Posted in theology

Short Shots: fish, barley, mustard seed, sycamore tree

By Elizabeth Prata

Author James Patterson has this thing called Book Shots. They are short novellas he sells for a (slightly) lower price than his normal length books. I thought I’d do a Short Shots type of writing myself.

I often wonder while reading the Bible about the various things I’m reading about. How small is a mustard seed? What does a Sycamore tree look like? Does barley bread taste very different from wheat bread? What kind of fish live in the Sea of Galilee? So here we go!

Mustard seed. In Matthew 13:31-32, Jesus referred to faith as small as a mustard seed. “He presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; 32and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR come and NEST IN ITS BRANCHES.

‎A field of mustard plants in Galilee. About 19% of all the wild plants in Israel are yellow flowers, but in autumn and winter most of the yellow fields are mustard

The mustard seed in the Arab countries was exceedingly small. The black mustard seed is only 1 millimeter, or 0.03 of an inch. It grows rapidly, and can reach heights of 10-12 feet tall within a few months, very big for an herb. That’s why they sometimes referred to a mustard bush as a tree. Birds would alight on the branches and pick at the seeds. A common adage from the rabbis in Jesus’ time was to say ‘a grain of mustard’ referring to anything tiny. Hearers of Jesus’ parable would have known immediately how small the faith was when He used a mustard seed for comparison.

Sycamore fig tree in Ashkelon. image library

Sycamore tree. In Luke 19:4 we read that Zaccheus climbed a sycamore tree to get a better view. This is not the same tree that we know in this side of the Atlantic. It’s related to the fig tree and is often called the fig-mulberry (Ficus sycomorus). In Easton’s Bible dictionary. we read, “at Jericho, Zacchaeus climbed a sycomore-tree to see Jesus as he passed by (Luke 19:4). This tree was easily destroyed by frost (Ps. 78:47), and therefore it is found mostly in the “vale” (1 Kings 10:27; 2 Chr. 1:15 or the lowland or i.e., the “low country,” the shephelah, where the climate is mild. Amos (7:14) refers to its fruit, which is of an inferior character; so also probably Jeremiah (24:2).” The sycamore produces small, rounded figs, about an inch long, which grow upon tortuous, leafless twigs springing from the trunk or the older branches; they are more or less tasteless, explains the The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia.

Barley bread. In John 6:9 the verse mentions barley bread. The crowds were massive and the people were hungry, But they weren’t budging off the mountain. Jesus goes on to feed the five thousand with this meager offering. “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are these for so many people?” So what is barley bread?

Barley harvest near Bethlehem

Barley was “a grain much cultivated in Egypt (Ex. 9:31) and in Palestine (Lev. 27:16; Deut. 8:8). It was usually the food of horses (1 Kings 4:28). Barley bread was used by the poorer people (Judg. 7:13; 2 Kings 4:42). Barley of the first crop was ready for the harvest by the time of the Passover, in the middle of April (Ruth 1:22; 2 Sam. 21:9). Mention is made of barley-meal (Num. 5:15)” says Easton’s Bible dictionary.

We see its lower quality price holding even in Revelation 6:6, where inflation and prices have run rampant. Barley flour will still command a lower price due to its inferior properties compared to wheat. A denarius was a day’s pay. In the Tribulation people will be able to buy 3 quarts of barley flour for a denarius but only one quart of wheat flour for the same price. A quart is about 2 pints.

And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine.”

What does barley bread taste like?

“Barley flour is exceptionally high in fiber and low in starch, making it one of the lowest glycemic index (GI) grains you can use. With three times the soluble fiber of oats, it’s a delicious, nutty-tasting way to add nutrition to baked goods.” (Source- Baking with Ancient Grains). The flavor is sweet and nutty. Its texture is moist in small amounts but crumbly in larger amounts.

Lake of Galilee fish. Several of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen. The profession was not held in high esteem. Fish are mentioned often in both the Old Testament and the New. In Matthew 17:24-27, the tax collectors were insinuating Jesus doesn’t pay the temple tax, so Jesus tells Peter to throw in a hook in the lake of Galilee and the first fish that he catches would have in its mouth a shekel to pay the tax. This fish, likely a tilapia, is now known as St. Peter’s Fish and is served grilled or fried in some of the restaurants around the lake today.

More info here.

Easton’s 1893 Bible dictionary entry: "Fish is called dag by the Hebrews, a word denoting great fecundity [fertility] (Gen. 9:2; Num. 11:22; Jonah 2:1, 10). No fish is mentioned by name either in the Old or in the New Testament. Fish abounded in the Mediterranean and in the lakes of the Jordan, so that the Hebrews were no doubt acquainted with many species. ... Bethsaida (the “house of fish”) derived its name from their fisheries. There is probably no other sheet of water in the world of equal dimensions that contains such a variety and profusion of fish. About thirty-seven different kinds have been found. Some of the fishes are of a European type, such as the roach, the barbel, and the blenny; others are markedly African and tropical, such as the eel-like silurus. There was a regular fish-market apparently in Jerusalem (2 Chr. 33:14; Neh. 3:3; 12:39; Zeph. 1:10), as there was a fish-gate which was probably contiguous to it. Sidon is the oldest fishing establishment known in history."
Copyright 2017 Faithlife / Logos Bible Software

Asking questions as you read the Bible is a good way to dig deeper. In traditional hermeneutics (the science of Bible interpretation) asking questions of the text is a first step. Who was this letter written to? Why? What is the main point of this passage? What did I learn about God here? Why was this word used?

Asking yourself questions based on your natural curiosity is part of that science of interpretation. What kind of fish dwell in the lake of Galilee? How important was barley to the people? Why were tax collectors hated so much? With the internet and smart phones, we have loads of information at our fingertips. No longer is it necessary to write down our questions, wait for the weekend, and travel half an hour to the local library, and spend the afternoon looking up these things. (Yes, that’s what us oldsters did back in the day before cellphones and internet. We got real familiar with handwritten lists and the card catalog).

Happy reading! Happy asking!


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.