The Shoot of Jesse
A major aspect of the vine imagery occurs in the biblical emphasis upon the “shoot of Jesse,” previously noted, which has been interpreted to refer to the coming messiah and which clearly was used as a scriptural “blueprint” in the creation of the Christ character. The relevant messianic verse at Isaiah 11:1 states:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
In the Bible, Jesse is the father of King David, from whose house it was claimed the messiah would come; hence, the (conflicting) genealogies in Matthew and Luke. The Hebrew equivalent of “shoot” in this verse is חטר choter, defined by Strong’s (H2415) as “branch, twig, rod.” The Hebrew word translated here as “branch” is נצר netser, sharing the same root as “Nazarite” or “Nazarene.”
In the Hebrew of Isaiah 11:10, we read that the “root of Jesse” is also a “signal” or “ensign” to the people, using the same term נס nec or nissi, as in “Jehovahnissi.”
The LXX of Isaiah 11:1 is as follows:
καὶ ἐξελεύσεται ῥάβδος ἐκ τῆς ῥίζης Ιεσσαι καὶ ἄνθος ἐκ τῆς ῥίζης ἀναβήσεται The pertinent word here for “shoot,” “rod” or “sprout” is ῥάβδος rhabdos, while ῥίζα rhiza appears twice in this verse, rendered “stump” and “root.”
To reiterate, the New Testament epistle to the Romans (15:12) cites this passage from Isaiah referring to the “shoot,” “branch” and “root” of Jesse, which is Jesus:
and further Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, he who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles hope.”
In the NT Greek, the word for “root” is ῥίζα rhiza, the same term used in Isaiah.
The Magic Rod
Denoting “shoot, branch, rod, stick, wand, staff, scepter,” ῥάβδος rhabdos is employed at Exodus 4:20 as well, to describe what has been translated as the “rod of God.” As is evident, this imagery concerns foliage, especially that of the vine. The Hebrew equivalent for Aaron and Moses’s “rod,” “staff” or “wand” (Exod 7:9) is מטה matteh. Strong’s (H4294) defines matteh also as “tribe” and “branch,” the latter similar to the wand carried by Dionysus, the thyrsus. The Vulgate uses the Latin term virga, defined as “rod,” “wand,” “green stick,” “twig,” “stalk” and “sprout,” representing also a “branch of the ancestral tree.”
The word rhabdos is used a dozen times in the New Testament, defined as “rod, staff, scepter” and “stave.” Like the “thyrsos staves” of the wandering Bacchic maenads, this same object, the rhabdos, is the staff/stave each disciple may or may not take with him on his mission, in the contradictory biblical verses at Mark 6:8 and Luke 9:3.
Tirosh and Lulav
In this regard, Hesychius defined θύρσος thyrsos using the term rhabdos, thus equating the two. Theologian Rev. Dr. John P. Brown also sees a cognate of thyrsos in the Hebrew word for “(new?) wine,” תירוש tiyrowsh/tirosh, both possibly related to the name of the Asian Minor god “Tarhui of the vine.”
In addition, during the viticultural Feast of the Tabernacles the rabbis hold a green date palm branch called a לולב lulav, which was rendered thyrsos in Jewish writings in Greek. Hence, the Jewish lulav could be designated also as a rhabdos.
We have seen already the tale in The Odyssey where Hermes lulls and awakens with his rod. In The Iliad (24.343) too, Homer speaks of this son of God and messenger, who with his wand (ῥάβδος rhabdos) “lulls to sleep the eyes of whom he will.” The same basic story is told once more in The Odyssey (5.47), this time with the “Argus-slayer” flying to the nymph Calypso, while bearing “the wand with which he seals men’s eyes in sleep or wakes them just as he pleases…”
Fig. 83. Hermes with winged boots and caduceus, c. 480 BCE. Red figure lekythos, Metropolitan Museum, New York (David Liam Moran)
Homer uses the term several more times, in describing the magic wands of both Hermes and the witch Circe. In the Homeric Hymn 4 to Hermes, much is also made of the messenger god’s golden wand of riches, which Apollodorus (3.10.2) tells us was offered by the sun god to Hermes in exchange for the
latter’s shepherd’s pipe.
Like Homer, Apollodorus (Epit. E.7.15) employs the word rhabdos to describe the wand used by Circe to transform Odysseus’s men into animals: “And when they had drunk, she touched them with a wand and changed their shapes, and some she made wolves, and some swine, and some asses, and some lions.”
In the Hymn 4 to Hermes (4.528–540), Apollo—deemed in other texts to be the “savior”—vows an oath to the messenger god that sounds not unlike Yahweh establishing Moses’s divine mission:
And Apollo swear also: “Verily I will make you only to be an omen for the immortals and all alike, trusted and honored by my heart. Moreover, I will give you a splendid staff of riches and wealth: it is of gold, with three branches, and will keep you scatheless, accomplishing every task, whether of words or deeds that are good, which I claim to know through the utterance of Zeus. But as for sooth-saying, noble, heaven-born child, of which you ask, it is not lawful for you to learn it, nor for any other of the deathless gods: only the mind of Zeus knows that. I am pledged and have vowed and sworn a strong oath that no other of the eternal gods save I should know the wise-hearted counsel of Zeus. And do not you, my brother, bearer of the golden wand, bid me tell those decrees which all-seeing Zeus intends.
As we can see, Hermes carries Apollo’s magical staff, composed of gold with three branches, like a tree or vine. The Greek word for “staff” here is, appropriately, ῥάβδος rhabdos.
Athena also carries a rhabdos, as at Odyssey 13.429, in which the goddess magically turns the arriving hero into an old man, changing him back with the same wand later in the story (16.172), before returning him to a state of decrepitude (16.456).
These transformations are similar to the changing of staffs into serpents by Aaron, Moses and the pharaoh’s priests. If we are to allow Moses and his magic wand as “historical,” why should we not do likewise with Hermes, Circe, Apollo and Athena?
Diviners and Herbalists
The word rhabdos is used repeatedly also by Herodotus (4.67), to describe the “wands” or “rods” of “diviners”:
There are many diviners among the Scythians, who divine by means of many willow wands as I will show. They bring great bundles of wands, which they lay on the ground and unfasten, and utter their divinations as they lay the rods down one by one; and while still speaking, they gather up the rods once more and place them together again.
The laying of rods as a divining tool resembles the throwing of I Ching sticks, as done in China for thousands of years. The rhabdos as a willow wand is thus a tree branch or stick, like the thyrsus.
The thyrsus possesses medicinal properties as well, as explained by Ruck:
As I have shown in a recent study of the Eleusinian Mysteries, this sceptre of Dionysus takes on a particular meaning when we consider that such hollow stalks were customarily employed by herbalists in Greece to preserve the freshness of the wild plants they gathered...and that “ivy” or kissos (κίσσος), a plant sacred to Dionysus, was the sort of magical wild plant that would have been gathered in this manner, for it was reputed to be poisonous, with a deranging effect upon the mind.
Although it too was an intoxicant, ivy was used also in antiquity as a cure for hangover, as noted, explaining in significant part the herb’s importance to the Dionysian cult.
While the preferred wood for the staff or pole of the thyrsus carried by Dionysus and his Bacchantes appears to have been fennel, the cultic artifact at times was draped with not only ivy but also grape leaves, vines and grapes themselves. Ovid (Met. 3.662–664) calls the thyrsus “a spear enveloped in vine-leaves,” and theologian John Brown claims thyrsos as another name for “vine.” We are told by Nonnus (12.330ff) that the god also would turn his staff into a sickle in order to reap the grapes.
Moreover, in archaic vase paintings, the god is depicted as holding not only the thyrsus but also a sprouting grapevine, which entwines itself around the image. Here we can see a depiction of the all-important shoot or sprout, explaining its biblical significance as the coming messiah. In this regard, Aaron’s staff is depicted also as budding or sprouting (Num 17:8).
Fig. 84. Bacchus, born from Zeus’s thigh, holds a sprouting grapevine, c. 460 BCE. Museo Nazionale di Spina, Ferrara, Italy
Older depictions show Dionysus without the thyrsus but still holding a fruiting grapevine. The god’s birth is represented by a sprouting grapevine as well, always an indication that Bacchus is nearby. Hence, the sprout or shoot is a clear symbol of Dionysus, evidently adopted into Jewish and Christian theology for the purpose of incorporating this popular pagan motif.
The magical wand, staff or rod of Hermes, the famous winged caduceus (Gk: κηρύκειον kērukeion), has two snakes intertwined around it, like the sprouting shoot.
The Egyptians are depicted in the Bible as themselves possessing magical serpent staffs, and indeed we see that such rods were popular in the land of the Nile as well. In this regard, we find a staff dedicated to Osiris topped with a pine cone, much like the thyrsus, and wrapped with two snakes like the caduceus.
Fig. 85. Pinecone staff of Osiris, 1224 BCE. Egyptian Museum, Turin, Italy
The snake theme occurs on the staffs of other deities, lawgivers, healers and heroes, such as that of the Greek healing god Asclepius, which has a single snake wrapped around its central pole. This pagan motif can be found at Numbers 21:9, reflected in the Hebrew veneration of the ancient serpent god:
“Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass he lived.” Numbers 21:9
Fig. 86. Rod of Asclepius
Regarding this magical fetish, Merlin Stone says, “And in Jerusalem itself was the serpent of bronze, said to date back to the time of Moses and treasured as a sacred idol in the temple there until about 700 BC.”
Concerning Moses’s rod and the snake-entwined caduceus, Dr. Frederick Turner from the University of Texas remarks:
The staff of Moses is said in ancient Jewish folk tradition to have been given to him by the angel Metatron, who is the messenger spirit between God and human beings. The staff was originally a branch of the Tree of Life, from which Metatron plucked it when the world was young. Sometimes the staff itself is called Metatron; like Ningizzida, the Mesopotamian messenger god, who is depicted alternatively as a caduceus or in human form with two snakes coming out of his shoulders, the god and his symbol are confused. Metatron’s rod is thus one version of the magic staff shared by many circum-Mediterranean and Asian religions, and is a direct analogue of the caduceus of Hermes/Mercury.
As we can see, the motif of a snake-entwined staff/rod goes back at least to the Mesopotamian messenger god, Ningizzida/Ningishzida, a forerunner of the Greek Hermes and Roman Mercury, who in turn are syncretized with the Egyptian Thoth and replicated in Metatron.
Metatron himself is equated with Yahweh in the apocryphal text 3 Enoch 13, in a sense placing his rod in the Jewish tribal god’s hands. In this regard, Moses and Yahweh are also equivalent, as they are in intertestamental literature making the “patriarch” a god.
Moreover, Moses and Aaron’s rods—essentially the same as the magical staffs of other deities and heroes—was a “branch of the Tree of Life,” which we have seen to be also the grapevine. This branch/rod was specified in antiquity likewise to have served as the “Life-giving Cross of Christ.”
Ugaritic and Egyptian Divine Staffs
The Ugaritic texts speak of a “gamlu-staff” in one divine epithet, “possessor of the gamlu-staff,” a motif often associated with gods and royalty. The Amorite god Amurru in particular was associated with the gamlu, significant in that Moses evidently is a remake of Amurru/Masu in part. Dr. Aicha Rahmouni states that there are “ample precedents for wooden staffs that serve as divine (or royal) symbols and also function as weapons.” She gives as an example the wooden shepherd’s staff “well attested as a divine and royal symbol” and which “serves as a magical weapon of the exorcist against witches…”
Serpents and vines are connected apparently for a number of reasons, including their shared ability to intertwine with objects, the snake in effect a “living vine.” Both the vine and serpent have the capacity to push through spaces where others cannot go, such as into mysterious “inner sanctums,” as witnesses of the mysteries. Moreover, the snake appears to be guarding the sacred plant’s roots as it thrives underground. The ancients also may have surmised that through their burrowing the serpents brought life to the soil, providing aeration and drainage.