If you’ve ever been inclined to give up or felt too low to grow, take heart from Methuselah — not the guy from Genesis who reportedly lived to be 969 years old (Gen. 5:21-27), but his namesake, a six-year-old Judean date palm tree that was sprouted from a seed nearly 2,000 years old.

The incredibly durable date pit was among a handful of seeds found in a collapsed storage room at Masada, a mountain stronghold in the Judean desert where more than 900 Jews held out for two years against the mighty Roman army before falling in 73 CE.

The seeds were actually found during excavations in 1963. Over the years they passed through several hands before ending up at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem and being given to Elaine Solowey at the Arava Institute of the Environment in Kibbutz Ketura. She pretreated the seeds with a solution of fertilizer and plant hormones. Just one sprouted. It had a shaky first few months, but has since come on strong. She named it “Methuselah” (see an early report from National Geographic, and a more recent video).

Storage rooms from MasadaThe tree, which lives in a highly monitored and protected environment, had to reach a certain age before its gender would become apparent. Recently, Solowey has been able to determine that it is male, which means it doesn’t produce fruit. She hopes to cross-pollinate it with a female tree from a closely related Egyptian variety (an “arranged marriage,” she says) and perpetuate the gene line. This would be significant, because date palms native to Israel became extinct when there was no one to care for them. Today, date palms in Israel are imported.

Some see the thriving tree as emblematic of the Hebrews’ return to the land and to a place of prominence on the world stage. Others are more concerned with the tree’s scientific value.

In either case, it’s hard not to recognize the hope embodied in an ancient seed that has found new life and vitality. Sometimes we may feel withered in spirit and worn from years, but if a lonesome seed that spent 1900 years in a desert ruin can grow again, shouldn’t there be hope for us?


[Note: if you’d like to join me, along with students and friends of Campbell University Divinity School on a trip to Israel May 15-26, 2013, go to the appropriate link at http://divinity.campbell.edu/ or contact me at cartledge@campbell.edu for more information.]


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