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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
Vine of Sodom
(נֶּפֶן סְדֹם , gephen Sedom; Sept. ἄμπελος Σοδόμων; Vulg. vinea Sodomorum) occurs only in Deuteronomy 32:32, where of the wicked it is said, "their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah." It is generally supposed that this passage alludes to the celebrated apples of Sodom, of which Josephus (War, 4:8, 4) speaks, and to which, apparently, Tacitus (Hist. 5, 6) alludes. Much has been written on this curious subject, and various trees have been conjectured to be that which produced those
"Dead Sea fruits that tempt the eye,
But turn to ashes on the lips,"
of which Moore and Byron sing. The following is the account of these fruits as given by Josephus: Speaking of Sodom (ut. sup.), he says, "It was of old a happy land, both in respect of its fruits and the abundance of its cities; but now it is all burned up. Men say that, on account of the wickedness of its inhabitants, it was destroyed by lightning. At any rate, there are still to be seen remains of the divine fire and traces of fine cities; and, moreover, ashes produced in the fruits, which indeed resemble edible fruit in color, but, on being plucked by the hand, are dissolved into smoke and ashes." Tacitus (ut sup.) is more general, and speaks of all the herbs and flowers, whether growing wild or planted, turning black and crumbling into ashes.
Some travelers, as Maundrell (Early Trav. in Palestine [Bohn, 1848], p. 454), regard the whole story as a fiction, being unable either to see or hear of any fruit that would answer the required description. Pococke supposed the apples of Sodom to be "pomegranates, which, having a tough, hard rind, and being left on the trees two or three years, may be dried to dust inside, and the outside may remain fair." Hasselquist (Trav. p. 287) seeks to identify the apples in question with the egg-shaped fruit of the Solanum melongena when attacked by some species of tenthredo, which converts the whole of the inside into dust, while the rind remains entire and keeps its color. Seetzen, in his letters to baron Zach (Monat. Correspond. 18:442), thought he had discovered the apples of Sodom in the fruit of a kind of cotton-tree, which grew in the plain of El-Ghor, and was known by the name of Aô schar. The cotton is contained in the fruit, which is like a pomegranate, but has no pulp.
Chateaubri and concludes the long sought fruit to be that of a thorny shrub with small taper leaves, which, in size and color, is exactly like the little Egyptian lemon; when dried, this fruit yields a blackish seed, which may be compared to ashes, and which, in taste, resembles bitter pepper. Burckhardt (Travels in Syria, p. 392) and Irby and Mangles believe that the tree which produces these celebrated apples is one which they saw abundantly in the Ghor to the east of the Dead Sea, known by the vernacular name of asheyr, or oshar. This tree bears a fruit of a reddish yellow color, about three inches in diameter, which contains a white substance resembling the finest silk, and enveloping some seeds. This silk is collected by the Arabs and twisted into matches for their firelocks. Dr. Robinson (Bibl. Res. 1, 523), when at Ain Jidy, without knowing at the moment whether it had been observed by former travelers or not, instantly pronounced in favor of the ö sher fruit being the apples of Sodom. Mr. Walter Elliot, in an article "on the Poma Sodomitica, or Dead Sea apples" (Trans. of the Entomol. Soc. 183740, 2, 14), endeavors to show that the apples in question are oak-galls, which he found growing plentifully on dwarf oaks (Quercus infectoria) in the country beyond the Jordan. He tells us that the Arabs asked him to bite one of these galls, and that they laughed when they saw his mouth full; of dust. "That these galls are the true Dead Sea apples," it is added, "there can no longer be a question.
Nothing can be more beautiful than their rich, glossy, purplish-red exterior; nothing more bitter than their porous and easily pulverized interior" (ibid. p. 16). The opinion of Pococke may, we think, be dismissed at once as being a most improbable conjecture. The objection to the Solanum melongena is that the plant is not peculiar to the shores or neighborhood of the Sea of Sodom, but is generally distributed throughout Palestine; besides which it is not likely that the fruit of which Josephus speaks should be represented by occasional diseased specimens of the fruit of the egg-apple. We must look for some plant, the normal character of whose fruit comes somewhere nearer to the required conditions. Seetzen's plant is the same as that mentioned by Burckhardt; Irby and Mangles, and Robinson, i.e. the ‘ö sher. Chateaubriand's,thorny shrub, with fruit like small lemons, may be the Zukkum (Balanites AEgyptiaca); but it certainly cannot be the tree intended. It is not at all probable that the oak-galls of which Mr. Elliot speaks should be the fruit in question; because these being formed on a tree so generally known as an oak, and being common in all countries, would not have been a subject worthy of especial remark or have been noticed as something peculiar to the district around the Sea of Sodom. The fruit of the ö sher appears to have the best claim to represent the apples of Sodom. The Calotropisprocera is an Indian plant, and thrives in the warm valley of Ain Jidy, "but is scarcely to be found elsewhere in Palestine. The readiness with which its fruit, fair to the eye," bursts, when pressed, agrees well with Josephus's account; and, although there is a want of suitableness between "the few fibers" of Robinson, and the "smoke and ashes" of the Jewish historian, yet, according to a note by the editor of Seetzen's Letters, the fruit of the calotropis in winter contains a yellowish dust, in appearance resembling certain fungi, but of pungent quality. — Smith.
From the fact that, in the song of Moses, it is a vine, which is mentioned, Dr. Hooker argues with much force "in favor of the colocynth, (See GOURD), the foliage and trailing stem of which are sufficiently vine-like. The general use of the word "apple," in subsequent times, carries our thoughts away from the habit of the plant to the appearance of its fruit, which in both colocynth and calotropis is certainly not unlike an apple and very unlike a grape. Notwithstanding the highly authoritative opinion in favor of the former, we still lean to the calotropis. Found at Ain Jidy (Engedi) and Keferein, and abundantly on the eastern shore, it is decidedly a Dead Sea plant; and there is something in its appearance and habit which arrests the eye and impresses the imagination. Mr. Tristram calls it "the strangest and most tropical-looking shrub he ever saw, having hollow puff- balls by way of fruit," and without hesitation pronounces it "the true apple of Sodom" (Trav. p. 281). Afterwards he describes it as a tree "with cork- like, thick, and light bark, wrinkled and furrowed, huge glossy leaves, rounder than those of the laurel, and almost as large as the foliage of the caoutchouc-tree. We might have taken it for a species of spurge (euphorbia), from the abundance of acrid milk it discharged when broken or punctured; but Maundrell at once recognized it as an old acquaintance in Nubia. It was now both in flower and fruit. The blossoms were like those of some species of caper, and the fruit like a very large apple in shape and color-golden yellow and soft to the touch; but, if ripe, cracking like a puff- ball when slightly pressed, and containing only a long thread of small seeds on a half open pod, with long silky filaments, which the Bedawin prize highly, and twist into matches for their firelocks" (ibid. p. 283). The acrid spurge-like juice at once suggests the gall in Deuteronomy 32:32 : "Their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter." (See APPLE OF SODOM).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Vine of Sodom'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/v/vine-of-sodom.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.