Flax was the most important plant fiber in Bible times because it was used to make linen. All clothing was made either of linen or wool. While its production has declined in recent years due to the superiority of cotton that is more easily handled by machines, flax remains one of the most important fiber plants in the world because of the long, strong fibers found in the outer layers of the stem. These are removed by a kind of controlled decay called retting. One of the common forms of retting is allowing the cut stalks of flax to remain in the dew until the fiber containing layers separate from the stem. This is probably why Rahab had bundles of flax on her roof. After retting, the fibers are cleaned and then bleached in the sun.
The scientific name of flax is Linum usitatissimum. Usitatissimum means "most useful," a suitable appellation for a plant used for both food and fiber. Flax is sown in the winter in the Middle East and flowers in the late spring. With sky-blue flowers that open only in the morning, flax is one of the most beautiful of all crops when flowering. It is often planted as an ornamental.
Linen had several uses in Bible times. The most obvious was clothing. But other uses were for wicks (eg., Matthew 12:2) and as measuring lines. The man in Ezekiel 4 had a measuring line made out of linen (flax). Our English word line is from the Latin word for flax. Words such as linear, lineage, etc. also derive from the same root. One use of flax that is not mentioned in the Bible is eating the seeds. Flax seeds, barley, and wheat are among the oldest known foods. Linseed oil is expressed from the seeds of flax.
The Scriptures teach explicitly the significance of linen when used as clothing; it is the righteousness or righteous acts of saints. Put another way, it represents personal holiness and suggests that the person clothed in linen is in a condition suitable to approach God. In fact, one of the synonyms for a priest is one who "wears the linen ephod."
The following set of pictures were taken in Stutsman County, North Dakota on 1 July 2001. The Dakotas produce much of the flax seed grown in the United States.
Flax and Linen References