Getting up close and personal with animals from the Bible

Natan Slifkin wants people to know that animals they might typically see in the zoo once roamed the land of Israel.

He does this through the Biblical Museum of Natural History outside Jerusalem. Slifkin, who is the founder and director of the museum, opened this interactive “edutainment” initiative — part museum, part zoo —  to inspire others about the animal kingdom from biblical times.

Museum director Natan Slifkin talks about skulls. photos/courtesy biblical museum of natural history

“It’s a completely unique experience where visitors see a perspective of the Bible and Israel they’ve not thought about before. Usually the Bible is thought about in relation to rituals and not how it relates to hyenas, chameleons and crocodiles,” says Slifkin, whose Ph.D. dissertation focused on rabbinic encounters with zoology. “Here, you get to interact with exotic animals from the Bible.”

In 2014, the Biblical Museum of Natural History opened its doors in a temporary rental location in a warehouse in the northern industrial zone of the city of Beit Shemesh, approximately 18 miles west of Jerusalem. In its first year, the museum counted 10,000 visitors.

The Biblical Museum of Natural History is the only one of its kind anywhere, says Slifkin, who has run a number of educational programs at zoos and natural history museums worldwide. (The Biblical Museum of Natural History is not to be confused with the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo or the Museum of Natural History in Jerusalem.)

“The Biblical Zoo is more like a regular zoo,” says Slifkin, an ordained rabbi. “It has penguins and chimpanzees because they’re cute and fun, but everything we have is significant in the Bible or Talmud.

“You’re not going to find polar bears or kangaroos or penguins in the Bible, so they’re not here. This museum-zoo is about the animals of biblical times.”

Visitors can learn about the Garden of Eden, then hold a python.

Visitors must take a guided tour (in English or Hebrew) at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. The 75-minute visit begins in an auditorium with a film and presentation that explains the idea behind biblical natural history.

From the auditorium, visitors move to the main exhibit hall for hands-on experiences starting with taxidermy, old skulls and bones. Among the horns and tusks is what Slifkin says is the world’s largest collection of exotic shofars.

At the “Wonders of Creation” exhibit, visitors get a glimpse of some of the most extraordinary creatures in the natural world. “Kosher Creatures” features a mix of mammals, birds, fish and insects in taxidermy and live form. The “Beasts of Prey” taxidermy display includes a lion, cheetah and other predators. Slifkin says these animals have prominent roles in the Bible.

“People are most surprised to come face-to-face with these animals and realize these animals used to be walking around Israel. This is a country that used to have lions and cheetahs and hippos and crocodiles,” he says.

“In a zoo, you see a lion and it’s far away at the back of a cage. I wanted to show a lion up close. So, we have a taxidermy lion and visitors can stand face-to-face with it.”

There is also an array of live reptiles waiting to be touched and stroked. When hearing about the Garden of Eden, for example, visitors are offered the chance to touch a live python.

“At a regular natural history museum the displays will be according to principles of biology, evolution, and so on, but here it is thematic according to biblical themes,” Slifkin says.

The tour ends outside at a petting zoo with rabbits, chickens and a giant tortoise.

It took Slifkin 15 years to gather the specimens in the initial collection at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, and more items are being added all the time.

The 40-year old museum founder says the animal kingdom has been his passion for 37 years. “Everything is fascinating: their colors, shapes, textures, sizes and personalities.”

Reprinted with permission from Israel21c,www.israel21c.org