Church of God members embark on a barley hunt in Israel
By John Warren
Four Church of God members went hunting in Israel recently. But the game they pursued wasn't all that big. The men were in Jerusalem and environs in mid-March to search for a special kind of barley--not just barley plants but the ears of grain just as they began to ripen.
The hunt, organized by a group of Karaite Jews, served to determine the timing of the feast days of Leviticus 23 for the 12 months beginning this spring (or, in the southern hemisphere, the fall).
Karaite Judaism, also called Karaism, is a Jewish doctrine that originated in Baghdad in the eighth century that rejects rabbinism and talmudism and bases its tenets on Scripture (the Old Testament) alone.
Karaites are as concerned about the yearly barley harvest as many Church of God members have become in the last few years. They believe, based on certain indicators they see in Scripture, that the ripening barley in the Holy Land tells feastkeepers when to start the yearly cycle of feast days.
The COG members who wait eagerly for news of the newly ripe grains in Israel are among those who have rejected the Jewish calendar and its rules of "postponement" as being antibiblical or at least extrabiblical.
The four COG members in the abib expedition were Brian Convery of Kendall, N.Y.; Richard Dolan of Sacramento, Calif.; Gerald Kirby of Corwen, Wales; and Michael Storey of Wells, England.
Besides the four COG people, three Karaite Jews, Nehemia Gordon, Devorah Gordon and Yirmiyahu Hinger participated.
Mr. Convery told The Journal that the Karaites sent out a call in early 2002--through their Web site, www.karaite-korner.org, and newsletter--for "abib keepers around the world" to join in the search.
More than 1,700 invitations went out, based on a mailing list of newsletter subscribers.
"Interestingly enough," said Mr. Convery, "the four respondents who participated [besides the Karaites] were all from the Church of God."
Mr. Dolan is a member of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), and the other three are former members of the WCG.
Mr. Convery, who is also a former member of the Global Church of God, is not affiliated with any church organization. He operates a tape ministry from his home in New York.
Mr. Kirby, who is also a former member of the Church of God International, has moved his pastoral responsibilities to the North West Church of God at Chester, England.
Mr. Storey, who is also a former member of the United Church of God, now fellowships with the North West Church of God.
Mr. Convery talked about the significance he sees in barley.
"The Karaites teach the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover must be observed in the month of Abib [which the Bible also calls Nisan], which commences with the first new moon after the barley becomes abib," he said. "Abib is an ancient Hebrew agricultural term which refers to a certain stage in the ripening of the barley."
He explained his focus on barley.
"The abib barley is fundamental to the proper observance of the Passover as well as all the festivals of God," Mr. Convery said. "It is by this that God instructs us to start the year and thus the beginning of the count in setting the appointed times of God."
According to Mr. Convery, abib has significance throughout much of Jewish history.
"The abib was recognized by all ancient Jewish groups as the true determining factor in the beginning of the year," he said. "Even the Pharisees recognized this and historically used the abib in beginning the year up until the time of Hillel II in 359 C.E. [A.D.]."
Mr. Convery described the importance the Karaites continue to place on the abib.
"Unlike the Pharisees, who eventually abandoned the observance of the abib, the Karaites preserved this true ancient practice throughout the millennia," he said. "Historical sources report that the Karaites observed the abib throughout the Middle Ages and even as late as 1642. Some reports seem to indicate the Karaites were still observing the abib in the 1830s."
Mr. Convery said the Karaites had "forsaken the abib by 1860," but a sage in the same year wrote that, "as soon as they [the Karaites] returned to the land of Israel, they would resume its observance."
"It was not until 1989 that this was to come about," said Mr. Convery.
Mr. Convery explained how the Karaites began to use the abib again to determine the beginning of the Israelitish year.
"Using ancient tomes as their starting point, this group of faithful Karaites began [in the 1980s] to intensively study the abib," he said. "Within a few years they had rediscovered the meaning of this ancient agricultural term."
After several years of research, he said, the Karaites discovered that, to satisfy the Old Testament requirements they would have to look for barley "with fully formed seeds."
Since barley develops at different rates in different parts of Israel, "to find the earliest ripening barley would require nothing less than an abib search."
Mr. Convery explained why the Karaites invite volunteers in other lands to help in the quest.
"When war broke out [between Israel and Arabs] in October 2000, the Karaites were faced with a dilemma," he said.
"To search for abib would require entering regions that were becoming increasingly dangerous. With hundreds of Israelis dead and thousands wounded, the days of driving around the land of Israel looking for abib seemed to be in jeopardy."
The Karaites first thought of inviting foreigners to help with the search early in 2001. They reasoned that the Palestinians and other Arabs would not be as likely to harass non-Israelis as they would Israelis.
What about the seasons?
Because some people, including quite a few Church of God members, think the Jewish calendar dictates that the feasts fall not precisely in their correct seasons and therefore sometimes makes them come a month too early, The Journal asked Mr. Convery to comment on the concept of spring (in the northern hemisphere) and its beginning.
"The appointed times are not related to spring or to the seasons," he answered. "In fact, biblical Hebrew does not even have words for spring or autumn. The division of the year into four seasons is a foreign concept superimposed on ancient Israel by Europeans. Ancient Israel only had two seasons, winter and summer."
Mr. Convery cited Genesis 8:22.
"Look at these very clear contrasts," he said. "Winter and summer are equated to cold and hot and seedtime and harvest.
"When Genesis 8:22 was given in the Torah [the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible], the concept of spring as occurring after the equinox was as unknown and irrelevant as the equinox itself.
"These are all agricultural criteria which are affected by meteorological events, not astrological occurrences. Israel has two seasons defined by rain, its abundance or its lack thereof.
"You can read that throughout the Scriptures. Anyone who has spent time living in Israel understands this to be true even today."
Mr. Convery said the four Church of God abib hunters "spent two days learning about abib from our Karaite hosts and then another two days [March 14-15] on the actual search."
"The search was an overwhelming success," he said. "Abib was found all over the land of Israel, from Jerusalem to the northern Negev to the Jordan Valley. Abib was found in large quantities in numerous locations."
Mr. Convery said the project included more than just hunting and observing.
"The Karaites and the four of us who were part of the abib expedition have gathered hundreds of samples and pictures for the express purpose of putting together a guide in written and pictorial form to help others in their search for the abib of God," he said.
Mr. Convery described the elation of the four men when they decided, thanks to the abib barley, when they believe the new year should begin:
"Having found the abib, widely spread over the land of Israel, we gathered that evening on the last day of the 12th month after sunset, on the roof of a tall hotel in Jerusalem, to look for the first sign of the new moon that would finalize the start of the new year.
"The sky to the west was cloudy, but, as the clouds moved across, a break emerged and a cry was heard, 'There it is: the new moon!' Nehemia [Gordon] blew on his shofar, and new-year's greetings were exchanged.
"The abib had been found; the new moon had been seen; and the new year had begun at 1811 [6:11 p.m.] on Friday, March 15, 2002."
Mr. Convery said he and his partners in abib realized an unexpected benefit from their trip.
"The importance of this endeavor goes far beyond the simple search for barley in a state of abib," he said. "What is of greater importance is the way in which members of the Church of God and members of Karaite Judaism have worked side by side in seeking the way of God.
"I personally do not feel this is a coincidence. We honor the same God and as brothers are working together to restore the truth of the Scriptures in our lives and in the lives of all who will listen."
Mr. Convery concluded with an exhortation about dealing with brethren.
"We all do not agree on the exact form to follow, but we are all searching the Scriptures to make that decision," he said.
"It is deeply personal and should be accorded as such.
"It seems nothing comes easy in the Church of God these days. I remind everyone that it is God who determines who is called a brother and that we should understand that in dealing with our differences."
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