Did Ancient Jews Worship Trees?

The Hebrew words for 'oak' and 'terebinth' seem to derive from the ancient word for 'god' - el. A Tu Bishvat special.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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A huge oak tree, of the type ancient Jews apparently venerated.
A huge oak tree, of the type ancient Jews apparently venerated.Credit: Moshe Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Jews are believed to be among the first monotheists, but it seems that before they bowed before the one true god, the ancient Jews also worshipped trees.

The first indication that trees were held to be divine, is that two words frequently appearing in the bible, alon (oak) and ela (terebinth - a kind of pistachio tree), apparently derive etymologically from "el" - the Hebrew word for "god."

It is not clear that the ancients distinguished between the two genuses of tree. Some scholars suspect that in biblical-era Hebrew alon and ela, were synonyms for "large tree".

In any case, the biblical writers seemed to assume that some of these great trees were generally known to all, and used them as geographical landmarks . One such landmark was the the alon bekhot - “weeping tree,” under which Rebecca’s nurse Deborah was buried (Genesis 35:8).

Another is the elon moreh – a tree outside of Nablus, visited by Abraham (Genesis 12:6).

A big terebinth, or Atlantic pistachio, the type that Absalom's hair could have got caught in.Credit: Yaacov Shkolnik

The King James version translates "elon moreh" as "the fields of Moreh." Some other translations turn "elon moreh" into some form of "great tree of Moreh".

Modern scholars however think "moreh" comes from the Hebrew word "to instruct," so "elon moreh" would mean "instructing tree." That would make sense if we assume that the ancients practiced dendrolatry - the deification of trees.

The “instructing tree” outside of Nablus seems to have been the most important of these biblical trees. There are numerous biblical mentions of a tree outside Nablus, which is most likely to be this same one. In addition to being visited by Abraham, Jacob buried idols under it (Genesis 35:4), Abimelech was crowned there (Judges 9:6), and Joshua assembled the People of Israel by it and placed the written covenant between them and God etched in stone beneath it (Joshua 24:26).

From Joshua, we also know that a temple had been built around this "instructing tree". This in and of itself suggests that the ancients venerated the plant: otherwise, why would they have built a temple around it, and crowned their kings under it? Ruins on Mount Gerizim, overlooking Nablus, are believed to be the remains of this temple – on which a modern Samaritan Temple has been erected, which has no signs of any tree at its center, holy or otherwise. The tree was most probably killed when the original temple was destroyed long ago.

Other putatively holy trees are mentioned in the bible too. King Saul and his sons were buried under the ela in Jabesh (1 Chronicles 10:12), and an angel is said to have delivered the word of god under the “oak which was in Ophrah" (Judges 6:11) (the ela again!).

The second indication: A prohibition

Generally the treatment of these trees in the bible is positive: they are where kings get anointed, for example. But the prophets Hosea and Ezekiel mention trees in a rather different light, which could indicate that ancient Jews held the trees to be holy:

"They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and burn incense upon the hills, under oaks and poplars and elms, because the shadow thereof is good: therefore your daughters shall commit whoredom, and your spouses shall commit adultery" (Hosea 4:13).

And: "Then shall ye know that I am the Lord, when their slain men shall be among their idols round about their altars, upon every high hill, in all the tops of the mountains, and under every green tree, and under every thick oak, the place where they did offer sweet savor to all their idols" (Ezekiel 6:13).

The era of Hosea and Ezekiel was one of movement from polytheism, the worship of many gods which the ancient Hebrews certainly did practice, to monolatry - the worship of one god while believing in the existence of others, and eventually to monotheism, which we can identify as proto-Judaism.

A major step towards abandoning the pantheon in favor of a single god
was a series of reforms promoted by King Josiah in the 7th century BCE. These included banning the worship of Asherah in the Temple in Jerusalem. In Canaanite religion, Asherah, the female consort of El, was associated with trees and fertility.

During and after the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE, the process of moving from monolatry to monotheism intensified. If indeed Jews did worship trees at some stage, as did so many ancient peoples including the Canaanites – it faded from memory, except, perhaps, in these cursory mentions in the bible.

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