Pomegranates in Israel and the Bible

Pomegranates are in abundance during the time of the Fall feasts in Israel; a symbol of Rosh HaShana (Jewish new year) and the holiday season. They are on greeting cards, ceramic ornaments, beautiful materials – everywhere! They are also dangling plentifully from trees in the fields. They are ripe and ready, bursting to tell a story. A story that God wrote.

An unusual design

If you think about it, since he designed everything from scratch, God could have made pomegranates however he liked – whatever colour, shape, and layout he felt like. But he chose to make it the way it is. Red, and a bit battered and leathery on the outside, full of jewel-like seeds inside, with a sort of crown on the top. It’s a kind of tricky fruit to eat – some using a pin to pick up one seed at a time, others chopping it in half and scooping out seeds with a spoon, making the rich, nutritious juice spill out – and staining anything in its path blood-red.

Pomegranates are a very unusual fruit in that we usually eat the flesh of the fruit and either don’t notice the seeds, or discard them if we can. But with pomegranates, there is no flesh – only seeds.

Rabbis have said that the fact that there is no flesh, only seeds, speaks of the blessings and commandments of God – they are not for our own selfish, fleshly desires, but for blessing others because once flesh is gone, it has gone forever, but when a seed dies, it produces a whole load of new life. A pomegranate reminds us that we are living for the benefit and blessing of others. They also say that there are 613 seeds in each pomegranate, symbollic of the 613 mitzvot, or laws. But they’re wrong about that. I counted them. Twice. With two different pomegranates just to be sure. But still, you get the idea.

Pomegranates in the Bible

Biblically, pomegranates crop up again and again in the scriptures. First of all, God himself prescribes that pomegranates must be sown to the hem of the robe of the high priest in Exodus 28:33 – 35:

“On its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, around its hem, with bells of gold between them, a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, around the hem of the robe. And it shall be on Aaron when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the Holy Place before the Lord, and when he comes out, so that he does not die.”

Commentaries don’t often have a lot to say about this mysterious fashion choice of God’s, but he always has a purpose when he gives these specific instructions. Personally I think the rabbis are onto something with their focus on the seeds in contrast to the flesh. It has also been said that the pomegranate represents Israel – appearing a bit battered on the outside, but full of blessing for others and with a crown on top – the kingship of God. Just as the priest wore the ephod to remind God of the twelve tribes he represented, perhaps the pomegranates were also symbolic of his Chosen People.

The fact that there were bells in between them (or ‘inside/amongst’, as the Hebrew says) reminds us of the danger of approaching God’s holiness. The lack of bells ringing from inside the tabernacle would indicate that something had gone horribly wrong. We know that the colour blue in God's pattern represented the heavens, purple is for royalty and red (scarlet) for blood – for life. Perhaps the pomegranates were to remind him of his mercy and covenant with his people, and his plan of redemption.

In the rest of the Bible we see the pomegranate equated with fruitfulness, blessing and prosperity as the twelve spies bring back enormous grapes with some figs and pomegranates from their reconnaissance work (Numbers 13:23), showing the Land to be bursting with promise, just as God said. However, just seven chapters later, the people complained, asking, “Why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.” But God reiterates his promise in Deuteronomy 8:8, in which he lists the seven species of blessing he had put in the land for their enjoyment. Including pomegranates. From then onwards, the pomegranate is used as a by-word for blessing and prosperity, fertility and fruitfulness, and the lack of it signifies the opposite in the warnings of the prophets.

Pomegranates feature strongly in Song of Songs, speaking of love, beauty, fruitfulness and fertility. We also see that pomegranates were used to decorate Solomon’s temple – 400 of them! Rows and rows of pomegranates crowned the temple and the pillars, declaring God’s goodness and blessing to his covenant people. Battered and bruised though they may be, the people of Israel have carried great seeds of blessing to the world in the very words of God to us, and the most holy seed of all – Yeshua the Messiah, seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, King of all the world.

Bursting with promise

Sadly, the bronze pomegranates adorning the temple were carted off with the exile to Babylon, and Yeshua has been rejected by his own people, but we know that this is not the end of the story.

When they are truly ripe and ready, pomegranates burst open, and their seeds pour out. As Paul writes in Romans 11, great things are coming when the people of Israel turn to receive their Messiah.

“Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring! I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (verses 11-15)

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