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The Search for Roots, Helen Frenkley, BAR 12:05, Sep-Oct 1986.

Neot Kedumim, the 550-acre Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel.Israel’s Biblical Landscape Reserve

If archaeology is the search for roots, so is Neot Kedumim, The Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel. The one is figurative; the other is literal—for Neot Kedumim literally searches for the roots of the Bible in the realities of Israel’s nature landscape.

The patriarchs, the judges, the kings and prophets of Israel, Jesus and his disciples—all had revolutionary messages to impart to the world. But in their day, they spoke and moved among common people—the farmers and shepherds of ancient Israel, who lived their lives amidst nature’s reality—Israel’s plants, its animals, its climate, its agriculture, in short, its ecology. Farmers and shepherds intimately knew the trees, the shrubs and the weeds, the animals, the birds and the pests of the land. “The rain in its season, the early rain and the late rain” (Deuteronomy 11-14), the tragic consequences of prolonged drought—all this made up the core of daily reality.

The Bible’s metaphor, simile and parable are couched in a kind of ancient Esperanto—the language of nature. It is this “language” that Neot Kedumim is bringing back to life, so that the Bible will literally live again in the nature setting of Israel, where it arose.

“Solomon spoke of all the trees, from the cedar of Lebanon to the ezov that grows in the rock” (1 Kings 5-13 [4-33]a). Everyone knows the famous cedar of Lebanon- a tall, stately evergreen, native to the snow-covered mountains of Lebanon. Reputed to live 3,000 years, some have been known to grow to a height of over 130 feet. This tree is best known as a building material and indeed the Bible relates that King Solomon imported huge quantities of cedar wood from King Hiram of Tyre for the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The price Solomon paid Hiram’s woodcutters for cedar, juniper1 and algum wood was enormous (2 Chronicles 2-7–10). Based on Professor William F. Albright’s calculations of the equivalents of the Biblical measures kor and bat,2 the annual payment by Solomon to the woodcutters came to 125,000 bushels each of wheat and barley and 465,000 quarts each of olive oil and wine!

Cedar wood was always an important item in Israel. Solomon built his famous “House of the Forest of Lebanon” from imported cedar wood. The later kings of Israel imported it to use in the construction of their own palaces and stately mansions. This expensive wood was imported despite the fact that an excellent building material was comparatively abundant in the land of Israel- the shikma (Ficus sycomorus), or Egyptian fig, which grew in great numbers on the coastal plain. Indeed the Bible hints at Solomon’s opulence when it states that “the king made … cedars as abundant [in Jerusalem] as the sycomoresb which are in the lowlands” (1 Kings 10-27). As a luxury import, cedar had a special glamour. The prophet Jeremiah sarcastically asked Jehoiakim, king of Judah, who involved himself in superfluous building projects, “Shall you rule because you preen yourself with cedars?” (Jeremiah 22-15).

The cedar not only grows to great height, but it also looks extremely majestic. In the Bible it is a symbol of strength, glory and wealth—as well as of haughtiness, pride and glamour.

On the other hand, the “ezov that grows in the rock” that Solomon spoke about is less well known. Many European scholars and translators believed the Biblical ezov was moss. However, the famous 11th-century Biblical and talmudic authority, Rashi, protested this identification because “ezov is a plant that has branches.”3 On the eve of the plague of the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians, the Israelites were commanded to mark the door posts of their homes by taking branches of ezov and dipping them into the blood of the paschal lamb so that the angel of death would pass over their homes (Exodus 12-22). In post-Biblical literature dealing with the ceremony of purification, it is stipulated that “the ezov … was dipped with its stem and its branches … ”4 Clearly ezov cannot be moss.

Modern botany has identified the ezov as the lowly hyssop (Majorana syriaca [L.] Rafin. or Origanum syriacum [L.] Sieb.),c a grayish shrub with thin woody branches. It can survive with very little soil and water, sometimes growing out of the smallest cracks in stone, as though literally “out of the rock.” The hyssop is one of the most important edible plants of the Middle East, highly valued for its fragrance and flavor. It is used as a spice, as food, as a medicinal plant, and its dry branches make excellent kindling. Unassuming in size and color, useful in so many ways, the hyssop came to symbolize modesty and humility—in direct contrast to the haughty and glamorous cedar of Lebanon.
Suddenly, the Biblical verse comes to life- “Solomon spoke of all the trees, from the cedar of Lebanon to the ezov that grows in the rock.”

The cedar and the hyssop are also brought together in connection with instructions concerning the return of a cured leper to the community. Leprosy was considered punishment for the sin of pride. For example, Miriam, objecting to Moses marrying a foreigner, was struck with leprosy (Numbers 12-1, Numbers 12-10); so was King Uzziah whose “pride led to his undoing” (2 Chronicles 26-15, 2 Chronicles 26-19). Leprosy was considered a fit chastisement for the proud person who considered himself superior to and apart from the community. The leper was literally removed from the community he disdained. The Book of Leviticus proclaims “the law of the leper on the day of his cleansing.” On that day, “the priest shall command for him … cedar wood … and … hyssop” (Leviticus 14-2–4). A later homily explains that in bringing a branch of cedar and branches of the hyssop before the priest, the cured leper admits that he had been proud like the cedar (and thus was struck with leprosy) and, now that he has been cured (and wants to return to live in the community), he will henceforth be humble like the hyssop.5

This symbolism of the hyssop in contrast to the cedar also clarifies King David’s entreaty to God after the prophet Nathan rebukes him for his sin with Bathsheba- “Cleanse me with hyssop that I may be pure; wash me that I may become whiter than snow” (Psalm 51-9 [7]). By taking Bathsheba, a married woman, and arranging to have her husband killed in the front line of battle, David acted in defiance of the warning in Deuteronomy to the king of Israel lest “he become proud above his people” (Deuteronomy 17-20). David’s prayer for forgiveness is similar to the plea of the leper. He had become proud and haughty like the cedar, and now beseeches God to make him humble like the hyssop with which he asks to be cleansed.

The hyssop’s symbolism arose from among the people, who were familiar with its characteristics as part of their everyday lives. Using another metaphor from nature, Nathan reinforces his rebuke of David by comparing David’s deed with Bathsheba to that of a rich man with large flocks and herds who takes a poor man’s single sheep (2 Samuel 12-1–10). Every man in David’s kingdom could understand the metaphors of the hyssop and the flocks.

The hyssop also appears in the New Testament (John 19-29; Mark 15-37). Jesus, dying on the cross, is given sour wine (vinegar) to drink. It is passed to him on a sponge attached to branches of the hyssop. Jesus is the symbol of humility on the cross; the lowly hyssop, the symbol of humility in nature.

Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel, stretches over 550 acres of hills and dales in the region of Modi’in, halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Mostly barren rock 15 years ago when Israeli botanist Nogah Hareuveni6 first began the project, today some two-thirds of the reserve is in various stages of development. Eventually, Neot Kedumim will contain all the plants mentioned in the Bible and talmudic literature in their natural setting. The development is slow, fettered by the limited funds available for this herculean task. An enormous amount of work has been done already, but there still remain many thousands of tons of soil to be brought back to the eroded hills; additional ancient terraces await rebuilding; miles of drip-irrigation lines have to be added to the existing network, and new reservoirs must be dug to hold winter runoff rain water. Today, long before the work nears completion, over 80,000 trees and saplings have been planted and transplanted to the site.

One of the most striking garden areas at Neot Kedumim is the Garden of Wisdom Literature, where cedars of Lebanon grow alongside clumps of hyssop bushes. Transplanting fifteen 40-year-old cedars of Lebanon to Neot Kedumim was quite an undertaking. In 1976, the trees were purchased from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s botanical garden on Mt. Scopus. Those cedars of Lebanon had been brought as cones from Lebanon in 1936 by Dr. Ephraim and Mrs. Hannah Hareuveni and their 12-year-old son, Nogah, after an extended botanical field trip to that country. The seeds that germinated were planted on Mt. Scopus not far from the Museum of Biblical and Talmudic Botany established by the Hareuvenis at the university in 1925. Carefully tended, these trees thrived and new seedlings were added as the years went by.

Ephraim and Hannah Hareuveni died in the 1950s without seeing the Biblical Landscape Reserve they had dreamed of creating. Mt. Scopus was cut off from western Jerusalem by Jordanian forces during the 1948 War of Independence and was inaccessible to Israelis, except for a small caretaker police force, between 1948 and 1967. In the Six Day War of 1967, Mt. Scopus became part of Israel.

Nogah Hareuveni was one of the first people who returned to see how the cedars of Lebanon had weathered the near siege conditions of those 19 years. Because of the lack of drinking water on Mt. Scopus, it had been impossible to irrigate the cedars, which consequently suffered greatly.

Nine years later, however, 15 of those cedar trees were boxed. When, after eight more months, the side roots grew, confined within the four-sided slats, the tap roots were cut and the trees trucked down to Neot Kedumim. Pits with rich soil had been prepared and a water tanker stood by for immediate irrigation. Neot Kedumim is 2,000 feet lower in elevation than Mt. Scopus, but much to everyone’s surprise and delight, the diligent care paid off. The cedars survived and flourished. Several scores of saplings of various ages have now been added, so that a grove of some 50 cedars of different sizes thrives in the Garden of Wisdom Literature at Neot Kedumim.

Numerous hyssop plants were transplanted to the rocky outcroppings surrounding the cedars. Some were seeded, others planted as seedlings in the small rock clefts. In spring the tiny, white flowers have to be seen close-up to appreciate their beauty, for even in flower the hyssop remains modest and humble in appearance.

Another plant that has been the subject of much speculation is often translated “lily.” It is mentioned by Jesus- “Consider how the lilies of the field grow … and yet, I say unto you, even Solomon in all his splendor was not clothed like one of these. But if this is how God clothes the grass in the fields, which is there today, and tomorrow is thrown in the stove, will he not all the more clothe you?” (Matthew 6-28–30; Luke 12-27–28). What is the “lily of the field”? Numerous candidates have been suggested by Biblical scholars and botanists.

A frequently mentioned contender, suggested by European scholars, is the madonna lily (Lillum candidum L.). But its habitat is inaccessible, rocky slopes of Israel’s mountains—certainly not “in the fields.” The red anemone (Anemone coronaria L.) has also been proposed. It is indeed widespread in uncultivated fields, but when it dries up around late April in Israel, it simply disappears, and there is nothing left to gather for kindling to be “thrown in the stove.” None of the other candidates, including the red buttercup, crocus, tulip and narcissus, leave anything behind to be burned in the stove when they fade away.7

Dr. Ephraim Hareuveni believed that scholars had looked for the answer based on a misleading starting point. They were looking for a plant outstanding in size and color. Many insisted that the “lilies of the field” must be red or purple in color because of the tradition that King Solomon was robed in regal purple. Dr. Hareuveni believed a greater delicacy of taste was involved and that the flower in question should have a beauty emanating not from vivid colors or outstanding brilliance in the field. Jesus’ own words, “and I say unto you” seem to bear out this idea. It is as though Jesus wanted to indicate that this plant had a special beauty all its own that was not obvious to the casual passerby.

The verse begins with the words, “if this is how God clothes the grass in the field.” Whatever the flower, it had to have the general character of grass. To assume that the phrase “grass in the field” was merely a meaningless figure of speech is at odds with the Bible’s entire style.

One of the earliest translations of krinon agrion, the Greek name used in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke for the “lily of the field,” was made by the first-century A.D. Greek botanist and pharmacologist, Dioscorides. He identified krinon agrion with the Hebrew name aviv lavan, meaning “white spring (flower).” That flower is most probably the plant that Bedouin in the remote areas south of Gaza early in this century called “white flower” (hanun abiad in Arabic). We know it as the daisy (Anthemis sp.). The daisy suits all the conditions demanded by the parable. It is not gaudy, but has a modest and delicate beauty of its own. It is pleasing at all hours of the day. It is exquisite at every period of its growth, even when it is old and drying. When it has dried up, it is gathered with dried grass and cast into the stove as kindling. In addition, the daisy has a crown, appropriate to the allusion to King Solomon. The common field daisy grows indeed like grass in Israel, but is no less poignant for its prevalence, nor is its delicate beauty dimmed for all its shy but radiant whiteness.

Another Biblical botanical puzzle is the identity of the ar’ar, mentioned by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17-6) and in the Book of Psalms (Psalm 102-18 [17]).

For many years translators fumbled about in quest of the answer. Translations of ar’ar range from “heath” (King James Version), to “shrub” and “bush” (Revised Standard Version and Good News Bible, respectively), to “a shrub or a person naked and destitute in the desert” (Amplified Bible), to “juniper” (New English Bible), to “tamarisk” as an alternative to “bush” (1978 Jewish Publication Society translation).

In a detailed article,8 Ephraim and Hannah Hareuveni analyzed these and other suggested translations and concluded that the ar’ar must be none other than the famous Sodom apple (Calotropis procera [Ait.] Ait.f.), which is described by Josephus.9

In order to understand this identification, we must familiarize ourselves with Jeremiah’s environment. Jeremiah was a shepherd from Anatot, a village northeast of Jerusalem, bordering on the Judean wilderness. With his flocks of sheep and goats, he frequented the numerous wadis and canyons leading from the Judean hills to the Aravad in the Valley of Jericho. He was certainly familiar with the plants of the wilderness and desert regions, as well as with the lush vegetation and trees in the oases of Ein Fara, Wadi Kelt and Wadi Odja, which cut through the Judean desert, running down to the Arava. The lower reaches of these stream beds are like hot-houses, for there is plentiful water year round and warm temperatures even in winter when the upper reaches are as cold as the Judean mountains and Jerusalem.

Year after year, Jeremiah must have seen the striking phenomenon of individual fruit trees (like the big fig tree growing today near the spring of Ein Odja) remaining green and fruit-bearing in those lower reaches of the wadis, even in winter, while trees of the same species growing in the vicinity of Jeremiah’s village, Anatot, were still dormant and leafless. The fruit trees growing near these lower springs never fear years of drought, nor the devastating heat that can sweep the open regions of the mountains and the Judean desert.

Leaving the protected springs in these canyons, Jeremiah had to walk but a short distance to the harsh, barren landscape of the Arava in the Valley of Jericho. The contrast in vegetation was dramatic. The lush foliage of the wadi gives way to parched, partially salty flatlands, sparsely dotted with vegetation. In the middle of the barren, arid, salty plain, the desolate Sodom apple stands out in stark relief against the empty landscape.

“Cursed is the man … whose heart has turned from the Lord. He shall be like an ar’ar in the wilderness [in Hebrew, in the Arava], and he shall not see goodness; but shall inhabit the parched places in the desert, a salt land and not inhabited.” The prophet then contrasts the man who is like the ar’ar (the Sodom apple) with the man who trusts in the Lord. “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord … for he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, that spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not fear when heat comes, but its foliage shall be luxuriant and it shall not worry in a year of drought, neither shall it cease yielding fruit” (Jeremiah 17-5–8).

The ar’ar, identified by the Hareuvenis as the Sodom apple, is a small tree, reaching a height of about ten feet. It grows in the Arava Valley of Jericho and throughout the Dead Sea region. Because of the dearth of trees in this area, it stands out, despite its low height and gnarled, wrinkled trunk. From a distance, it appears to bear juicy, thirst-quenching fruit. But its appearance is deceiving. The Bedouin call this plant “cursed lemon,” and they explain the name with a story. Before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, when the citizens of these two cities still followed God’s commandments, the ar’ar was a tree that produced juicy fruit for the comfort and relief of thirsty desert travelers. But when the people of Sodom and Gomorrah turned away from God, he destroyed their cities and also dried up the ar’ar so that it shriveled, producing only fibers and seeds. The legend ends with the belief that when people once again return to the ways of God, the ar’ar’s original sweet juiciness will be restored.

Like the person who extends his palms in prayer, the ar’ar stretches out its leaves as though entreating God to redeem it from the wilderness. The psalmist compares this “prayer” of the ar’ar to the prayer of the people of Israel to restore God’s blessing and have compassion on Zion; “He has regarded the prayer of the ar’ar and has not despised their prayer” (Psalm 102-18 [17]).

Cedar and hyssop, daisy and Sodom apple comprise but a tiny fraction of the stories growing in the Biblical Landscape Reserve. Neot Kedumim is a living museum of the wild and cultivated landscapes of Biblical Israel. Through this “green archaeology,” the symbols, prayers and holidays of the Jewish and Christian heritage, observed and preserved for thousands of years, blossom in their multiple aspects, adding a new dimension to the understanding of the Bible and its traditions.

Neot Kedumim—the Biblical Landscape Reserve—opened to the public in April 1985. Guided tours in English and Hebrew are available to all visitors Fridays at 9-30 a.m. Tours for a minimum of 15 people may be ordered in advance for any day of the week except Friday afternoons, Saturdays or Jewish holidays. For further information about tours, meals and study center dormitory facilities, write to Neot Kedumim, P.O. Box 299, Kiryat Ono 55 102, Israel; Telephone- (08) 233–840 or (08) 245–881. For information about Neot Kedumim publications, write in the United States to Paul Steinfeld, Secretary, American Friends of Neot Kedumim, Halcott Center, New York 12437.

a. The numbering of chapters and verses in the Hebrew Bible sometimes differs from the numbering in English translations. My citations are to the Hebrew Bible; following in brackets, when they differ from the Hebrew, are the chapter and verse as they appear in the New English Bible.

b. “Sycomore” is not a misspelling of sycamore. The sycomore (Ficus sycomorus L.) is a totally distinct family and genus from both the American plane tree (Platanus occidentalis) and the English maple (Acer pseudoplatanus), both of which are commonly called sycamore. The New English Bible uses the correct spelling, sycomore.

c. Both Majorana syriaca [L.] Rafin. and Origanum syriacum [L.] Sieb. are scientific names used in botanical guides to designate the hyssop plant. The two Latin words indicate, first, the genus and second, the particular species to which this plant belongs. [L.] stands for Linnaeus, the great 18th century Swedish botanist who named many thousands of plants and created the nomenclature system used today. Rafin. and Sieb. are abbreviations for Rafinesque and Siebold, botanists who amended the classifications.

d. As used in the Bible, Arava is a general term, as well as a specific geographic designation for various areas in the Afro-Syrian Rift. For instance in Deuteronomy 2-8 [7], the region of Eilat is called Arava. In numerous Biblical references the Dead Sea is called the Arava Sea (for example, Joshua 3-16). In Joshua 11-2 the area south of Lake Kinneret is called Arava. In other places the Arava Valley of Jericho is mentioned (for example, 2 Kings 25-5). I am referring to the latter designation as the habitat of the ar’ar.

1. Although the word brosh appears in the Bible several times and is described as having numerous uses, especially in construction and manufacture, there is no clear-cut consensus as to its identification. It is likely, though, that the brosh is the juniper, and the te’ashur (Isaiah 41-19, Isaiah 60-13), the cypress.

2. Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 16, p. 380.

3. Rashi, commentary on Exodus 12-22.

4. Tosefta Para 12, 3.

5. Midrash Hagadol, Metzora 14.

6. Author of Nature in Our Biblical Heritage and Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage (Kiryat Ono, Israel- Neot Kedumim Ltd., 1980, 1984).

7. “The Lilies of the Field,” Torreya, Vol. 25, March/April 1925.

8. Ephraim Hareuveni, “Ha’ar’ar,” Sefer Magnes (Jerusalem- Hebrew University Press, 1938).

9. Josephus, The Jewish War, Bk. IV, chapter 8, paragraph 4.

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