the "holy land" - quarterly published by the franciscan custody of the holy land

"Holy Land" Spring 1997
Neot Kedumim

by Beth Uval

What's in a Name

Neot means pastures or places of beauty (as in Psalm 23: "He makes me lie down in green pastures"). Kedumim, meaning ancient, also contains the Hebrew root that indicates forward movement,and expresses the biblical landscape reserve's underlying philosophy of future growth based on past roots.

In a grove of date palms, a group of pilgrims learn why that stately and useful tree became an ancient symbol of victory. Other visitors pick ripe figs in a nearby orchard. Fallow deer, a graceful Biblical species now extinct in the wild, graze peacefully on an adjacent slope. Families wheel baby carriages over the comfortable paths that crisscross the rolling hills.

This is Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve that spreads over 625 acres in central Israel's Modi'in region. Hundreds of varieties of plants that figure in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and rabbinic literature thrive in a network of reconstructed landscapes representing biblical themes. Grapes ripen in "Isaiah's Vineyard" and walnuts in the "Dale of the Song of Songs," pomegranates dot the "Garden of the Seven Varieties," and fragrances waft from the "Ascent of the Spices."

Vistas of striking pastoral beauty are everywhere -- and the stark and stony hills in the distance are reminders that 30 years ago there was nothing here but barren rock.

Restoration Ecology

The tract alotted to Neot Kedumim in 1965 was a particularly desolate and dreary part of the Judean foothills. Centuries of battles, overgrazing, and neglect had stripped the land of its shallow top soil layer, and the bare bedrock protuded everywhere. Few birds and fewer people ventured into the uninviting then-border area. "The land was so barren that no one could accuse us of destroying nature," recalls founder Nogah Hareuveni. "There was nothing here to destroy."

Fortunately, Hareuveni was not one to be deterred by obstacles like the absence of soil on the site where he wanted to plant trees. After trucking in thousands of tons of earth, he and a handful of dedicated co-workers began recreating Biblical environments stone by stone and tree by tree, literally from the ground.

With the Bible in one hand and a spade in the other, they began to reverse the process that had left the hills bare Soil ws spread over the rocks,ancient terrces were repaired, annew ones were built. Reservoirs were dug to catch runoff rainwater. In the absence of irrigation pipes (there was no money to buy any, nor a pipeline in the vicinity), the staff filled discarded oil cans with water, tied them onto donkeys,and trudged miles over the hills to water the first seedlings. For the efforts, Neot Kedumim has received international recognition as a model of restoration ecology - the reclamation of ravaged landscapes.

The ecological tabula rasa was in fact well suited to the challenge adopted by Neot Kedumim: to create a microcosm of Israel's varied and contrasting landscapes as they appear in the Bible and related literature. Soil wasbrought in from various parts of Israel - red sandy loam from the Sharon, amixture of fine chalk and limestone topsoil from the Judean Desert.

The location, toporaphy, and climate were also turned to advantage.

Neot Kedumim is in the Judean Shefelah (lowlands), equidistant from the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Judean hills rising toward Jerusalem in the east, and between the mountains of Galilee in the north and the Negev desert to the south. The moderate elevation (the highest point 206 meters above sea level) provides a viable habitat for both hilly-region plans and those native to the low Mediterranean coastal plain.

The cedar is a fancy tree. Towering to 30 meters in its native Lebanon, the cedar demands good soil and plentiful water. Cedars never grew in Israel and were available only to those who had enough power, wealth, and influence to import them from Lebanon -- for example, King Solomon, who purchased not only trees for the Temple courtyard but expensive cedar logs to panel the Temple interior and other grand buildings in Jerusalem.

Hyssop, on the other hand, blends modestly into its surroundings, requires little water or even soil, and grows wild everywhere. Its pungent taste and fragrance are available to anyone who goes out into the fields to look for it.

Contrasting in appearance, demands, function, and accessibility, cedar and hyssop appear symbolically in the Bible. King Solomon "spoke of the trees, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the rock" (1 Kings 4:33, 5:13 in the Hebrew Bible). The verse seems to suggest the wide range of King Solomon's wisdom -- from one pole to another, from alpha to omega, from A to Z.

Hyssop, often together with cedar, appears in biblical purification rituals, such as the ceremony for the cured leper described in Leviticus 14: "The priest shall command that two living clean birds and cedarwood and crimson yarn and hyssop be brought for the one who is to be cleansed" (14:4). Here, too, the contrast between cedar and hyssop seems to have symbolic meaning. A rabbinic commentary says: "what is the significance of cedar wood and hyssop... for the leper? They say to him: You were proud like the cedar and the Holy One, Blessed be He, humbled you like this hyssop that is crushed by everyone" (Midrash Hagadol, Metzora 14).

Hyssop appears in Psalm 51, a psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had taken Bathsheba. Asking for forgiveness, David pleads: "Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure; wash me, that I may be whiter than snow" (51.9). According to Jewish tradition, King David was punished for his sin with leprosy, and like any other leper had to be ritually cleansed.

In view of the symbolic significance of hyssop in these and other contexts, it seems likely that the appearance of hyssop at the Crucifixion (John 19:29) may carry a similar symbolic connotation of purity and humility.

Landscapes of the Prophets

Neot Kedumim is not, strictly speaking, a Biblical garden, but a Biblical landscape reserve. The distinction is important. Far more than a living botanical dictionary where various plants can be identified, Neot Kedumim recreates the panorama and power of the landscapes themselves. Walking the trails gives a sense not just of looking at the land, but of being in the land. The vitality of the landscapes that infused the spirits of the prophets is revealed, as is the inspired ways they used these familiar vistas to convey their messages. Nuances of the biblical texts come to life.

One example is planted in the area at Neot Kedumim devoted to the prophet Isaiah. Prophesying the destruction of the kingdom of Judah, Isaiah speaks of the "terebinth and the oak in the fall" (the Hebrew shalekhet in this verse, 6:13, referring to the fall season, and not the felling of the trees, as in some translations).

The prophet has not chosen these trees at random, and a close look at their botanical features reveals his message in all its depth. The terebinth is one of very few trees in Israel whose leave turns red and yellow in the fall, and it stands out dramatically as the most colorful tree on the landscape. But this outer glory is, of course, the sign that the foliage is about to decay and drop and leave the tree naked and bare.

The kingdom of Judah at the time of this prophecy stood out on the political landscape in its wealth, its power, its military success. But Isaiah saw through the surface glory to the hypocrisy, injustice, and exploitation that portended the coming decay, that would sap the society of its vitality and leave it vulnerable to destruction.

The oak brings its own symbolic message. Very soon after the old leaves fall, new ones start appearing. Sometimes the brown, withered leaves and the fresh green buds appear on the same branch. At the same time, the acorns fall to the ground and begin sprouting -- harbingers of the next generation. Just as the apparent death of the oak tree bears within it the potential for new life, Isaiah implies, the threatened destruction of Judah would be a transitory stage to the followed by a new generation and new hope.

By this deceptively simple mention of two native forest trees that were familiar to his audience, Isaiah conveys a complex and profound message about the message about the immediate and more distant future: the flashy appearance of Judah augurs downfall and decay (as in the terebinth) -- but this destruction would be the prelude to new life (as in the oak).

Living Water

The great themes of the Bible -- Blessing, the Divine, God's relation to human beings and the world -- are conveyed in figurative language. The Biblical texts rely heavily on symbol, using the familiar to describe the transcendent, the tangible to represent the intangible. Things in the natural realm correspond to things in the spiritual realm.

Apparent at Neot Kedumim is that the land itself provided an extraordinarily rich symbolic vocabulary. Water, for example, is one of the most powerful images in the Bible. In a semi-arid land dependent on precarious winter rains, it is no wonder that water is seen as the ultimate blessing, the greatest of God's gifts: "As I pour water upon the thirsty land, and streams upon the dry ground, I will pour out My spirit on your offspring and My blessing on your descendants" (Isaiah 44:3).

Water often analogously represents the spirit of God:

"My people have.... forsaken Me, the fountain of living water" (Jeremiah 2:13).

"Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life" (John 4:14).

"On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and cried out, `Let anyone who is thirsty come to Me, and let him who believes in Me drink. As the Scripture has said: Streams of living water will flow from within Him.' Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in Him were to receive..." (John 7:37-39). Notable in this last example is that the words were spoken on "the last and greatest day of the Feast" -- the Feast of Tabernacles, occurring at the early fall transition from the dry to the rainy season, when prayers and rituals focus on the hope for the water that will revive the parched earth. These ceremonies culminate "on the last and greatest day of the Feast," when Jesus' image of living water must have resonated with great power.

"A sower went out to sow"

The grainfields and threshing floors at Neot Kedumim bring to life more Biblical images, recreating the agrarian realities that were common currency to the ancients.

It is enlightening to see the parable of the sower (Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8), for example, in its original context. Seed was sown in ancient times by "broadcasting." The sower walked along scattering the seed by hand into the fields, where it could indeed fall, as in the parable, on the path, on rocky ground, among thorns, or into good soil. These possibilities are typical of a setting that was familiar to Jesus' audiences: terrace farming in Israel's rocky hills. The uphill side of the terrace was indeed especially rocky, with "no depth of soil" (see sketch). The path leading from terrace to terrace was packed down by the farmers' feet, and the seed that fell there could not burrow into the soil and would indeed be quickly devoured by hungry birds. And some seed would naturally fall among thorns, Israel's most prevalent wild weeds and the constant bane of the farmer. Broadcasting the precious seed was indeed a chancy business. Some of the life-giving kernels could be lost -- just as the word could fall either on the wrong ears on these that "accept and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold."

The Good Shepherd

Sheep and goats belonging to breed similar to those raised in ancient times graze peacefully in their enclosure at Neot Kedumim, illustrating important Biblical ideas.

The successful Biblical shepherd had to exemplify a rare combination of strength, resourcefulness, and tenderness. Flocks were grazed in the uncultivated desert and wilderness areas, avoiding the cultivated farmland. The shepherd had to navigate the unmarked sands, survive drought and thirst, protect his flock from predators, and care for the helpless kids and lambs -- good qualities for any leader.

A good shepherd of sheep was seen as someone who could be a good leader of people: "He chose His servant David, and took him from the sheepfolds; from tending the nursing ewes He brought him to be the shepherd of His people... With upright heart he tended them, and guided them with skillful hand" (Psalm 78:71).

In many contexts, the shepherd represents even Divine leadership:

"He will pasture His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in His arms, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep" (Isaiah 40:11).

"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want" (Psalm 23:1).

"I am the good shepherd, who is willing to die for the sheep" (John 10:10).

Observing the grazing habits of the sheep and goats sheds light on the parable in Matthew 25:31-46, in which the goats are the evildoers who are cursed with eternal fire and the sheep are the righteous who enter eternal life. Sheep bite off the plants at an even height, leaving several centimeters above the ground. Goats, on the other hand, eat everything right down to the soil: tear leaves, buds, and fruit off the trees; and may even taste your clothing if you stand too close to them. These destructive grazing habits gave goats the bad reputation expressed in the parable.

Other areas of Neot Kedumim represent the Four Species of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), the Choice Products, the Temple menorah and the olive oil that lit it, the contrast between Israel and Egypt. Biblical animals now extinct in the wild are being introduced into their appropriate habitats.

Archeological excavations have uncovered a Byzantine-period chapel, cisterns, winepresses, and olive presses, and remains of an earlier Jewish village. These installations are being restored and operate in season. In winter, visitors pick ripe olives and watch them being crushed for oil with a stone used in the time of Jesus. School children plant wheat in the fall and come back to harvest, thresh, and winnow in the spring. Waiting hopefully for their seeds to grow, they know without being told why the biblical farmer watched daily for the rain, and why "shutting up the heavens" was the worst biblical curse. Summer campers crush grapes in an ancient winepress and store the juice in a nearby cave.

Tour options

Neot Kedumim hosts over 100,000 visitors from around the world every year. Short or long tours can incorporate such themes as Biblical holidays, seasonal agricultural activities, biblical water images, Israel's prophets, or leadership in the Bible. Guided tours are available in Arabic, Dutch, English, French, German, Hebrew, and Russian. Study seminars can also be arranged.

Scenic outdoor meeting areas seating up to 1,000 are available for prayer, music, or other events. Groups have successfully combined celebration of Mass with a tour tracing the importance of grain, wine, and oil in ancient agricultural life, in Jewish ritual, and in the Eucharist and anointing of priests.

Tasty biblical-style meals can be ordered and enjoyed in an outdoor or enclosed picinic area. Trails are wheelchair accessible, and electric carts are available by advance reservation.
E-mail: gen–info@neot–

© copyright 1997

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