Fruit in the Bible

Carbonized raisins from Iron Age I (12th to 11th centuries B.C.) Shiloh were published by Israel Finkelstein in BAR in 1986.

Seeds and fruit remains are exciting discoveries for archaeologists. Not only do they provide clues about ancient agriculture and diets, they can also provide radiocarbon data to help date buried strata.

Fruit also plays an important role in the Biblical narrative. If Eve had not eaten the fruit in Genesis 3, the story of Eden would have looked drastically different. What do we know about the creative ways that the Israelites used fruit in their writings and everyday culture?

The Hebrew Bible mentions six types of tree fruit, many of which appear dozens of times:

1. Grape (גפן)
2. Fig (תאנה)
3. Olive (זית)
4. Pomegranate (רמון)
5. Date (תמר)
6. Apple (תפוח)

In my view, these six fruits are used in eight different ways in the Bible. First, many people are named after fruit, e.g., Tamar in Genesis 38:6, which means “date,” Tappuah in 1 Chronicles 2:43, which means “apple,” and Rimmon in 2 Samuel 4:2, which means “pomegranate.”

Second, fruits are the namesake for a number of cities and towns, e.g., Anab in Joshua 11:21, which means “grape,” Rimmon (pomegranate) in Joshua 15:32 and Tappuah (apple) in Joshua 12:17.

Third, images of fruit are used as decorations, e.g., the blue, purple, and crimson pomegranates on Aaron’s priestly garments (Exodus 28:33-34) and the engraved date palm trees in Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:29).

Fourth, fruits are the subjects of laws, e.g., the law in Numbers 6:3 that a Nazirite may not eat or drink grape products or the law in Deuteronomy 24:20 that one may only beat an olive tree once (the remaining olives are for the poor).
 


 
The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and articles on ancient practices—from dining to makeup—across the Mediterranean world.
 

 

In this this anonymous 18th-century icon from the National Art Museum in Kiev, Ukraine, Joshua and Caleb carry grapes back from the Promised Land.

Fifth, fruits are used in a number of metaphors and similes such as, “Your breath is like the fragrance of apples” in Song of Songs 7:9 and “I found Israel [as pleasing] as grapes in the wilderness” in Hosea 9:10.

Sixth, fruits appear in curses and blessings such as “Your olives shall drop off [the tree]” in Deuteronomy 28:40 and “[Israel is a blessed] land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey” in Deuteronomy 8:8.

Seventh, fruits are used pedagogically in proverbs such as “He who tends to a fig tree will enjoy its fruit” in Proverbs 27:18 and “Parents eat sour grapes and their children’s teeth are blunted” in Ezekiel 18:2.

Eighth, and perhaps most obvious, fruits appear as objects in narratives, such as in Numbers 13:23, where the spies of Moses examine the grapes, pomegranates and figs of the land, and in Genesis 3, where Eve eats the forbidden fruit and is cast from Eden.

While these eight categories are neither rigid nor mutually exclusive, they illustrate the diverse treatment of fruit in the Hebrew Bible. Fruit was much more than a food for the ancient Israelites. It was a symbol that appeared prominently in the culture’s names, laws, proverbs and traditions.

When archaeologists uncover seeds, they find much more than radiocarbon data. The Biblical narrative provides a social and symbolic significance for these important foodstuffs, reminding archaeologists that there is much more to these seeds than meets the eye.
 


 
David Moster is a PhD candidate in Biblical Studies at NYU. He previously studied Jewish Philosophy, Hebrew Bible, Jewish Education, and Rabbinics at Yeshiva University. David has written a number of articles for the Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception and is currently writing about the Bible on his blog The Daily Chapter.
 

 

Learn More in the BAS Library

Ancient Life: Desert Fruit.” Archaeology Odyssey, May/June 2004.

Hendel, Ronald S. “Eve Ate the Apple: Or Did She?Bible Review, June 2004.

Kislev, Mordechai E., Weiss, Ehud. “Weeds & Seeds: What Archaeobotany Can Teach Us.” Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec 2004.

Gershon Edelstein and Shimon Gibson. “Ancient Jerusalem’s Rural Food Basket.” Biblical Archaeology Review, Jul/Aug 1982.

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6 Responses

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  1. Sherry says

    Loved this article with some details!

  2. Joseph says

    Nice article.

  3. Jack says

    Really wonderful scholarship here–and fascinating besides. Thanks

  4. Dov says

    Extremely enlightening. David really has a way of making the Bible come to life!

  5. David says

    Well done, David, very enlightening and useful both to scientists and Bible students!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Transformation of 12 Stones to 12 Fruits | Restoration of Christianity linked to this post on January 30, 2014

    [...] David Moster, a PHD Student at New York University, recently wrote about 6 agricultural fruits repeatedly found [...]


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