I am often asked what is a “terebinth” when it appears in a daily reading. It is a small tree – and there the opinions diverge. It is either a Palestinian type of oak or it is a small tree of the cashew family and once a source of turpentine. Its more formal name is pistacia palaestina. It has a Southern European cousin, P. terebinthus. But then again the word might be referring to Quercus calliprinos, the Palestinian oak.
The word terebinth comes from Old French and Middle English – in other words, it is a translated word. The terebinth is mentioned in the Old Testament where the Hebrew word elah (plural elot) is used. It seems to mostly be pointing to an oak tree – although that can not be certain. There is a translation history that supports “oak”. The Hebrew word alon means “oak,” and the words may be related.
The word terebinth is found in three successive chapters of Genesis (12:6, 13:18, 14:13, 18:1) in reference to the places where Abraham and Sarah camped called “Terebinths of Mam’re the Amorite”. Here, the traditional rendering in English is “oaks of Mamre”.
The best known clear reference to a terebinth (elah) in the Hebrew Scriptures is that of the Valley of Elah or “Valley of the Terebinth” where David fought Goliath (1 Samuel 17:2, 19).
At that point the person asking the question replies, “So… its a tree, right?