The secrets of the Carob tree

The seed has a unique flavor reminiscent of chocolate

Carob Tree 521 (photo credit: PETRA VAN DER ZANDE)
Carob Tree 521
(photo credit: PETRA VAN DER ZANDE)
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all lay emphasis on the coming of John the Baptist. Called “Yochanan” in Hebrew (meaning “God is gracious”), he is presented as a person ordained to prepare the way for the ministry of Jesus by preaching a message of repentance from sin.
John is described in both Matthew and Mark as wearing “clothes of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locust and wild honey.”
Bible readers for centuries have wondered whether John was eating locusts, the swarming insects, or was it something else? Modern studies reveal that locusts indeed were consumed in ancient days by peoples of the Middle East, including Israelites. While the Mosaic Law strictly prohibits Jews from eating insects, some locusts were considered kosher, according to Leviticus 11:22. So it is fully possible that John ate actual locusts.
Nevertheless, there is a second, more sensible possibility: the carob tree.
Carob, also known as Saint John’s bread, is common in Israel and its environs. Its Latin name Ceratonia siliqua is derived from the Greek keras, meaning “horn,” and the Latin silique, referring to the hardness and shape of the pod.
From its Hebrew name haruv come the words herev (sword) and harav (dry). The same word in Aramaic is haruva, while the Arabs call it kharoub. In the Middle Ages the French began to call it caroube, in Italian it became carruba, and today we call it the carob.
The tree can grow up to 17 meters tall, and has a broad crown with green leaves. The trunk is thick with a brown bark. The budded trees begin to bear fruit in their sixth year and remain productive for up to 100 years.
The carob bears its fruit in the form of a pod which takes about 11 months to ripen, and each pod can contain up to 15 seeds.
The carob seed has its own unique flavor. Ground into powder form, it is reminiscent of chocolate, and Jews use it as a dairy substitute in foods eaten with meats. But a fresh pod tastes like a date. The green young pods can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable, while smashed seeds of the dried pods can be cooked as porridge. The carob pod is rich in magnesium, calcium, phosphorus and copper, as well as a range of other essential vitamins.
During ancient times, the pods were the most important source of sugar, before sugar cane and sugar beets became available. During the Second World War, Greek villages occupied by the Nazis survived on carob pods.
In today’s Israel, we can find both wild and cultivated trees, and the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles in Yad Vashem is made up mainly of carob trees.
Many scholars claim that the carob originated in the land of Israel, where charred carob tree wood and seeds dating from before 4000 BCE have been found.
The word carat, a small unit of weight for measuring diamonds and gold, also derives from carob seeds, which were considered uniform enough to use as standards of weight in ancient times.
Some Bible scholars even link the “husks that the pigs were eating” in the parable of the Prodigal Son to the carob tree.
Given the natural supplements in the pods, its use as a sugar, and its similarities to the locust, it is more likely that the “locusts” referred to in Matthew and Mark are actually the fruit of the carob tree. Hence the tree is also known locally as Saint John’s Bread or the locust tree.
The “honey” which John the Baptist ate also was likely date honey, as date palms were and still are abundant in the Jordan Valley.
Taken together, it just might be that John the Baptist had a “sweet tooth.”