The Hebrews author inserted a short two-verse parable (Hebrews 6:7-8) to foster readers’ intuitive understanding of more difficult Christian doctrine identified in verses 4-6. He must have believed that an agricultural parable of the land producing crops versus thorns and thistles was an illustration that even the most urban reader of the first century would understand.
Hebrews was addressed to Jewish Christians, but had great applicability to Gentile readers. For centuries biblical scholars believed that Paul wrote the letter to the Hebrews. Within the past five hundred years other writers, i.e., Barnabas and Apollos, have been postulated. Who wrote Hebrews is not as important as its message.
Immediately prior to the parable of productive versus non-productive land, the writer reprimands readers because they were slow to learn (Hebrews 5:11-14). He wants them to become more mature in their faith, moving beyond learning or relearning elementary teachings about Jesus and Christianity to more mature doctrine (Hebrews 6:1-2).
What follows in Hebrews 6:4-6 is a series of statements that includes some of the most hotly contested beliefs among Christian scholars, not to mention among Christian denominations. The writer asked: if an individuals who has rejected Christ after he has been enlightened and shared in the blessings of the Holy Spirit be brought back to repentance?. He goes on to say, that these believers—who have fallen away—crucify Jesus all over again and subject Jesus to public disgrace.
Then, the writer provided this parable to illustrate his point:
Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned. — Hebrews 6:7-8 NIV
Notice that the subject of the parable is the land – not rain, nor a farming process, not a crop, nor even a farmer, but land. The land receives rain and does something with the rain. In one instance the land responds by producing a useful crop. In other words, the land produced grains, trees, herbs, etc. that gave the farmer food for his family. Possibly, the crop was abundant enough so some could be sold and provide food security for an entire community. Other land responds to the rain by producing thorns and thistles. This land is worthless to that farmer. It is in danger of being cursed; in the end it will be burned.
Thorns were first mentioned in Genesis as a way God cursed the ground when he expelled Adam and Eve from Eden. Thorns grew on the acacia tree in the Sinai desert and on Jotham’s thorn tree in the Promised Land. Isaiah warned Ahaz that the land around Jerusalem would become thorn infested because of his disobedience. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ asked if people can pick grapes from thorn bushes. As these exemplars show, many thorn producing trees and plants were mentioned in the Bible.
The Mediterranean buckthorn (Rhamnus lycoides) is a slow growing thorn bush common in the Mediterranean Basin where Jewish converts lived in the first century Christian church. The buckthorn is an unattractive shrub that doesn’t normally grow in cultivated gardens or fields. It actually likes to grow in poor soil that is gritty and highly eroded. Along with the thistle, the buckthorn is the last species to disappear when livestock over-grazed an area.
Most gardeners and farmers do not view the Mediterranean buckthorn as attractive. Its form is tangled and many branched. Grayish stems are topped with thorny spikes. Small flowers are yellowish, inconspicuous, unattractive, and may appear in the winter. Fruit is small, initially green, but turns black when mature. Although birds like the fruit, humans find it bitter. It acts as a purgative and in large quantities is toxic to humans. Aphids are attracted to the Mediterranean buckthorn. If the buckthorn grows in a damp climate, it tends to develop fungal disease. Once aphids and fungus appear on plants, they often spread to more valuable plants in the area. Overall the Mediterranean buckthorn has no value for either man or livestock. Burning land that it inhabits is one strategy to get rid of it.
Symbolism – Trash
Throughout the Bible thorns don’t have a good reputation; often they symbolized desolation and devastation. The Hebrew word for the thorn in Isaiah 7:23-25 is shayith which is translated as scrub, thorn, or trash (Strong, 2010). Trash is debris from plant materials, something worth little or nothing, and something thrown away. Trash is an excellent symbol for men and women who learned what Christ did for them, tasted the heavenly gift and goodness of the word of God, shared in the Holy Spirit and then turned back, or fallen away from the goodness of God. The outcome for these individuals is not the storehouse of God but a burning trash heap.
Reflection: Consider the parable in this chapter.
Will increasing the amount of rain that falls on the thorn-infested land, make the land more productive for crops?
Will additional fertilizer add to the productivity of the land?
What do you think God is going to do with the thorn-infested land?
Copyright: June 20, 2016; Carolyn A. Roth