Bible References: Job 30.7; Proverbs 24.30-31; Isaiah 34.13; Hosea 9.6; Zephaniah 2.9.
Nettles are a weed. Together with various underbrush, they comprise the short, scrubby plants in Holy Lands. Often, when reading the Bible, I thought that nettles was merely a synonym for thorn or brier; however, various translators and scholars offered five times when Bible writers specified “nettles.”6,17,18 In each instance, the writer asssociated nettles with wastelands.
The first Bible writer to use “nettles” was Job. Job lived east of the Jordan River in Uz. Job documented haggared, hungry men, banished from society, huddled among nettles. In one Proverb, the sayings of the wise, the writer described lands of a sluggard: Where once there was a vineyard, the land was covered with nettles. Prophets, Isaiah, Hosea, and Zephaniah, foretold destruction of Edom, Northern Kingdom, Moab, and Ammon. Specifically, Bible prophets described that these kingdoms would become wastelands, with nettles growing in once-cultivated places.
Of the five references to nettles, I was intrigued with the one by Zephaniah who wrote that Moab and Ammon would be places of nettles, a wasteland forever. Zephaniah declared that God heard Moab and Ammon’s insults, taunts, and threats against Judah. In retaliation for that behavior, Moab would become like Sodom and Ammon like Gomorrah. Both would become places of nettles and salt pits.
In comparison to Sodom and Gomorrah, Moab and Ammon’s behavior didn’t seem that bad. Their sins were taunting and insulting Israelites and threatening to occupy Israelite territories. To understand the extent of Moab and Ammon’s taunts, read Ezekiel’s prophecy (chapter 5). According to Ezekiel, Ammon rejoiced when God’s sanctuary (Temple) was desecrated. When Moab saw Judah vulnerable and fall, they discounted Judah’s God. Neither Moab nor Ammon recognized that Judah and God were separate entities.
God’s declaration that Moab and Ammon would become like Sodom and Gomorrah should have disturbed Moabites and Ammonites. Their ancestors (Lot and his daughters) once lived in Sodom. Ancestral history would have included tales of God raining burning sulfur on the two cities. The outcome was fiery destruction of the cities, people, and vegetation on the plain where cities were located.
In present day Israel, five different types of nettles grow. Bible scholars aren’t positive which nettle Bible writers had in mind when they used “nettles.” Many botanists agree that Zephaniah’s nettle was the Urtica urens, known as the burning nettle, dwarf nettle, and small nettle. Both the leaf blade and slender stalks grow stinging and non-stinging hairs. Stinging hairs are long, sometimes bristly. Prickly hairs contain two parts a) a softer vessel at the base and b) a minute tube-like structure tipped by a round bulb. When a hair contacts skin, the bulb breaks off, exposing a needle-like point. The point penetrates skin and injects an irritating substance. The outcome is a burning dermatitis which can last more than twelve hours. Burning can occur even after visible symptoms (redness, swelling) fade.
In Zephaniah’s prophecy against Moab and Ammon, the burning nettle symbolized burning and fire. Burning means to destroy by fire.3 Fire occurs from combustion of a fuel and results in light, flame, and heat. In the Bible, sometimes fire and burning had a positive meaning, i.e., burning bush, the cloud of fire above the Tabernacle. At other times, the Bible depicts burning and fire as negative, i.e., they cause destruction. For example, Isaiah prophesied that Judah, who rejected God, was to be destroyed in the same way that fire licks up straw and as dry grass sinks down in flames.
Sometimes I’m frightened when I hear or read of clergy, politicians, and ordinary citizens mocking and discounting God. Equally, when the United States waffles in its support of Israel, I feel disquiet. Do these individuals read Bible and secular history? Do they know that Israel holds a special place in God’s eyes and heart? God may punish Israelites with burning fire; but, God will never reject them totally. God’s plan is to redeem a remnant of Israelites. “At that time I will deal with all (nations) who oppress you” (Zephaniah 3.19 NIV).
Reflection: Have you ever felt oppressed? When? What was the situation? By whom? Are you a child of the living God? Have you considered that God is going to deal with individuals who oppress you?
Copyright 7/13/2019; Carolyn A. Roth