The Last Cedars of Lebanon
Kings I 5:20
(For those who notices - apologies for erroneous posting of chapter 6 - ahead of time! It’ll be posted again tomorrow.)
Some stories are better told through numbers.
In 1550, French diplomat and tree-lover Pierre Belon visited Lebanon, on a special pilgrimage to visit the famous ‘Cedars of God (Arabic: أرز الربّ Arz al-Rabb, reputed to be as old as the Bible. His journal entries are believed to be the first modern description of what’s left of the vast forests of Lebanon after centuries of deforestation: “At a considerable height up the mountains the traveler arrives at the Monastery of the Virgin Mary..proceeding four miles up the mountain, to arrive at the cedars which stand in a valley..supposed to amount to 28 in number. The Archbishop of Damascus has endeavored to prove these trees to be the same that Solomon planted with his own hands.”
The trees, some of them deemed at least a thousand years old, kept dwindling in number and in 1876 Queen Victoria paid for a high stone wall to surround them and protect them from hungry goats and men. Today the mighty cedar is on the map of Lebanon and is protected but it’s still assumed that this noble species will never assume the size and prominence it had when it was of the more popular and sacred tree of that region.
In today’s chapter and the ones coming up, copious amounts of cedar wood are mentioned, attesting to the globalization of the region, the deforestation that goes back 10,000 years, and also to the mostly forgotten spiritual significance of the wood that would become the backbone of Solomon’s Temple and Palace in Jerusalem.
This chapter includes a lot of astounding numbers, giving us a sense of what the authors wanted us to think of Solomon’s impressive kingdom, whether these numbers are mythic or not.
First we’re told of the daily menu in the king’s palace, which included 500 pounds of bread (50% Semolina, 50% regular flower) , 30 oxen, 100 sheep and goats, +Daily special varieties: deer and gazelles, roebucks and geese.
Then there's the impressive army and communication team, with 12,000 horsemen and 40,000 horse stables.
And then there’s the literary output - Solomon is known to have composed 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 original songs. Some of them were explicitly about trees. Some traditions have Solomon able to talk with trees, as well as with animals. More about those myths in later chapters.
When he wasn’t busy composing, eating, or making love to his ever-growing list of wives on a colossal scale Solomon took on the most massive building project thus far. In order to achieve that goal he also had to employ - or likely, enslave, a mid-size army of workers:
The forces' labor squads included 30,000 men each year, as well as 70,000 men who worked in transporting the building supplies from 80,000 quarries in the hills. This is in addition to the 3,300 officials in charge of the construction workers, with 10,000 men dispatched each month to Lebanon, working on the island of Tyre, where the trade routes of the Phoenicians were open to business during David’s time and grew in scale during Solomon’s.
That’s where the cedar trees come in. In order to furnish the building of Jerusalem with this specific timber, Solomon financed Hiram, King of Tyre’s kitchens, with some 20,000 pounds of wheat and 20,000 vats of olive oil each year. In return, cedar and fir wood was floated down the sea and then hauled by men to Jerusalem:
וְעַתָּ֡ה צַוֵּה֩ וְיִכְרְתוּ־לִ֨י אֲרָזִ֜ים מִן־הַלְּבָנ֗וֹן וַעֲבָדַי֙ יִֽהְי֣וּ עִם־עֲבָדֶ֔יךָ וּשְׂכַ֤ר עֲבָדֶ֙יךָ֙ אֶתֵּ֣ן לְךָ֔ כְּכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֣ר תֹּאמֵ֑ר כִּ֣י ׀ אַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֗עְתָּ כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין בָּ֛נוּ אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ לִכְרׇת־עֵצִ֖ים כַּצִּדֹנִֽים׃
“Solomon told Hiram: Now therefore command that they hew for me cedar trees out of the Lebanon; and my servants shall be with your servants: and I will give you my servants, according to all that you will require, for you know well that among my men are few who know to hew timber like the Sidonians.”
Kings I 5:20
Leave aside for the moment the momentous scale and what this means about this moment in history or mythology depicting the greater prosperity and peace ever described as existing upon the land of Israel. Most scholars claim that is a wild exaggeration, much later addition, as there are no external supporting materials to prove such claims.
But as Solomon begins to build the temple, followed by the palace, it’s also interesting to notice his choices, or those of our authors.
Why the repeated emphasis on the use of cedar? Was there not enough local oak, poplar, fir and other trees in the region?
Mythic meaning of Cedar trees is known long before the Bible. The trees are mentioned in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, where they are associated with Inanna the Great Goddess. The Semitic name, Erez, may be connected to the word ERETZ - Earth - linking the trees to Earth-Mother, as indeed the Cedar trees often show up in connection to the Great Goddess.
The cedars make their way to many of the Psalms, associated with primal power, with super-towering resilience and even to be planted by YHWH as a special species on the third day of creation. Maybe that’s the ones still growing on the hills of Lebanon, revered as the Cedars of God?
Nowadays, these ancient trees are once again in danger, as a result of climate change.
Used as sacred medicine and herbal healing in Native American cultures as well as Mediterranean traditions - the cedar trees, still considered luxurious today, and very durable, have some special wisdom and maybe magic to add to our lives.
So is that why Solomon wants them to be the main feature of his temple? In the following scale the massive scale continues as Israel’s king of real estate establishes the epicenter of the kingdom, if only for a generation.
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