Lilies of the Field

Articles, Photo Essay 2 Comments

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentioned "lilies of the field." Tulips, poppies, daisies and other wildflowers have been suggested as candidates for "lilies of the field." In this photo essay we discover the subtleties of his message about these beautiful, short lifespan flowers.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentioned “lilies of the field.” Tulips, poppies, daisies and other wildflowers have been suggested as candidates for “lilies of the field.”

Did tall white lilies once grow in the fields and terraces of central Judea or near the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee? They don’t today, and that is why many believe that the “lilies of the field” in Matthew 6:28 and Luke 12:27 does not refer to the beautiful and now rare Madonna Lily, Lilium candidum.

This spectacular wildflower is found today in a few nooks and crannies in the high valleys of upper Western Galilee and Mt. Hermon, where it blooms in the month of May. Three to ten large snow-white blossoms are grouped along the top of a stem two to four feet tall. They remain open day and night; their heavy sweet scent increases in the darkness. The present-day “Easter lily” originated from this wild species and is forced into bloom for the holiday by hothouse methods.

Medieval Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land revered the Madonna Lily as a symbol of holiness and purity. Artists such as Titian, Lippi and Botticelli included it in paintings of the Virgin Mary. A seventeenth-century papal edict gave the lily official religious confirmation. It was sought and over-picked to near extinction.

In modern Hebrew this lily is called shoshan tsahor (pure white lily). The word shoshanah is translated “lily” in several places in the Hebrew Scriptures, but the word could refer to other trumpet-shaped wildflowers of Israel, such as the fragrant blue hyacinth (also of the lily family). Moreover, there is no certainty that shoshanim (pl. of shoshanah) is the Hebrew word behind the Greek krina (lilies) of the Gospel references.

The lily’s preference for secluded valleys has discredited it as a flower of the field. Several wildflowers native to Israel have been suggested in its place for “lilies of the field” in Matthew 6 and Luke 12.

Crown Anemone
Anemone coronaria

Also known as Windflower, this flower grows abundantly in hills, valleys and fields throughout Israel. Its six to nine velvety petals are usually a deep red, but there are also white, pink and lavender varieties. In modern Hebrew it is called kalanit (little bride). This anemone has been more recently “traditionally” regarded as the lily of the field; however, it blooms from December to March and shrivels too soon to be gathered as kindling with the dry grasses of the field in the summer season.

Mountain Tulip
Tulipa montana

This tulip is a member of the lily family. Its blossoms appear March through April, bearing six bright red petals with green and yellow markings at the base. The Hebrew name, tsiv’oni heharim, means “colorful one of the mountains.” It, like the Madonna Lily, grows mainly in hilly terrain.

Scarlet Crowfoot
Ranunculus asiaticus

A member of the buttercup family and sometimes called Turban Buttercup, its Hebrew name, nurit ‘asyah, means “little lamp of Asia.” It grows abundantly throughout Israel, equally at home in mountains, fields and desertlands. Blooming from March through May, its five petals are a bright red, so glossy that they seem to sparkle in the sunshine. This crowfoot is a likely candidate for “flowers of the field” of the Scriptures, as well as “lilies of the field.”

Corn Poppy
Papaver subpyriforme
Hebrew: parag ‘agasani

The Corn Poppy is another good candidate for the above terms. It too grows throughout Israel, sometimes coloring whole fields brilliant orange-red. The four silky petals bear at the base a characteristic blackblotch edged with white. The poppy blooms from March through May; its fragile blossoms live briefly, generally two days.

Sword Lily
Hebrew: se·FAN

The Sword Lily has two varieties indigenous to Israel that are non-red candidates for “lilies of the field.” Gladiolus atroviolaceus (Hebrew: sefan sagol), bears rosy-purple blossoms, and Gladiolus italicus (Hebrew: sefan hatevu’ah), has deep pink. These are known also by the common name, Corn Flag. They appear in meadows and grainfields from March through May. An interesting feature of this flower is its contractile roots. When disturbed by the old plowing methods, the roots drew the corms back into place. However, the roots cannot escape modern deep plowing that overturns the soil. The gladiola is a member of the iris family, and the Arabic word for iris in Israel is susan, similar to shoshan.

Dog Chamomile
Hebrew: kahvan

The Dog Chamomile has more than twenty varieties in Israel. This member of the daisy family blooms from January to June throughout the land. It is quite distinctive from the previous candidates, having many branches with small blossoms. Often under foot along paths and roadsides, this daisy is usually taken for granted. When viewed seriously, the brilliant white outer petals and golden-yellow center are very beautiful. Helen Frenkley, Director of Neot Kedumim Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel, recalls having seen Arab villagers gathering the dry stalks for kindling. She also has noted that this simple daisy qualifies for Jesus’ use of the humble and commonplace in his teachings.

Several of the wildflowers above also suit “flowers of the field” in Isaiah 40:6-8 and Psalm 103:15-16. In these passages the Hebrew word for “flowers” is (tsits). It is used in Exodus 28:36, which tells how Aaron’s rod “blossomed.” A closely related word, tsitsit, is the fringe of the tallith. Indeed, a blossom is like a fringe or tassel extending from a branch.

The parallelism in Isaiah 40 and Psalm 103 is strikingly similar to that used by Jesus in his teaching in Matthew and Luke. He may well have had those Scriptures in mind, thus referring to wildflowers in general and not any single one in particular.

Israel can boast of seemingly countless varieties of flowers. Many species of flower families (lily, iris and crowfoot, for example) originated here. Multitudes straggled in by natural processes from Mediterranean lands, Asia, and Africa. Others from more distant lands were brought in as cultivated flowers. Mountain, plain, desert and tropical plants found acceptable conditions in the diversity of the terrain.

Field flowers were well known and abundantly accessible to the people of Second Temple Israel. Their lives depended much upon agriculture of the open fields and terraced foothills.

The overwhelming beauty of the blossoms as they mingle with wild grasses and other herbage, and the brevity of their lives—the blossoms, a few days; the plants, green a few months at most—are the points Jesus makes in his lesson. God the Creator has adorned these brief and seemingly valueless parts of his creation very beautifully. He is much more willing and able to clothe and adorn man, whom he created in his own image with an eternal soul.

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  • Gloria Suess [1932-2010]

    Gloria Suess [1932-2010]

    Gloria E. M. Suess (1932-2010) lived in Israel for several years. The amazing multitude and variety of Israeli wildflowers inspired Suess to start photographing all she could find. As volunteer secretary, editor and artist for the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem, she was…
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