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Learn The Lesson of the Almond Tree

It’s a new year. Time for resolutions, fresh starts, reflections, out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new. It’s a season of hope as we look to remove the things we do not like from our lives and create new habits, establish new routines, and bring new energy into our lives. It’s a routine most of us go through every year only to find our resolutions left unresolved, to watch our new habits vanish like morning mist to the rising sun of our old behaviors, to see our new routines run headlong into the daily grind, and encounter the disappointment of unmet self-expectations. And, we wait for the next new year to resolve to do it all over again.

We often fail in our new year’s resolutions because we do not see an immediate payoff. Things do not change quickly; therefore, we lose heart, get frustrated, and give up. As in most things of value, perseverance makes the difference between a resolution that improves our lives or one that falls into the January trash bin only to be restarted the next year.

At the new year, people often resolve to improve their spiritual life. Whether that means praying daily, reading the Bible every day, going to church regularly, giving to those in need, the new year offers them an opportunity to purpose to draw near to God. And, yet, often those resolutions, as well-meaning as they are, fall by the wayside as well. We usually take the blame on ourselves: I got too busy, I tried reading the Bible, but it didn’t make sense, or everything was going well, then life happened. I am sure that some truth exists in each reasoned response as to why the desire for spiritual growth fell off, but there is another side to it that we often don’t want to talk about because it makes us seem unspiritual: we get disappointed with God. Our expectations with Him go unmet, and we don’t see an immediate payoff. Or, maybe even as we launch into a more spiritually disciplined life, things in our lives get rough. It’s okay to be disappointed with God. The Bible is full of human frustration and angst with Him. But before we jettison this year’s resolution for spiritual growth and intimacy with God, I want to remind us to learn the lesson of the almond tree.

The Bible is God’s revelation in time, space, and culture.[1] The geography of the lands of the Bible provided the stage for the biblical drama to play out. In fact, the geography of the land is as much a character in the biblical story as David, Abraham, Peter, and Paul. At the same time, the geography provided more than hills, valleys, cities, and roadways. It offered an entire physical world—flora, fauna, geology, agricultural cycles, and climate—that shaped the events, images, metaphors, and messages of the biblical writers. Modern readers of the Bible find themselves removed from the physical setting and reality of the lands of the Bible and unfamiliar with these features, and thus, they miss the intended meaning of the biblical authors who relied so heavily upon their physical world to articulate their messages.

Many examples exist where the biblical writers drew upon the flora, fauna, geology, agricultural cycle, and climate to express their message and meaning, but we will focus on one example: the almond tree.

Two stories in the Bible specifically involve the almond tree. To understand these stories, we must appreciate the horticulture of almond trees.

The first instance appears in the book of Jeremiah.[2] The biblical prophets were poets. They used word play and alliteration in their prophecies that often get lost in translation. The prophet Jeremiah used word play more than any other prophet. In one episode, God asked Jeremiah, “What do you see” (1:11)? Jeremiah responded, “I see a branch of an almond tree (שקד; shaqed).” To Jeremiah’s proper identification, God replied, “You have seen right, for I am watchful (שקד; shoqed) to bring my word to pass” (1:12). Jeremiah used an alliterative word play between these two words—“almond” (shaqed) and “watchful” (shoqed)—that came from the same root, in part, to deliver his message. The message of the almond branch (shaqed): God keeps watch (shoqed) to bring about His word. But to capture the prophet’s point, we must understand the horticulture of almond trees.

The almond is the first tree to bloom of all the fruit trees in Israel (mid-February to mid-March). While it is the first to bloom, it is the last to bring forth its fruit. So, while it gives the earliest evidence of the eventual harvest, the owner of almond trees must patiently wait the longest to harvest the almonds from the tree.

An almond blossom in Israel, mid-February

God’s message to Jeremiah: He diligently watches over His word to bring it to pass; therefore, like the almond that blooms first, yet its fruit comes last, God has given His promise to His people and while its fulfilment seems to delay, it will come about because God guarantees it. The message: because God diligently watches over His word, wait patiently for it because it will come to pass because God has guaranteed it.

The second episode of the almond tree occurs in the book of Numbers (17:6-28). During the wilderness wanderings of the children of Israel, they railed against Moses and Aaron. This was right after the rebellion of Korah (Num. 16). God told Moses to collect the staff of the chieftan of each tribe inscribed with the name of the one to whom it belonged. Aaron’s staff was to represent the tribe of Levi. God commanded Moses to deposit the twelve staffs into the Tent of Meeting overnight. The staff of the one whom God chose would sprout overnight. The next day when Moses entered the Tent of Meeting the staff of Aaron had sprouted. But it hadn’t just sprouted: it had sprouted, produced blossoms, and bore almonds all in one night (Num. 17:23).

The biblical author sought to underscore the character of the miracle by identifying Aaron’s staff as made from almond wood. As we previously noted, the almond is the first to blossom but the last to bear fruit. The biblical author and his audience knew the horticultural lifecycle of the almond, and they understood the impact of the miracle. By Aaron’s rod, sprouting, blossoming, and bearing almonds in one night, God definitively demonstrated to the Israelites that Moses and Aaron were His chosen, appointed servants. The overnight blossoming and fruiting of Aaron’s almond rod left no room for confusion as to whom God had chosen. Aaron’s rod remained in the Tent of Meeting as a sign to the rebels, so that their mutterings may cease (Num. 17:25).

Almond blossoms in Israel

Two different stories. Both dependent upon the lifecycle of the almond tree. And both communicate aspects of the God of the universe.

On the one hand, situations and the vicissitudes of life may look bleak and cause us to doubt whether or not He will ever accomplish His promises. But God diligently watches over His word. Like the almond that blossoms then waits until the end of the season to bring forth its fruit, God fulfills His word, in spite of the circumstances or situations of life. He is patient and calls upon us to remain patient for His word to be accomplished.

On the other hand, the God of the Bible performs miracles for His people when they find themselves in dire situations. Moses and Aaron needed to confirm that God had indeed chosen them before the people of Israel, so in one night, an almond rod sprouted, blossomed, and produced the almond fruit. Because everyone understood the lengthy process of an almond rod bearing its fruit, they got the message: Moses and Aaron were God’s chosen. He is the God of miracles.

But here is where the rub comes. Jeremiah lived during the collapse of the kingdom of Judah. He was an eyewitness to the destruction of the Temple of Solomon and the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. He witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, the deportation of the people of Judah, and because of his message against the king and priests, he found himself imprisoned. God gave him a message of hope and restoration, but it was a message that he never lived to see. So why did Moses and Aaron receive the miracle of the almond and Jeremiah was told to look at the almond tree and understand that while it may appear that God is not diligently watching over His word to accomplish it, He, in fact is? There is no answer for this question. The Bible doesn’t try to offer an answer either. The Bible rather presents both aspects of God’s nature: the performer of miracles and the one who diligently watches over His word to accomplish it.

Many people face a new year with excitement and anticipation, an opportunity to launch into the new, to make a fresh start with new resolutions. For others, a new year offers uncertainty, foreboding, and fear. As we enter a new year, let us remind ourselves of the lesson of the almond tree, and that God performs miracles and diligently watches over His word to accomplish it. So, “even if it tarries, wait for it still” (Hab. 2:3).

[1] Marc Turnage, Windows Into the Bible: Cultural and Historical Insights from the Bible for Modern Readers (Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 2016).

[2] For what follows on Jeremiah 1:1, see Turnage, Windows Into the Bible, 39-40.

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