Since I am still in the middle of my reading project, and since the book I am reading has turned out to be rather heavy stuff, I looked for something that is a little lighter for this month’s letter. So I am taking a break from scholarship on the prophets. Instead, I would like to share what I have been learning from living in a Mediterranean climate over the past several years.
To be sure, my experience is not based in Israel, but in Spain, on the other end of the Mediterranean. I assume the climate here is a bit more temperate because the Atlantic is close, perhaps making for slightly milder winters and summers that are less hot. But there is still a lot that reminds me of various things in the Bible and that has given me a better feel for things in Scripture. Vegetation and crops are very similar, and so are the seasons and the landscape. So here we go.
1. Get Ready to Freeze
The first thing that has stood out to Franziska and me is not what you may expect. People don’t normally think of Spain or Israel as “cold” countries. And of course compared with the north of Europe, where ice and frost can take over for weeks or months at a time, they are not. However, houses in the north are well insulated and heated. It may be cold outside, but once you are inside, you can warm up.
Houses in the south of Spain tend to have neither insulation nor double glass windows. On a fine day in January, it may be 5°C outside early in the morning and 18 or so in the afternoon. The inside temperature will then settle around 11°C, unless we heat, but we can only heat the living room. And the first winter, we did not have heating. Seen in this light, Spain is by far the coldest country we have lived in.
It has given me a new respect for the ancient Israelites, whose houses probably were no warmer than ours today. People living in biblical times in biblical countries must have experienced a lot of cold. Especially since much of the area where the Israelites lived was in the mountains, 900 m and more up. Nice in summer, but cold in winter.
Where we live, we never have snow. But where the Israelites lived, it did get cold enough for snow. It made for a memorable event: “On a day when snow had fallen” (2 Sam. 23:20), but frequent enough that one had to be prepared for it: “She is not afraid of snow for her household” (Prov. 31:21).
Peter warming himself at the fire in the high priest’s courtyard (Mk. 14:54)? I believe it. Those shepherds out on Christmas Eve? Brrr… (Okay, so maybe Jesus was not born in December; but shepherds would still be out with their flocks that month as well.)
2. Different Seasons
In spite of this, it is summer, not winter, which is the dead season, when nature grinds to a halt and the fields turn brown. This is the very opposite from seasons in the north. Here in the south, things grow during the winter half of the year and into the spring, not in summer.
Winter is the time when most of the rain falls. During summer we usually do not have any rain for several months in a row. This is the defining mark of a Mediterranean climate: summers are dry (and hot), and most of the rain falls in the winter half of the year.
Weather forecasts in summer are therefore a very boring business.
Another characteristic of Mediterranean climates is that the amount of rainfall can vary dramatically from year to year. Our first two winters here were very wet (which also made them cold). This led to an incredible abundance of flowers in the following springtime. The most recent winter, in contrast, was quite dry. We have been able to tell the difference: far fewer flowers, weeds that do not grow nearly as high, and fields that turn brown much earlier. I have noticed how some streams in our area have tried up early this summer. Naturally, this has reminded me of Elijah’s stay at the brook Cherith and the devastating three-year drought he announced (1 Ki. 17).
It has given me an appreciation for the vulnerability of life under such circumstances. I don’t depend on last winter’s rainfall for survival, but the ancient Israelites did.
As far as temperature is concerned, this leaves spring and autumn as the truly lovely seasons – between cold and heat, freezing and sweating. But since spring has the added benefit of flowers blooming (everything is green, not brown), it is the season that tops them all.
Knowing what spring can be like around the Mediterranean adds depth to this love poem:
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance. (Song 2:10-13; ESV)
4. Withered Grass
Summer being what it is around here, it is clear that life is tough on grass and other herbs, especially when growing on less favourable places like rooftops. This supplied the biblical authors with a graphic illustration for the brevity and the vulnerability of life:
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the Lord blows on it (Is. 40:6b-7a; ESV)
…like grass on the housetops,
blighted before it is grown. (Is. 37:27; ESV)
5. Dust in the Wind
With the drought and the withering comes the dust. It is an ever present reality in summer. There is an unpaved road that goes by our house, and every car that drives by throws up a cloud of dust. Of course in biblical Israel no cars drove by. But the wind will do just fine to get the same effect.
The dry summers also increase the risk of erosion, especially when trees have been cut down and the mountain slopes are overgrazed by flocks of sheep and goats. This has happened all around the Mediterranean, which used to be an area with a lot of forest. Once the forest is cut and the top soil has washed away, this is pretty much gone forever, leaving carved and barren hillsides as evidence of human mismanagement.
6. Cypress and Oak
The Mediterranean oak tree is quite different from oak trees in the north. For one, it is an evergreen, and does not drop its leaves in the fall. In addition, its leaves have a very different shape. They are smaller and relatively thick and leathery, obviously an adaptation to the dry and hot summers. Younger trees have leaves edged with mean spikes. It is only the acorns that give them away as being oak trees: they look pretty much just like the ones from the north.
The cypress is also an evergreen, but belongs to the conifers, like pine trees. Nowadays it is especially valued for its decorative shape (think Toscana) and as a hedge plant.
It is often not easy to translate the names of trees and other plants in the Bible. It is therefore not entirely certain that “cypress” or “oak” in our Bible always refers to either one of those trees. What is clear, however, is that both trees were valued, and not just because of the wood.
They both provide shade and shelter against the heat, a priceless asset in the Mediterranean summer. I recently attended a wedding in early summer, mid-afternoon. The ceremony took place outside, on the field. It was not a particularly warm day, but boy, was it burning hot on that field. Fortunately, we gathered under a small group of large oak trees. This made all the difference. With a slight breeze it was actually pleasant, very different from a few metres out.
In “the heat of the day” (see Abraham below), such trees are worth their weight in gold:
So Abram moved his tent and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron, and there he built an altar to the Lord. (Gen. 13:18; ESV)
And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. (Gen. 18:1; ESV)
7. Thorns and Thistles
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the Lord,
an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. (Is. 55:13; ESV)
As Isaiah 55:13 indicates, the opposite of the cypress and other desirable trees are thorns and thistles. They visually sum up the effect of sin and the curse that came with the fall.
The Mediterranean flora seems to include an above average array of thistles and other plants with thorns. These thistles can grow big and mean. When a field is no longer cultivated, it is these kinds of plants that tend to take over. They can make a field all but impenetrable. This, of course, is what happened when a land was depopulated, as after the Assyrian invasion in 701 BC and with the Babylonian exile. Isaiah was therefore not exaggerating when he wrote:
In that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns. With bow and arrows a man will come there, for all the land will be briers and thorns. And as for all the hills that used to be hoed with a hoe, you will not come there for fear of briers and thorns, but they will become a place where cattle are let loose and where sheep tread. (Is. 7:23-25; ESV)
8. Olive Trees
Last but not least I have to write about olive trees. They are everywhere in the south of Spain. In fact, Spain is the world’s largest producer of olives. One reason they are so ubiquitous here is that they can grow and produce fruit without watering or irrigation. Another reason is that people seem to value producing their own oil. Many families own a small plot with olive trees. They put in a lot of time and effort to prune their trees and restrain weeds, so that water and minerals go to the olive trees instead.
The oil is people’s pride. Our neighbour and landlord scoffs at the oil that is sold in stores. Not at the cheap stuff, mind you, but the virgin extra. He won’t have it; only the pure and truly coldly pressed oil from the local mill is good enough for him.
Nothing in the Bible suggests that the Israelites were so peculiar about their oil, but it obviously was an important staple. In addition, it provided fuel for lamps.
Usually, branches of highly productive kinds are grafted into the stronger but less productive trunks of wild olive trees. This is of course the background for Paul’s illustration in Romans 11: Gentile believers as branches grafted into the olive tree. The unusual thing about the illustration is that Paul turns it on its head. They are branches of the wild olive tree grafted in into the cultivated olive tree – something no farmer would ever do. It provides the Gentile Christians in Rome with a graphic illustration as to why they should not pridefully despise their Jewish brethren.
Next issue: Back to the prophets and the dictionary…
If you found this helpful or informative: post it on FaceBook or GooglePlus!