Tuesday, November 21, 2023

How is the Land of Israel Today Different and Similar to the Israel of Bible Times? A Guide for Bible Students

While we lament the devastation of the war in Israel, we also lament not being able to visit the land of the Bible. Regrettably, wars occurred in Israel in Bible times, as they do today. When we eventually travel to Israel, we can see that the Israel of 2000 years ago is different from the Israel of our time, with its cars racing along major highways while airplanes circle above. But, what about the land itself: the terrain (that is, the ground, especially with regard to its natural features), the flora (flowers, plants), and the fauna (animals)? Although hills and valleys remain in Israel as they were thousands of years ago and the species of vegetation are basically the same and many ancient animals remain, the density of the vegetation has diminished, new flora has been added, and many larger fauna have become rare or extinct.

Terrain: The Bible writers frequently describe God as “my rock, my fortress” (e.g., 2 Sam 22:2). Not only is Israel a land of many rocks, but also of high massive rock-filled hills, which were used as well for fortresses. Nevertheless, the ancient Jewish historian Josephus in the first century wrote that Israel was like “a garden of God in which there grows the most precious and most beautiful trees in amazing varieties.” He adds that Judea and Samaria “have abundance of trees, and are full of autumnal fruit…[which] derive their chief moisture from rain water…all their waters are exceedingly sweet: by reason also of the excellent grass they have, their cattle yield more milk than do that of other places.” In Galilee and Perea the soil also was “universally rich and fruitful, and full of the plantations of trees of all sorts” (War III.3.2 [42-50]). Because Israel lies at the crossroads of three continents, it has the flora, fauna, and terrain of the Mediterranean, the Irano-Turanian steppeland, the African, and the Euro-Siberian regions. Closer to our times, Ammon Stapleton declares, “No country in the face of the globe, of equal area, has such great inequalities of surface…in one’s day’s travel, may be experienced the heat of the Tropics, and the cold of the Arctic regions!” Mount Hermon is 11,090 feet above, while the Dead Sea is 1337 feet below sea level. “Perpetual summer and perpetual snow” may be found in Israel.”[1] Plant and bird species present in Israel are far out of proportion to the size of the area. 150 plant species are found only in Israel, such as the large Iris. Over 2800 flowering plants have been classified. Over 380 different species of birds can be seen (for example, compared to 577 species throughout Europe up to the Russian border).

However, Israel in Bible times had more woodlands, tall trees, and thick forests than it does now. The different wars occurring in Israel have done much damage to the land because in wars trees are cut and orchards burned. Wood also was cut for fuel.

The Sea of Galilee today is smaller than the ancient Sea (due to erosion); but, the basic temperatures and rain precipitation is the same now as it was in the first century.

Flora: Even though forests have shrunk, the steppelands have spread, and swamps have dried up due to wars and erosion, the modern Jewish state has re-planted thousands of acres with forest trees, mainly pine. Natural reserves, such as the Atlantic terebinths at Ein Avazim, preserve some ancient trees.

The Mount of Olives (Luke 21:37) still exists, even though the groves are only a fraction of what they were in antiquity.[2]

Only a few of the famous cedars of Lebanon remain (they once covered about 2,000 square miles of land).

The ancient forests of Sodom and Gomorrah are now under the Dead Sea.

The plane tree (Platanus orientalis) and the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) are almost gone. The lily may be rare because pilgrims would often pluck this flower.

New fruits have been introduced to Israel, such as the prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) from America via North Africa and the Jaffa orange from Portugal and China.

New plants have been introduced, such as the evening primrose (Oenothera) from America and Eucalyptus from Australia and the cactus family.

Nevertheless, many ancient trees survive such as the sycamore, oak, terebinth, zizyphus (all once considered sacred in idolatrous worship), acacia (used to make the ark of the covenant, Exod 25:10), laurel or bay (for the victor’s wreath).

Most biblical species of flora can still be found, such as:

a.   the seven species, symbol of Israel’s bounty recounted in Deuteronomy 8:8 (“a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees, and honey”);

b.   figs, dates, and olives (Olea europaea), (which may originally have come from Israel: “gardens are folly and olives are kings,” according to an Arabic proverb);

c.    wheat, grapes, and pomegranates (Song 7:12);

d.   the rose of Sharon (Pancratum maritimum, Song 2:1) and lilies of the field (Anemone, Luke 12:27).

Fauna: Many of the larger animals have become extinct or rare, because of hunting or climate changes, such as elephants, hippopotamuses, Carmel roe deer (with three pointed antlers, the emblem of the Tribe of Naphtali, Gen 49:21), Persian fallow deer, Nile crocodiles, Syrian bears, wild goats (Song 6:5; Job 39:1), wild sheep, ostriches (Job 39:13-18), lappet-faced vultures, cheetahs, lions (Job 4:10), and unicorns or oryx, a kind of antelope[3] (Ps 92:10). Horses and oxen, and the barley they eat, are slowly being replaced by machines.

Today, new animals have been brought, such as the coypu (rodent) from South America.

But, other large animals from Bible times remain: camels (from the Midianites), leopards, jungle cats, wild boars, jackals, foxes, hyenas, wild gazelles (Song 2:7; 8:14), and wild ibexes.

The smaller fauna also remain: locusts (Joel 1:6-10), field mice (1 Sam 6:5), ravens (who fed Elijah, 1 Kings 17:4-6), bees (which provided Samson with his riddle, Judg 14:8, 14), serpents, murex snails (used for purple dye), migratory birds (stork, turtledove, swallow, crane [Jer 8:7]), owls, short-toed eagles, herons, pheasants, partridges, sparrows, and bats. The voice of the nightingale is still heard in the land (Song 2:12).

Thus, though there are differences, Azaria Alon concludes that basically the Israel of today is similar to the Israel of the Bible: “Not only have the timeless hills and valleys remained as they were, but the vegetation which clothes them is the same, and the animals that wander at large.”[4]


[1] Picture is from Plants of the Bible: A Complete Handbook to all the Plants with 200 Full-Color Plates Taken in the Natural Habitat by Michael Zohary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). Ammon Stapleton, Natural History of the Bible (Cleveland: Lauer & Yost, 1885), 8.

[2] Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 3:597.

[3] The Oryx leucoryx appears to have one horn in profile. However, Erhard Reuwich in his travel guide to Israel in 1486, Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, carved in wood a one-horned unicorn, among other animals, such as giraffes and camels.

[4] THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE LAND OF THE BIBLE (New York: Paul Hamlyn, 1969), 14. See also David A. Anderson, ALL THE TREES AND WOODY PLANTS OF THE BIBLE (Waco: Word, 1979), 40, 43, 49. The Book of Job, chs. 39-41, is a great biblical introduction to the wild life of Israel. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s The Holy Land: An Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980) is recommended for Bible students who visit Israel.