From Plants of the Bible, H.N. & A.L. Moldenke, article “175. Reama raetam (Forsk.) Web. & Berth.” I have left out the numbered references to other sources.

Juniper in the Bible

A note on Of Plants in Scripture, Sect. 37

After quoting Numbers 38:18-19, 1 Kings 19:4-5, and Psalms 12:4, the Moldenkes continue:

The Hebrew words translated “juniper” in the Authorized and Douay versions are “rotem” or “rothem” and “r'tamin”, and “ritmah” or “rithmah” (Greek, ραϑμεν); and it has nothing whatever to do with the true junipers, Juniperus. Actually the Scriptural “juniper” was a species of broom known as the white broom, Retama raetam.1 Its habit of growth is similar to that of the Scotch broom, Cytisus scoparius (L.) Link, but its branches are longer and more flexible, forming an erect dense bush 3 to 12 feet tall. Although its leaves are very small and sparse, simple, and linear, it nevertheless forms a very agreeable shade in desert regions. The white pea-like flowers are sweetly fragrant and are borne in subsessile clusters along the twigs. The white broom is a beautiful shrub and is abundant in the Palestinian desert regions, growing on hills, in rocky places, ravines, and sandy situations. It is common around the Dead Sea, in Gilead, in the Jordan valley, on the Syrian desert, in Lebanon, on Mount Carmel, and on all the deserts southward to Arabia Petræa, Sinai, and Egypt.2 It is also said to be found on the Philistine and Phoenician coasts. In the “wilderness” (deserts) it is in many places the only bush that affords any shade. Tristram describes this plant very effectively: “This is one of the exquisitely beautiful plants of the country. The gauzy delicate pink-and-white hues of a whole hill-side covered with shrub in blossom, as I have seen it in gilead, is unsurpassed even by the apple blossom of an English orchard.” The “Rithmah” of Numbers 33:18-19 — “Rethma” in the Douay version — is a variant of the same Hebrew word, meaning “place of broom”, and probably refers to the abundance of these plants at that locality. The Goodspeed version of the 1 Kings reference cited above renders the Authorized and Douay versions’ “juniper tree” more correctly as “broom tree”, Jastrow says “broom-tree”, Leesser gives “broom-bush”, while Moffatt says “brook-bush” and “bush”. The Revised Version suggests “broom” in a marginal note. The Arabic name for the tree is “retem” or “rethem”.

The expression “coals of juniper” used in Psalms 120:4 — “burning coals” in Moffatt, “live broom coals” in Goodspeed, “coals of broom” in Jastrow, and “coals that lay waste” in Douay — refers to the fact that the wood of white broom is used extensively for making charcoal. The Royal Pslamist avows that the coals of this plant afford the fiercest fire of any combustible matter that was to be found in the desert, and on this account would provide the most fitting punishment for deceitful tongues. This charcoal is said to be of especially fine quality and forms an important article of trade between the Bedouins and the Egyptians. The wood of the white broom is said to burn extremely well even when not made into charcoal. Jerome and the writers of the Talmud agree in the belief that this was the wood to which Daniel referred when he spoke of “coals of juniper”. Some commentators have even suggested that the peculiarly loud and crackling noise made by burning broom wood served Daniel also as a symbol of the loud and unjust assertions of the calumniators of the righteous man.

The “juniper roots” of Job 30:4 are not the roots of eitehr a juniper or the white broom. The roots of the white broom, like those of the Scotch brrom, are extremely nauseous and even somewhat poisonous if eaten. They could not be eaten in the manner described by Job. It is now supposed that Job’s “juniper roots” were the edible parasitic plant, Cynomorium coccineum.[3]

An old Christian legend states that when Jesus was praying on that fateful night in the garden of Gethsemane he was continually disturbed by the noisy crackling and “sawing” of a broom plant. When he was finally led off by the soldiers he said to the broom: “May you always burn with as much noise as you are making now.” Another legend says that the crackling of the broom plants among which they were hiding almost revealed the whereabouts of Mary and the infant Jesus to the soldiers of Herod.


1. Also known as Genista monosperma (L.) Lam., G. raetam Forsk., and Spartium monospermum L. [You may see a picture at "CyberCanaries", from the Canaries, of course; it’s difficult to sense the scale from this picture, and the plant is far more luxuriant than it would be growing in the desert, or here. See also this page for more on the broom in the Bible, including some discussion of Talmudic commentary.]

2. Evenari considers the range of this plant more limited, excluding such places as Lebanon and Mount Carmel from which it has been recorded by Post and other workers.

[3. Browne supposes the same, on the authority in part of Dioscorides.]

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