What does the Bible say about cheetahs, hyenas, and giraffes? Why does the prophet Daniel portray various nations as winged lions and three-headed leopards? What is the “unicorn” mentioned in the King James Bible?
Rabbi Natan Slifkin, also known as the “Zoo Rabbi,” has spent twenty years researching, teaching and writing about Biblical zoology. In the past, he ran education programs at the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem and at several zoos in North America. This year, he has taken his work to a whole new level with the opening of The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, Israel, and the publication of the Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom.
The Biblical Museum of Natural History is not like the old-fashioned museums with rows of stuffed animals in glass cases. The large, bright hall displays the beasts of the Bible in a vivid, up-close-and-personal way. Bigger animals, such as the lion, cheetah, oryx and ostrich, are taxidermy exhibits that are right out in the open, enabling them to be viewed closely from all sides (and even touched, under careful supervision). Meanwhile, over thirty species of smaller creatures, including such marvels as a spectacular horned chameleon and an adorable albino hedgehog, are presented as live exhibits. Though perhaps “smaller” is not the correct term – one of the pythons on display is nearly ten feet in length, and the giant monitor lizard is a fearsome beast.
The museum also exhibits all kinds of fascinating zoological artifacts that relate to the Bible and Jewish law, from skulls and bones to the world’s largest collection of shofars from different species. An enormous skull with ten-inch tusks is that of the Biblical behemoth, mentioned in the Book of Job, which used to live in the Holy Land, but what kind of animal is it? You’ll have to come to the museum to learn the surprising answer.
Visits to the museum are conducted exclusively via guided tours. The presentations, led either by Rabbi Slifkin or other guides, are not just highly informative and fascinating – they are also entertaining and exciting, with many animals being brought out of their cages for visitors to handle. A favorite experience (at least for some) is when the huge snakes are draped around the visitors’ necks.
Slifkin explains the idea behind this unique institution. “While Biblical zoology is innately a fascinating and novel topic, it’s even further enhanced by encountering the creatures themselves. At a zoo, you are often very distant from the animals. The idea was to present an intimate experience where you can meet the animals face-to-face. And I wanted to create a place where all the exhibits would relate to the animals of the Bible and Torah tradition, with a guided, interactive and fun tour that would make for an incredible experience.”
The museum certainly seems to have accomplished this goal. Visitors of all ages and from all walks of life, including Jewish, Christian, secular, religious and Hassidic, are clearly thrilled. Even the animals seem to love it – when a striking parrot is brought out for an ancient rabbinic blessing that is pronounced upon beautiful creatures, the parrot repeats the blessing!
For Slifkin, who recently completed his doctoral dissertation at Bar-Ilan University on the topic of “Rabbinic Encounters with Zoology”, all this is the culmination of a lifelong passion.
“Ever since I was a little child, I have been fascinated by animals, particularly exotic species,” says the 40-year old British-born rabbi. “Growing up, I kept all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures, and I always wanted to have my own zoo. But after high school, I decided to devote myself to rabbinic studies and education. Then one day I decided to look into what the Torah has to say about the animal kingdom, and I found an incredible wealth of material to explore.”
The richness of the material can be seen in the extent and diversity of the topics covered in the Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, co-published by the museum in conjunction with Koren Publishers. The lion, mentioned under six different names in the Bible, embodies various symbolisms, from the royal house of Judah to the fearsome power of the Babylonian empire. The giraffe, imported from Africa to the Holy Land in antiquity, is the subject of discussion in rabbinic law regarding whether it is kosher and why it is not eaten. A curious animal mentioned in the Bible under names such as rock-badger and coney is revealed to be the hyrax, a small furry relative of the elephant (!), whose identity was forgotten during the medieval period when Europeans lost familiarity with the natural world of the Land of Israel. We learn that the Mesopotamian fallow deer, subject of rich imagery in the Bible, is also the star of an extraordinary rescue mission by the Israel military, with some of the last surviving members of the species extracted from Iran during the revolution and brought back to the wild in Israel.
The weighty book is beautifully designed, with stunning color photographs and a creative page layout that enhances absorption of the multifaceted material. Children will enjoy looking at the pictures, while for serious scholars, there are many hundreds of detailed endnotes. This first volume covers wild animals of the Bible and Talmud, ranging in size from otters to elephants; later volumes will cover domestic animals, birds, reptiles, insects and fish.
“The animal kingdom provides extraordinary inspiration,” concludes Rabbi Slifkin. “For example, the mighty lion, presented in the Bible as the epitome of power, is not necessarily being portrayed that way due to its physical strength. It may also relate to the way in which lions, unique among big cats, are able to control their aggression and live in large family groups, with which they cooperate to bring down prey. As the saying goes, the family that preys together, stays together.”
You can learn more about the Biblical Museum of Natural History at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org