Located in the industrial city of Beit Shemesh, you might be forgiven for not noticing the Biblical Museum of Natural History. After all, it doesn’t look much like a museum from the outside. In fact, it looks more like a warehouse than anything. But there is a reason for that - the museum needs warehouse sized space for all the wonders stored inside!
The Biblical Museum of Natural history is exactly what it sounds like, a one of a kind mix of Biblical study and zoology. Like a museum, it has static exhibits that aim to educate and inform, including artifacts, pieces of art, and taxidermied animals. But it is also a living zoo! Live animals great and small have a home in the museum and children and adults alike are encouraged to come, see them, and learn about both their place in the environment and in biblical history.
The museum is the brainchild of Rabbi Natan Slifkin. Slifkin’s theory is that today’s world frequently places barriers between people and the natural world. Our lives are increasingly mediated through technology and abstraction while nature recedes into the background. Conversely, in biblical times nature was a direct and constant part of everyday life!
When we read the Biblical passages that refer to encounters with animals and elements of the natural world, it’s hard for us to truly understand what those encounters were really like. The object of the Museum is to provide context for those passages. To create a better platform to understand the Bible and a greater appreciation for the world God has made for us.
Many of the exhibits and animals featured might surprise you. Sure, you might be expecting to see some camels and maybe some sheep in an Israeli zoo. Afterall, those are the kinds of animals one pictures when thinking about the area. But what about a full-sized elephant? Or maybe a lion?! That’s right, while we might associate those animals with the African veldt or Sahara, those are also animals that could be found in Israel during the time of the scriptures as well!
Visitors at the museum are directed through the exhibits on guided tours (English or Hebrew). After a brief introductory presentation, visitors are given a hands-on learning experience with taxidermy and anatomical samples such as skulls, bones, and horns, including what Slifkin claims is one of the worlds largest collections of shofars. These shaped horns are an essential part of the Jewish faith and a cultural icon of Israel. Even today, holidays like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah are noted by the loud blowing of these horns.
From there, other exhibits featuring the "wonders of the world” (exotic, strange, and beautiful animals), predators famously portrayed in the Bible such as hyenas and cheetahs, and of course, an extensive look at reptiles. The most intimidating subject of which is a real live python inspired by the Garden of Eden. Visitors are encouraged to touch and (if they be so brave) wear the python like a shawl!
Of course, the tour doesn’t end on such a potentially frightening note. There is also a petting zoo area featuring the cuddlier animals mentioned in the Bible such as rabbits, lambs, and chickens. The goal is that by the end of the tour, the animals of the Bible will no longer be abstractions or curiosities to the visitors, but real, living and breathing things - a direct connection to what is depicted in scripture. It’s a worthy goal and a truly delightful surprise to check out in Beit Shemesh!