‘Field-guides’ to Fauna and Flora in the Bible

‘Naturalist’s Kit’. Image: Lucy Source: http://www.questfornectar.com/amateur-naturalist-equipment/

If you have been inspired by either this series of blogs or the #30DaysWild challenge to do some of your own exploration of the fauna and flora of the Bible but you are not sure of where to start, I have listed here some useful resources that can act as your field-guides.

Finding resources on this topic is becoming much easier as the portrayal of non-human life within biblical literature is a lot of renewed attention. The confluence of environmental crises (climate, pollution, population, land use, habitat exploitation and depletion, etc.) has provided an opportunity for those with faith communities to reexamine these issues in the light of their sacred texts.

Which resources you will find helpful will depend upon your interests. Some might be interested in just knowing a little more about the context to, for example, the teachings of Jesus or the prophets. Others might be more interested in the intersection between the biblical writings and the ecology. Is the influence of the biblical tradition as bad as some of its critics argue? Are there modes of understanding within these texts that might help us address the crises we now face. What does the Bible say about animal welfare and exploitation? There is some very interesting work being done from Christian, Jewish and Islamic perspectives re-looking at vegetarianism and veganism. Other people might be more interested in the texts as historical documents and want to gain a clearer historical, anthropological understanding: What do they tell us about how the ancients viewed their world and their place within it?

The list below is not meant to be exhaustive, it is there to provide you with accessible starting points that are fairly easily available. Secondhand copies can be picked up relatively cheaply. All are written for with the lay-person in mind – in other words they are not written for other academics, with the assumptions and terminologies that goes with it.

Like the blogs in the series, I have deliberately stayed away from literature that takes a devotional perspective, in that they use plants and animals mentioned in the Bible from which to draw homiletic lessons – of which there are many! There is nothing wrong in them. In fact, there is a long tradition within both Jewish and Christian traditions that does precisely this. However, the point of the series has been avoid the reduction of non-human life to object lessons. Rather, it has been to demonstrate how different texts reflected attitudes to them and (some at least) appreciated and acknowledged their intrinsic value.


Your field-guides to the ‘biblical wild’

Landscape and terrain

Any naturalist will tell you that terrain or habitat will dictate the types of species you should expect to find. Biblical Israel (the territory described about within the texts) encompass a wide range of ecologically distinct zones or domains that include, desert, mountain, riverine, pastoral, and urban.

Hillel, D. (2006) The Natural History of the Bible: An environmental exploration of the Hebrew bible. Columbia: New York University Press.

Daniel Hillel is an environmental scientist and his Natural History of the Bible reflects his vast first-hand knowledge of this area. I am aware that a number of biblical scholars have taken issue with his uncritical use of the Bible and their points are valid. He structures the book attributing different ‘ecological domains’ to the different periods in the Israel’s history as presented in the Bible (patriarchs, exodus, and so on). It is a clever device, but at times a little too clever and creates problems in presenting the texts in a rather too simplistic and superficial way.

However, it would be doing the book and the reader a real disservice to dismiss it altogether. It is one of the best and most authoritative (from a research perspective) book I have come across on this subject. It is beautifully written and produced. The geological and environmental research is first-rate. Excursive blocks provide extra information and context. Hillel is writing from a Jewish perspective and, as the subtitle suggests, the focus is almost exclusively on the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament in Christian tradition).

Hareuveni, N. (1974) Ecology in the Bible. Kiryat Ono, Israel: Neot Kedumim.

Nogah Hareuveni, botanist and Jewish scholar, was writing about the land and the Bible long before it became popular, forcefully arguing that until you can appreciate the environment in which it was written you will not be able to fully understand its texts. Ecology in the Bible is a very short booklet (just 51 pages) in which he sets out his case. The use of a lot of photographs help to acquaint the reader who has not been to the area and to illustrate various plants and animals in the text. However, it does mean that the amount of actual written content is small. Nevertheless, what there is insightful.

Hareuveni develops some of these arguments in his Desert and Shepherd in our Biblical Heritage (1991). This is also packed with special insight and offering some unique first-hand information.

Unfortunately both books are now out of print. I have noted that secondhand prices, particularly for Desert and Shepherd have sharply increased in recent years.

A number of the books listed below also include introductory sections that cover the landscape of Israel. These are necessarily brief, but can provide good information. I would argue that the best is found in Michael Zohary’s (see below in the section on Flora) Plants of the Bible. This is an exceptionally detailed introduction to the the climate and terrain of Israel.


Fauna

Slifkin, N. (2015) The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom: Volume 1: Chayot/Wild Animals. New York: Biblical Museum of Natural History.

This would be my ‘Desert Island Discs’ choice for book. It is a beautifully produced, lavishly illustrated, volume that has a ‘coffee-table book’ feel but is also brimful of detailed, painstakingly researched, information. Its scholarship is superb and covers biblical and (Jewish) post-biblical traditions. This volume deals only with wild animals (chayot) and so it might be too limited for some. As the title suggests it reflects a (scholarly) Jewish perspective and, although the New Testament is addressed, texts from this section are not specifically included. The introduction states that Rabbi Natan Slifkin is currently preparing companion volumes.

Borowski, O. (1998) Every living Thing: Daily use of animals in ancient Israel. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.

This is another extremely well researched book. One of the strengths of this book is that it primarily draws a lot upon zooarcheological data – finds of animal bones and other remains at archeological sites, rather than biblical texts. It covers a wide range of animals that were used and exploited during the early stages of Israelite history. Borowski’s particular focus is the Bronze, and Iron Age I and II. This was the period of the monarchies in Israel. He does also include research relating to later periods. However, because of this, there is very limited reference to the New Testament.

France, P. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Bible Animals. London: Croom Helm.

Peter France provides a useful introduction that might be particularly useful for someone feeling their way into the subject. It’s a little old and France has an incredibly frustrating tendency of not including references to his sources. This is a real shame as he provides a lot of material that is not found elsewhere. If you can cope with this shortcoming there is plenty here to keep you entertained. France tends to rely on the King James (Authorised) text and this, sometimes, puts him at odds with more recent research. For those interested in the translation of the KJV text, France is very good at providing information about the lore and wisdom associated with particular animals.

Bright, M. (2006) Beasts of the Field: The revealing natural history of the bible. London: Robson Books.

Michael Bright is a producer based at the renowned BBC Natural History Unit and he draws on some of his experiences in this book. This is definitely a book aimed at a more popular (but interested) audience. The advantage of this is that it is a lively read and a good entry point into the subject. Bright depends quite heavily on France (above) and like him tends not to reference his sources of information. This means that some of his information is a little dated and presented in a non-critical way.

To be honest, I am a little conflicted about whether to include Bright’s book in this list. It has some good points, but also some serious weaknesses. It is much more discursive (particularly in the earlier chapters) than most of the other books listed here that tend to be a series of entries relating to different animals. There are discussions on Jonah and the whale (sic), possible explanations of the plagues of Egypt, etc. However, although biblical and extra-biblical texts are widely used, there is very little apparent awareness of current Bible research or critical approaches to them. Consequently, they tendency to use them in a rather superficial way. This is a good summary of writings about the Bible’s natural history. It is not so good on the Bible itself.

Goodfellow, P. (2015) Flora and Fauna of the Bible: A guide for Bible readers and naturalists. Oxford: John Beaufoy.

As the title suggests, this book also includes plants and trees. It makes an attractive, concise and ideal introduction to the main plants and animals of the Bible. Numerous colour sketches and pictures, together with large blocks of relevant texts makes this a very attractive book. The volume comprises two parts Flora and then Fauna. Chapters address main categories of each (‘Wild Trees’, ‘Reptiles’, etc.). The information is a bit more limited, but is never the less useful and provides an accessible entry-point. It should also be noted that Goodfellow has produced two other companion volumes: Birds of the Bible (2013) and The Natural History of the Bible (2017).

I should also add that this book would make an ideal birthday or Christmas present!


Flora

Zohary, M. (1986) Plants of the Bible: A complete handbook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Michael Zohary is arguably the most authoritative scholar on the botany of the Bible. Plants of the Bible is probably the most accessible and useful of his prolific output. Although it is now quite old, it still holds up. This book covers a wide range of plants and, although each entry is quite short they are packed with information about the plant and its use. The book comprises two parts, the first of which is an extremely useful introductory guide to topology, climate, trade, vegetal landscapes and lore.

Jensen, H.A. (2012) Plant World of the Bible. Bloomington: Author House.

This is another beautifully produced book that contains twenty whole page colour plant illustrations from the 6th century (CE) Vienna Dioscorides. Hans Arne Jensen is another expert who has written extensively in the field and contains a lot of very useful information. This book makes a very accessible entry point.

There are some superficial similarities with Goodfellow’s Flora and Fauna (above), in their appearance. This too would make an ideal birthday or Christmas present. Between the two, I would suggest Goodfellow for the Christian with a passing interest in animals and birds, whereas Jensen is definitely for the person with s serious passion for plants and botanical sciences.

Musselman, L.J. (2007) Figs, Dates, Laurel and Myrrh: Plants of the Bible and Quran. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

I have to admit I really like Musselman’s book. In some respects as far as actual plant information goes, there is an element of duplication of Zohary’s work (but then the same could be said for many books like this). However, it is also so much more. Musselman manages to include some different extra nuggets of information as well as draw in his first-hand experience in the field. There is also much more detailed information about the different uses of the plants it discusses. I particularly appreciate the inclusion of the Islamic tradition within the remit of this study. This is often ignored or forgotten, but contributes significantly to later traditions.

Swenson, A. A. (1995) Plants of the Bible: And how to grow them. New York: Citadel Press.

Swenson offers us something a little different and might be more suitable for someone whose appetite has been whetted but doesn’t want anything too serious. Swenson will courteously take you through the main plants found in the Bible (a much more limited list to other books listed here), but his main strength is that it is also a guide for the horticulturalist who wants to have a go at growing them at home. Therefore advice about soils, planting and caring are also included in each entry – as well as offering suggestions for substitutions for plants that are not suitable for a particular location. The first part of the book gives advice about how to plan and organise your garden.


Free – Open Access

Although they are now very old and in some parts a little out of date, the writings of the 19th century naturalists and writers Thaddeus Mason Harris (1768-1842) and particularly Henry Baker Tristram (1822-1906) remain incredibly important source materials. Many scholars today still use Tristram extensively citing his first-hand experience of late 19th century Palestine and its ecology.

The website archive.org provide free versions of both these texts:

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