Methuselah: The Judean Date Palm

I grew up in Alaska, and since I loved animals, I imagined that I might make my living by chasing down caribou herds on the tundra or defending wild wolves from eradication. So fresh out of high school, I pursued a biology degree. As I progressed, however, it became clear that I had more affinity for genetics rather than ecology, and that led me into a job with the government which had nothing to do with animals; I worked in a lab that studied the genetics of viruses infecting native Alaskan plant species. Considering that I can kill a hardy houseplant with just a single Medusa-like glance, the fact that I worked with plants for a living still gives me a giggle.

2018: Methuselah
2018: Methuselah

At any rate, I studied plants for a paycheck and decided to earn a second degree in archaeology. My deep love and interest in biology and archaeology…and now theology… all coalesce in one crazy little date palm named Methuselah. I started following the story around 2005, and as of today, Methuselah is alive and well. Deep in Israel’s southern desert, there’s a Kibbutz called Qetura, and in that small “village” is a research facility called the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. That’s where Methuselah resides with his future female date palms. Yes, he has “dates” lined up, and that’s pretty good since his DNA is 2,000 years old.

The seed that sprouted Methuselah was discovered at Masada in the 1960s. Indeed, several seeds were discovered at Herod’s fortress near the Dead Sea, but at the time, no one was particularly interested in growing anything from the ancient stock. They were just little remnants of the foodstuff stored away by the Jewish rebels that inhabited Masada around 70 A.D. Human activity and climate changes eventually led to the obliteration of the species, but it appears that the Judean date palm was not content with its extinction.

After being unearthed, the palm seeds were stored at a university in Tel-Aviv for decades. In 2005, they were given to Dr. Elaine Solowey, whose contributions to science focus on endangered medicinal plants and biblical plants. She planted three of those seeds, and one sprouted. She dubbed the plant Methuselah, after the oldest man recorded in the Bible. I checked in with Dr. Solowey the other day, and she reported that Methuselah is doing quite well. In 2011, Methuselah finally produced pollen, which revealed that he was male. As a male, Methuselah is able to produce pollen, but not dates, so Solowey crossed Methuselah’s pollen with a modern date palm and discovered that the tree’s pollen is viable. The group is now trying to sprout more ancient seeds in hopes of obtaining a female, which would allow the researchers to potentially begin an entire grove of once extinct Judean date palms! Imagine tasting their sweet, rich fruit that has not been enjoyed in many hundreds of years, likely since the Crusades of the Middle Ages.

Genetic testing has advanced the idea that Methuselah is related to an ancient species of palm which still grows in Egypt. It is fascinating to contemplate the idea that the Israelites may have brought it either into or out of Egypt. The palm was truly a treasure to them, and they used its imagery in embroidery and metalwork. It was considered asymbol of Israel. When the Romans quelled the Jewish Revolt in 69 A.D., Emperor Vespasian commemorated the event by minting a coin that showed a Judean woman weeping under the umbrella of the date palm (which may lend some background history to the modern Israeli 10-shekel coin that proudly displays a date palm).

Vespasian's coin minted after the Jewish Revolt
The back side of Vespasian’s coin minted after the Jewish Revolt
Modern 10-Shekel Israeli Coin
Modern 10-Shekel Israeli Coin

 

The tree was considered so lovely that the bride in Song of Solomon was compared to it: “Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters” (7:78). It makes an appearance in Revelation: “…a great multitude…standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (7:9), which reminds me of the crowds waving palm branches at Jesus while shouting “Hoshana!” (Mark 11:10).

After the Israel trip, I added the small, first century bronze coin to my necklace (depicting a Judean date palm).
After the Israel trip, I added the small, first century bronze coin to my necklace (depicting a Judean date palm).

But I think one of my favorite parts of the Methuselah story resides in the virtue of waiting. There are skeptics who question when and why Christ has been gone so long. They ask, “If He were coming back, wouldn’t he have done so by now?” Yet, I think of that little seed that sat dormant in a clay pot for two-thousand years…a seed that waited in darkness as the Roman Empire disintegrated, as the black plague raged across Europe, as the Mayans civilization rose and fell, as the Vikings invaded and explored, and as the Ming Dynasty flourished and collapsed. That seed slept through the lives of Shakespeare, Muhammad, Hitler, Lincoln, Martin Luther, DaVinci, Galileo, and, and, and…that seed. It survived extinction. What was once gone—annihilated from the earth—is back. A seed waited for 2,000 years to become a tree! No one saw that coming. Well, Christ promised to return, and He is surely greater than a little seed. It is not too much for us to wait.

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