I have recently been reading the book The Triumph of Seeds by Thor Hanson and discovered the story of the Judean date-palm tree. The date-palm was among the most beloved and valuable fruits in the ancient Middle East. They are mentioned in the Bible and the Koran and praised for their sweetness in multiple historical sources. They were an important export from the Jordan River Valley and may have been Herod the Great’s main source of revenue. Still, changing climate and settlement patterns rendered the Judean date-palm extinct, it’s delights kept secret from modern biologists, gardeners, and connoisseurs.
During our Holy Land pilgrimage last February, our group from Sea Island had the opportunity to visit the Israeli fortress of Masada. The mountain rises 1,000 feet into the air and is surrounded by sheer cliffs. It was first used by Herod the Great as a palace and fortress in the decades just before the birth of Christ. By the year 72 AD, after the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, it was one of the last remaining hold-outs for a notoriously violent group of Jewish rebels. When Roman troops besieged Masada, it took them nearly three months to build a ramp to the top and breach the walls. Instead of dagger-wielding warriors, however, they were met with an eerie silence; the 1,000 men, women, and children inside had committed mass suicide to avoid surrender or capture. First, however, the rebels destroyed their possessions and food supplies by setting them ablaze. Some 2,000 years later, in the 1960s, archaeologists began digging through the rubble to uncover ancient coins, stoneware, and provisions. Among their findings were 2,000 year old date-palm seeds, so beautifully preserved that scraps of fruit still clung to them.
Four decades after museum workers cleaned and cataloged all of these findings from Masada, someone stumbled upon the date-palm seeds and decided to plant one in an agricultural research center on a kibbutz in southern Israel. Elaine Solowey, an agricultural specialist working there remembers having low expectations. “I really didn’t expect anything to come up,” she confessed. “I thought those seeds were as dead as doornails. Deader than doornails!” Then, one day, in the spring of 2005 she noticed a lone shoot poking up through the potting soil. The sprouting palm that so surprised Elaine now stands ten feet tall and bears the name Methuselah, after the oldest character mentioned in the Old Testament (Genesis 2:25-27).
What is the kingdom of God like, and to what shall we compare it?
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” -Mark 4:26-69
The story of Methuselah is amazing by human standards; and, when it comes down to it, biologists still know relatively little about how a seed – seemingly deader than a doornail – manages to maintain everything necessary for life in its hard, dry shell. But the story of the 2,000-year-old date-palm may be nothing by Kingdom standards. In our results-oriented culture, we like success that we can understand, measure, and reproduce – and we’d like it now, please. But Methuselah and this parable from Mark’s gospel remind us that the ways of God’s Kingdom are often unexpected, surprising, and not subject to human ordering. Where we see nothing but a dried-up shell, God can still bring new life. Where our hard work seems to have produced little yield, we do well to remember that so many of our spiritual forebearers (Moses, David, Paul) did not see the fruit of their labor, but their labors were fruitful nonetheless. In times in our personal lives when we wonder whether our work or ministry has made any difference, we can take hope from Methuselah that even when our efforts seem buried under years of rubble, new life can still spring forth.
The in-breaking of God’s Kingdom is ultimately in God’s hands. However, like the farmer with his sickle or the biologist with her seeds, we have work to do. Whether we are planting the seeds of faith, hope, and love that someone else may reap or reaping the harvest of another’s work, we put our hands to the soil and the sickle as partners with God, bringing the Kingdom to life.