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LILY (שׁוּשַׁן, H8808). The lily is mentioned thirteen times, eight times as shoshan, once as shushan in 1 Kings 7:19, and four times as shoshanan. “With flowers of lilies” (2 Chron 4:5); “the lily of the valleys...among brambles” (Song of Solomon, 2); “he shall blossom as the lily” (Hos 14:5).

Perhaps there is no flower about which more has been written or more conjectures made than the lily. It would seem that lilies were plentiful in the time of Solomon, but the cutting down of the forests and the subsequent soil erosion caused the plants to disappear. They have now been introduced again into Pal., and are growing well.

The gazelle (Song of Solomon 7:3) would feed in the best pastures, and these would be in the bottom of the valley where soil would have been washed down and deposited over the years. The soil is usually particularly deep and good on the lower reaches of a farm. It was here that the best lilies grew—hence the gazelle fed among the lilies.

In Song of Solomon 6:2, “my beloved has gone down to his garden...to pasture...and to gather lilies.” Did he go down to pick madonna lilies (Lilium candidum) to put in vases in the palace, or was he harvesting the bulbs of the lilies which in the E are considered delicious?

The word “feed” in the text (Heb. rā'â) is exactly the same word as is found in 1 Samuel 17:15, “to feed his father’s sheep,” and in Hosea 4:16 “can the Lord now feed them like the lamb.” It could therefore easily be that “my beloved” was feeding off lily bulbs, and if this is so, then the lily referred to was prob. the tiger lily, Lilium tigrinum.

In the case of lilies of the valley (Song of Solomon 2:1), the plant may well be the Hyacinthus orientalis. This is common in Pal.; the flowers are fragrant and of a deep blue color, and in the spring, because of this hyacinth, the fields round about the Lake of Galilee can look blue.

It is only fair to consider seriously the madonna lily—Lilium candidum. It certainly was grown in Pal., and Linnaeus, the greatest European botanist, stated that it was a Holy Land plant. The trouble was that in the 18th and 19th cent., the botanists were unable to find madonna lilies in their explorations. It was therefore wondered whether this lily was ever there. At last, in 1925, students of the University of Jerusalem found a madonna lily growing wild in the N of Pal., and more were found subsequently. Remember that the madonna lily is related to the lilies of the E—far more so than to the Mediterranean lilies.

As has been said, the deforestation in Solomon’s days, and the subsequent soil erosion caused the disappearance of the lilies. It is also thought that much flower cutting and even uprooting was done by the inhabitants for religious functions—this, of course, before the Arabian conquest of a.d. 636.

Another plant which has been considered as the Bible lily is the Anemone coronaria. It can be seen now on the Mount of Olives in abundance. The Lord must have seen thousands of them when He was preaching on the shores of Galilee. This anemone is much admired today—the petals may be red, purple, blue, rose or white—the stems being twelve to fifteen inches high. The brilliant colors of the flowers would certainly surpass “Solomon in all his glory.”

The Heb. word שׁוּשַׁן, H8808, tr. “lily” is similar to the Arab. word which means in fact, any type of highly-colored flower.

Lilium chalcedonicum is considered another possibility. It grows round about the Lake of Galilee, but is by no means as common as the Anemone.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

Botanically the word shoshannah, like the similar modern Arabic Susan, included in all probability a great many flowers, and was used in a way at least as wide as the popular use of the English word "lily." The expression "lily of the valleys" (So 2:1) has nothing to do with the plant of that name; the flowers referred to appear to have been associated with the rank herbage of the valley bottoms (So 4:5); the expression "His lips are as lilies" (So 5:13) might imply a scarlet flower, but more probably in oriental imagery signifies a sweet-scented flower; the sweet scent of the lily is referred to in Ecclesiasticus 39:14, and in 50:8 we read of "lilies by the rivers of water." The beauty of the blossom is implied in Ho 14:5, where Yahweh promises that repentant Israel shall "blossom as the lily." A "heap of wheat set about with lilies" (So 7:2) probably refers to the smoothed-out piles of newly threshed wheat on the threshing-floors decorated by a circlet of flowers.

The reference of our Lord to the "lilies of the field" is probably, like the Old Testament references, quite a general one.

The Hebrew and the Greek very likely include not only any members of the great order Liliaceae, growing in Palestine, e.g. asphodel, squill, hyacinth, ornithogalum ("Star of Bethlehem"), fritillaria, tulip and colocynth, but also the more showy irises ("Tabor lilies" "purple irises," etc.) and the beautiful gladioli of the Natural Order. Irideae and the familiar narcissi of the Natural Order Amaryllideae.

In later Jewish literature the lily is very frequently referred to symbolically, and a lotus or lily was commonly pictured on several Jewish coins.

See also

  • Plants