June 1st sees the launch of the Wildlife Trust’s ‘30 Days Wild Challenge‘ that encourages everyone to get outside, reconnect with the natural world and to “do something wild every day throughout June”. To celebrate this initiative and to take up their challenge, I have decided to attempt to post a blog every day relating to an animal or plant that is familiar to us, and perhaps we might encounter on our own ‘30 Days Wild Challenge‘, but that can also be found in the Bible.
The natural world and the Bible
The natural world permeates the writings of the Bible. Its imagery and language are informed by the landscape, the weather patterns, the pulse of the seasons, the flora and the fauna, of the land in which the texts were produced.1 Jewish scholar and botanist, Nogah Hareuveni, goes so far as to argue that an intimate knowledge of (particularly ancient) Israel’s nature and landscape is essential to a proper understanding of the Biblical writings (Hareuveni, 1974, 1991).
Studying the relationship between the different biblical authors with the land and ecology highlights some important parallels. A trend towards urbanisation, particularly reflected in the later Persian era texts, hints at a differing and more distant connection with the land. Whilst scholars like Ellen Davis (2009) provide a compelling argument that, even at this late stage, Hebrew and Christian writings remain rooted in their connection to the land, others, like Raymond Person (2014), identify a greater disconnect between people and the soil in these groups of literature.2 Like many modern Western societies, Person argues, the urbanised elite group responsible for these writings (specifically the Deuteronomomic school) suffer from and (partially) sought to remedy ‘environmental amnesia’. This is a term coined by Forrest Clingerman (2013) that relates to a failure to remember properly our intimate connections with our environment(s). He argues:
[E]nvironmental amnesia can be defined as our lack of awareness of natural and built environments. In sum, it is the inability to remember where and who we are. This is not only a lack of scientific or theoretical knowledge, but equally a lack of embodied exposure to the environments that surround and intertwine with us.
Their experiences might, in some way, help us to identify strategies and effects of such a form of amnesia in our contemporary world.
The relationship between the biblical writers and the natural world was complex and often ambiguous; some viewed it as a window through which to understand better and celebrate the divine, others perceived with greater ambivalence, sometimes detecting in it a more malignant threat.
Animal exploitation or appreciation?
To the modern reader, the writings of 19th and early 20th century naturalists can be a little disconcerting; there is an alarming tendency to first described a bird or animal, in glowing terms, concerning its beauty and (perhaps) rarity, and then describe how to shoot, prepare and eat it! It is also true the majority of references to nonhuman life in the Bible relate either to either their fitness (כָּשֵׁר – kosher) for eating or sacrifice. The biblical writers had no concept of the ecological crises of the 21st century and it would be entirely wrong to try to read them as if they do. Their perspective was, generally, local (to Israel) and much more focused upon interpersonal and structural ethics than environmental ethics.3 Nevertheless, it would be entirely wrong to assume that these ancient texts, and the peoples they reflect, viewed the natural world purely as a resource to be exploited. Although discussing the writers of the Hebrew Wisdom literature, Katharine Dell’s comments are applicable to all the biblical authors:
“Of course it needs to be borne in mind that biblical authors did not have our environmental awareness in scientific terms, and yet they had strong connections to the land and to the non-human world around them which many of us have lost.”
Katharine Dell (2010: 58)
Prompted by an increasing sense of ecological crisis, as well as responding to criticisms that Christianity and the Bible have contributed to the promotion of attitudes behind the current environmental exploitation and devastation,4 recent scholarship is providing more and more nuanced information about the relationship(s) between divine – human – nonhuman. The Victorian (and later) understanding that the Bible depicts the Earth as a gigantic food hamper, presented to humans entirely for their use, has been debunked and a much more interesting relationship is beginning to emerge. As opposed to the utilitarian language concerning animals in earlier scholarship, this new way of understanding the texts give rise to a far wider and emotional set of ideas that suggest a new found joy and celebration in the natural world.5
The challenge – biblical zoology and botany
References to animals and plants in the Bible poses a number of challenges. The world in which biblical texts were written was a ‘high-context’ culture. In other words, the writers largely assumed that the readers would know what they were writing about without having to provide any detailed explanation. This means a lot can remain unsaid. It also means that those who are unfamiliar with the culture (us – the readers) might not be able to fully understand or know what was being discussed. This is exacerbated because the animal to which they refer often remains undescribed. Consequently, some of the names remain rather elusive as does the reason they are mentioned. It also means that, when animals are used figuratively, we must be careful not to project our own ideas/attitudes on to them.
A further challenge is that there are many words that clearly refer to an animal in the Bible, but we are uncertain as to what they actually denote. Over history this has given rise to some rather alarming forays into crypto-zoology; for example
Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?
Job 39:9 (KJV).
This is now held to be an awkward mis-translation of the Hebrew word רְאֵם (re’em) which is now almost certainly thought to denote the wild-ox (and makes much better sense textually!).
This uncertainty concerning the names of certain animals has then been heightened by the texts’ use in later Jewish and Christian traditions. Early translators of the texts into Latin (perhaps naturally) tended to use European equivalent. Therefore, in the 5th century, Jerome, in the Vulgate, translates תִּנְשֶׁ֫מֶת (tinshemet) as ‘mole’ rather than ‘mole-rat’. Interestingly, modern English versions still appear to struggle with this noun. The NRSV, ESV and NIV translate it (respectively) as ‘water-hen’ ‘barn owl’ or ‘white owl’ (Leviticus 11:18 and Deuteronomy 14:16), while all agreeing on ‘chameleon’ when it appears in Leviticus 11:30!
Things are no less unclear when we study these Hebrew texts within the Jewish tradition. The diasporic nature of medieval Judaism meant that much of the early Rabbinic scholarship also took place in Europe and consequently suffered the same problems as the Christian scholars of attempting to align Hebrew names with European counterparts. Although earlier writings attempted to identify some of these names with species found in the Middle East, it is not until the 18th century that serious engagement with the problems were made. However, works like Carpenter’s Scripture Natural History, Schwartz’s Tevuot HaAretz and Tristram’s, influential, The Natural History of the Bible (full text available here) were hampered by changes in the Levantine ecology; some animals were no longer resident (lion and bear), whilst other species, that would have been unknown to the biblical writers, had been introduced. More recent research, and particularly the emergence of zooarcheology has attempted to rectify these issues.6
For similar problems relating to the identification of plants mentioned in the Bible, see the very nice introduction by Michael Zohary that also considers how botanical names were translated in non-Semitic biblical tradition (1982:12-15).
The challenge – practical issues
In the spirit of the Wildlife Trust’s challenge, I want to acknowledge that there is a certain amount of trepidation in attempting and completing this. June is one of the more hectic months packed to the brim with marking, exam boards and all manner of meetings – but perhaps that makes it all the more reason to take time each day to stand under the sky and feel soil not concrete under my feet.
The Wildlife Trust is a great organisation that tirelessly works and campaigns on behalf of the UK’s environmental welfare and I would like these 30 posts to not just be about the Bible, but a way to celebrate their work – particularly of the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust (WWT) of which I am proud to be a member and the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust (BBCWT) in whose catchment area Newman University lies.
Above all let this be a celebration of the natural world.
In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
If you would like to take part in the 30 Days Wild Challenge you can register and obtain a free information pack by clicking the link below:
1 For more information see Daniel Hillel’s (2006) The Natural History of the Bible. Ellen Davis (2008) provides a compelling reading of the Hebrew Bible that is grounded in the soil in her Scripture, Culture and Agriculture. Ray Person’s (2014) Deuteronomy and Environmental Amnesia offers a slightly more nuanced (although not necessarily contradictory reading). Both also speak directly to the environmental crises of our time. Jeremy Benstein’s (2006) The Way into Judaism and the Environment presents a lively commentary on environmental Judaism and the connection between its scriptures and ecology.
2 Although Richard Bauckham (2010:70-82) is undoubtedly right in suggesting that the relatively fewer references to the natural world in Paul’s writings, compared with those associated with Jesus’ teaching might, in part, be due to their respective urban and rural loci.
3 Although this not entirely the case and there are interesting clues that point to an older environmental ethic that provides a conceptual framework to a lot of the biblical (prophetic) thought. For example, see Barton’s (2010) ‘Reading the prophets from an environmental perspective’ In. Horrell, D.G., Hunt, C., Southgate, C. and Stavrakopolou, F. (eds.) Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, historical and theological perspectives. London: T&T Clark. pp. 46-55.
4 Most famously presented in Lynn White’s 1967 seminal article ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis‘. Most subsequent ecotheological and eco-biblical readings are, to a greater or lesser extent, shaped by and/or responses to White’s critique.
5 For example, see Richard Baukham (2010) Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the community of creation. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.
6 For a brief and very readable overview of the history of biblical and Talmudic zoology refer to Natan Slifkin (2015) The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom: Volume One: Chayot/Wild animals. Jerusalem: Biblical Museum of Natural History. One of the best (and very readable) books that takes the newer approach is Oded Borowski’s (1998) Every living Thing: Daily use of animals in ancient Israel.
Bauckham, R. (2010) Reading the synoptic gospels ecologically’. In. Horrell, D.G., Hunt, C., Southgate, C. and Stavrakopolou, F. (eds.) Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, historical and theological perspectives. London: T&T Clark. pp. 70-82.
Benstein, Jeremy (2006) The Way into Judaism and the Environment. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing.
Borowski, O. (1998) Every living Thing: Daily use of animals in ancient Israel. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.
Clingerman, F. (2011) ‘Environmental Amnesia or the Memory of Place? The Need for Local Ethics of Memory in a Philosophical Theology of Place.’ in Religion and Ecology in the Public Sphere. Deane-Drummond, C. and Bedford-Strohm, H. (eds.) London: T. & T. Clark. pp. 141–60.
Clingerman, F. (2013) ‘Homecoming and the Half-Remembered.’ in Resisting the Place of Belonging: Uncanny Homecomings in Religion, Narrative and the Arts. Boscaljon, D. (ed.) Farnham: Ashgate. pp. 33–46
Davis, E.F. (2009) Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An agrarian reading of the Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dell, K.J. (2010) ‘The significance of the wisdom tradition in the ecological debate’. In. Horrell, D.G., Hunt, C., Southgate, C. and Stavrakopolou, F. (eds.) Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, historical and theological perspectives. London: T&T Clark. pp. 56-69.
Hareuveni, N. (1974) Ecology in the Bible. Kiryat Ono, Israel: Neot Kedumim Ltd.
Hareuveni, N. (1991) Desert and Shepherd in our Biblical Heritage. Eng. trans. Helen Frenkley. The Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel.
Hillel, D. (2006) The Natural History of the Bible: An environmental exploration of the Hebrew scriptures. New York: Columbia University Press.
Person, R.F. (2014) Deuteronomy and Environmental Amnesia. The Earth Bible Commentary 3. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
Tristram, H.B. (1898) The natural history of the Bible : being a review of the physical geography, geology, and meteorology of the Holy Land; with a description of every animal and plant mentioned in the Holy Scripture. 9th edn. London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.
Zohary, M. (1982) Plants of the Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.