Question: "What is the significance of the broom tree in the Bible?"
Answer: The broom tree is mentioned in the Bible as something that provided shelter and sustenance on occasion. The “broom tree” is what some Bible translations such as the KJV and NASB call the “juniper”; other translations such as the ESV, CSB, and NIV speak of it as the “broom tree” or the “broom bush.” The plant mentioned in the Bible is a type of flowering desert shrub identified as Retama raetam. The so-called tree grows to around 6 to 8 feet tall and can provide enough shade to shelter someone from the scorching desert heat.
The broom tree as shelter. Elijah sought shelter and rest under a broom tree once. After learning that Jezebel meant to kill him in revenge for the death of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, Elijah fled for his life into the desert (1 Kings 19:1–3). Far out into the wilderness, he came to a broom tree, and he sat down under the shade of the bush and prayed for his death: “‘I have had enough, LORD,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors’” (1 Kings 19:4). Being spiritually, emotionally, and physically exhausted, Elijah quickly fell asleep in the shade of the bush (1 Kings 19:5). An angel appeared to Elijah twice, bringing him food and water (1 Kings 19:5–7). God allowed Elijah to rest under the broom tree, giving the prophet much-needed strength before continuing his journey to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8–9).
During the Israelites’ time in the desert with Moses, they camped at a place known for broom trees. Rithmah, one location where the Israelites made camp, was named after the broom tree, since Rithmah means “the place of the broom” (Numbers 33:18–19). Apparently, broom trees were plentiful in the area, and the location served as a suitable camp for the children of Israel.
The broom tree as fuel. Having roots and branches that burn hot, the broom tree was a source of fuel and high-quality charcoal during biblical times. Psalm 120:4 likens the judgment of God to “a warrior’s sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom brush.” The angel that visited Elijah made “some bread baked over hot coals”; since the broom tree was right there, it’s quite possible that the angel used its wood as fuel (1 Kings 19:6).
The broom tree as food. The thick root of the broom tree was good fuel for fire, and in dire circumstances it could also be eaten. Job speaks of men who, in extreme conditions, resorted to eating broom tree roots:
“Haggard from want and hunger,
they roamed a the parched land
in desolate wastelands at night.
In the brush they gathered salt herbs,
and their food was the root of the broom bush” (Job 30:3–4).
A broom tree’s roots are bitter and unappetizing but can provide some nourishment to a starving person.
The broom tree is just a desert shrub, but in the Bible it serves as an important reminder of God’s provision. God sustained and sheltered Elijah under a broom tree. He also promises to give us rest and meet our needs (Matthew 11:28; Philippians 4:19). Providing shelter from difficult situations is something that God is good at doing; He is “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).