Israel’s Seven Species: Pomegranate

October 2014

Deuteronomy is a book of expectations. In this final book of the Pentateuch, God stokes the Israelites’ expectations concerning their entrance into the long-awaited “Promised Land,” while at the same time, He explains the rules that they are expected to follow.  One of these expectations is the agricultural bounty of the land of Canaan, often summed up by the so-called seven species.  During the time of Jesus, only these seven varieties[1] were presented in the Temple at Jerusalem as offerings of the first fruits festival (Ex 34:26).

“For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land, a land of brooks, springs, and fountains flowing forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, and pomegranates, of olive oil and honey (Dt 8:7-8).”

The POMEGRANATE is a deciduous tree with a deep red, seed-like fruit enclosed in individual pulp kernels.  In Israel its fruit ripens at the end of summer, usually during September and October.  The pomegranate has a long association with biblical agriculture—from Moses’ twelve spies sent to Canaan who bring back pomegranates as proof of Canaan’s productivity (Num 12:23) to the prophets, Joel and Haggai, who both envision a terrible day when Israel’s prolific fruit trees, like the pomegranate, hang barren.[2]

Because of its plethora of juicy ruby seeds, the pomegranate was often associated with fertility and lovemaking in the ancient world.  In the Bible, the amorous Song of Songs multiple times enlists the pomegranate in poetic imagery which portrays two lovers’ sweet, playful talk.[3] 

Further, the Bible also has a special place of honor for the pomegranate within the world of biblical worship.  Pomegranates hung from the Israelite priests’ garments, and they adorned the Temple’s capitals.[4]  In 1989 the Israel Museum purchased a tiny carved pomegranate made of Hippopotamus bone bearing the inscription “Belonging to the Temp[le of Yahw]eh, holy to the priests.”  For many years, it was a central exhibit of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, being attributed to the time of Solomon’s Temple.  Since 2004, though, it has fallen into a forgery controversy with its origin and, especially, its inscription being questioned.   (For a picture, here.)

During the First Jewish Revolt (66-73 AD) when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, silver shekels were minted by the Jewish rebels, some depicting three pomegranates and the Paleo-Hebrew inscription, “Jerusalem the Holy.”  For a picture, here.  These coins were used for the few years of Jewish sovereignty to pay the temple tax.

[1] Mishna Bikkurim 1,3

[2] Joel 1:12; Hag 2:19

[3] Songs 4:3,13; 6:7,11; 7:12; 8:2

[4] Ex 28:31-35; I Kgs 7:8 ; 2 Chr 3:16; Jer 52:22

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