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Archaeology Gives Clues to Biblical Plants and Animals

Archaeology Gives Clues to Biblical Plants and Animals

SYNOPSIS: A series of scientific and archaeological finds related to plants and animals mentioned in the Bible can inform our understanding of the context surrounding the biblical account.

“Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.””

– Proverbs 6:6 (ESV)

How Science Can Inform Biblical Understanding

Researchers have long looked to science and archaeology to help gain insight into the plants and animals mentioned in the Bible and other ancient texts. This information can help inform our understanding of the account and what was going on in the world around the story.

These activities can include everything from dating olive pits in order to find the relative age of a site, to determining the species of animal bones found in a dump. In some instances this shows that pigs were a major part of the diet of the Philistines and Canaanites, but since they were considered unclean were not eaten at Israelite sites. This kind of evidence can counter the claims of some scholars, for example, who say that the Israelites were not present in the land of Israel (or not yet a distinct group) during the time of the Judges when the Bible puts them there.

Today’s update will explore four cases of biblical flora and fauna that have connections to archaeological finds in the past; some of them quite recently.

Mummy Tomb DNA Reveals Egypt Developed Watermelon Domestication

When people sit down to enjoy the sweetness of watermelon at picnics this summer, most probably won’t think of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. However, a recent discovery by researches shows that there may be a link.

When the Israelites in the wilderness complained to Moses about their conditions, they mentioned the melons they had eaten back in Egypt:

“We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

– Numbers 11:5-6 (ESV)

In the midst of this complaint, the Israelites were, no doubt, exaggerating the pleasures they had experienced during their harsh captivity, but melons do seem to have been on the menu. The finds from an early 18th Dynasty tomb show that the melons spoken of by the Israelites may have been among the first sweet, red watermelons developed in the world, which were domesticated from wild varieties by the Egyptians and their neighbors to the south.

An article about the Egyptian origins of watermelon at New Scientist tells of the discovery 200 years ago of a leaf placed on a mummy in an Egyptian tomb. Researchers wanted to do DNA analysis on the leaf but had trouble opening the display case containing the leaves because it had not been opened since 1876 when the leaves were first placed in it.

Archaeology Clues from DNA Study

The results of the DNA study revealed that the leaf was a type of watermelon not so different than today’s, with genes that make watermelon flesh red and sweet. The six closest wild relatives of watermelons in Africa are small and round, with flesh that is white and bitter due to compounds called cucurbitacins.

Scholars have long debated when and where watermelons were domesticated, but paintings on the walls of at least three Egyptian tombs depict modern-looking watermelons with one showing an elongated shape (pictured above). It seems like the ancient Egyptians by the mid 2nd millennium BC were some of the first to cultivate and feast on this favorite summer treat – and that the Israelites were able to join in that experience before they left in the exodus.

Origin of Ancient Blue Dye for Biblical Tassels Discovered

Origin of Ancient Blue Dye for Biblical Tassels Discovered
Tassels or tzitzits (also spelled tsitsit) at the corners of a garment. The deep blue color traditionally came from a type of sea snail. (from Wikimedia Commons)

Instructions are given in the Bible for the making of a prayer shawl with blue threads tied into the four corners as tassels (tsiytsith or tzitzit). For centuries, Jewish men have worn short wool or cotton garments with these ritual fringes. The distinct deep blue on the tassels are a reminder to follow the commandments of God who is on his heavenly throne.

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner.”

– Numbers 15:37-38 (ESV)

The rich blue color was known as tekeleth. However, the source of what the ancient Israelites used to make the blue dye had been lost. As covered on a previous Thinker Update, the earliest known mention of the ancient blue dyecomes from over 3,000 years ago in the Tell el-Amarna tablets found in upper Egypt. When the Romans crushed the Jewish population in the land of Israel nearly 2,000 years ago, deporting many of the survivors, it appears that knowledge of the source of the valuable dye disappeared, and an age-old tradition was lost.

Researchers on the hunt for the source of the blue dye noted that the Tell el-Amarna tablets and archeological evidence pointed to one source is the island of Crete, where the Minoans were manufacturing dye known as sea purple. A breakthrough occurred when large piles of sea snail shells called Hexaplex (formerly known as “Murex”) were discovered that testified to the presence of the dye industry.

Hexaplex trunculus snail found in Israel. (from Wikimedia Commons)
Hexaplex trunculus snail found in Israel. (from Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1950s a discovery of a small piece of fabric was tested and results confirmed that the Hexaplex trunculus mollusc was the source of the rare blue dye. It also confirmed the exact color of the dye that strict followers of the biblical commandment had produced. This piece of fabric was found in a cave where Jewish freedom fighters hid in the 2nd century AD during the Bar Kokhba revolt. The ancient process to produce the dye has also now been replicated.

Samson and Bronze Age Evidence That Humans Domesticated Foxes

One of the most intriguing stories of the biblical Judges period is the story of Samson and the foxes:

“So Samson went and caught 300 foxes and took torches. And he turned them tail to tail and put a torch between each pair of tails. And when he had set fire to the torches, he let the foxes go into the standing grain of the Philistines and set fire to the stacked grain and the standing grain, as well as the olive orchards.”

– Judges 15:4-5 (ESV)

A colorful mosaic of this scene, where the foxes can be seen with their tails tied together with a lit torch, was found in the 5th century AD remains of the Huqoq synagogue in the southern Galilee region of Israel. As reported in a previous Thinker Update, this ancient synagogue contained a string of biblical scenes that display some of the oldest biblical art ever found.

partially preserved Samson and the foxes mosaic. (Photo: Jim Haberman, U. North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
The partially preserved Samson and the foxes mosaic. (Photo: Jim Haberman, U. North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

The discovery was made by a team headed by Professor Jodi Magness from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Magness can be seen in the Director’s Choice version of our latest film, Patterns of Evidence The Moses Controversy.

However, the fact that the biblical account has Samson capturing 300 foxes has caused critics to ridicule the assertion that it would possible to capture this many foxes who are normally solitary or travel in small groups. For example, the 18th-century French historian Voltaire in The Questions of Zapata wrote: “The fox is only an inhabitant of woody countries, there were no forests in this canton, and it appears rather difficult to catch 300 live foxes and tie them one to each other by the tails.”

Two points could be made in response. First, the assumption that there were no forests in Israel has been refuted by climate studies of ancient times showing that Israel was wetter and more forested more than 3,000 years ago compared to today.

Light may have been cast on the second issue by the findings of a new study. While some have pointed out that the Hebrew term for foxes, shuw’al, can also include jackals that congregate in large groups (making it easier to catch large numbers), researchers in Spain have shown the prevalence of domesticated foxes among Bronze Age people.

An article on foxes in The Vintage News highlighted the findings that red fox were among the domesticated dogs and cats buried with their owners in Spain. Study of their bones showed they had a similar diet as the humans and their dogs. In one case a very old fox had a broken leg with evidence that it had been healed with the aid of a splint.

It would be much easier for Samson to gather a large number of foxes if they were domesticated, especially if they were kept in fur farms as in modern examples.

The Asiatic Breed of Lion That King David Fought

Sculpted reliefs in the British Museum depicting Ashurbanipal, the last great Assyrian king, hunting lions. From the palace of Nineveh c. 645-635 BC. (from Wikimedia Commons)

Samson also killed a lion with his bare hands and King David fought and killed a lion.

And David said, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you!”

– 1 Samuel 17:37 (ESV)

The type of lion they would have faced is the Asiatic lion that once thrived in Israel but is now endangered and found only in a small region of India. Archaeologists have discovered scenes of King Ashurbanipal of Assyrian hunting lions on the palace walls of Nineveh from c. 640 BC. These lions can weigh over 500 pounds, which creates great appreciation for what Samson and David faced. –Keep Thinking

TOP PHOTO: Tomb painting from Egypt showing a watermelon. (from Renner, Perez-Escobar, Silber, Nesbitt, Preick, Hofreiter, Chomicki)



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