The Natural History of the Bible

The Natural History of the Bible: An Environmental Exploration of the Hebrew Scriptures

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    The Natural History of the Bible
    Book Description:

    Traversing river valleys, steppes, deserts, rain-fed forests, farmlands, and seacoasts, the early Israelites experienced all the contrasting ecological domains of the ancient Near East. As they grew from a nomadic clan to become a nation-state in Canaan, they interacted with indigenous societies of the region, absorbed selective elements of their cultures, and integrated them into a radically new culture of their own. Daniel Hillel reveals the interplay between the culture of the Israelites and the environments within which it evolved. More than just affecting their material existence, the region's ecology influenced their views of creation and the creator, their conception of humanity's role on Earth, their own distinctive identity and destiny, and their ethics.

    In The Natural History of the Bible, Hillel shows how the eclectic experiences of the Israelites shaped their perception of the overarching unity governing nature's varied manifestations. Where other societies idolized disparate and capricious forces of nature, the Israelites discerned essential harmony and higher moral purpose. Inspired by visionary prophets, they looked to a singular, omnipresent, omnipotent force of nature mandating justice and compassion in human affairs. Monotheism was promoted as state policy and centralized in the Temple of Jerusalem. After it was destroyed and the people were exiled, a collection of scrolls distilling the nation's memories and spiritual quest served as the focus of faith in its stead.

    A prominent environmental scientist who surveyed Israel's land and water resources and has worked on agricultural development projects throughout the region, Daniel Hillel is a uniquely qualified expert on the natural history of the lands of the Bible. Combining his scientific work with a passionate, life-long study of the Bible, Hillel offers new perspectives on biblical views of the environment and the origin of ethical monotheism as an outgrowth of the Israelites' internalized experiences.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50833-9
    Subjects: Religion, General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. PROLOGUE A Personal Testament
    (pp. 1-10)

    A book about the Bible written by an environmental scientist? Some may find that an anomaly. In an age of fragmented and compartmentalized disciplines, we have come to expect that, with the possible exception of journalists, only those who are academically or professionally certified as bona fide specialists are qualified to write authoritatively on their respective disciplines. One may venture to deviate from that norm only at great risk of opprobrium.

    Mainstream biblical scholars have written voluminously and continue to do so, and many of their works are profoundly insightful. But if conventional wisdom mandates that a book on the...

  7. 1 ENVIRONMENT AND CULTURE A Premise and Its Implications
    (pp. 11-25)

    The development of human culture, wherever it takes place, is shaped by the environment that prevailed at its inception. That environment encompasses all the features of a region’s physical geography (location and geologic structure, topography, climate, and soils), biotic community of plants and animals, and cultural geography (the character of the human population, past and present). As such, the environment is not merely a passive and static stage on which cultural evolution takes place, but, indeed, a set of dynamic processes inducing that evolution. At the outset, the environment conditions the material life of a society. Reciprocally, a society’s responses...

  8. 2 THE ECOLOGICAL CONTEXT A Region of Disparate Domains
    (pp. 26-39)

    The term “ecology” derives from the Greek word oikos, which means “home” or “habitat” (abode), the place or environment within which a species or a community of species lives. Accordingly, ecology (from oiko-logos) is the study or science of the relationship between living beings and their habitats. Human ecology, by extension, is the study of how human societies interact with the Earth, including its soil, landforms, underlying mineral resources, overlying atmosphere, water (quantity, quality, and spatial and temporal distribution), climate, and entire panoply of organisms that share habitats. The historical study of human ecology considers three aspects of the reciprocal...

  9. 3 THE FIRST RIVERINE DOMAIN Influence of Mesopotamia
    (pp. 40-53)

    A strong influence on the cultural development of the Israelites emanated from Mesopotamia,¹ the reported birthplace of the first Hebrew ancestors. The very word “Hebrew” (‘Ivri) appears to derive from the verb ‘avor, which means “come across.” Accordingly, the Hebrews (‘Ivrim) were so called because they were said to have crossed the great river—the Euphrates²—at the outset of their long and tortuous trek across the various domains of the ancient Near East to where they eventually settled: the land of Canaan, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Thus the influence of Mesopotamia may have had its...

  10. 4 THE PASTORAL DOMAIN Legacy of the Bedouin Patriarchs
    (pp. 54-86)

    Throughout its diverse parts and passages, the Hebrew Bible is replete with vivid depictions of the pastoral life. Even long after the majority of Israelites became sedentary farmers and city dwellers, the memory of their origin as nomadic or seminomadic shepherds and the continuing practice of sheep and goat husbandry by a segment of the society kept the lore of pastoralism alive. It expressed itself in language and legend, in numerous figures of speech and allusions, a persistent strand woven into the very fabric of Israelite culture.

    One clear example is the familiar and beloved Psalm 23. Its opening verse,...

  11. 5 THE SECOND RIVERINE DOMAIN Sojourn and Slavery in Egypt
    (pp. 87-117)

    The riverine domains of both Mesopotamia and Egypt depended on the ebb and flow of rivers that swelled annually and provided water for irrigation. Because an excess of water could be as damaging as its paucity, the societies in both domains depended on the effective regulation of river water. Although the hydraulic civilization of Egypt may have begun somewhat later than that of Mesopotamia, the two centers of culture were contemporaries for long periods of history and constituted diametrically opposed powers vying for hegemony over the entire Fertile Crescent. Their rivalry continued for many centuries and was most intense in...

  12. 6 THE DESERT DOMAIN Wanderings in Sinai and the Negev
    (pp. 118-139)

    Throughout most of history, the desert was regarded as a realm apart, an extraterritorial domain separate from the principal habitable domains. The relatively “civilized” residents of the other regions (living in more or less organized societies) viewed the “wild” people of the lawless desert, few though they were in number, with fear and hostility, perceiving them to be a threat to civilization—as, indeed, they were at various times.¹ The desert itself was held in awe as a place of danger and terror, its mysterious vastness to be entered only at great risk.

    The word “desert” derives from the Latin...

  13. 7 THE RAINFED DOMAIN Settlement in the Hill District of Canaan
    (pp. 140-162)

    The rainfed domain extends in a wide arc from the Zagros Mountains in the east; through the so-called Armenian and Taurus Mountains in the north, and the parallel Lebanon Mountains and Anti-Lebanon Range in the west; to the hill districts of Galilee, Carmel, Samaria, and Judea in the southwest. This is a region of highlands, hills, and fertile intermontane valleys.

    The land of Canaan lies on the southwestern edge of the arc. Its northern part consists of five parallel, ecologically distinct, districts, only three of which are humid enough to be considered part of the rainfed domain. The first of...

  14. 8 THE MARITIME DOMAIN Interactions with Philistines and Phoenicians
    (pp. 163-176)

    The eastern shore of the Mediterranean was divided between Phoenicia in the north and Canaan in the south. The two contiguous coasts differ physiographically. The northern coast is rugged, as the steep slopes of the Lebanon Mountains approach the sea and occasionally jut into it, leaving a very narrow coastal plain or none at all. Hence there is little room for agricultural development along the shore. But the coast is endowed with numerous peninsulas, islets, coves, and estuaries that provide excellent sites for harbors. Consequently, the societies that inhabited this part of the Levant turned seaward to engage in fishing...

  15. 9 THE URBAN DOMAIN Convergence of King and Cult in Jerusalem
    (pp. 177-192)

    Exposure to each of the varied ecological domains in the ancient Near East and to the multifarious cults of their resident societies preconditioned the Israelites to the realization of nature’s (hence God’s) overarching unity, which is the essential premise of monotheism. A complex history created a palimpsest of acquired cultural elements ripe to be synthesized. However, the preconditioning did not result automatically in a sudden collective epiphany. What brought the heterogeneous ethnocultural elements into synergetic fusion was not so much a spontaneous coalescence of ideas as a purposefully directed process. The doctrine that eventually emerged (complete with commandments, codes, and...

  16. 10 THE EXILE DOMAIN Expulsion, Survival, Revival, and Return
    (pp. 193-205)

    As was the urban domain, but not the five ecological domains of the ancient Near East, the exile domain was a cultural and experiential realm, apart from nature, in which a nation expelled from what had been its homeland for centuries finally had to contend with the most fateful of all choices—in the most literal and dire sense—to be or not to be. Each of the other contemporary nations and cultures in the Near East, attached to and, indeed, defined by its own domain of origin, would lose its distinct identity and disappear from the stage of history...

  17. 11 THE OVERARCHING UNITY Culmination of Ethical Monotheism
    (pp. 206-220)

    The bible proclaims that the unity of God was first vouchsafed to Abraham, was later reaffirmed to his son Isaac and to his grandson Jacob, and was consequently revealed to Moses in Sinai, along with an elaborate set of tenets and laws to guide the individual and communal life of the Israelite people and, ultimately, of all peoples. The clear implication is that the belief in a single all-powerful, omnipresent God was a singular revelation, a radical departure from the beliefs of the polytheistic cultures of the ancient Near East, and that it occurred at a particular place and time...

  18. EPILOGUE The Lasting Relevance of Early Ecological Influences
    (pp. 221-228)

    Literally from the words “Go forth” (Genesis 12:1), spoken by a mysterious voice commanding Abram to leave his native land and wander toward an unspecified promised land, the early history of the Israelites, as portrayed in the Bible, is of a nation of seekers that was never confined entirely or for long to a single, distinct environment or realm, but ranged over and spanned all the natural, cultural, and political domains of the ancient Near East. Practically every other nation in the region derived its identity from its particular locale and would have lost its character if detached physically from...

    (pp. 229-240)
    (pp. 241-246)
    (pp. 247-276)
  22. NOTES
    (pp. 277-318)
    (pp. 319-336)
    (pp. 337-338)
  25. INDEX
    (pp. 339-354)