Monday, June 8, 2009

Holy Propagation: Scatter, Layer, Cut

God's garden techniques--with trees, vines, and grains--tell us much about divine generosity and grace, justice and mercy, and God's intentions for the propagation and multiplication of the faith.

Scatter: Mark 4:26-34

The word used for "seed" in 4:26 (sporos) is found also in the next verse (4:27) and in Luke 8:5, 11--and at 2 Corinthians 9:10. The word "scatter" or "sow" is not a technical term, but is the common word ballo, which means to throw or cast. In pre-industrial societies, hand-sowing (throwing, scattering) of seed was quite common.

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Sometimes, even before the advent of modern machinery for sowing vast numbers of seeds in regular increments in straight rows, there were "technological" advances even in hand-broadcasting of seed, e.g., the "fiddle sower," the "cyclone broadcaster," and other means of mechanical spreading by means of gears and spinning plates.

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...not to mention the use of wheeled options:

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I couldn't resist the modern version, above...or below:

(Sowing rice from an airplane; Image source,

Of course, the point of "casting" or "throwing" seed is to plant a whole lot of it in a hurry. If a lot of seed must be planted more-or-less evenly over a large area, then broadcasting is your choice. (On having an adequate supply of seed, see 2 Corinthians 9:10, "He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness" [NRSV]). However, with such a method of sowing, precision or accuracy is lost. That seems to be an aspect of the parable of the "good ground" (aka, the Parable of the Sower) that precedes this week's reading (Mark 4:3-20). Seed that is broadcast even from the relatively low height of an average man careens and bounces as it falls here and there, into rocky places and thorny ones, and onto hard paths, and sometimes also onto good ground. But that is not the point of our passage. Rather, Jesus seems to have in mind the sort of 18-week progression seen in the following University of Idaho Extension photos of the growth stages of Whitebird Soft White Spring Wheat:

First the stalk,

then the head,

then the full grain in the head.

(Image source,

The farmer goes about his or her routine, not knowing precisely when (or "that"; most translations say "how") the seed has sprouted and begun to grow. Anyone who has experience with gardening knows both the anxiety of waiting for the seed to emerge from the ground and the sheer surprise sometimes experienced when one's attention has been elsewhere--usually sowing more seed--to discover that the seeds planted a few days ago are already up and well on their way. The same could be said for the formation of the head and the grain. Looked at moment-to-moment it seems as if nothing is happening at all--but one day there is no head on the wheat and the next it has flowered. It is simply miraculous!

"Automatically," Jesus says (automate)--literally, "all by itself"--the soil produces first the blade (KJV), then the ear, then the full corn. Though the farmer or gardener might be expected to chafe at the thought that the ground has produced the harvest "all by itself," it is in fact the farmer who marvels most at the mystery of the crop's appearance. But the farmer isn't so dazzled by the wonder of it all as to waste a moment, when the time is ripe, to put an end to the beautiful sight of waving grain. The farmer is practical; the point of the sowing is not enjoyment and astonishment at the rate and the stages of growth (though he or she does marvel at it). The point of the sowing is the harvest.

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...or, in industrialized form:

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For photos related to the Parable of the Mustard Seed, see

Layer: Psalm 20

Cut: Ezekiel 17:22-24

The use of tsammereth as "tree-top" in conjunction with cedars (Ezekiel 17:3, 22; 31:3 and 10) and other tall trees (Ezekiel 31:14), suggests that we should think of the top of a massive, mature specimen of tree-dom--say a Norway Spruce or something similar--not the top of a dwarf, immature sapling. This is also born out by the metaphorical use to which the image is put, first comparing the top of this strong cedar tree to the Lebanon-wrecking empire of Assyria (31:3) and then to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden (Ezekiel 31:9; see Psalm 1 and my immediately previous blog entry).

Cedars of Lebanon

(Image Source,, Bruce Coleman, Inc.)

Ezekiel 17 begins (vv. 3-10) with an allegory in two parts about two eagles (Babylon and Egypt), the first of which breaks off the "topmost shoot" of a cedar tree (the king and nobles of Jerusalem) and carries it away. The same eagle then plants a seed that grows into a meandering vine, which in time is transplanted into very fertile soil, where it has access to plenty of water (irrigation canals), and grows toward the second eagle. The vine is eventually torn from the ground and destroyed without significant effort (as contrasted, for example, with the sort of effort required to kill and remove a tree). This "riddle" or allegory is explained in 17:11-21.

Ezekiel 17:22 begins a prophetic oracle ("thus says the Lord God") that continues to use the metaphors introduced in the previous riddle; only here, instead of Babylon and Egypt, it is God ("myself") who will take break off the tender top growth of a cedar tree and replant it on a mountaintop, whether Zion [Jerusalem] or some other. From this small cutting will grow a "noble cedar."

The cedar to which the allegory refers is, of course, Cedrus libani, a "majestic tree 15 to 40 m (49 to 131 ft) in height at maturity with innumerable scriptural and historical references" (Journal of Arboriculture, pdf file). The tree has a "thick, massive trunk and wide-spreading branches
and is pyramidal when young, but develops a flattopped crown and horizontally tiered branches when mature (Dirr 1990; Farjon 1990; Hillier 1991; Chaney 1993)." [ibid.] the wide-spreading branches are referenced many times in Scripture, including here in Ezekiel 17:23 Propagation is usually done by planting the seeds from the cones that are produced by the tree, as cuttings taken from C. libani are difficult to root.

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Propagation may also be done by grafting. So, in this instance the Biblical prophet has chosen the more challenging method of propagation, perhaps as a means of extending the allegory. God has taken the exilic community away from Jerusalem, transplanting the "very tip top" (its "leader," to introduce an English pun) to Babylon for a time, before re-planting it in native soil.

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