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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Tree-Worship

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Trees have been objects of worship in all parts of the world (comp. Mannhardt, "Wald- und Feldkulte," Berlin, 1875). They were worshiped among the Semites (comp. Wellhausen, "Reste Arab. Heidentums," 2d ed., 1897, pp. 101 et seq.; W. R. Smith, "Rel. of Sem." 2d ed., 1894, pp. 185 et seq.; Barton, "Sketch of Semitic Origins," pp. 87 et seq.), and the Hebrews were no exception to this. The tree that was generally regarded as sacred in Palestine was the oak, or the terebinth, which in hot countries, especially the more southerly of those about the Mediterranean, takes the place of the oak. It is called "allon," which possibly meant "divine tree" (from ), though another etymology is perhaps more probable. This was not the only sacred tree; for traces of the worship of the palm-tree survive (comp. Tree of Life), and Abraham planted an "eshel" (tamarisk) by the sacred wells at Beer-sheba and called on the name of God there (Genesis 21:33). Tamarisks existed also at Ramah in the time of Saul and at Jabesh in Gilead (1 Samuel 22:6, 31:13, Hebr.). It was the terebinth, however, which was generally worshiped, and the worship of which was denounced by the Prophets.

The Sacred Terebinth.

The worship of this tree is connected with the earliest traditions. At Shechem, Yhwh is said to have appeared to Abraham at the terebinth (R. V. margin) of Moreh, when he first entered the land (Genesis 12:6 et seq.). Under this tree Jacob buried the foreign gods of his followers (Genesis 35:4); and Joshua set up a "maẓẓebah" under the terebinth which was in the sanctuary of Yhwh (Joshua 24:26). Perhaps it was this tree to which allusion is made in Judges 9:37. Near Beth-el there was another of these sacred terebinths (Eng. versions, "oak"; Genesis 35:8). At Hebron, Abraham built an altar under one; there he dwelt, and there Yhwh appeared to him (Genesis 12:18, 14:18, 18:1 et seq.). A descendant of this tree (see illustration s. ABRAHAM'S OAK) is still pointed out at Hebron, and is venerated by the Russo-Greek pilgrims who visit Palestine every year: it has probably maintained its sacred character through all the intervening centuries. At Ophra a sacred terebinth (A. V. "oak") existed in the time of Gideon (Judges 6:11,19). The wide-spread existence of this tree is evidenced by the names derived from it—as Elim (Exodus 15:27), Elon (Judges 12:11), and Elath (2 Kings 14:22). The extent of its worship is indicated also by the denunciations of the Prophets. A favorite phrase of theirs in describing idolatrous practises was "upon every high hill and under every green tree" (Deuteronomy 12:2; Jeremiah 2:20). Sometimesthe name of the terebinth is combined with this phrase (comp. Isaiah 57:5 and Ezekiel 6:13, R. V. margin), showing that it was to this tree the Prophets referred.

The sacred character of many of these trees has survived to the present time. There is, for example, one on Jabal Ausha', and others are at 'Ain Yajuz and Suf (comp. Barton in "Biblical World," 1904, 24:170,174; idem, "A Year's Wandering in Bible Lands," 1904, p. 162). The one at Suf is thickly hung with rags. In southern Gilead to-day the limbs of the ordinary terebinth are cut for fire-wood, so that the tops of the trees are kept small and are much misshapen. The sacred ones, on the contrary, are left intact and cast a fine shade. Perhaps this was the case in ancient times also. If so, it would explain the phrase "green tree" as applied to those which were sacred.

Other trees besides those mentioned may have had a sacred character, as is suggested by the fact that David once received an oracle through the mulberry-or balsam-tree ("baka"; comp. 2 Samuel 5:24); but nearly all trace of such a character has disappeared. As has been pointed out, the Prophets were unable completely to suppress tree-worship, which has survived in Palestine through all religious changes to the present day.

Bibliography:
  • In addition to the works mentioned, see Baudissin, Studien, vol.;
  • Jacobs, Studies in Biblical Archœology, pp. 68-74.
E. C.
G. A. B.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Tree-Worship'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/t/tree-worship.html. 1901.

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