3.3.6 Willow: Mixed or Interwoven
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 3.6
Willow: Mixed or Interwoven
I’ll admit it right up front: if the willow tree hadn’t been mentioned in the incredibly significant instructions for the Feast of Tabernacles, I probably wouldn’t have recognized any symbolic significance in association with this tree. After all, there’s no rule that says “every noun must have some hidden meaning,” even though Yahweh really loves His parables. Is it not possible that a tree is just a tree? The last thing I’d want to do is discover “hidden truths” in scripture that would come as a surprise even to God.
That being said, willows came up in our conversation back when we were studying palm trees, for both species were specified as building materials for the “booths” in which the Israelites were to camp out for a week each fall—the Feast of Tabernacles. That practically guarantees that there is more to them than meets the eye. After covering the first six holy convocations, Moses writes, “These are the appointed feasts of Yahweh, which you shall proclaim as times of holy convocation, for presenting to Yahweh offerings by fire, burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings, each on its proper day, besides Yahweh’s Sabbaths and besides your gifts and besides all your vow offerings and besides all your freewill offerings, which you give to Yahweh….” We shouldn’t brush over the concept that the “proper days” of celebration are important to Yahweh. These holidays were appointments we had with God. Observing them on the right days of the year was critical, because they were all prophecies of significant milestones in His plan for our redemption. The ones that have been fulfilled in history so far—the first four—all took place on the very days of their Levitical mandates—including falling on the natural Sabbath where required. There are three more to go—the so-called “fall feasts”—and I expect them to be fulfilled on their “proper days” as well.
The last one of the series, the seventh convocation, is the Feast of Tabernacles (or booths), so called because the Israelites were instructed to build temporary shelters “in the place where Yahweh would choose to make His name abide” and live in them for a week each autumn. It was a harvest festival, a concept that implies all sorts of symbolic possibilities. “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of Yahweh seven days.” The Hebrew calendar began in the spring, at the new moon nearest the vernal equinox—in our March or April. That would make the “seventh month” fall in September or October (depending on where we were in the lunar intercalary cycle). “On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest….” Not to belabor the point, but a subtle confirmation of my theory that Yahweh’s plan will unfold over precisely seven thousand years—each segment marked by a spiritually earthshaking sign (a detail admittedly not spelled out in prophetic scripture)—is bolstered by the fact that in the year 2033 (exactly two thousand years since the Passion of the Messiah) the Feast of Tabernacles will begin on a natural Sabbath, October 8—the Gregorian equivalent of Tishri 15 that year. In other words, I’m not making this stuff up. By the way, the fifteenth day of any lunar month marks the full moon, the time of maximum sunlight being reflected from the moon. Feel free to ponder the significance of that.
We now come to the part of the instructions germane to our present topic, willow trees. “‘And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Yahweh your God seven days. You shall celebrate it as a feast to Yahweh for seven days in the year. It is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am Yahweh your God.’ Thus Moses declared to the people of Israel the appointed feasts of Yahweh.” (Leviticus 23:37-43) Back when we were discussing palm trees, I noted that “The Hebrew noun ‘ereb [alternately pronounced ‘arab or ‘arabah—the paleo-Hebrew script is consonants-only; the variant being determined by the context] denotes a willow or poplar tree…. A virtually identical noun, however (with the same consonant root), means ‘a mixture, a mixed company, interwoven.’ (Baker and Carpenter).” This supported the previous imagery of “leafy trees” (abot or aboth) as having densely interwoven foliage—a picture of the symbiotic and inextricable relationship between the two groups who will populate the Kingdom of God: Israel and the gentile believers. The “building materials” of the booths of the seventh convocation identify the citizens of the Kingdom, beginning with the Messiah/King Himself.
It turns out, however, that ‘ereb, ‘arab, or ‘arabah (the willow tree) is one of those words that carries a plethora of varying connotations in Hebrew—many of which might (or might not) shed light on the significance of “willow trees” as booth material. I’ll use the Strong’s numbers to distinguish them, but be aware that they’re all spelled the same way in the original Hebrew. The definitions are condensed from Baker & Carpenter’s lexicon. As it turns out, this symbol is a wee bit more complicated than it appeared at first glance.
H6148: “A verb meaning to exchange, to take or give as a pledge or guarantee; the action of taking possession of exchanged material; in Jeremiah 30:21, it conveyed the idea of purposing or engaging to meet with the Lord.” This definition smells a lot like the process of redemption, does it not? Only the redeemed—those bought back from slavery and death—will inhabit the Kingdom.
H6149: “A verb meaning to be sweet, to be pleasant. It asserts that something is acceptable, desired by someone, satisfying. Pleasing offerings to God were given by those with pure hearts toward Him (Malachi 3:4).” Will God not populate His kingdom exclusively with those He finds sweet and pleasant?
H6150: “A verb meaning to become evening, to grow dark. It refers to the close of the day, sunset.” I am reminded that in the Daniel 9 prophecy, Israel’s program is finished with the last “seven.” That is, their job will be complete by the end of the Tribulation: the Messiah will at last be physically reigning upon the earth—in their midst. And the church as well is brought to a close with the seventh and last assembly on the Revelation 2 and 3 mailing list—Laodicea, the church comprised of those belatedly repentant souls who had to endure the trial of which Philadelphia was spared (in the rapture). So the sun will have set, so to speak, on the need for symbolic precepts and assemblies called-out of the world: we will at last know as we are known.
H6151: “An Aramaic verb meaning to mix, to mingle, to join together. The word implies an amalgamation of two uncomplementary materials.” Like, for instance, Israel and the church?
H6152: “A proper noun designating Arabia. This refers to caravans traveling through Israelite territory (I Kings 10:15).” Interesting. As a gentile Christian, that’s precisely how I see myself: a traveler, sojourner, or pilgrim, carrying something of great value to and through Israel.
H6153: “A masculine noun referring to evening, dusk, the close of the day.” This is the noun that relates to the verb form of H6150, which we’ve already addressed.
H6154: “A masculine noun meaning a mixture, a mixed company, interwoven. The primary meaning is a grouping of people from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It was used of the heterogeneous band associated with the nation of Israel as it departed from Egypt. By extension, the word was also used of interwoven material of varying fibers.” Related to the verb form of H6151, this definition reinforces the idea that the populace of Yahshua’s Millennium Kingdom will be mixed or interwoven—with a warp and woof of different materials (Jew and gentile), but combined, as in a tapestry, to make something much stronger, more useful, and more beautiful than the separate components could ever be on their own.
H6155: “A masculine noun referring to a willow tree or a poplar tree.” This variant of ‘ereb, of course, is how we got into this mess in the first place.
H6156: “A adjective meaning sweet. It describes something tasting like sugar or honey, sweet and invigorating, but is used figuratively of things obtained and enjoyed falsely (Proverbs 20:17).” (See also H6149) Neither Israel nor the church obtained the sweetness of our salvation through our own efforts. Our redemption was attained through Yahweh’s grace—or not at all. But our reconciliation with God is no less sweet—to Him or to us—because it was unearned.
H6157: “A masculine noun (‘arob) referring to a swarm of flies. It is used exclusively of the insects involved in the fourth plague against Egypt (Exodus 8:21).” Could there be a bright side to this ugly picture? Perhaps, in a left-handed sort of way. The flies were the first plague to cause real concern on the part of Pharaoh, eliciting his first sincere pledge to acquiesce to Moses’ demand—that is, something beyond a politician’s empty promises. This was also the first sign that Pharaoh couldn’t chalk up to magicians’ sleight of hand or mere bad luck. He had no choice but to admit that the God of the Hebrews was more powerful than anything in His pitiful pantheon. And yet, he did renege on his promise, choosing to rebel against Yahweh when he thought the coast was clear. The flies, then, represent the same turning point that will be faced by the Antichrist and his billions of followers. They too will fail to repent, and they too will be destroyed—allowing Yahweh’s newly enlightened mixed multitude (Israel’s remnant and the Church of Repentant Laodicea) to escape from their bonds and move toward the Promised Land.
H6158: “A masculine noun (‘oreb) designating a raven, several species of large crows, unclean birds with voracious appetites. Paradoxically, ravens fed Elijah, the man of God (I Kings 17:4-6) rather than eating the food themselves. It had both admirable and detestable characteristics.” Again, it’s a good news, bad news story. We believers are, like the raven, unclean; and yet, when we choose to allow ourselves to be used of God, we are functioning like patriotic citizens of the Kingdom. It is one more defining characteristic of the Millennial multitudes.
Are all of these iterations of this one Hebrew word valid launching pads for spiritual insight, or am I seeing something that just isn’t there? I honestly don’t know. I’ll let you weigh the evidence and decide for yourself. For me, truth is where you find it. I’ve found so many of these Hebrew words suggesting multileveled spiritual truths that I’ve become naturally reluctant to close my mind to whatever else might be there. But maybe I’m wrong—maybe a willow is just a tree, and God had no particular reason for specifying it. But I kind of doubt it.
Back when we were exploring the eagle as a symbol, and again when discussing the cedar tree, we encountered the complex parable of Ezekiel 17. I mention it again here because the willow is employed in it as a simile. “The word of Yahweh came to me: Son of man, propound a riddle, and speak a parable to the house of Israel. Say, ‘Thus says the Lord Yahweh: A great eagle with great wings and long pinions, rich in plumage of many colors, came to Lebanon and took the top of the cedar. He broke off the topmost of its young twigs and carried it to a land of trade and set it in a city of merchants. Then he took of the seed of the land and planted it in fertile soil. He placed it beside abundant waters. He set it like a willow twig, and it sprouted and became a low spreading vine, and its branches turned toward him, and its roots remained where it stood. So it became a vine and produced branches and put out boughs.’” (Ezekiel 17:1-6) I don’t intend to rehash the whole parable, but merely point out something interesting about the word translated “willow” here. It’s Tsaphtsaphah, and it’s used only this once in scripture. What’s revealing is its origin: it’s from a verb (tsuwph) meaning to flow or flood. Willow trees, as I said, love damp environments—“wet feet,” so to speak.
This reminds us that as often as not in scripture, willow trees are called “willows of the brook.” Actually, in every single scriptural instance of ‘arab/‘ereb (as the willow tree) water—symbolic of restoration and cleansing—is in the picture somewhere. (By the way, the willow tree is mentioned only in the Hebrew scriptures, never in the Greek.) It is not unheard of, in fact, for watercourses to be named after the willows that populate their banks: “Therefore the abundance they [Moab] have gained and what they have laid up they carry away over the Brook of the Willows.” (Isaiah 15:7)
A “brook” in Hebrew is not necessarily the sort of babbling year-round stream so familiar to us in eastern North America. The word is nahal, meaning a river, stream, torrent, valley, wadi (i.e., a seasonal stream bed), gorge, or ravine. The idea is that its volume or flow varies from season to season, changing it from a dry river bed to a surging torrent, depending upon how much rain God has provided. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament notes, “Because the nahal suddenly emerges and/or disappears as raging torrents it symbolizes many things, e.g. the pride of nations (Isaiah 66:12), the strength of the invader (Jeremiah 47:2), and the power of the foe (Psalm 18:4; 124:4). Even torrents of oil do not please God if unaccompanied by justice, kindness, and humility (Micah 6:7). The godly, however, will be sated by the overflooding torrents of God’s pleasure (Psalm 36:8).”
If we put all of this imagery together, “willows of the brook” signify the mixed multitude comprising the Kingdom of God, a group of people who seek out and sink their roots into Yahweh’s torrents of restoration and cleansing. Interwoven like threads in a tapestry, they (we) live in symbiosis with one another, gaining strength, beauty, and relevance through mutual support, defined as love. We are not all alike—far from it—but we have become woven together by God in one common purpose: to honor Yahweh and to work His will in the earth. But the willows’ “brook” of refreshing can be seasonal and sporadic, flowing with life giving waters only when Yahweh sends them—something He Himself has linked to our all-too inconsistent willingness to observe His precepts. So we are sometimes subjected to “dry periods” in which the whole world seems bent on our destruction. But if we cry out to Yahweh in repentance, He is faithful to send the floods of mercy for which we thirst. We “willows” long for the blessed day when the Psalmist’s prayer will be answered: “Restore our fortunes, Yahweh, as streams renew the desert.” (Psalm 126:4 NLT)
These dry spells were never really part of God’s plan. They only come upon us because of our own iniquity. They’re designed to wake us up to the reality of our estrangement from Yahweh’s blessing. In a fascinating and revealing description of His own achievements, Yahweh told Job to consider the world as He made it: “Behold, Behemoth, which I made as I made you….” No one really knows what a Behemoth is. Perhaps it was a hippopotamus or a crocodile, but we can’t be dogmatic. (The name is apparently derived from a verb meaning to be mute.) “Under the lotus plants he lies, in the shelter of the reeds and in the marsh. For his shade the lotus trees cover him; the willows of the brook surround him. Behold, if the river is turbulent he is not frightened; he is confident though Jordan rushes against his mouth. Can one take him by his eyes [i.e., catch him off guard], or pierce his nose with a snare?” (Job 40:15, 21-24) The point is that Yahweh created him (as He created us) to be perfectly suited to his environment—safe and secure where God put him. We humans were the same way when Yahweh placed our parents in the Garden of Eden. As long as Adam and Eve went only where Yahweh had told them was safe (i.e., anywhere in Eden other than trying to get to the fruit of the no-no tree), they were protected from Satan’s wiles. It was only when Eve strayed from the shelter of the “willows of the brook” (so to speak) that she was caught off guard and got snared in Satan’s fruit-baited trap.
One could say that the definitive “dry spell” for Israel was their Babylonian captivity—imposed upon Jacob to “encourage” the nation to pay attention to the role Yahweh had assigned to them: being the conduit of Yahweh’s salvation to the whole world. As apostate and rebellious as they had become, Judah (Israel’s southern kingdom) wasn’t so far gone that they had no frame of reference, no national memory of Yahweh’s revealed word. The temple still stood for fifteen years after Babylon’s suzerainty had been imposed upon them. When the final blow came, in 586 BC—when Jerusalem was besieged and Solomon’s temple was destroyed—they were under no illusions as to why Yahweh had allowed this to happen. God’s prophets had been warning them for centuries.
So the Psalmist laments: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’” Talk about “rubbing salt into the wound.” Was it not enough to have been removed bodily from their homes, stripped of their possessions, and forced to labor for the king of Babylon? Were they also supposed to pretend they liked it, to act as though the God they had abandoned was just another dumb local deity, no better or worse than Babylon’s Bel or Marduk? No, now that it was all over, the captives of Judah knew what they had thrown away. “How shall we sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!” (Psalm 137:1-6) I think I can imagine how they felt. As a lifelong guitarist, if I woke up one day and found myself prevented from playing and singing praises to my God, restricted rather to merely providing amusements for the world, I too would feel like “hanging it up.” So the Israelites “hung their harps on the willows.” They had become “mixed and interwoven” alright, but not as Yahweh had intended—with people of other nations and cultures who also honored the true and living God (as the church would one day be). No, they had been thrown into to the melting pot of Babylon—woven together with idolatrous pagans. Becoming unraveled from that would take some doing.
Fast forward two and a half millennia and we find Israel just now coming out of Dispersion II—their scattering at the hands of Rome in the wake of their national rejection of Yahshua the Messiah. This iteration of Yahweh’s judgment made the Babylonian captivity look like an ill-fated vacation. This time, they were “interwoven” into the whole world—and still Yahweh kept them separate from it, though only as oil is separate from vinegar in a salad dressing—they were in the same bottle, constantly being shaken. Can Israel recover? Yes, and she will! “But now hear, O Jacob My servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says Yahweh who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob My servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground. I will pour My Spirit upon your offspring, and My blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, ‘I am Yahweh’s,’ another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, ‘Yahweh’s,’ and name himself by the name of Israel.” (Isaiah 44:1-5) What’s predicted for Israel is not only physical restoration—which is a present (though ever-endangered) reality. What awaits Israel today is a spiritual reawakening: they will reconnect with Yahweh their God; they will receive Yahshua their Messiah; and they will be filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit. Yahweh has spoken.
(First published 2014)