« PreviousContinue »
myriads of the golden and dainty flowers, and these on near approach are found to be fragrant. Like all the other members of their immense genus, these time-honoured Nilotic and Seyal acacias ripen seeds freely, and are propagated therefrom. In Egypt the natives encourage their growth upon the mounds which hold the villages, as may be observed all the way from the Delta to the Cataracts. When once established, such is the vitality of the tree, that it will flourish even in dust and blowing sand, the roots striking deeply into the earth in search of moisture. Prospering where other trees can scarcely exist, to the inhabitants of the parched countries in which it grows spontaneously, the acacia, like the date-palm, thus becomes a blessing of no slight value. The Arabs employ it as fuel to cook their food; from the bark is obtained a yellow dye; and according to Mr. Wallace, when boats are required for river commerce, the wood of the curved boughs, which is very durable, serves for the framework or ribs. One of the varieties when old resembles ebony.
These, accordingly, are the trees which, occurring abundantly in the valleys of the region in which the Israelites wandered for forty years, appear in the earlier historical books of the Old Testament, and in one or two of the prophets, under the name of shittah and shittim, the latter word also denoting the timber. They extend likewise into certain parts of Palestine, but never become in the latter country, as in the desert, a specialty and a predominant feature. Along each side of the Jordan, near the Dead Sea, there are long belts of acacia, which mark, as with a line of verdure, the upper terraces of the valley. Here, however, they serve only to illustrate that curious fusion of the floras of the east and west which has been described as one of the features of the Holy Land. The region of their growth is semitropical; their wild and thorny shades have nothing in common with the soft umbrageousness of the terebinth and oak, and after dwelling among the latter, the effect they produce on the mind is almost startling. "These groves of acacia," says Dean Stanley, "indicate at once the issue of the springs from the roots of the eastern hills, and the tropical climate to which the Israelites had now descended. They were probably the first which they had seen since they left the wilderness of Sinai." Primavally they must have constituted a very conspicuous feature, since the locality was "Abel-shittim," literally, "the meadow of the acacias." In the time of Josephus, so that author tells us, the "meadow" was embosomed in palms. Here it was, in Moab,
1 Sinai and Palestine, p. 298.
on the eastern side of the Jordan, and about six miles distant therefrom, that the Israelites were encamped during the period that intervened between their conquest of the trans-Jordanic highlands and the passage of the river. The full name of the place is given only in this one instance, elsewhere it appears in the abridged form of Shittim.1 To this day there is a valley on the western side of the Dead Sea, which, on account of the abundance of its acacias, holds with the Arabs the name of "Wady Seyal.”
The Hebrew name of the tree, shittah, occurs in the singular only once, viz., in the celebrated passage in Isaiah, "I will plant in the desert the cedar, the shittah-tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree, . . . that they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the Lord hath done this, and that the Holy One of Israel hath created it" (xli. 19, 20). In all other places, the plural shittim, or sittim, is the form employed, but why so does not appear. Certain critics have surmised that it is used as an intensitive, or in allusion to the multiplicity and the entanglement of the branches! Before quoting these shittim passages, and examining what they refer to, another matter has to be dealt with. The ancient Hebrew word seneh, usually translated "bush" or "thorn," appears also to have denoted, specially, the acacia; and in this word seneh we have, according to Dean Stanley, "the most probable origin" of the name of Sinai itself. That in primæval times the acacia abounded in the peninsula of Sinai is quite certain. It still occurs in great quantity amid the eastern and western clusters of hills; and (did so likewise, until quite recently, in the central parts, from which it has only disappeared during a period dating from 1823, owing to the havoc made by the Bedouins, who convert the wood into charcoal, for sale in Egypt, where it is much esteemed, and fetches a considerable price. There is no objection whatever to the etymology, though other derivations are perhaps quite as reasonable. The Dean is very likely to be right, and in that case the meaning of Sinai would be "the mountain of the acacias." Remembering how many examples there are of mountains and hills having been named from their vegetation, and having before us so conspicuous an illustration as the "Mount of Olives," the idea is supported, in any case, by sound analogy. Seneh, unchanged, appears as a topographical appellation in 1 Sam. xiv. 4, in the description of the deep gorge between the cliffs, one of which eminences was called Bozez, or "the shining;" and the other Seneh,
1 See for instance Numbers xxv. 1; Joshua ii. 1, iii. 1; Micah vi. 5.
or apparently, "the rock of the acacia." The same word, seneh, is the one employed in the original Hebrew in the memorable relation in Exodus iii., when "the angel of the Lord appeared unto Moses in a flaming fire, out of the midst of a seneh; and he looked, and behold the seneh burned with fire, and the seneh was not consumed." The word, which reappears in Deut. xxxiii. 16, where "the goodwill of Him that dwelt in the seneh" is invoked by Moses for Joseph,—is translated, as every one knows, simply as "bush," and the phrase, "the burning-bush" is received wherever English is spoken.1 But that nothing more definite was intended in the sacred narrative than would be expressed by so vague a term as the mere equivalent of the English "bush," is inconceivable, and herein we have another good reason for regarding "seneh" as meaning acacia. The Septuagint renders seneh by Báros, which last is adopted by the New Testament writers in their references to the miracle alluded to, and this perhaps may account for the use of "bush" in the Authorized Version.
The special interest of the acacia, as an object of physical nature, and in relation to Scripture Botany, is connected, accordingly, with the peninsula of Sinai. The name of the place, the burning bush of Horeb, and by and by, the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, which was wrought of shittim-wood, all more or less positively involve this tree. Inseparably connected with the grandest and most important events in the early history of religion, the great deliverance from the power of Egypt leading the way, the acacia takes our thoughts to the scene of its birth and its earliest footprints. It is not only how things begin, but how they finish, that is important and glorious: how beautiful becomes the promise, because of this, that "in the day when the mountains shall drop down new wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, . . a fountain shall come forth of the house of the Lord, and shall water the valley of Shittim" (Joel iii. 18). The end, that is, like a circle, comes back upon the point of origin, the first events and the last have the same setting. What a marvellous place is that old peninsula! Had there never an acacia grown within it, what name in history is more momentous than that of Sinai! Singular, however, is it to find that both Sinai and Horeb have vanished, as names, from the local nomenclature, both places now being called by
1 The popular application of the name of burning bush, or burning thorn, to the pyracantha, so gay throughout the winter, with its clusters of scarlet berries, and in France called for the same reason, épine ardente, and boisson ardente, is simply absurd. Much more sensible is the other name, petit corail.
Arabic ones, comparatively modern, since mountains, like rivers, almost invariably retain their first and most ancient appellations. In aspect, no less than in associations, it is unique. Sinai (the peninsula), says Dean Stanley, "is geographically and geologically one of the most remarkable districts on the face of the earth. It combines the three grand features of earthly scenery, the sea, the desert, and mountains. It occupies also a position central to three countries, distinguished not merely for their history, but for their geography, amongst all other nations of the world, Egypt, Arabia, and Palestine, It has been the scene of a history as unique as its situation, a history by which the fate of the three nations which surround it, and through them, the fate of the whole world, has been determined. The moment the green fields of England recede from our view; . . . the further and further we advance into the desert and the mountains, we feel that everything henceforward is continuous, that there is a sustained and protracted interest, increasing more and more, till it reaches its highest point in Palestine, in Jerusalem, on Calvary, and on Olivet. And in the desert of Sinai this interest is enhanced by the fact that it stands alone. Over all the other great scenes of history, Palestine itself, Egypt, Greece, and Italy,-successive tides of great recollections have rolled, even to a certain extent obliterating the traces of the former. But in the peninsula of Sinai there is nothing to interfere with the effect of that single event. The Exodus is the one only stream of history that has passed through this wonderful region,-a history which has for its background the whole magnificence of Egypt, and for its distant horizon, the forms, as yet unborn, of Judaism, of Mahometanism, of Christianity. The peninsula of Sinai is the oldest of the Holy Places-upon Sinai still rests the halo of its ancient glory -the spray of the Red Sea is found upon the inmost hills of Palestine, and thence it has been wafted all over the world." In reference to the physical aspects of Sinai, continues, in another place, this accomplished author, "I have looked on scenery as strange, and on scenery more grand; but on scenery at once so strange and grand I never have looked, and probably never shall look again."1 Once again only, after the history of the Wanderings, and of the delivery of the Law, do we read of Sinai in the Old Testament, viz., when Elijah, driven by the extraordinary circumstances of his time, fled thither as to an asylum of security; and after this we hear no more of it till the Christian era. "I went," says St. Paul, "into Arabia." It is im
1 Sinai and Palestine, p. 72.
possible to regard this remarkable silence as to the peninsula otherwise than as in harmony with the whole spirit and intent of the Divine teaching, the constant purpose of which, as we move onwards, is to draw the mind from the thought of the Law to that of grace, "from the desert to Palestine, from Sinai to Zion." Moses, who was the type of the Law, never entered Canaan himself. His eye was not dim, nor was his natural force abated, though he had born the heat and toil of 120 years. Able and strong enough in body, still he must only look upon it from Nebo-the taking possession, the "abundant entrance," was for another, who, as a type, was even greater than Moses.
Whatever interpretation may be given to "seneh," either in reference to the name of the consecrated mountain, or to the miracle of the burning bush,-the event without a parallel in the history of mankind, seeing that it was the commencement of a life of personal intercourse with the INVISIBLE;-there can be no hesitation in regard to the employment of the wood of the acacia for the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, as above mentioned, and of the utensils that were required in the Tabernacle. The "table" was to be of shittimwood, "overlaid with pure gold ;" and the "staves," and the "pillars," and the "altar” (Exodus xxv. etc.).
Hard and durable, offering a choice of colour, susceptible of a fine polish, and produced in abundance close at hand, it would be admirably qualified for all the purposes in question. Beyond these physical and external recommendations no doubt there must likewise have been some profounder reason for using it, a reason established upon the representative character of the tree; otherwise the wood of the juniper, called "cedar" in the Authorized Version, which was quite as easily procurable, and was also employed at the time, would have served as well. The acacia stands, like everything else in material nature, as the symbol or effigy of some idea that has its home and permanence, not here, but in the world invisible, pro tem. of realities and causes, and this is why the Divine command was given to employ it in preference to any other. What that idea may be, it by no means follows that in this present life we are permitted or privileged to perceive-something of it may be discerned perhaps in the phenomena that pertain to the life and nature of the tree, its calm endurance, its watchword "Never say die," and its being evergreen, as are all divine gifts. Thorny it is, to be sure, but not therefore cruel by nature, the thorns coming of the stern and arid soil, and of the parching influence of the fervid atmos