When was the last time you stood face-to-face with a lion, leopard or bear? And did you know that these animals once roamed the land of Israel?
Natan Slifkin, founder and director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History opened this interactive edutainment initiative — that is part museum, part zoo – to inspire others about the animal kingdom from biblical times.
“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, who did his PhD dissertation on rabbinic encounters with zoology. “Here, you get to interact with exotic animals from the Bible.”
One reviewer on Trip Advisor writes: “Our group ranged in age … All loved the time spent there. In particular, the pre-teens and teens loved holding the animals (under careful supervision), the adults loved watching the children interact with the animals, and all learned quite a bit.”
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, 30 kilometers 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.
People shouldn’t confuse the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo (or the Museum of Natural History in Jerusalem) with the Biblical Museum of Natural History.
“The Biblical Zoo is more like a regular zoo. It has penguins and chimpanzees because they’re cute and fun but everything we have is significant in the Bible or Talmud,” says Slifkin, an ordained rabbi. “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.”
Kosher creatures and exotic horns
Visitors must take a guided tour (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. Slifkin says there are animals that call Israel home today, animals that used to roam around in biblical times and animals that are mentioned in the Bible but were never native to Israel.
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, visitors are offered the chance to touch a real 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 where visitors big and small can play 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. There’s always something new to be amazed at.”
Visits to the Biblical Museum of Natural History are by appointment only. Click here for more information.