Biblical Archaeology Review 5:3, May/June 1979

Plants as Biblical Metaphors

By Avinoam Danin

For our ancestors, wild plants and animals of the Holy Land served as symbols and metaphors. These people were closer to nature than we are today and they understood the life cycles of the plants and animals about them. In the Bible, they used this knowledge in a poetic way.

The scholars who translated the Bible into Latin and English often failed to grasp the full meaning of these plant and animal metaphors. The plant life of Europe and America is far different from the Middle East and, as a result, they did not understand the significance of these references to nature.

In this article, I shall try to deepen our understanding of two Biblical passages through an understanding of the life cycle of a plant referred to in the Bible as galgal.

“O my God,” implores the Psalmist, “scatter [thy enemies] like galgal before the wind” (Psalm 83:14). The King James translation renders galgal as “stubble.” The Revised Standard Version says “whirling dust”; the New English Bible translates the word “thistledown.” Stubble is stumps left in the field after the harvest. “Whirling dust” is perhaps more appropriate to an English townhouse than to ancient Israel. “Thistledown” comes closest. But only by understanding the plant’s life cycle can we truly appreciate the simile.

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