The Natural History of the Bible:
An Environmental Exploration of the Hebrew Scriptures
By Daniel Hillel
Columbia University Press, 376 pages, $32.50.
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As an idyll of pastoral serenity, the 23rd Psalm has few peers. It begins with familiar and comforting words: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters.” This peaceful vision is more than poetic metaphor, Daniel Hillel writes, for it invokes a time when the psalmist’s ancestors were indeed herders of sheep and goats, scrabbling to survive in a parched semidesert, fearful of perils lurking in the shadow of narrow ravines and placing their trust in a watchful, benevolent God.
The God of the Israelites, however, as he appears in the Bible, is not only a shepherd: He is also a creator, fashioning heaven and earth from the void; a weather maker, sending floods of rain to drown the wicked, and a warrior, smiting the slave-owning Egyptians with swarms of insects, pestilence and death. Above all, He is a formless spirit that fills the entire universe. How did the people of the Bible arrive at their unique belief in one God, omnipotent and inimitable yet incorporating multiple elements of the natural world? According to Hillel, a professor emeritus of environmental studies at the University of Massachusetts, the Israelites formed this novel idea as a direct result of their wanderings among the diverse environments of the ancient Near East: the barren Sinai desert; the pastoral savanna of southern Canaan; the fertile, Nile-fed fields of Egypt; the coastal plain of the Philistines; the urban cities of the Judean kings, and ultimately, exile in Babylon.
In “The Natural History of the Bible,” Hillel takes a fresh and invigorating approach to biblical exegesis — one that looks for clues to monotheism in flocks of goats and floods and droughts, and in the people who tended the flocks and fought the floods and the droughts and often each other. This is a writer who is captivated by the humanity of the Bible’s characters: their “flesh and blood and guts,” their tribulations and foibles, and the inspiring ideals they formed as they trekked, time after time, from freedom into slavery, exile and return.
Hillel follows this thread through a detailed ecological analysis of the Bible, which he views as an assemblage of writings that, if not strict historical fact, do reflect the experiences and the spiritual growth of the Bible’s authors. This narrative began in about the 16th century BCE, when the pastoralist Israelite patriarch Abraham is said to have arrived in the land of Canaan, and it ended in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, when the writing and redaction of the Bible were completed. Abraham and his immediate descendants grazed sheep and goats on the fringes of the Negev, relying on rain that fell unpredictably; when droughts came they migrated to Egypt, whose fields were fed by the flooding of the Nile. In exile in Sinai , the Israelites experienced not only the desolation of the wilderness but also its stillness and grandeur; it was there, we are told, that the divine law was revealed to them. Back in Canaan, they squabbled with each other and fought the coastal Philistines, appointed kings, built cities and lost the lush northern half of their kingdom to conquest by Assyrians in the eighth century BCE. The remnant — the southern kingdom of Judea — was sacked in 586 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar, and its populace sent into exile in Babylon.
The ancient Israelites, as is clear, did not dwell in isolation: They lived amid the polytheistic cultures of the Middle East, each of which worshipped either a pantheon of competing gods or a principal deity surrounded by minor and subordinate acolytes. Typically, each god personified some aspect of nature: Ba’al was a Canaanite rain god, riding the clouds and spitting out storms; Ashera, his counterpart, was a fecund earth goddess. In Egypt, the hermaphrodite river deity Hapi controlled the annual flooding of the Nile; along the Mediterranean coasts, people venerated and feared the monsters of the sea, such as Yamm and the Leviathan. The Israelites were not immune to the lure of these gods; as is clear from the fury of the prophets and the kings, they frequently built temples to them and offered sacrifices to their priests.
Among the Israelites, however, a new, all-powerful deity emerged, named variously in the Bible as Yahweh, Yah, El, Elohim, Shaddai, Adonai or combinations thereof. This God — unrivaled, yet echoing the nature gods that came before — was conceived not in a sudden revelation but after a millennium or more of exposure to the multifarious cults and ecosystems of the Middle East. We know this, Hillel writes, because the God the Israelites worshipped evolved as they wandered — from a being that appears part human (in one early and strange passage in Genesis, Elohim has sons who intermarry with “the daughters of men”) to a force of nature who speaks through bushes and donkeys and fights with sea dragons, and ultimately to a divine, inchoate and solitary arbiter of social justice.
It was during the period of the kings and the prophets — around the 10th century BCE, when commandments and rituals began to be codified — that this ideal of ethical monotheism started to take shape, Hillel says. As a unifying principle and a political rallying cry, it helped unite the warring Israelite tribes and fend off marauding empires. In exile, it cemented a dispersed people into a civilization that survives today. Just as the Israelites shaped their idea of God from a palimpsest of cultural and environmental influences, so did that principle shape them and give them a lasting and influential identity.
As Hillel concludes: “The Israelites were not noted for their grandiose architecture, colossal statues, or awesome pyramids or ziggurats. Theirs was the legacy of the mind and the spirit, encapsulated in the eloquent passages and ringing messages of their written legacy, the book that gave Western civilization the concepts of ethical monotheism and of law based on justice. It is not merely a remnant of bygone times. We are never through with it, and it never ceases to speak to us.”
Josie Glausiusz is a senior editor at Discover magazine and the author of “Buzz: The Intimate Bond Between Humans and Insects” (2004).