This week’s portion is titled Vayyaqheil (Exo 35-38:20), meaning “and he assembled.” The greater part of the text is concerned with the making of the Tabernacle and its contents, so it’s largely a reiteration of God’s instructions to Moses, and a summation of Bezalel’s work.
Accordingly, I thought I’d do a little study on a vital material that was used in the construction of the Tabernacle and its articles: acacia wood. Aside from the menorah and laver, which were made of gold and copper, acacia served as the base for everything… the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, the showbread table, the incense altar and the altar of burnt offering.
In Hebrew, the acacia is called שִׁטָּה (shittah; singular) or שִׁטִּים (shittim; plural), and it’s widely identified, today, as the tree species Acacia nilotica. The word acacia comes from “akakia”, a name given to the tree by Dioscorides, a first century Greek physician and botanist, in his work De Materia Medica from the word “akis”, meaning thorn (the designation “nilotica” was given by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, because of the tree’s well known range along the Nile river).
Acacia is mentioned 28 times in the Old Testament, and almost exclusively in the Torah, in the context of the Tabernacle’s making and its contents (the only time it’s not, is in Isaiah 41:18-20). Some people say the burning bush was an acacia, but there’s no way of verifying this claim, although the Scripture does refer to the bush as סְנֶה (seneh), which typically denotes a thorny bush.
Acacia heartwood is reddish brown and resembles ebony. It’s strong, heavy and difficult to work, but able to attain a high polish and stay level without warping. It’s nearly twice as hard as teak, and very shock resistant, so it’s typically used for construction, tool handles and carts. Because of its resins, it also resists insects and water. According to the Kew website,
The species is suitable for live fencing, mine timber, railway sleepers, boat building, wheels, and water wells as its wood is durable and resistant to borers and termites. The sap-wood and heart-wood was used in ancient Egypt for house beams, furniture, panelling and statues as it was regarded as impervious to insect and fungus attack.
In light of its attractiveness and durability, it’s little wonder that acacia was also chosen by God for the construction of His holy things. But aside from these practical aspects, I believe there’re symbolic reasons for this choice as well.
The acacia tree is an amazing, multi-purpose plant. It can withstand extreme temperatures and drought, and is also flood tolerant. It’s what is known as a pioneer species: it has the ability to fix nitrogen rapidly in the earth, making it an ideal candidate for rehabilitating poor land, and is a barrier to desertification (in India, for example, Acacia nilotica is used extensively on degraded saline/alkaline soils, and is used to colonise waste heaps from coal mines).
The leaves and pods of the acacia are rich in protein, making the tree a highly valued source of browse and fodder (especially during drought). The flowers provide pollen and nectar for bees, and the bark has a high tannin content, making it a powerful astringent. According to the Kew website,
Acacia nilotica has a wealth of medicinal uses. It is used for stomach upset and pain, the bark is chewed to protect against scurvy, an infusion is taken for dysentery and diarrhoea. … It has also been used to eliminate stomach worms, as an antiseptic for open wounds and as an expectorant for treating coughs. The species has also been used in veterinary medicine, for example as a molluscicide to reduce liver-flukes in cattle.
Aside from its uses as a timber, acacia wood also makes excellent fuel and charcoal. It has a high calorific value so it releases a lot of heat, and when dry, the wood burns slowly and produces little smoke. So in regions of semi-arid Africa and India, the tree has true socio-economic and environmental value, performing multiple functions at the same time.
Now when I think about all this, I can’t help seeing shadows of Yeshua, just as I see pictures of Him when I look at the various components of the Tabernacle. … I believe that every detail of God’s instructions to Moses was deliberate, and in His command to use acacia wood, I see allusions to Messiah and kingdom everywhere.
Like acacia, the Son of God is strength. He endures and is not subject to corruption. He is the epitome of the righteous man who put his trust in God,
Like a tree planted by the waters,
Which spreads out its roots by the river,
And will not fear when heat comes;
But its leaf will be green,
And will not be anxious in the year of drought,
Nor will cease from yielding fruit. (Jeremiah 17:8)
And conversely, He is also the One whose sayings are like a rock, whose words remain even in times of flood, to secure men from destruction.
Like the acacia, He was crowned with thorns – just as thorns are a symbol of the curse of the Fall and the acacia is covered with them, so Christ “redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).
Like the acacia, He revives the earth. At His coming, “the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, even with joy and singing” (Isaiah 35:1-2). Trees will grow where there was barrenness, and the land will be fruitful again because He is the Redeemer of men, and Rehabilitator of creation.
Like the acacia, He will feed and nourish His people:
Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand,
And His arm shall rule for Him;
Behold, His reward is with Him,
And His work before Him.
He will feed His flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs with His arm,
And carry them in His bosom,
And gently lead those who are with young. (Isaiah 40:10-11)
And He shall stand and feed His flock
In the strength of the Lord,
In the majesty of the name of the Lord His God;
And they shall abide,
For now He shall be great
To the ends of the earth;
And this One shall be peace. (Micah 5:4-5)
Like the acacia, He is, and will be, a source of healing. His very kingdom, in fact, will be an outflow of life and recovery for all:
“This water flows toward the eastern region, goes down into the valley, and enters the sea. When it reaches the sea, its waters are healed. And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. There will be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters go there; for they will be healed, and everything will live wherever the river goes. … Along the bank of the river, on this side and that, will grow all kinds of trees used for food; their leaves will not wither, and their fruit will not fail. They will bear fruit every month, because their water flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for medicine.” (Ezekiel 47:7-12)
Like the acacia, He is a source of fire that burns clean and hot. He baptises His people with the Holy Spirit and refines them; provides spiritual fuel to sustain the faith of His disciples; and ultimately, He will judge the world with a fiery judgement.
And lastly, interestingly, I also want to mention the fact that the seeds of the acacia tree require scarification to germinate. Scarification is the process of penetrating the protective coat of a dormant seed to allow water and oxygen into the seed, thereby helping to improve germination. The word comes from the Latin word “scarifare,” meaning to scratch open, and most commonly involves mechanical abrasion (breaking or weakening the seed coat by using sandpaper or a file to abrade the seed coat, using a knife to nick the coat, or using a hammer to crack it) or soaking in hot water. … All of which, of course, remind me of the crucifixion of Yeshua:
He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed. …
Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him;
He has put Him to grief.
When You make His soul an offering for sin,
He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days,
And the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.
He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied.
By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many,
For He shall bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:5, 10-11)
Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. … Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. … Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” This He said, signifying by what death He would die. (John 12:23-33)
… Incredible, right? If you ask me, it’s no coincidence that acacia wood was the chief material used to construct so much of the sanctuary that would contain God’s holy presence and point forward to His Messiah. He made the trees of the field, and He knew what He was about when He selected this specific one to fulfil His sacramental purposes. It all fits together in a fantastically meaningful way.
The completion of this entry means that I’m back on schedule with the Torah cycle. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep pace again after this; the next portion is the last of Exodus, and we’ll be starting Leviticus after that. And even though I’m a bit concerned about possibly accruing another backlog because it’s such a vast book, I’m looking forward to it nevertheless.
Shalom all, and have a good week. :)