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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 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], “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”

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 4

 For unto us a Child is born , Unto us a Son is given;

And the government will be upon His shoulder.

And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end,

Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,

To order it and establish it with judgment and justice

From that time forward, even forever.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

(Isaiah 9:6-7 NKJV)


Mary barely heard the urging of the women as her body responded to contraction after contraction, unrelenting waves of pain, each closer to the one before, until finally… one huge push, and there were no more. Seconds later, a baby’s cry filled the air and she felt tension drain from her body like wine from a ruptured wineskin. Swiftly deft hands cut the umbilical cord and lifted her squalling infant, wiping away amniotic fluids and washing him gently with warm soothing water.

Swaddling (How to)

Swaddling (How to) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She held out her arms to comfort her little one, his arms and legs flailing, searching the familiarity of her warm body.  Holding him close and stroking away his tears, she rocked gently, humming a melody only mothers know, until his crying gave way to silence as he listened.  She pulled back the blanket, marveling at his beautiful fingers and tiny toes, the plump softness of his body, the wisps of fine dark hair framing his brow. He was perfect in every way. Reluctantly she handed him back and watched, taking note, as he was swaddled securely with linen strips. Then, in her arms once again, she put him to her breast and smiled, wincing a little as he nuzzled, then latched on and suckled contentedly to drink his fill. In one sublime moment their eyes locked on each other, mother and son, and her heart soared.

The love of a remarkable man

Joseph[1] quietly entered upon this touching scene and stood watching, his curiosity and awe obvious. The past nine months had not been easy. The shock and indignation when the truth of Mary’s swelling belly could no longer be denied. The feelings fueled by trust betrayed. Struggling with what must be done. Law in the extreme dictated stoning even when parties were only betrothed, but few, if any, did that these days. A quiet divorce with no reason given, in the presence of two witnesses—that seemed the only just thing to do. He did not want to shame Mary publicly, even in his hurt and anger. This way she could quietly prepare for the consequences to come. And he could begin putting his life back together.

While that was the course he intended to follow, a heavenly messenger cast a new light of understanding on an otherwise dismal situation.  “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Joseph himself was destined to be part of a grander plan.

Now he stood looking at the fulfillment of the angel’s word, sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms. “Jesus,” he said to Mary. “He will be called[2] Jesus.” “Yes. He will be called Jesus,” Mary responded softly, and gently placed her swaddled babe in his make-shift manger bed.

The world would soon know that the Son of God was born in Bethlehem that autumn day.

(To be continued.)

[1] Joseph’s part in the story of the birth of Christ is often overlooked. But in the opinion of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, a comment concerning Matthew 1:24-25 observes, “While the story is told simply, Joseph’s obedience and submission under these circumstances is scarcely less remarkable than Mary’s.” Barnes’ Notes adds, concerning Joseph as a “just” man: “The meaning is that he was kind, tender, merciful; that he was so attached to Mary that he was not willing that she should be exposed to public shame. He sought therefore, secretly to dissolve the connection, and to restore her to her friends without the punishment commonly inflicted on adultery” (see note on Matthew 1:19).

[2] Naming a child was of the utmost importance, and the Bible reveals instances where both mothers and fathers did the naming. In Jesus’ case, God, His Father, chose His name, and both Mary and Joseph complied. In that day, sons were often named during the circumcision ceremony. Scripture seems to indicate Jesus was called by His name from the time He was born.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Sidebar

One fact is glaringly missing in the story of the birth of Jesus—the specific date He was born. However that has not stopped the assigning of one over time. Below are a few links to the history of the adoption of the traditional date of December 25th, arguments pointing to its inaccuracy, mythology surrounding it, and the reasoning and manipulation behind its selection.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 3

The End in Sight

It was the last day of a long, tiring journey. Five or so miles further, and Joseph and Mary would be in Bethlehem. At last, a respite from all the jouncing and jarring over hard-packed country roads. Just to stay in one place for a while—what a relief!

This wasn’t Mary’s only trip out of Galilee that year. Not so many months before, after her remarkable encounter with Gabriel, she had hurried south to the hill country of Judea to see her cousin Elizabeth[1] and share her wonderful news.[2] Would she ever forget Elizabeth’s greeting that day? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Her cousin already knew! Mary, her heart filled with adoration, humbly responded, “For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). The two of them, one, aged and past child-bearing years, the other,  young and a virgin, both pious, both miraculously pregnant and favored before God, spent three months together before Mary returned to Nazareth, and her future.

If she understood the prophecy in Micah 5:2, she knew it meant that she would make yet another journey—this time to Bethlehem, the city of David—where her miracle son, Jesus, would be born. How ironic that Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, and his edict, served as the impetus to get her there, and bring about the fulfillment of inspired words uttered 600 years earlier.


Bethlehem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A place to stay

Joseph came to terms (after some angelic intervention) with Mary’s bewildering condition, and with her role in his life and in God’s plan. Now he had to ensure the safety and well-being of his very special charges. The first order was to find a place to stay. Bethlehem, normally a quiet little village of 1000 or so, was struggling to accommodate the numbers who had come to be counted in Caesar’s census.

Rules of hospitality dictated that villagers open guest rooms[3] in their own homes to travelers in need of food and lodging. In this instance, registrants might have had relatives who would take them in since they were in their ancestral home. That may have even been the case with Joseph and Mary. Otherwise strangers were to be welcomed wherever there was space.

Making room

Homes of that day were made of mud brick, and normally consisted of one to two rooms on one level and a terrace area containing a permanent stone manger for fodder to accommodate the family’s livestock. It was not uncommon that guests be housed there in the event of an overflow. It’s easy to imagine beds being rolled out in one area and perhaps a donkey or cow slumbering in another. Not only did their body heat add warmth for the household and the guests, the critters were kept safe from thieves and predators.[4] At morning light animals were led to pasture and the terrace floor routinely cleaned and swept.

It is likely that Joseph and Mary found lodging in a private home,[5] not in the usual guest room, but on just such a terrace level. They were warm and secure; food and water were available; they had access to help if they were still there when Mary’s labor began; and there would be a suitable place for a newborn in the security of the manger.

Bust of Emperor Augustus wearing the Corona Ci...

Bust of Emperor Augustus wearing the Corona Civica, on display in the Musei Capitolini (Rome). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Caesar’s due

Within the next several days they were obliged to make their way to the official place for registration. Mary found herself standing beside Joseph, waiting impatiently for the line in front of the Emperor’s bureaucrats  to shorten, shifting her weight from time to time, rubbing the small of her back to ease the strain, acutely conscious of the little life within her belly, pushing and nudging.

It wouldn’t be long now.

(To be continued.)

[1] There is some discussion as to whether Elizabeth and Mary were first cousins, or distant cousins, or how exactly they were related. The New King James version simply calls her a “relative.” The general opinion is that they were cousins.

[2] The Bible gives no details concerning Mary’s route, the mode of her travel, or the time it took. In looking at a map, it seems likely that months later she and Joseph retraced at least a portion of her travels, especially the part that avoided Samaria.

[3] Normally these were in the home itself, but sometimes a separate room was built alongside the house itself to house guests. A guest room could have been in a cave if the cave was part of the home itself, which was sometimes the case. The current tradition of Jesus being born in a stable in a cave, essentially isolated from the town and away from helping hands, does not jive with the cultural standards of hospitality of the day.

[4] In a visit to Switzerland some years ago, we noted houses with animals sheltered under the living area, so the practice has endured over time, not only in the Middle East, but other areas of the world as well.

[5]The phrase, “no room in the inn,” has led to a distorted view of the story of Christ’s birth, due largely to the interpretation of the Greek word, kataluma. According to Kenneth Bailey, in his article, “The Manger and the Inn,” this word can be translated several ways, including “inn,” “house,” and “guest room.” The author questions whether Bethlehem would have had a commercial inn since no major Roman road passed through it, stating that “small villages on minor roads had no inns.”

Bailey continues, “No unkindness or lack of hospitality is implied when the Holy Family is taken into the main family room of the home in which they are entertained. The guest room is full. The host is not expected to ask prior guests (or a recently married son) to leave.” His conclusion concerning lodging for Joseph and Mary is,“They find shelter with a family whose separate guest room is full, and are accommodated among the family in acceptable village style. The birth takes place there on the raised terrace of the family home, and the baby is laid in a manger.”

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 2

The Journey to Bethlehem

Mary packed as though she and Joseph were changing residences rather than making a round trip—that’s what astute travelers of her day did. Perhaps she had an idea or premonition that it would be a long time before they would return to Nazareth and home. There would be caravanserais[1] along the way, usually situated where roads crossed, for food and water, bathing, supplies, fodder for the animals, and places to sleep; but the wise and experienced often brought along their own tents and blankets as well as clothing and containers of dried raisins and other foodstuffs, water, oil, and flour, prepared for any eventuality.

Joseph was well aware of the difficulties of such a journey, not just for Mary in her condition, but for their safety as well. The eighty-mile trip could take as many as five days or possibly more, depending on the route and traveling conditions. The shortest and most direct way, through Samaria, was not an option for most Jewish travelers in light of long-standing animosities. They would rather face the threat of robbers and bandits[2] who often menaced the next best highway.

Félix_Bonfils_(French_-_Le_Jourdain_(The_Jordan)_-_Google_Art_Project (1)Caravans frequently traversed Roman roads, including the one he likely chose[3]—the road that went east from Nazareth, crossed the Jordan, and ran south through Perea toward Jerusalem. Ideally they could join such a convoy and lessen the danger along the way. Such a group contained a lively cross-section of humanity. Along with the average traveler and perhaps courses of priests on their way to fulfill their duties in the Temple, opportunistic hawkers often joined these odysseys, producing the latest articles of commerce or luxury, and passing on the most titillating news of the day. Nighttime chatter around campfires must have been a welcome relief from the monotony of seemingly endless miles of travel.

Taxed to the limit

Did Joseph and Mary hear grumbling about the latest demands and scandals of Rome? Most likely, and with good reason.  The general population was already taxed to the limit[4], and now this. Word had it that Caesar was displeased at the declining birthrate[5] in his empire, and this census would confirm his annoyance. It would not only give him his numbers, but replenish his coffers as well. Resentment seethed under the surface at the injustice of it all, a malignant stow-away on this mandatory trek to be counted. What they needed was a deliverer, and soon!

(To be continued.)

[1] Follow the link below for a picture of an Ottoman caravanserais built in the 1700s. Those available to Mary and Joseph were probably much smaller, but were also walled enclosures with guest rooms on upper levels, and the terrace level below, used for bedding down the animals. At night the gate was secured to protect travelers from robbers and wild beasts.

[2] Palestine was home to highwaymen who robbed only for personal gain, and guerrilla warriors who directed their aggression against Roman Authorities and/or the Jewish authorities and persons who collaborated with them. Even the Apostle Paul was alert to such dangers in his travels (2 Corinthians 11:26). For more information on the social world of bandits, see the following link: .

[3]   Alfred Edersheim, in his Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (1980), mentions six different highways or main arteries of commerce in Palestine. See Chapter IV, pp. 42-45. The one I chose for the journey of Joseph and Mary seems to me to be the most likely.

[4] Richard A. Horsely with John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs (1985). During the time of Julius Caesar, “the Jewish agricultural producers were now subject to a double taxation, probably amounting to well over 40 percent of their production. There were other Roman taxes as well, which further added to the burden of the people, but the tribute was the major drain” p. 56. “If a peasant family, after rendering up 40 percent or more of its harvest, then had too little left to survive until the next harvest, it would have to borrow grain for food, or for seed for the next sowing….Continued borrowing would increase a family’s debt significantly, with great risk of complete loss of land …[and] sink into the ranks of…the landless day laborers, or…become a sharecropping tenant” (pp.58-59).

[5] Dio Cassius, Roman History, 1vi, 1-10. Dio Cassius tells of one occasion when Augustus was so vexed by the declining marriage and birth rates that he strode into the Forum, separated the married men and bachelors he found there into two different groups and then let the bachelors have it: “What shall I call you? Men? But you aren’t fulfilling the duties of men. Citizens? But for all your efforts, the city is perishing. Romans? But you are in the process of blotting out this name altogether! . . . What humanity would be left if all the rest of mankind should do what you are doing? . . . You are committing murder in not fathering in the first place those who ought to be your descendants!” Quoted in Paul L. Maier’s  In the Fullness of Time (1991), p.6.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King

Setting the stage

For over 500 years the nation of Israel chafed under the thumb of first one Gentile kingdom and then another—Babylon, Persia, the Greco Macedonians, and now Rome, with its absolute ruler Caesar Augustus, and Herod the Great, one of his ruthless client kings. It wasn’t unusual, particularly during Passover season, for passions to ignite as the tribes of Israel revisited the story of God’s intervention and the stunning liberation of their ancestors.  When the white-hot flames of resistance and rebellion flared, they were summarily stamped out under the cruel boot of Herod’s soldiers.

English: Herod the Great Suomi: Herodes Suuri

English: Herod the Great Suomi: Herodes Suuri (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Exorbitant taxation compounded the misery of oppression in pre- and first-century Palestine: the mandatory tribute to Rome; locally imposed taxes; several layers of temple tax; impromptu levies to fund military expeditions and building projects. Privation and hardship enveloped the land like a dank, smothering blanket, and peasants found themselves forced to sell their land holdings—inheritances from generations past—in order to survive. The swelling ranks of day laborers told the tale.

No relief

After a reign of more than 40 years, Herod the Great died in agony—some say from intestinal cancer, and many assert, a fate fitting for such a tyrant. Instead of relief, what ensued was a mad scramble for power and outright revolt. Research professor in the classics and religion at the University of Massachusetts, Richard Horsley, describes the aftermath: “As for the scribal rabbinic elite, so also for the ordinary people, resistance under Herod’s iron-fisted rule was futile and suicidal. But the minute Herod died, revolt erupted in every major district of the land, and the Romans mounted a massive expedition to reconquer Galilee and Judea. Thus, Jesus’ parents’ generation and his own generation as children in villages such as Nazareth suffered the slaughter or enslavement of family members, burning of their houses and goods, and the general trauma of war.”

As things worsened the dream of a messiah-deliverer flourished, only to fall prey to opportunists and pretenders. Pseudo-messiahs deluded the people with false hopes, created dissensions, and gave rise to sects. Their influence was mostly local and temporary; some, however, succeeded in attracting large numbers of followers, and created movements that lasted for considerable periods. Others, along with their ardent followers, died as insurrectionists.

A quiet miracle in Nazareth

From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shephe...

From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923. via Category:Historical maps by William R. Shepherd (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a cool autumn morning sometime before Herod’s death, in the frontier town of Nazareth in Lower Galilee, a young woman prepared for a long trip to Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus called for a census, declaring “all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1-5) and ordered that everyone[1] must register in their ancestral home. And so, Mary, nearly full-term in her pregnancy, helped Joseph load the cart with the necessities they would need to see them through their journey to the ancient city of David.

She must have replayed the angelic visit innumerable times, and marveled at Gabriel’s amazing pronouncement. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).

While Herod in his paranoia planted spies and scoured the countryside for seditious plots and traitors, the prophesied King of Israel, the longed-for Deliverer, quietly and miraculously grew in the safety of the womb of a young virgin, Mary of Nazareth, waiting to be born.

(To be continued.)

[1] The Archaeological Study Bible (2005), p. 1669, a note on Luke 2:5 states that in Syria (the Romans included Palestine under Syrian jurisdiction) “women twelve years of age and older were required to pay a poll tax and therefore to register.” This would explain the historical impetus for Mary’s making this trip, and the advancing of a divine plan.

Birth and Salt

As for your nativity, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water to cleanse you, you were not rubbed with salt nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you, to have compassion on you; but you were thrown out into the open field, when you yourself were loathed on the day you were born” (Ezekiel 16:4-5).

 God began His declaration of love for Jerusalem with her birth, a child of Canaanites, struggling, unsanitary, bereft of rudimentary natal care. No tender parent cut the cord and washed away the blood; no gentle hand rubbed with salt or swaddled with linen. Apart from God’s intervention, Jerusalem would have died in its bloody iniquity, as surely as an infant abandoned in a field would die.

God said that out of compassion He gave Jerusalem a chance to live. “Live!” Yes, I said to you in your blood, “Live!” (Ezekiel 16:6) He washed her with water, anointed her with oil, and blessed her with luxuries, clothing of linen and silk, leather sandals, earrings, bracelets, fine pastries, honey and oil. Because of God’s love, Jerusalem was splendid and beautiful, briefly.

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbili...

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbilical cord has not yet been cut. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I was acquainted with three of the procedures mentioned in Ezekiel 16:4, cutting the cord, washing with water, and swaddling, but rubbing a baby with salt was unfamiliar to me. This scripture is the only bible reference to the practice of salting a newborn, and it raises the question of what does it mean? Was it a pagan custom or a standard procedure in the ancient world? If it was a common procedure, then why was it done?

Commentators looking into the use of salt on newborns agree that it was “an ancient practice,” common among Jews, Christians, Arabs and others, either for ritual purposes, medical purposes or both. It is thought that babies may have been sprinkled with a few grains of salt as a ritual to signify integrity, purity, and dedication, patterned after salted offerings made to God (Leviticus 2:13). It may have been that parents salted their children to ward off evil spirits. However, the Bible doesn’t say that salt protects an infant from spiritual harm or that God requires babies to be dedicated to Him through salt ceremonies.

Historians cite some traditionally accepted beliefs for washing babies in salted water, or rubbing them with salt powder, or massaging them with salted oil. The earliest documentation they mention is a treatise written in 100 AD by Soranus of Ephesus, a Greek obstetrician, pediatrician and gynecologist who practiced medicine in first century Alexandria and Rome. Soranus’ work set the standards for medical treatment of women and children for 1500 years.[1] In his document, “On Midwifery and the Diseases of Women,” Soranus recommends sprinkling babies with powdery salt to cut through any placental remains and birth residue on the infant’s skin. He believed salt mixed with honey, olive oil, barley juice, fenugreek or mallow should be massaged into a baby’s skin then washed away with warm water.[2] The only other old reference I found was a comment attributed to Rabbi Isaac ben Judah Arabanel that salting the infant strengthened its skin.[3]

The few commentators (Clarke, Gill) who expound the salt element of Ezekiel 16:4 state that it was believed by some to be healthful, as it purportedly:

  • promoted greater firmness to the skin by constricting the pores,
  • cleansed from blood,
  • prevented putrefaction,
  • hardened the flesh,
  • dried up moisture,
  • purged the skin,
  • softened the skin,
  • disinfected,
  • strengthened immunity,
  • improved wound healing,
  • prevented rashes, and
  • created an environment inhospitable to bacteria.

If it is true that salting babies is so beneficial, then why isn’t it a general practice everywhere today?

Danger of Salt

Grains of salt

Grains of salt (Photo credit: kevin dooley)

Current findings indicate there is good reason such a procedure is not advised and practiced, and caution that parents, grandparents, and caregivers need to be wary of salting an infant. “Even small amounts of salt can be dangerous” for babies’ kidneys and organs not equipped to handle “more than what is found in their mother’s milk.”[4] However well intentioned, salt applied to an infant’s skin and in its mouth can be harmful, even fatal.

After a number of babies had been admitted into Jordan Hospital with symptoms of hypernatremia (too much salt), four doctors in the Neonatal ICU published a report, “Salting Newborns: Pickling Them or Killing Them? A Practice That Should Be Stopped.” The doctors interviewed mothers in the maternity ward and gave them a pamphlet “explaining the possible dangers of salting and the complications of hypernatremia and its signs and symptoms.”[5]

In the course of interviewing the 112 mothers, the doctors learned the following facts: 48 mothers had been salted themselves as newborns, 37 mothers had salted their other babies at least once, 56 mothers thought it was advantageous to salt babies, 18 mothers knew there were dangers to salting babies, 5 mothers knew there were some harmful consequences but salted their babies anyway, 6 mothers salted their babies just because it was traditional to do so. A significant number of mothers continued the practice because it was passed on from their mothers and grandmothers.

Many of the 112 mothers didn’t understand the dangers of salting babies.  There was no agreement on how to do it, how much salt to apply, how long to leave the salt on, should it be washed off, should the baby be swaddled with salt on the skin, if so for how many days, what to do if the baby looks sick? Doctors referenced four sad examples of infants who had suffered from different kinds of salt treatments, with harmful effects ranging from skin scars to brain damage and death.

The staff at Jordan Hospital continues to educate mothers about the dangers of applying salt to their newborns. As young mothers learn safe methods of infant care, the unsound traditions will be put to rest.

My take-away

What do I take away from this study? To be careful with God’s word and search out its application with the help of experienced counsel.—Mary Hendren

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica, online, “Soranus of Ephesus”

[2] Mi Yodea, online, “Ezekiel 16:4—what practice does this describe?”

[3] Same source

[4], “What does salt symbolize in the Bible?”

[5] “Salting Newborns: Pickling Them or Killing Them? A Practice That Should Be Stopped,” PowerPoint presentation, Y.K. Abu-Osba MD, R.A. Jarad MD, K.H. Zainedeen MD, A.Y. Khmour MD; Jordan Hospital

A Thread of History

This week it is my pleasure to welcome guest blogger, Judy Rand. In thinking about future posts for WomenfromtheBook, the topic of embroidery was intriguing, and who better to consult than my friend, Judy. Wife of a retired minister, a mother, grandmother, and thread artist in her own right, Judy Rand enjoys the arts of smocking and embroidery as well as mastering the challenges confronting an accomplished seamstress and machine embroidery enthusiast. I am delighted that she agreed to contribute an entry about something so near and dear to her heart. I know you will enjoy her post, “A Thread of History.” —KM

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What do you think of when you hear the word “embroidery”? Probably the little logo on your polo shirt. Or maybe the elaborate garments worn on Downton Abby by the elite class in old England. Most of the embroidery produced now is machine-made, but originally embroidery was done by hand by dedicated needle artists. Even though they’re increasingly rare, there are still embroiderers who work by hand to create stunning artwork–appropriately called “thread painting.”

Cunning work  tabernacle_pictures__image_4__sjpg761

In the book of Exodus the Israelites were directed to build a tabernacle in the wilderness. God gave them precise instructions for the size, materials and embroideries to be used on the draperies and priests’ garments (Exodus 25:9). The priestly ephod was made “of gold, of blue, and of purple, of scarlet, and fine twined linen, with cunning work.” The ephod was a garment made in two parts that were clasped together at the shoulder by two onyx stones set in gold. Each of these stones was engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, six on one shoulder and six on the other (Exodus 28).

When the Israelites fled into the wilderness, they may have fashioned looms from available wood, or they may have brought their looms and implements with them. Whatever they did, it seems they were able to spin yarn, weave and embroider with a great deal of skill.

Covenant gift

Embroidery is mentioned in the blessings bestowed on ancient Israelites when they agreed to keep His commandments. God made a covenant with Israel and lavished them with beautiful garments of embroidered linen and silk. These fine embroidered garments were an extra blessing given by God to make life more beautiful and enjoyable (Ezekiel 16:10-13).

In Psalm 45:14 we read of a beautiful wedding procession where the bride is brought before the king clad in magnificent raiment with broidery to meet with her future husband, attended by her virgin companions, or “bridesmaids.” The word broidery used here means “something variegated” or “versicolored.” [1]

Skills and supplies

Exodus 35:31-33 indicates that the skill in art and science is a direct gift from God. Weaving was especially the business of men in Egypt. In Exodus 35:25, we see women, “gifted artisans,” spinning yarn for the men to weave fabric. The embroideries were either woven into the fabric or added later with needle and thread. Others offered their services in fabricating the needed tapestries which the Israelite women probably learned as bond slaves, in the houses of Egyptian princes (Exodus 35:29).

Where did the dyes come from to make these colorful embroideries? Historically, the color purple has been associated with royalty. Purple dyes were rare and expensive and only the rich had access to them. The most expensive dyes were from Tyre and purple was the rarest. It was made by extracting the essential oils from a species of shellfish that lived on a small stretch of coast near the city-state of Tyre.

Sumptuary Laws

Purple was so rare and so hard to make, and considered so beautiful that the Roman emperors decreed how it could be used by instituting Sumptuary Laws. The word sumptuary comes from the Latin word which means expenditure. These laws were imposed by the rulers to curb the expenditures of the people in order to maintain a specific class structure.

Royalty could have as much purple dye as they wanted and could wear it any way they wanted. Patricians and equestrians could have it only as bands, and the width was dictated by how high up they were in the Roman pecking order. [2]

This implies that Lydia, spoken of in Acts 16:14-15 as “a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira,” must have been a wealthy Roman citizen of Tyre. Apparently her house was large enough to accommodate the disciples when they came to baptize her. [3]

Numbers 15:38 describes the fringes which the Jews wore upon their garments. They had a ribband dyed blue or purple to remind them to keep the commandments and be holy.

Evolution of design 

Silk ribbon embroidery by Judy Rand. Photo: J. Rand

Silk ribbon embroidery by Judy Rand. Photo: J. Rand

Many forms of embroidery have developed over the centuries. Needlepoint (filling in spaces of a grid), Crewel (working thread over a blank canvas), Blackwork or Redwork (using only one color throughout the design), Drawn Threadwork (pulling threads from fabric and working a design in the space), Smocking (pleating fabric and working designs over pleats), Silk Ribbon Embroidery (using ribbon instead of thread), Cross Stitch (designs using x’s).

Over the years embroidery has continued to appeal to artisans in all social levels. In fact, during World War II when embroidery threads were scarce, determined needle artists deconstructed old garments and draperies and painstakingly pulled threads from the discarded fabric in order to have threads to create new designs.

Example of Cross Stitch in progress by Judy Rand. Photo: J Rand

Example of Cross Stitch in progress by Judy Rand.
Photo: J Rand

The Internet has opened doors for anyone with an interest and a few basic supplies to partake of this craft with videos available and step-by-step instructions to guide one through each phase of the process. is an excellent site for beginners and advanced embroiderers.

Hopefully, this entry will give you a deeper appreciation for the work of the embroiderer—both ancient and modern.—Judy Rand


Ahab’s Garden

So it was, when Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, that Ahab got up and went down to take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite (I Kings 21:16).

 Ahab had a purpose in mind for the vineyard, the land adjoining his own place, and confiscated by a cowardly murder. Jezebel had handled the preliminaries to acquiring the property— the false witnesses and the execution of Naboth—enabling Ahab to take possession of the vineyard for precisely the reason he said he wanted it.

Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near, next to my house; and for it I will give you a vineyard better than it (I Kings 21:2).

Ahab already owned a better vineyard than Naboth’s, one he proposed to swap for the property he coveted next to his house. He planned on tearing out Naboth’s grape vines, uprooting the fruit trees, knocking down the stone structures and planting vegetables.

Vegetables? What was the man thinking?

In a time when grapes and fruit trees signified wealth, and vegetables were held in low regard,[1] was he dreaming of another Eden? Did he imagine his own land flourishing with rows of onions and sweet muskmelons as in Egypt? Did he assume it would be easy to transform the land into a garden, as easy as it was to take it from Naboth?

For the land which you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and watered it with your feet, like a garden of vegetables. But the land which you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drink water by the rain from heaven (Deuteronomy 11:10-11).

Because of the scarcity of water and the hilly terrain in Israel, most people didn’t plant vegetables, tending instead to gather what grew in the wild. The exception to the practice of not planting a vegetable garden was an individual who lived near enough water to irrigate or carry water by hand. Ahab was an exception it seems, convinced he had enough water near his house, enough manpower to pull down the vineyard and enough wisdom to cultivate the soil—he controlled everything necessary for a gardening venture.

What did his garden grow?

Garlic & Onion

Garlic & Onion (Photo credit: Ruby’s Feast)

If Ahab had followed through and demolished the vineyard, what vegetables would he have planted in its place?  In an Old Testament list of vegetables found in Numbers 11:5, Israel yearns for the foods they ate in Egypt and lacked in the desert.

We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.

Scholars of ancient agriculture believe these same vegetables probably grew in Israel, but rotted produce, unlike hard goods like stone, tools, and pottery, doesn’t leave evidence. Although researchers found watermelon seeds in extremely dry areas around the Dead Sea,[2] they’ve come up with no other vegetable remains than the seeds and a few dried bulbs. As agricultural scholars admit, “a definite identification [of vegetables grown in ancient Israel] based on the information available is impossible.”[3] Students studying agriculture in Hebrew and Greek texts find descriptions of leafy green salad-like plants, spicy grass, garlic, onions, four species of cucumbers, and two types of melons (muskmelon and watermelon), all grown in Egypt and probably cultivated in Israel.

“The small number of vegetable samples from Iron Age deposits does not indicate that vegetables were a minor component of the daily diet during that period. However, as I [author Oded Borowski] pointed out above, the small number of references to vegetables and the low regard in which vegetables were held suggest very strongly that vegetables were not considered very nutritious and did not constitute an important part of the Iron Age diet in Eretz-Israel.”[4]

Spiritual growth?

 The Bible doesn’t say if Ahab uprooted the vineyard and planted vegetables, but the whole affair is lamentable.  If vegetables were not highly valued in ancient Israel, if people were well-nourished, primarily by fruits, grains, dairy, and meat, then Ahab’s excessive overreach—all of it, seizing the property, murdering Naboth, destroying priceless vines and fruit trees—was for something of incredibly less value. It’s a wretched story but it’s worth reading to the end. It leads to Ahab’s encounter with God’s judgment, and then with God’s mercy (I Kings 21:20-28).—Mary Hendren



[1] Borowski, Oded “Agriculture in Iron Age Israel,” p. 135

[2] Same source, p. 137

[3] Same source, p. 138

[4] Same source, p. 139

Naboth’s Vineyard

1And it came to pass after these things that Naboth  the Jezreelite had a vineyard which was in Jezreel, next to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. 2 So Ahab spoke to Naboth , saying, “Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near, next to my house; and for it I will give you a vineyard better than it. Or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its worth in money.” 3 But Naboth  said to Ahab, “The LORD forbid that I should give the inheritance of my fathers to you!” (1 Kings 21:1-3).

The family inheritance

“Give me your vineyard!” What an unthinkable demand. Not only did the Torah forbid such a thing[1]—to give away or sell one’s inheritance—this vineyard embodied Naboth’s life, as it had his father’s and distant generations before him.

More than two hundred years earlier, when the tribes of Israel ceased their wilderness wanderings and began to possess the Promised Land, his ancestors had chosen this spot within their tribal allotment. Undoubtedly they recognized its potential, its fertile soil and adequate subsoil water supply. It lay in the beautiful Jezreel Valley—a place later chosen by kings as a wintering place. In fact, the covetous King Ahab had a palace right next door.

The tending of a vineyard

It seems possible that Naboth’s ancestors became owners of a functioning vineyard, acquired from some who were conquered or driven from the land. But if not, there was much work to be done for those first settlers. The land had to be “digged” with a hoe or a plow to rid the soil of stones and debris in preparation for spring planting. Men and boys spent long hours of manual labor until the land was finally cleared, leveled and made ready.

A green wine grape.

A green wine grape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next item on the list was collecting choice stock (for green grapes, red grapes, or tiny black grapes to be dried as currants), and planting each cutting about three paces apart in orderly rows. By early Nissan (March-April) the first buds should appear, with blossoms soon to follow. With God’s blessing, a harvest could be expected beginning in Tishri and lasting through Heshvan (September through October) and possibly beyond, but not before the all-important steps of pruning and dunging were accomplished.

An experienced vine-dresser used his sharp pruning knife to cut away unproductive branches, driving the strength of the vine into a few main stocks. Sometimes very little of the original vine remained.

Afterwards the entire vineyard was spaded up, and fertilizer applied.

As his father before him

Naboth followed the same routine on the same land these many years later. He and his sons tended their precious vines, just as had the generations before them. By this time, his vineyard had become a valuable asset which could be mortgaged and the money invested, or it could be used as security for borrowing money to pay the mandatory tribute to King Ahab.

Guarding the assets

The original vineyard changed over time. Sometime during past decades a stone wall was added to surround, guard, and protect the precious vines. When Naboth gazed at his holdings, his eye would have noted the hedge that topped the wall—an added deterrent for robbers and varmints (foxes were particular spoilers for any vineyard)—and the occasional fig tree interspersed among the vines. Someone long ago had begun using them, along with olive trees and mulberry bushes, to train the vines off the ground and upward. He must have often enjoyed sitting under his own vines and fig trees, basking in the peace and satisfaction of it all.

Stationed in the middle of the vineyard was the multi-functioning watchtower, some forty feet high, with its commanding view of the neatly terraced hillsides. Watchmen lived in the tower between seasons, but during vintage time, it was an entirely different matter. Naboth and his family took up quarters in the tower in preparation for the harvest work that lay ahead. It was a time filled with anticipation, excitement, and promise.

Talmudic Wine Press

Talmudic Wine Press (Photo credit: goldberg)

Harvesting the bounty

How many times had they performed this ritual—his wife and daughters working alongside the grape-gatherers, cutting the fragrant clusters, and placing them in the traditional baskets? And he and his sons with the day laborers carrying them to the wine-press, chiseled out of solid rock ages ago? Was there any sweeter sound than the men trampling out the grapes, singing and rejoicing in the warmth of an autumn day?  The musky fragrance of freshly- pressed juices wafting from the holding vat was forever etched in his memory, as was the image of newly-filled wine jugs, conspicuous in their abundance.

During these weeks of in-gathering the whole of the surrounding community joined in a harvest festival which added to the festivities of the annual Feast of Tabernacles. Naboth’s neighbors joined the celebration with singing and dancing, sampling the new wine, and eating to the full. Life had been good— until now.

Until the day he died

To be asked to sell his vineyard—his family’s inheritance, the place where his children were born, and where relatives had died—was simply too much to ask, even by a king. And to be offered a substitute in trade was ridiculous. There could be no substitute! No. Naboth would not comply. This vineyard was who he was. He would keep his vineyard until the day he died.—Karen Meeker


[i]References consulted:

Henri Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (1961), p. 235.

Madeleine S. and J. Lane Miller, Encyclopedia of Bible Life (1944), pp. 405-414.

For further Bible examples concerning vineyards, please see:

Leviticus 19:10

Deuteronomy 23:24

Isaiah 5:1-7

Matthew 21:33-46


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