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Pomegranates

Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen, and Levit...

Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen, and Levites in ancient Judah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue…and upon its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet, all around its hem, and bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, upon the hem of the robe all around (Exodus 28:31-34).

When the tabernacle was built in the wilderness and Bezalel was selected to make the priestly garments, had he ever seen a pomegranate or held one in his hand? He might have—it’s possible. Pomegranates grew wild in Persia as early as 3000 to 2200 BC. Pomegranates were imported into Egypt from Mesopotamia for wealthy Egyptians.  Archeologists have found pomegranates and drawings of pomegranates in Egyptian tombs, confirming the Egyptian belief that the fruit symbolized prosperity and a prosperous afterlife.[1]

We remember the fish, which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic (Numbers 11:5).

It’s possible, on the other hand, Bezalel never saw or tasted pomegranates. They were not among the foods the Israelites remember eating in Egypt. Slaves lived on a simple diet of fish, vegetables and melon, and pomegranates were a labor-intensive delicacy. If he had no first hand experience with the fruit, Bezalel must have fashioned Aaron’s robe from a pattern God gave Moses. The tiny poms on the robe’s hem were woven from scarlet, blue and purple linen threads—colors that contribute to a complexity of red—shades ranging from pink, to rose, to magenta—commonly seen in the pomegranates grown in the United States. The fruit’s gorgeous colors, its pleasing roundness, and its early appearance in eastern Iran have led some scholars to speculate: Was the pomegranate the tempting fruit in the Garden of Eden?[2]  The Bible doesn’t say.

Whether the Israelites were familiar with pomegranates when they were slaves, we don’t know. But scriptures confirm they knew about pomegranates by the time they entered Canaan (Numbers 13:23).

Then they [spies] came to the Valley of Eshcol, and there cut down a branch with one cluster of grapes; they carried it between two of them on a pole. They also brought some of the pomegranates and figs.

Scriptures show that after settling in Canaan the Israelites cultivated pomegranates: pomegranate trees were common, the juice was an important drink and the fruit was a popular decorative motif. Saul sat under a pomegranate tree surrounded by his army (1 Sam. 14:2). Solomon used pomegranate imagery in his love poem (Song of Solomon 4:3, 6:7, and 8:2). Rows of carved pomegranates decorated the entry pillars of Solomon’s temple (I Kings 7:18). Joel mentions the pomegranate tree withering like the wasting away joy (Joel 1:12). Haggai cites the pomegranate tree marking the onset of God’s blessings (Haggai 2:19).

Phenomenal Fruit

Today we can substantiate by chemical analysis what the Israelites learned through experience: the tree is an extraordinary resource. The juice is a refreshing drink and can be fermented into wine.[3] Tannins extracted from tree bark and fruit rind condition leather. Pomegranate seeds, juice and bark have medicinal uses: an astringent poultice of the bark draws out bee stings; seeds and juice treat diarrhea, dislodge tapeworms and boost vitality; juice reduces symptoms of fever and eases severity of some disease.[4] 

An opened up pomegranate.

An opened up pomegranate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Labor Intensive

To extract juice from the pomegranates, women in that day rolled the pomegranates on a hard surface until the seeds inside stopped cracking. The juice extracted during rolling was held in the leathery “cup,” then the skin was punctured to release the liquid. It is said that travelers carried pomegranates as a convenient way quench thirst. (I tried the rolling method as a traveler might have done but ended up splitting the skin and spilling juice, so it must take a deft, experienced hand.) Juice was also extracted by stomping on the pomegranates, much like smashing grapes. The juice drained out of the stomping trough and was strained through cloth to catch the seeds, pith and skin. Juice extracted by the stomping technique contained tannins that affected the taste. The website http://theshiksa.com/ illustrates gentler ways our Israelite mothers may have handled pomegranates.

When boiled in water, cooled and strained, the pomegranate’s red flowers and rinds yield a “richly colored dye bath” [5] for coloring natural fibers into shades of dull gold and yellow. Similar to other vegetable dyes, pomegranate dye, does not color linen, cotton, silk and wool as brilliantly as animal-based dyes. Today pomegranates are valued less for making poultices, dyes, and ink than for their beauty, taste and health benefits.

In ancient cultures pomegranates represented fertility, righteousness, prosperity and wisdom. In keeping with tradition, many Jews eat pomegranates on the Jewish New Year, “to wish for good deeds and a year as plentiful with goodness as the seeds of the pomegranate.” [6] Apart from the symbolism surrounding the pomegranate, I think of it as a reminder of God’s delightful providence. Isaac Watt composed a hymn in 1784 in praise of God’s provision of the earth. So rightly it says, “There’s not a plant or flower below, but makes Thy glories known.”—Mary Hendren

 

 

 


[1] “The Incredible Pomegranate: Plant and Fruit,” Richard Ashton, p. 3

[2]  Edibleparadise.com, “Pomegranate—The Original Forbidden Fruit,” Annaliese Keller (online resource)

[3] “Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible,” Packer and Tenny, p. 255.

[4] Phytochemicals, “Pomegranates” (online resource)

[5] Folk Fibers, Maura Grace Ambrose, “Natural Dyes—Pomegranates,” Feb. 19, 2013 (online resource)

[6] Hebrewlessonsonline, “Israeli Symbols”

About womenfromthebook

Mine is a life-long interest in the women of the Bible, and I enjoy exploring the world in which they lived, and discovering the challenges that they faced. I have enough curiosity about them to last the rest of my life.

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