Places Referenced by Trees in the Bible

When modern readers encounter a verse in Scripture that references a “great tree” to locate where an event took place, there is a good chance they will dismiss it as somewhat irrelevant to the significance of the passage. But for the original audience of Scripture, these tangible references provided a very real connection to the event and allowed people to readily visualize what took place, because many of these people were probably already familiar with the great tree referenced or could possibly go see it for themselves. There are at least a dozen references to seven different great trees in Scripture (Genesis 12:6; 13:18; 14:13; 18:1; 35:4-8; 1 Samuel 10:3; Deuteronomy 11:30; Joshua 24:26; Judges 4:4-11; 6:11; 9:6; 1 Chronicles 10:12), and these references span from the time of Abraham to the time of Saul. There were no doubt other great trees that existed that were simply never mentioned in the Bible. The trees noted in Scripture were typically oaks or terebinths, although even palm trees could become noteworthy landmarks. For example, the judge Deborah held court under a palm tree between Bethel and Ramah (Judges 4:4-5). Besides simply being points of reference, these trees sometimes took on ceremonial significance as well, either religiously or politically. When the citizens of Shechem gathered to crown Abimelek king during the time of the Judges, they did so beside the great tree at the pillar in Shechem (Judges 9:6). The prophet Hosea later condemned Israel for offering pagan sacrifices under “oak, poplar, and terebinth, where the shade is pleasant” (Hosea 4:13). No doubt many of these pagan sacrifices were performed under great trees that served as recognized places for making offerings. It is not surprising, then, that most of the locations associated with great trees in the Bible lay along main routes in Israel, especially the Central Ridge Route, which ran from Shechem to Beersheba. On a more personal note, while my wife and I were teaching at a Bible college in rural Kenya we witnessed a similar method of place referencing by means of a great tree. Our campus was dominated by a massive, 500-year old mumbu tree (typically called a baobab tree by Westerners), and, as a result, the town nearby was named Mumbuni (“place of the mumbu”). The college president, who was Kenyan, told us that before the coming of Christianity to the area, the tree had been a place where locals offered animal sacrifices to spirits.

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