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 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.”

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

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.
once (the remaining olives are for the poor).

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

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.

A team from the Tell Halif archaeological excavation made their own tannur, a traditional oven referenced in the Hebrew Bible, and baked bread in it. Read all about the experiment in “Biblical Bread: Baking Like the Ancient Israelites.”

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.

Fruit-producing gardens were some of the most luxurious parts of ancient palaces, yet there is no archaeological evidence of the most famous example–the Hanging Gardens–at Babylon. Discover why archaeologists believe this World Wonder was actually located at Assyrian Nineveh.

David Moster is a Ph.D. candidate in Biblical studies at New York University. 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 about fruit inthe Bible in the BAS Library:

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

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

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

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

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More by David Moster in Bible History Daily:

The 10 Strangest Foods in the Bible

10 Great Biblical Artifacts at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem


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11 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!

  6. Jim says

    Tappuah, meaning fragrance, was more likely to be an apricot or a quince than an apple, since the Levant is not amenable to growing apples. They are native to Afghanistan, and would have been found exclusively there at that time in history.

    Apricot trees are wonderfully fragrant, so that would be my guess.

  7. cleotiz says

    The trees of knowledge and of life were no trees in the traditional sence. Thats also why Adam and Eve dit not physicly eat a piece of fruit from the “tree of knowledge” (lucifer) after which we became slaves.

  8. Gerard says

    Is it true that it was not an apple but a fig the real fruit in ,Genesis that the snake gave Eve? Because there were not apples there at the time it was written. Thanks

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 […]

  2. June LInks | Kitchen Counter Culture linked to this post on June 25, 2014

    […] A useful discussion of various fruits mentioned in The Bible. […]

  3. Standing up for fruits and veggies linked to this post on August 18, 2014

    […] I don’t think a fun feature on fruits in the Bible, from Bible History Daily, was in any way linked in. […]

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