Pigweed Prayers

The hyssop that grows in the wall.

I really would like to have “just the right number” of dandelions in my lawn. And I’d like to exert this control with organic, non-chemical means. But if I succeed, I may find that I still have a problem: No hyssop growing in the cracks of the sidewalk.

The Hebrews apparently were more tolerant of weeds, at least weeds growing in their towns and cities. Solomon speaks of hyssop growing in “the wall.” In older parts of towns where I live, it might be dandelions, plantain, pineapple weed or shepherd’s purse growing in the sidewalk cracks.

When giving a tour of my garden recently to Gabriel, who was born in Syria, I told him of my interest in wall-hugging hyssop. I mentioned that I had read of the attempt to identify exactly which plant corresponds to the “hyssop that grows out of walls” mentioned in the Bible. We passed a clump of catmint. I mentioned that this was as close to hyssop as I was likely to get and handed a sprig to Gabriel. “Oh,” he replied, “it smells just like za’atar,” which was the Arabic term I had seen.

Cedar without hyssop

Hyssop, a member of the mint family, is sometimes translated as marjoram or oregano. It is a humble plant, but it played a significant role in Hebrew life. It was used to apply the blood to the lintel at the first Passover. It was used ceremonially along with cedar and scarlet yarn in purification ceremonies (cf. Lev. 14). King David referred to it in his penitential Psalm: “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean.” And some variety of hyssop produced a strong enough stalk to be used to support the sponge used to give our Lord a drink when he was on the cross.

If the cedar was the noblest of trees, the hyssop was the humblest. Solomon’s knowledge encompassed all plants, from the least to the greatest. He understood the function, presumably, of the combination of cedar and hyssop in the purification ceremonies. Thus Solomon’s botanical knowledge was seen in relation to his spiritual awareness. The writer of I Kings did not simply boast of Solomon’s scientific savvy but of his piety. Sad to say, Solomon soon cavorted with Sheba, taxed the people into rebellion, participated in idol worship to please his harem, and generally acted like a cedar sans hyssop, like an Oriental potentate in love with himself, his own power, and glory.

It remained for one “greater than Solomon” to refocus the world’s eyes on the relationship of service to kingship, of humility to glory. It took a “root out of dry ground” (Isa. 53:2), a “weed in the alley” according to James Ward, to be the Way to shalom.

Frederick W. Tamminga once called a poor man’s prayers “pigweed praises.” A humble attitude as steward of this creation demands that I offer more pigweed praises and worry less about control, whether that desired control be of people, or weeds in my sidewalk, lawn and garden.

No weeds?
No hyssop?
No purge
for my pride.


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