Is This a Modern Day Miracle!?
If you want to see Methuselah, he is living on a kibbutz in southern Israel! Isn’t Methuselah the longest lived person named in the Bible at 969 years? And wouldn’t he have died a long time ago? Well, yes. While all of this true, on our last trip to Israel we went expressly to Kibbutz Ketura just to visit him.
Ketura whose name means incense was the second wife of the Patriarch Abraham who he married after the death of the Matriarch Sarah. Some commentaries feel that her name marked her as a woman known for her good deeds.
Kibbutz Ketura was founded north of the city of Eilat in November 1973 by American olim . While the membership is mixed – religious and secular – it has a kosher dining room and asks members and guests to respect the Shabbat and Yomim Tovim in public spaces.
The kibbutz is located in the Arava section of the Negev. The Negev is divided into five ecological zones based on annual rainfall and elevation. The Arava has particularly poor soil and only about 2 inches of rain yearly.
The Arava Institute
Given the inhospitable nature of the Arava, it shows an enterprising spirit on the part of the kibbutnikim (plural Hebrew word for members of the kibbutz) that they developed the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in 1996. It was intended as an academic and research center for environmental leadership in the Middle East and attracts students from Israel, the Middle East and Africa. I spent a morning with Dr. Elaine Solowey, director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the Arava Institute and the scientist who has been studying desert crops and trees for over forty years with an eye to finding crops that can be successfully grown under these difficult conditions.
My first stop was to see Methuselah who now stands about twelve feet tall and is guarded by a metal railing. Yes, Methuselah is a tree – a date tree (Phoenix dactylifera) – to be more specific. But, why the name Methuselah?
Well, this Methuselah is a recently grown tree from a 1,900 year old seed and it turns out that he is. indeed, a male. Date palms are dioecious, meaning that the tree is either male or female although its identity cannot be established until the tree reaches reproductive maturity.
The seed from which Methuselah grew was found at the Herodian fortress on Masada. An archeological dig between 1963-1965, lead by Yigael Yadin at Masada found a ceramic pot with the date pits at level 34 underneath the Northern Palace approach in what may have been a storeroom. After being discovered they ended up being stored at room temperature for forty years until Sarah Sallon, director of the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem entered the picture. As the name of the institute indicates, she is interested in studying natural products used by, and therapies practiced indigenous peoples in China and Tibet to medicinal plants of the Middle East.
Ancient Date Seeds
The dates of ancient Judea were famed for various medicinal properties as well as their food value and there were extensive plantations around the Dead Sea and Jericho known in ancient times as Ir Ha”Temarim (The City of Dates). However, with repeated conquests and local devastation, these trees no longer exist. Sarah Sallon had the idea to seek out archeologists who might have ancient date pits among their findings to see if they could be germinated and successfully grown.
In 2005, Solowey planted three ancient date seeds. First she soaked them in water for 24 hours to soften the seed coat. Then they were soaked in plant hormone solutions to encourage embryonic growth and rooting. And finally they were soaked with a fertilizer solution. All solutions were kept at 95 o Fahrenheit. Eight weeks later, one seed germinated. Methuselah is visually different from standard date palms in that there is a sharp angle between the fronds and the spine. In 2015 at the age of ten, Methuselah demonstrated good health by producing pollen that successfully pollinated some modern female date palms.
Verifying the First Experiment
It was so exciting to have an ancient seed germinate and grow that Sarah Sallon of the Hadassah Medical Center decided to repeat the experiment. This was done to rule out any flukes with the first experiment that yielded Methuselah.
Once again, she asked local archeologists for seeds from their collections and in the end she collected 32 additional undamaged seeds. These seeds came from Masada, Qumran (an archaeological site at the northwestern border of the Dead Sea. Caves in the surrounding cliffs yielded the Dead Sea Scrolls), Wadi Kelt/Qelt (a deep ravine with caves plus winter water channel that I foolishly hiked once with SPNI – Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel – in the hottest part of the summer). That ravine originates close to Jerusalem and joins the Jordon River near Jericho before flowing into the Dead Sea) and Wadi Makukh (a winter water channel surrounded by high cliffs in the Judean desert with numerous caves surveyed from 1986 – 1989).
Again, she turned to Dr. Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute at Kibbutz Ketura to do the actual germination and growing. The seeds were started at various times between 2007 and 2011. With one successful experience they compiled more complete data on the seeds weighing and measuring them. Using the same germination protocol of soaking in water and plant hormone solutions, they were potted in fresh soil and everyone held their breaths. Germination times varied with some seeds taking up to six months to germinate.
One seed from Masada germinated around Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year( September/October) – assumed to be the birthday of the biblical Adam and Eve. The seedling that emerged was originally named Eve but upon discovering that it was a male, it was renamed Adam. One seed from Wadi Makukh germinated and was named Hannah after Sallon’s mother. Four seeds from Qumran germinated. One of the germinations occurred Hanukkah-time (December) and was originally named Judah for the hero of the Hanukkah story, Judah Macabee. However, this seedling turned out to be female and was renamed Judith. Ruth and Boaz appeared around the holiday of Shavuot (June) when the Scroll of Ruth is read. (Ruth and Boaz are the ancestors of King David). When Ruth turned out to be male, he was renamed Uriel after Sallon’s son. There is also a Jonah seedling.
Ancient Plant Breeding
Before planting, the seeds were measured and found to be significantly longer and wider when compared to both modern cultured varieties as well as compared to wild or self-sown dates. These measurements correlate positively with the size of the fruit indicting that the fruit from ancient trees was larger than today’s varieties. Genetic studies indicated mixed parentages of the seeds with varying input from more eastern (Arabian Gulf and Iraq) and more western lineages (Morocco). Mixed parentage indicates a sophisticated knowledge of plant breeding by the ancients. Once a desired cultivar has been created by crossing different date species in cultivation, future trees need to be cloned to maintain the desired characteristics.
In order to establish the actual ages of the seeds, shell fragments clinging to the rootlets of the plants were removed transplantation and were tested by the radiocarbon method. Methuselah, Hannah and Adam were dated from the first to fourth century BCE, Judith and Boaz were from mid-second century BCE to mid-first century CE, and Uriel and Jonah were from first to second century CE.
When this article was first written the female tree Hannah was eleven years old and was expected to produced flowers in the near future. However due to the pandemic, that article was never printed. In the meanwhile Hannah has produced flowers that were successfully fertilized by pollen from Methuselah.
The delicious results can be seen in the accompanying photo.