12; see similarly the parable of Jotham, Judg. 9.8–15, and the parable of the mustard seed, Matt. 13.31–32). The New Testament is replete with agricultural imagery; see, for example, Mark 4.3–8, 26–29; Matthew 9.37–38; Luke 13.6–9.
Representations of plants adorned the columns and carvings of the Solomonic Temple (1 Kings 6.18; 7.19, 26). Plants appeared also on Hasmonean and Herodian coinage, and on the coins issued by the rebels in the anti‐Roman Palestinian Jewish revolts of the first and second centuries CE (see Money). To commemorate the defeat of the Jewish rebels in the First Jewish Revolt, the Roman government issued coins, in circulation by 71 CE, with the inscription “JUDAEA CAPTA” (“Judea captured”). The coin depicts a palm tree, perhaps in recognition of the importance of the date palm in Israel. On one side of the tree is a Roman legionary, on the other a woman in mourning seated under the palm. The mosaics of the synagogues and churches of Roman and Byzantine Palestine were rich with representations of plants, depicted both realistically and in highly stylized forms.
Barbara Geller Nathanson