Several Hebrew words are so translated, but there has always been great doubt as to which words should be translated "oak" and which "terebinth." This uncertainty appears in the Septuagint and all through English Versions of the Bible; in recent revisions "terebinth" has been increasingly added in the margin. All the Hebrew words are closely allied and may originally have had simply the meaning of "tree" but it is clear that, when the Old Testament was written, they indicated some special kind of tree.
1. Hebrew Words and References:
The words and references are as follows:
(1) 'elah (in the Septuagint usually terebinthos. in Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) terebinthus, or, more commonly, quercus) (Genesis 35:4; Judges 6:11,19; 2 Samuel 18:9,10,14; 1 Kings 13:14; 1 Chronicles 10:12; Isaiah 1:30; Ezekiel 6:13--in all these margin "terebinth "). In Isaiah 6:13 (the King James Version "teil tree") and Hosea 4:13 (the King James Version "elms") the translation is "terebinths" because of the juxtaposition of 'allon, translated "oaks." "Vale of Elah" (margin "the Terebinth") is found in 1 Samuel 17:2,19; 21:9. The expression in Isaiah 1:30, "whose leaf fadeth," is more appropriate to the terebinth than the oak (see below).
(2) 'allah (terebinthos, quercus (Vulgate)), apparently a slight variant for 'elah; only in Joshua 24:26; Genesis 35:4 ('elah) and in Judges 9:6 ('elon).
(3) 'elim or 'eylim, perhaps plural of 'elah occurs in Isaiah 1:29 (margin "terebinths"); Isaiah 57:5, margin "with idols," the King James Version "idols," margin "oaks"; Isaiah 61:3, "trees"; Ezekiel 31:14 (text very doubtful), "height," the King James Version margin "upon themselves"; 'el, in El-paran Septuagint terebinthos) (Genesis 14:6), probably means the "tree" or "terebinth" of Paran. Celsius (Hierob. 1,34) argues at length that the above words apply well to the TEREBINTH (which see) in all the passages in which they occur.
(4) 'elon (usually drus, "oak"), in Genesis 12:6; 13:18; 14:13; 18:1; Deuteronomy 11:30; Joshua 19:33; Judges 4:11; 9:6,37; 1 Samuel 10:3 (the King James Version "plain"); in all these references the margin has "terebinth" or "terebinths." In Genesis 12:6; Deuteronomy 11:30 we have "oak" or "oaks" "of the teacher" (Moreh); "oak in Zaanannim" in Judges 4:11; Joshua 19:33; the "oak of Meonenim," margin "the augurs' oak (or, terebinth)" in Judges 9:37.
(5) 'allon (commonly drus, or balanos), in Genesis 35:8 (compare 35:4); Hosea 4:13; Isaiah 6:13, is contrasted with 'elah, showing that 'allon and 'elah cannot be identical, so no marginal references occur; also in Isaiah 44:14; Amos 2:9, but in all other passages, the margin "terebinth" or "terebinths" occurs. "Oaks of Bashan" occurs in Isaiah 2:13; Ezekiel 27:6; Zechariah 11:2.
If (1) (2) (3) refer especially to the terebinth, then (4) and (5) are probably correctly translated "oak." If we may judge at all by present conditions, "oaks" of Bashan is far more correct than "terebinths" of Bashan.
2. Varieties of Oak:
There are, according to Post (Flora of Palestine, 737-41), no less than 9 species of oak (Natural Order Cupuliferae) in Syria, and he adds to these 12 sub-varieties. Many of these have no interest except to the botanist. The following species are widespread and distinctive:
(1) The "Turkey oak," Quercus cerris, known in Arabic as Ballut, as its name implies, abounds all over European Turkey and Greece and is common in Palestine. Under favorable conditions it attains to great size, reaching as much as 60 ft. in height. It is distinguished by its large sessile acorns with hemispherical cups covered with long, narrow, almost bristly, scales, giving them a mossy aspect. The wood is hard and of fine grain. Galls are common upon its branches.
(2) Quercus lusitanica (or Ballota), also known in Arabic as Ballut, like the last is frequently found dwarfed to a bush, but, when protected, attains a height of 30 ft. or more. The leaves are denate or crenate and last late into the winter, but are shed before the new twigs are developed. The acorns are solitary or few in cluster, and the cupules are more or less smooth. Galls are common, and a variety of this species is often known as Q. infectoria, on account of its liability to infection with galls.
(3) The Valonica oak (Q. aceglops), known in Arabic as Mellut, has large oblong or ovate deciduous leaves, with deep serrations terminating in a bristle-like point, and very large acorns, globular, thick cupules covered with long reflexed scales. The cupules, known commercially as valonica, furnish one of the richest of tanning materials.
(4) The Evergreen oak is often classed under the general name "Ilex oak" or Holm (i.e. holly-like) oak. Several varieties are described as occurring in Palestine. Q. ilex usually has rather a shrublike growth, with abundant glossy, dark-green leaves, oval in shape and more or less prickly at the margins, though sometimes entire. The cupules of the acorns are woolly. It shows a marked predilection for the neighborhood of the sea. The Q. coccifera (with var. Q. pseudococcifera) is known in Arabic as Sindian. The leaves, like the last, usually are prickly. The acorns are solitary or twin, and the hemispherical cupules are more or less velvety. On the Q. coccifera are found the insects which make the well-known Kermes dye. These evergreen oaks are the common trees at sacred tombs, and the once magnificent, but now dying, "Abraham's oak" at Hebron is one of this species.
3. Oaks in Modern Palestine:
Oaks occur in all parts of Palestine, in spite of the steady ruthless destruction which has been going on for centuries. All over Carmel, Tabor, around Banias and in the hills to the West of Nazareth, to mention well-known localities, there are forests of oak; great tracts of country, especially in Galilee and East of the Jordan, are covered by a stunted brushwood which, were it not for the wood-cutter, would grow into noble trees. Solitary oaks of magnificent proportions occur in many parts of the land, especially upon hilltops; such trees are saved from destruction because of their "sacred" character. To bury beneath such a tree has ever been a favorite custom (compare Genesis 35:8; 1 Chronicles 10:12). Large trees like these, seen often from great distances, are frequently landmarks (Joshua 19:33) or places of meeting (compare "Oak of Tabor," 1 Samuel 10:3). The custom of heathen worship beneath oaks or terebinths (Hosea 4:13; Ezekiel 6:13, etc.) finds its modern counterpart in the cult of the Wely in Palestine. The oak is sometimes connected with some historical event, as e.g. Abraham's oak of Mamre now shown at Hebron, and "the oak of weeping," Allon bacuth, of Genesis 35:8.
E. W. G. Masterman