3.3.14 Almond: Watching, Awakening, Vigilance
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 3.14
Almond: Watching, Awakening, Vigilance
Yahweh once used a play on words (totally lost in the English, of course) to explain the symbolic significance of the almond tree. “And the word of Yahweh came to me, saying, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘I see an almond [shaqed] branch.’ Then Yahweh said to me, ‘You have seen well, for I am watching [shaqad] over My word to perform it.’” (Jeremiah 1:11-12) The word for the almond tree (Hebrew: shaqed) is derived from the verb shaqad, meaning to watch, awaken, or be alert. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament explains the linguistic connection: “The idea of watchfulness, which is basic to the root, affords the key to the explanation of the Hebrew name for the almond tree. This tree, which in Israel blooms as early as January and February and is affectionately looked upon as the harbinger of spring, is appropriately enough called shaqed, ‘the waker.’”
Because God made a point of connecting the almond to the symbolic root verb from which its name is derived, we should look more closely at that verb ourselves. Shaqad is defined by the Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains as “1. To watch, stand guard, i.e., control access into and out of an area or persons that are valuable or notorious, implying care or duty for the object guarded; 2. Be awake, i.e., not be in a state of sleep when one normally should, implying a nervous or anxious state; 3. Watch out for, pay attention, i.e., be in readiness and alertness to learn information about an object or situation, implying an action will follow; 4. Lie in wait, ambush, formally, watch over, i.e., conceal oneself and observe movements until an opportune time to attack; 5. Be intent, have eager desire, be devoted to, i.e., have a feeling or attitude of earnestness toward a goal, as a figurative extension of carefully watching to learn information, or guarding an object; 6. Keep ready, be prepared, not hesitate, i.e., be in a state of being primed and set to take an action, as a figurative extension of carefully watching to learn information, or guarding an object.”
So with an eye toward getting a firm grasp on the concept that will be symbolically personified by the almond tree—that of being watchful, alert, and vigilant—let us first review a few scriptural usages of shaqad. “Unless Yahweh builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless Yahweh watches [shaqad] over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” (Psalm 127:1) The Scottish poet Robert Burns once famously said, “The best laid schemes of mice and men oft go astray.” (Well, he actually wrote “…gang aft agley,” but what does that even mean?) Yahweh’s “schemes” never go astray. We humans can plan all we want, engineer our outcomes, work toward our goals, and try to protect our hard-won gains. But in the end, all of our efforts are futile if performed without reference (or deference) to the will of God.
Solomon—reputedly the wisest man of his age—saw wisdom as something to be sought for diligently, saying, “Reverence for Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom.” Speaking as “the personified wisdom,” he says, “Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching [shaqad] daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from Yahweh, but he who fails to find me injures himself. All who hate me love death.” (Proverbs 8:34-36) There should thus be an element of active attentiveness, of enthusiastic watchfulness, in our pursuit of wisdom. Note that he speaks not of native intelligence, something that is strictly a gift from God, something you’re either born with or not. Wisdom, rather, is something that can be sought out, pursued, and acquired. Like anything else of value, it is a gift from Yahweh, but it’s something that can be attained and utilized by someone of less-than-dizzying intellect or who lacks extensive education. There are both wise children and experienced fools in this world.
Yahweh and His people aren’t the only ones who “watch,” however. “The ruthless shall come to nothing and the scoffer cease, and all who watch [shaqad] to do evil shall be cut off.” (Isaiah 29:20) It’s bad enough when we fall into sin—when we miss the mark of God’s perfect standard through negligence or apathy. But purposeful rebellion against Yahweh’s authority, evidenced here by ruthlessness and ridicule, require effort, intent, preparation, and desire—shaqad. We should not ignore (or simply miss) the left-handed encouragement God is offering the righteous here. The world today is overrun with cruel, heartless, self centered people. Mockers abound, characterizing our faith in Yahweh as unbalanced religious fanaticism—evidence of either inexplicable naivety or collective insanity. And evil is no longer (if it ever was) accidental or incidental: it is now something pursued, planned, and purposed. This much we can see. What we can’t see (yet) is that all such rebellion against the God we serve will soon be “cut off.” It will cease to be, come to nothing, and have no lasting ill-effect upon God’s people. It will soon be less than a memory.
One can “watch” to do either harm or good. Surveillance is a tactic used for both protection and apprehension, depending upon the object’s innocence. “Behold, the days are coming, declares Yahweh, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast. And it shall come to pass that as I have watched [shaqad] over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch [shaqad] over them to build and to plant, declares Yahweh.” (Jeremiah 31:27-28) This is one of hundreds of prophecies in the Bible informing us that God isn’t done with Israel—that He intends to revive, restore, and rebuild her, just as soon as they repent and receive their Messiah, Yahshua. True to His promise, Yahweh has never taken His eye off Israel: through all of their long years of exile and persecution (the long-predicted consequences of their refusal to heed His word), He has kept them separate from the nations among whom they dwelled. From the concept embodied in shaqad—that of being watchful, coupled with awakening—it is a very short leap to the idea of resurrection. Israel’s impending resurrection from the graveyard of nations (a.k.a., the valley of dry bones—see Ezekiel 37) to a place of restoration, and indeed, preeminence, is a fitting metaphor for what can happen to any of us who choose (whether early or late) to embrace Yahshua as our Messiah.
With this background in mind, then, let us look at the specific scriptural mentions of almonds, their trees, branches, fruit, or flowers, keeping an eye out for what the symbolism of the “waker” and “watcher” might teach us.
The first time almonds are mentioned in the Bible is in the story of Joseph. It is only in retrospect that we can see Yahweh’s extraordinary modus operandi played out in this most circuitous of tales. First, young Joseph is given the gift of interpreting dreams, only to see his jealous brothers sell him into slavery and fake his death. Then he gets thrown into prison for years in Egypt because of something he didn’t do. But his prison experience puts him before the king, whose dream (seven years of plenty followed by seven of famine) he correctly interprets, earning him the No. 2 spot in Pharaoh’s government. The famine will bring his family to Egypt, where they’ll eventually be enslaved. And Israel will remain in bondage for the next four hundred years, only to be delivered through a series of miraculous plagues designed by Yahweh (the One who sent them to Egypt in the first place) to forge them into a nation set apart for His divine purpose—the redemption of all mankind.
We humans, being limited in power and imagination, tend to seek out the most efficient, straightforward course of action, the shortest route between point A and point B. Yahweh, on the other hand, seems to delight in taking the long way around. In Joseph’s case, He could easily have kept the boy safe, stopped the famine from happening, and seen to it that Israel’s family stayed in the land that He Himself had promised to their father Abraham. So why all the machinations, suffering, and drama? Why all the convoluted plot twists? In retrospect, we can see (if we’re looking) that it set up multiple “dress rehearsals” for God’s ultimate plan for our reconciliation. The story of Joseph contains upwards of forty distinct pictures that symbolically prefigure the mission of Christ.
One of the more esoteric of these scenes is the following vignette. The situation is that the ten oldest brothers had gone to Egypt to buy food, and nine of them had returned home, only to find their money within their grain sacks—making them appear to be thieves. (Simeon had been kept under house arrest—“to prove they weren’t spies,” as the Egyptian officer had put it.) So when the food ran out but the famine persisted, Israel had no choice but to send them back to Egypt to buy more. The rub was that having lost Joseph (or so he thought), he was reticent to send his youngest son, Benjamin, along. But the vizier in charge (Joseph, though the brothers didn’t recognize him twenty years after their crime) had insisted they wouldn’t be welcomed back unless they brought their youngest brother with them. So here’s the scene as the brothers prepared to return to Egypt: “Then their father Israel said to them, ‘If it must be so, then do this: take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry a present down to the man, a little balm and a little honey, gum, myrrh, pistachio nuts, and almonds. Take double the money with you. Carry back with you the money that was returned in the mouth of your sacks. Perhaps it was an oversight. Take also your brother, and arise, go again to the man. May God Almighty grant you mercy before the man, and may he send back your other brother and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.’” (Genesis 43:11-14)
In case you haven’t noticed, I operate on the theory that nothing recorded in scripture is accidental or incidental. It all means something, whether or not we have the eyes to see it. Here we have a list of things—gifts—that Israel wanted to send to Egypt, ostensibly to gain favor with the man (Joseph, though he didn’t know that yet) who had what he needed. I believe this list mirrors what Yahweh (symbolized by Father Israel) “sent” to the world (represented by Egypt). He had already “contributed” his beloved son—sacrificed him so that Egypt (the world) might live through the famine. But now Israel needed something, which tells us, surprisingly enough, that Yahweh wants something from the world. What could that possibly be, and what does it have to do with the specific gifts that were sent? There is only one thing Yahweh “needs,” as far as we’re told—He wants to be reconciled with mankind, we who were created for fellowship with Him; He wants the loving relationship that our parents threw away in the Garden of Eden to be restored. Our love is sustenance to Him.
So what can we learn about God’s plan and purpose from the list of gifts that Israel sent to Egypt? The first gift was “balm” (Hebrew: tsariy), a gum material obtained from the bark of certain trees. This balm was used for the healing of injuries. Jeremiah laments, “The wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded. I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?” (Jeremiah 8:21-22) When Israel sent balm to Egypt, it indicated that Yahweh would provide the means of healing to the world.
The second gift, honey, represents (as we have seen) the sweet life that’s only available to us through fellowship with Yahweh. For what it’s worth, this “honey” could be either the sweet golden nectar we get from bees or grape syrup, a thick, sweet viscous liquid processed from grape juice. Either way, debash was the only source of dietary sweetness available back then. Unlike the myriad of sweeteners available to us today, Biblical honey actually offered nutritional value in addition to pleasant taste. The world’s sugars and artificial sweeteners may taste good, in their own way, but they offer only empty calories, at best—and slow-acting poison, at worst. But God’s word feeds our souls as honey does our bodies: “How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119:103)
The “gum” or “aromatic spices” listed as the third gift may be taken as a reminder of the spices with which the body of Christ was anointed for His burial (e.g., Luke 23:56). But there’s also something significant about the Hebrew word used here. Nako’th, perhaps indicating tragacanth gum or something similar, is derived from the Hebrew verb naka’, meaning to strike, scourge, or smite. We are immediately reminded of what Yahshua endured for our sakes, as prophesied by Isaiah: “He was wounded for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. Upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way; and Yahweh has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5-6) So when Israel sent “gum” or “spice” to Egypt, it was actually a picture of how Yahweh would send His own Son to endure a savage beating on our account.
The fourth gift, myrrh, shows up quite frequently as a symbol in scripture, though usually under a different name than the one used here. As we noted in our study of the ingredients in the priestly anointing oil, “Myrrh is a resinous gum or oil from balsam or other trees with an oily bark. It is fragrant and slightly bitter, hence the name, mor, from a Hebrew root meaning bitterness—a reminder of the Messiah’s sorrows endured on our behalf.” But here, an older word for myrrh is used: lot (used only twice in scripture, both in Genesis) is derived from luwt, a verb meaning “to wrap tightly, to envelop.” Once again, the burial of the crucified Christ is in view: “Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away His body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.” (John 19:38-40)
Gift number five was pistachio nuts. The Hebrew word (batnah) is used only this once in scripture. But once again, it seems that the root word from which it is derived (beten) can shed some light on what Yahweh was thinking when He put pistachios on Israel’s mind as he prepared to send his sons to Egypt. Beten means the belly, womb, or abdomen. Beyond the anatomical connotation, however, it also serves the same linguistic niche as our use of the word “heart”—the seat of our emotions and desires. A few examples: “The spirit of man is the lamp of Yahweh, searching all his innermost parts [beten].” (Proverbs 20:27) “He [the wicked man] swallows down riches and vomits them up again; God casts them out of His belly [beten].” (Job 20:15) Baker & Carpenter’s lexicon notes, “[Beten] is at times significantly linked with God’s sovereign care, comfort, and the calling of His elect…. In a figurative sense, beten means the inner being of a person…the place where thoughts were treasured, and the spiritual being expressed itself and was satisfied.” So although you’d never see the connection if you weren’t really looking, it appears that the pistachio nuts Israel sent to Egypt are an expression of His heart’s desire: reconciliation with mankind. On the other hand, since we have for the most part turned our backs on God’s love, there’s another expression reminiscent of beten that comes to mind: Yahweh must surely have had “a belly full” of us. Are the prophecies of coming judgment really so hard to believe?
This brings us to the sixth gift on the list—the only reason we’re looking at this passage at all: almonds. As I mentioned above, the almond tree is affectionately called “the waker” (shaqed) because it blooms very early, long before most of the other trees—in January or February. Thus the symbolic attributes of the almond are expressed by the verb shaqad—to watch, be awake, be intent, or remain prepared. Israel’s gift to Egypt, then (that is, Yahweh’s gift to the world) is the prospect of awakening. The salient question is, from what? Paul offers this bit of insight: “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Romans 13:11-12) “Sleep” represents our former condition—that of being estranged from God, lying comatose in the darkness. Paul is speaking to those who have been redeemed and reconciled to Him, so he urges them to act like it. “The day has dawned; you’ve awakened. Shouldn’t you get our of bed and go to work?” The “salvation” of which he speaks isn’t our position in Christ, something that is settled and secure now if we’ve been born from above in the Holy Spirit. Rather, it is the proximity of our lives to salvation’s inevitable conclusion—eternity in God’s physical presence. This blessed condition will commence at the second coming of Yahshua the Messiah (well, some of us will get a jump on things when we experience the rapture), and it will never end—ever. Every day that passes is one day closer to our goal of enjoying personal, unending intimacy with Yahweh.
The whole “sleeping vs. waking” metaphor takes on new significance in Yahshua’s capable hands. He used the figure of speech to describe a friend’s physical death: “He said to [His disciples], ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.’” (John 11:11) He wasn’t speaking of restful recovery from an illness, but of the fate of all men: death. It would sound insane on anybody else’s lips, but Yahshua was God incarnate: He knew that physical death was a condition from which man was designed to awaken. So to provide a preview, a demonstration of the principle, Christ waited until Lazarus had been in the tomb for three whole days—well beyond the range of any “spontaneous resuscitation” or “near death” recovery. Arriving at last on the scene, He told the deceased’s bereaved sister, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26) He wasn’t talking about the sort of physical death Lazarus had suffered, of course. But to prove He held the power of life in His hand, He went out to the tomb, wept in empathy with our universal grief, and promptly raised His old friend back to life.
If you’ll pardon the cornball allusion, this reminds me of a long-running ad campaign selling two similar candy bars—one with almonds, the other without. If we die without Christ, we get buried in “Mounds.” But like the jingle says, “Sometimes you feel like a nut!” When we’re raised in newness of life in Christ, what better description could there be than “Almond Joy?”
The reawakening of Lazarus wasn’t the sort of thing we’re looking forward to, however. It was “merely” evidence (actually, proof) that Yahshua was indeed Yahweh’s Messiah. After this demonstration of deity, it would have been impossible to rationally conclude that He was a false prophet who deserved to be crucified—which is not to say the religious elite who were pushing for His death were rational, or even sane. The temporary resurrection of Lazarus was merely a dress rehearsal for the fundamental transformation for which Job longed when he said, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” (Job 19:25-27) Yes, Job. Me too.
Israel’s list of gifts to be sent to Egypt wasn’t yet complete. But the next thing he mentioned wasn’t a gift at all, strictly speaking. It was money, the honest purchase price of the grain His sons wished to buy. Remember the symbolism here: Israel represents Yahweh, the God who is reaching out with gifts and payment to the Egyptians because they have something He wants. Egypt (as usual) represents the world. What God wants from the world is our love. That’s why He’s sending gifts: they’re to show us (the world) that His love is genuine and heartfelt. But now, strange though it may seem, we see that God also feels like He owes us something. Having created mankind for the purpose of sharing fellowship with Him, Yahweh considers it His responsibility to provide for us.
And not just for His children, those who love Him already: His provision is for all of us—the whole human race. As Yahshua put it, “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love [only] those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect [i.e., complete], as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:44-48) Why does Yahweh (like Israel sending money to Egypt) offer to “pay” humanity? Why does He send sunshine and rain—and yes, even His love—upon all of us equally? It’s because, having gifted us with free will, He wants us to be able to exercise it, to make moral choices, to live long enough to decide whether to accept His gifts (and yes, His “payment” as well) or to reject Him as a “spy” who merely wants to determine how weak we’ve become.
There was a seventh gift, however. It makes this scene another example of Yahweh’s oft repeated six-plus-one pattern: the Sabbath principle. Let us reprise what Israel said to his sons: “Take also your brother [i.e., Benjamin, his youngest], and arise, go again to the man. May God Almighty grant you mercy before the man, and may he send back your other brother and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.’” (Genesis 43:13-14) Young Benjamin was “the baby” of the family, not to mention being the only full brother of the lost Joseph and the son of Israel’s true love, Rachel. After having treated Joseph so badly, the other brothers couldn’t really fault Israel for thinking of Benjamin as “all he had left.”
Symbolically, of course, this last and most precious “gift” represents Christ being sent into the world. For Israel’s part, sending Benjamin entailed the greatest risk imaginable, and it was no less so with Yahweh. He had no guarantees of success, since because of His own nature, He was not willing to force us to accept His gift. The captive Simeon is roughly analogous to Adam—fallen man, who had become trapped through his sins in a place not really his home (though Egypt—representing the world outside Eden—was proving hospitable enough). The whole objective in sending Benjamin was to retrieve Simeon, to reunite him with his father and his family. It’s as if the problem of procuring grain had become a secondary consideration: the first priority had become to rescue Simeon. Symbolically, it says a lot that Israel was willing to send the innocent and beloved Benjamin to Egypt to free the guilty (see Genesis 34:30) and impetuous Simeon. But that’s precisely what Yahweh did for us when He sent Yahshua into the world for our sakes.
Reviewing Israel’s seven gifts, then, we see a preview of Yahweh’s bequests to mankind, offered to demonstrate His love for us. I’ve reordered the list to reflect what happens as we receive His gifts with thanksgiving:
5. Pistachios: the revelation that we are Yahweh’s heart’s desire.
7. Benjamin: the incredible risk God took sending His beloved son.
3. Gum or spices: the punishment the Messiah endured for our sakes.
4. Myrrh: the bitterness of Christ’s death and burial.
6. Almonds: the awakening—the resurrection—of Christ from the tomb.
1. Balm: our healing, made possible through the gift of God.
2. Honey: the sweet life of fellowship with Yahweh.
It is reasonably clear (from our perspective) that Yahweh chose Moses and prepared him from the womb to lead the nation of Israel out of bondage and introduce them to His Instructions. But apparently, God’s choice wasn’t all that obvious as they were living through the exodus. Several times, people came forward to challenge Moses’ “right” to lead the nation. They had a point, I suppose. By the world’s standards, this guy wasn’t exactly “CEO” material. He spoke with a stammer, smelled of sheep, and was decades past his prime. Korah, on the other hand, was a well-regarded sophisticate with a Harvard MBA (so to speak), a scion the “right” family (i.e., that of Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn son), and he had the backing of Israel’s “best,” most influential people. There was only one problem with Korah: Yahweh hadn’t chosen him for the position he was trying to usurp. Numbers 16 records the story of how the issue was settled—with Korah and his backers being swallowed by the earth at Yahweh’s command, right there in the middle of the camp of Israel. Very dramatic.
Shortly thereafter, Yahweh decided Israel needed an object lesson that would pinpoint Moses and Aaron as His chosen leadership team—these two “nobodies” from the “nowhere” middle-child tribe of Levi. “Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, and get from them staffs, one for each fathers’ house, from all their chiefs according to their fathers’ houses, twelve staffs. Write each man’s name on his staff, and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi. For there shall be one staff for the head of each fathers’ house. Then you shall deposit them in the tent of meeting before the testimony, where I meet with you….” Everybody carried a staff in those days, for this was an agrarian society—every man of property owned livestock, and the staff was the tool used to manage them. Today, I suppose, God might have had the twelve leaders toss their smart phones into a hat or something.
But this demonstration would be even more convincing and impressive than getting a congratulatory text message from God Himself. The staffs were all made of wood—wood that had been cut down long ago: they were dead. Yahweh promised to select one and give it new life—demonstrating that He, the Originator of life, had chosen its owner over all of the others. “And the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout. Thus I will make to cease from me the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against you.’ Moses spoke to the people of Israel. And all their chiefs gave him staffs, one for each chief, according to their fathers’ houses, twelve staffs. And the staff of Aaron was among their staffs. And Moses deposited the staffs before Yahweh in the tent of the testimony….” Yahweh had shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that Korah and his merry men had not been His choice for the leadership of Israel. Now He was about to point out to the whole world who was.
“On the next day Moses went into the tent of the testimony, and behold, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds.” I just love Yahweh’s sense of humor. A few little sprigs of green would have told the tale, but He made Aaron’s staff sprout blossoms and ripe almonds. There’s no evidence of life quite as convincing as the ability to reproduce—to bear fruit. “Then Moses brought out all the staffs from before Yahweh to all the people of Israel. And they looked, and each man took his staff. And Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Put back the staff of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against Me, lest they die.’ Thus did Moses; as Yahweh commanded him, so he did….” From that point forward, there would be no discussion or doubt about who had been selected by Yahweh to lead Israel. The evidence had been duly noted.
What we may tend to miss in all this is that God not only disqualified all other possible candidates, He also proactively put His stamp of approval on Moses and Aaron—publically and miraculously. These days, that’s significant, for we often confuse success with mandate. If a political candidate wins an election, or if someone achieves a great deal of power and influence through other means, we too often attribute that accomplishment to God’s blessing—a divine mandate to pursue a certain course of action. But we should assume no such thing. Success in our world can be attained just as easily through hard work, blind luck, or ruthless treachery as through the affirmation of God. And remember, Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar was “blessed” by Yahweh for the sole purpose of exacting wrath upon an unrepentant Judah: the “mandate” implied by success may not be good news (in the ordinary sense) for anyone in the winner’s sphere of influence. The ultimate example: the coming Antichrist will be worshipped and adored worldwide, though he will be personally responsible for billions of deaths.
What was the reaction of the people to Yahweh’s clear and unambiguous demonstration? Did they say, Yahweh has spoken, and we are grateful for His unequivocal clarification on the matter? No, I’m afraid not. “And the people of Israel said to Moses, ‘Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of Yahweh, shall die. Are we all to perish?’” (Numbers 17) That’s the rough equivalent of saying, “We have no intention of taking God’s word for anything. Yes, judging by what we’ve seen in the last couple of days, God has the power of life and death over us. But we have the right to choose whoever we want!” Yahweh had just linked “grumbling against Me” with the prospect of death. How revealing it is that it didn’t seem to occur to the rebels that they should stop grumbling, repent, and take God’s ripe-almond sign to heart. They merely observed, “Since we’re grumblers (and we have no intention of changing our tune) we’re all going to die!” But God’s heartfelt intention was that they would not die. They were being given the opportunity to live—and live well: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving Yahweh your God, obeying His voice and holding fast to Him, for He is your life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)
The lesson of Aaron’s almond-wood staff was that Yahweh reserves for Himself the right to call whomever He wishes to watch over His affairs on the earth. We cannot choose, nor should we aspire, to be leaders in God’s economy. We should merely make ourselves available for whatever task He requires, remaining awake and vigilant to the leading of His Spirit. Yahweh’s choices are often surprising. They seldom fit our limited, hazy world view. A few examples: He chose David—the runt of the litter, as it were—to be Israel’s mightiest king and founder of the Messiah’s royal dynasty. He selected Mary—a dirt-poor teenage peasant girl—to be the blessed mother of Yahshua, the prophesied King of Kings. He chose Saul of Tarsus—once a legalistic narrow-minded Pharisee—to communicate His message of grace to the world. The Messiah’s closest earthly companions—by His own choice—were rough fishermen and repentant sinners, not princes, priests, or politicians. It was they, not the royalty or the religious elite, who would lead the world toward the Kingdom of Heaven.
Aaron’s almond-wood staff was not a magic wand. It was merely a tool, one God had used in the past to achieve His purposes (e.g. Exodus 7:19), and one He used now to make His point. That point was, in the end, revealed by what the almond tree symbolized: if we are to live under Yahweh’s care, we must remain watchful and alert, wide awake to message of the word of God—His instructions, His promises, and His plan. This is not as easy as it sounds, for it entails questioning our own “best-laid schemes” (you know—the ones that “gang aft agley”). We aren’t always wrong, for we’re made in the image and likeness of God. But we can’t count on being right, either: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares Yahweh. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) We need to wake up and smell the almond blossoms.
The one usage of the almond motif in scripture that made its inclusion in our list of symbols absolutely necessary is the design of the golden menorah, the seven-branched oil lamp that was to be placed within the tabernacle. Because its specifications are as detailed and meticulous as anything we’ll find in the instructions for building the tabernacle or its furnishings, I can only reflect that Yahweh must have had very good reasons for being so specific. The instructions for its design, as given to Moses on the mountain, are found in Exodus 25, and (as usual) the record of Bezalel’s compliance is listed separately, in Exodus 37.
Interestingly, amid all the design detail, the finished size of the menorah is not specified. Tradition states that it was about five feet tall and three feet wide, but the Torah doesn’t say, so the dimensions aren’t important to us. But otherwise its design is quite specific. “You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The lampstand shall be made of hammered work: its base, its stem, its cups, its calyxes, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it….” The first thing Yahweh emphasizes is its unity: the menorah was to be made of a single piece of beaten gold—the decorative parts as well as those that were functional—it was to work together as a complex unit, teaching a single multifaceted lesson. There was more to this than a simple indoor light source: its form meant something.
“And there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it….” The design called for a center stalk or trunk, from which “grew” six branches, three on either side. Thus we are seeing Yahweh’s familiar six-plus-one theme again, something that shows up incessantly in scripture—in the creation account, the six-day work week plus Sabbath rest, the seven annual “feasts” or convocations of Yahweh, the Sabbatical year, and innumerable other, more subtle, places. The pattern has prophetic chronological ramifications: fallen man’s tenure of six thousand years will be capped by one final Millennium of perfect government under the Messiah.
But the arrangement of the lampstand’s elements leads us to another observation: three branches on one side represent Israel, and the other three represent the ekklesia or Church. All six of them grow from, and are dependent upon, the center trunk, that representing Yahshua the Messiah. Indeed, these three entities stand together in balanced unity, though they are distinct from one another. Christ is the trunk, the anchor. Israel and the ekklesia grow side by side, anchored into and supported by Him. Together, then, the menorah forms a perfect picture of Yahshua’s Millennial Kingdom—the culmination and terminus of all of the previous ages of man.
Where do almonds enter the picture? All six stems, plus the center stalk, are fashioned to resemble the branches of a living almond tree as it grows. I imagine Aaron’s staff that budded looked something like this when God was finished bringing it to life: “Three cups [or bowls] made like almond blossoms [shaqad], each with calyx [or “ornamental knob” in some translations] and flower, on one branch, and three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on the other branch—so for the six branches going out of the lampstand….” Three “ornamental” elements were to grace each of the six branches. They were formed to look like a natural (i.e., botanically accurate) representation of an almond blossom with all its parts intact. (The calyx is that part of the plant forming a protective layer around the flower in the bud. In reality, it’s anything but “ornamental.”)
On the living tree, five-petalled blossoms (five being the number of grace) develop into knob-like bowls where the fruit, the almond, grows and matures. Each of the six branches on the menorah were to have three of these knob-and-flower decorative devices. In addition, the center stalk was to display four such knob-and flower units, plus three more—one directly beneath the junction of each pair of branches—for a total of seven. “And on the lampstand itself [that is, the center supporting stalk representing Yahshua] there shall be four cups made like almond blossoms, with their calyxes and flowers, and a calyx of one piece with it under each pair of the six branches going out from the lampstand….”
The symbolic lesson seems to be that among the watchful, alert believers of both Israel and the church, grace will develop, mature, and bear fruit—a process that’s made perfect and complete in our Messiah, our Center and Support—He who watches over us. Six is the number of man, but our understanding of this fact has been fine-tuned somewhat here: three branches on each side (three being the number symbolizing accomplishment) represent two separate groups who depend upon Yahweh’s Messiah for their very life: the redeemed of Israel and the ekklesia. This means that in the end, as far as Yahweh is concerned, we’re all there is of mankind. Just as our Messiah was raised from the dead, both the church (in the rapture) and Israel (See Ezekiel 37:1-14) will follow suit. We will all participate in a “resurrection” of one sort or another. Thus all seven branches of the menorah are defined by the almond tree: the “waker.”
Now, once again, Yahweh stresses the idea that unity is of the utmost importance: “Their calyxes and their branches shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it a single piece of hammered work of pure gold.” (Exodus 25:31-36) How sad it is that this unity that He has been so careful to specify is so far removed from reality in today’s imperfect world. While it’s true that Evangelical Christians, for the most part, love and pray for Israel (the nation and the race), much of “nominal Christendom” does not, assuming in their ignorance that God is finished with Israel, and that the Church has replaced her in His affections. This position sounds utterly insane to me (not to mention being patently unscriptural), but that doesn’t stop some mainstream liberal “Christian” denominations from refusing to support Israel. In the same way, Israelis are not unaware that Evangelicals are their only real friends in this world (especially now that the American government has proven itself to be such an unreliable ally—God forgive us), but most religious Jews want nothing to do with us or our Messiah. So the menorah, at the moment, lies in pieces on the ground. But as I said, it is a picture of Millennial reality—of what will come to pass when Yahshua reigns personally upon the earth: the true church and restored Israel will at last be one with our Savior—He upon whom we both depend for our life, our breath, and our very existence.
The menorah wasn’t merely decoration, of course. It was functional: its role was to provide light. Since there were no windows in the tabernacle, it was the only light source within the Holy Place. By implication, this means that the sole source of spiritual illumination for God’s redeemed is to be Christ, as He is presented through Israel and the church—but (and this is important) only insofar as they are connected to Him. In other words, things that might be done and taught by Israel or the church if they aren’t anchored in the Messiah aren’t to be considered “light” at all. Neither human wisdom, philosophy, nor religious tradition are to be relied upon to “be a light unto our path.” These things aren’t necessarily wrong, you understand, but they are not to be considered authoritative. We are to follow only what God has shown us through Christ and the entities He has endorsed to communicate Him to the world.
Note too that this light is available only within the tabernacle. In order to benefit by it, one must already have encountered the altar of sacrifice and the laver of cleansing. In other words, he must be redeemed by the blood of the Lamb and be made pure by the water of the Holy Spirit before the light can do him any good. This in turn reveals why the unredeemed world finds the truths found in God’s word utterly useless: they don’t comprehend what God is showing them because they haven’t entered His world; they’re not citizens of His kingdom. The odd idea that Yahshua was a “great teacher,” maybe even a prophet, but He wasn’t God in flesh, is thus proved from scripture (as it is in practical experience) to be complete nonsense. The light shines only within the tabernacle.
So each of the six branches and the center trunk were to be equipped with an oil lamp, and the light was never to be extinguished or allowed to go dark. The priests (read: believers) were to make sure that olive oil (symbolic of the Holy Spirit) was always available to feed the flame of enlightenment. In case you missed it, that means it’s up to us to ensure the Spirit’s availability to the world. Remember, the Holy Spirit dwells within the redeemed. So Yahshua told us what we are to be doing: “You [believers] are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:14-16) But how does Yahshua, the center of all this, fit in? John explains: “In Him [Yahshua] was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:4) He was “the true light which gives light to every man who comes into the world.” (John 1:9) If lost men don’t see the light of God in our lives, they probably won’t see it at all. No pressure or anything.
Returning to Exodus, we read, “You shall make seven lamps for it. And the lamps shall be set up so as to give light on the space in front of it….” What was “in front of it?” The menorah was to stand against the south inner “wall” of the tabernacle, facing—and shining—north. The only tabernacle furnishing that stood against the north wall was the table of showbread (literally, the bread of the presence”). Thus what God wants His people to see—that upon which He’s shedding light—is His provision for us, symbolized by the twelve unleavened loaves. It’s worth noting that the arrangement of these loaves once again reveals—as does the design of the menorah itself—the side-by-side nature of Israel and the church: there are two rows of six loaves each, each row sprinkled separately with frankincense (indicating purity through sacrifice). The bread of the presence, by the way, was to be replaced—made new—on the Sabbath (see Leviticus 24:8). The Millennial ramifications for us are so obvious, I shouldn’t have to spell them out.
Everything was to be made out of pure gold, symbolic of God’s immutable righteousness. “Its tongs and their trays shall be of pure gold. It shall be made, with all these utensils, out of a talent of pure gold.” Even the mundane utensils, the wick-trimmers, tongs, and trays, were to be made of gold. It was as if these utilitarian tools were to be considered part of the menorah—a hint that perhaps what we commonly perceive as “the church” and “Israel” aren’t really all there is to it. All together, the menorah and its utensils weighed one talent—that’s somewhere between seventy-five and ninety pounds of pure gold. With the probable exception of the mercy seat’s cherubim, this is the most lavish single use of gold in the entire tabernacle, which should give us some clue as to the relative importance and symbolic significance of the menorah. “And see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain.” (Exodus 25:37-40) Finally, Moses was told by Yahweh Himself what the menorah was to look like—he wasn’t making this stuff up to please his own aesthetic sensibilities. In fact, it’s doubtful that Moses had a clue as to what the symbols even meant.
There is a seemingly “offhand” mention of the almond tree in one of the most pessimistic passages in the Bible. But now that we’re getting a handle on what the almond tree symbolizes, we can begin to see the reason for its inclusion. Solomon is heard bemoaning what can happen to someone in old age if his life hasn’t been built from the beginning upon the solid foundation of Yahweh’s love. “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them….’” When we’re young, everything seems possible. Life is an adventure, and new experiences lie around every corner. It’s easy to be optimistic when we’re young, because we’re too dumb to perceive the ramifications of our own mortality. But that’s precisely the time to learn to honor our Creator, before our own limitations become obvious enough to be debilitating.
“Before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low—they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way….” Having grown (relatively) old myself, I can relate to this. I am well past my “earning years.” There was a time when I felt I could afford to “risk it all” on some new venture, because if I failed, I could always earn it all back again. (Well, that was the theory, anyway—one I put to the test on several occasions.) But now, having been forcibly retired for well over a decade, such risks would seem a foolhardy strategy. I must feed my family on what I have, not on what I might be able to earn in the future. And I can see what Solomon was talking about. If my faith were based on my own skills or fortune, I’d be terrified of every new dawn, for the whole world is conspiring to impoverish me, one way or another.
But as it is, having honored my Creator from the days of my youth, I need not fear what the world can do to me or my family, for nothing can happen to us that is not known and permitted by my heavenly Father. (I’m not saying that I never worry; only that I don’t need to, and never have.) It’s not that nothing bad can happen—after all, we’re promised tribulation in this world. It’s just that the very same contingency can bring either terror or peace, depending upon one’s spiritual outlook. It’s like the bumper sticker says: “Know Jesus: know peace—No Jesus: no peace.” A personal example: my last big “gamble,” which entailed leaving my own small business behind and taking a job with a start-up three thousand miles away, ended three years after it had begun in what any rational person would call a total disaster. Billions of dollars were lost (millions of that belonging to me, if you must know) due to events beyond my control. But the implosion of the venture allowed me the leisure (and just enough resources) to follow my heart’s desire, pondering God’s word all day long, every day. So because I didn’t “forget my Creator in the days of my youth,” I am able to see my corporate catastrophe as an “interesting and educational experience,” nothing more—not remotely “the end of the world” (as some saw it).
Solomon, on the other hand, wasn’t done describing the mindset of the one who faces a bleak future without Yahweh. He says, “The almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets—before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8) Basically, he’s saying that if you’ve placed all of your eggs in the basket of your own mortal existence, don’t be surprised if they get scrambled before it’s all over. He’s describing the “winter” of a man’s life, as he approaches the end, when all he has to look forward to is his “eternal home,” wherever it is that he’s laid up his spiritual “treasure.” His impending death implies separation: his body will return to the dust, and his spirit (ruach, the unique eternal component of man’s potential) will return to the God who entrusted it to him the day he was conceived.
The only reason we’re even looking at this passage is Solomon’s mention of the blossoming of the almond tree. As we noted earlier, the almond is known as “the waker,” the harbinger of spring, because it blooms as early as January or February. It is a sign that there is something to look forward to beyond the cold, bleak skies of winter. If you had no previous experience to go by, you might reasonably conclude that everything had died with the onset of winter—that all hope was lost, and that the trees and grass would never become green again—that is, until you saw an almond tree, bravely putting forth fresh blossoms in the middle of January. The almond offers the first precursor of renewed life, as incongruous and unexpected as it is—a life beyond the winter without God that Solomon so glumly described, in which everything is vanity, emptiness, and hopelessness. The almond tree tells us, when nothing else does, that there is (or can be) meaning after futility, hope after despair, light after darkness, and life after death.
Yahshua instructed His disciples on this very principle, though He didn’t use the almond tree as a symbol, but rather the fig (because the reawakening of Israel was the sign we were being instructed to anticipate). “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near.” That is, just as the almond’s blossoms tell us that death and winter won’t last forever, the fig tree’s buds state that Israel is coming back to life. “So also, when you see these things [a whole series of portentous signs, including the budding of the fig tree] taking place, you know that He [the Son of Man—Yahshua Himself] is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation [the one that sees the signs] will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away….” Don’t look now, but He was talking about us—the present generation. The sign of the fig tree—the political rebirth of Israel—happened for all to see in 1948. And the rest of the Olivet Discourse signs (wars, rumors of war, earthquakes, famines, persecution of the faithful, the worldwide availability of the Gospel, etc.) have been occurring with startling regularity of late.
We have thus been told how to identify the season of our deliverance, defined as the coming of the Son of Man, and that season is upon us. That “coming,” however, will take place in phases—first Christ’s coming for His church (described most vividly in I Thessalonians 4:16-17), and subsequently to deal with the rest of the world. Here in the Olivet Discourse, Yahshua was speaking to Jewish disciples, that is, representatives of both the church and Israel. (Israel’s national repentance will take place only after the church has been “kept out of the hour of trial” via the rapture.) So He didn’t differentiate between one phase of His coming and the other. But He did give us a crucial insight: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows [literally, “perceives”], not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father….” The event that begins “the coming of the Son of Man” is the rapture of the church. Yahshua is telling us plainly here that God is keeping that date a secret. We know the day of the year, however, for the “catching up” of the church is a perfect prophetic fit for the symbolic imagery of the Feast of Trumpets, the first day of the lunar month of Tishri, in the autumn. But we aren’t told which year, and we won’t see it coming—the rapture has no prophetic harbingers.
This is where the symbolic significance of the almond tree comes into play. As we live through the darkest days of winter, we can see the blossoms sprouting on the almond branches and we know that spring cannot be far behind. We are therefore commanded to “Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” (Mark 13:28-37) We have seen the almond branch blossom: we know that spring is coming, and with it new life in our Messiah and King. The fact that we don’t know precisely when He’s coming must not distract us from the fact that He will. We are commanded to remain vigilant, alert, and awake as the season of Christ’s return approaches. We are the doorkeepers of Yahweh’s household. It is our job to remain watchful until the Master returns. There will be plenty of time to rest after His coming, on the Sabbath.
(First published 2014)