Today is the last day of our 30 Days [Biblically] Wild challenge that has been inspired by the Wild Life Trust‘s ‘30 Days Wild.’ Over the past four weeks we have looked at a range of plants, animals and birds. The idea has been to look at species with which we could reasonably expect to encounter in the UK and perhaps would necessarily expect to find mentioned in the Bible. What I hope to have in some way achieved is to raise an awareness of the extent to which non-human life and the environment saturates this collection of texts that is so often assumed to be simply about God and humans. In the same way, just as non-human life suffuses our landscapes (if we just spend a little time to look for it), so too it permeates and influences the biblical writings.
We can see that the biblical writers were profoundly aware of their deep interconnections with the land. The preservation of the land (materially as well as spiritually) was intricately tied to their preservation as a people. Hareuveni (1991) and then Benstein (2006) are right in emphasizing the way in which the land formed their theology and provided a rich vocabulary through which to express it.
I have aimed to stay away from drawing devotional lessons from each species. This is partly because there are already lots of books and blogs that do that, but mainly because it detracts from my primary goal, which is to foreground living things in their own right rather than to reduce them to object lessons. What we begin to see, instead, is a people who shared the land that they were given with all types of life, some benign and useful, others more threatening and dangerous. As we read the texts a little more closely with the non-human in mind, what emerges is something more akin to what Richard Bauckham (2010) would later describe as a ‘community of creation’.
Recognising a ‘divine ecology’
It would be wrong to impose our attitudes and ideologies onto the writers of the Bible. They shared, and consequently expressed, a very different understanding of the world and the cosmos in which they found themselves. Consequently, it would be inappropriate if we were to try to force some sort of ‘enlightened’ ecological thought into their work. As we have seen, for the most part, interest and therefore references to animals (and plants) tended to primarily focus on their use (primarily as food sources). This is a society that viewed the natural world as containing helpful resources that they could utilise. On one level there appears very little to gladden the heart of a deep ecologist. Furthermore, as Ray Person (2014) astutely argues, some of the texts suggest, what he describes as, an “environmental amnesia”. This relates to the disconnect between an urbanised social group from the natural world. The majority of the texts addressing animal/plant use belong to this period. However, there are also clear attempts to regain a sense of belonging (a longing for the scent of Israel’s soil). If the law codes are taken to imply that all non-human life is a commodity to be used or a resource to be exploited, we’d be wrong. The laws are as much about our relationships with them. They are as much about restricting their use (commodifying them), as they are about permitting their exploitation.
Hannah Strømmen’s (2018) recent investigation into the boundaries between animal, human and the divine in the Bible serves an important reminder that the biblical authors did not view the borders between each as rigidly as we moderns do. The ever-present danger of ‘othering’ and exploitation come with a very heavy cost. If humans gained the privilege of killing animals for food in Genesis 9 (killability), it also meant that we lost something as equally important.
Other biblical voices challenge altogether the human tendency to locate humans at the centre of creation. Jeremy Benstein (2006), representing a Jewish perspective, and Richard Bauckham (2010), presenting a Christian one, provide just two recent examples of re-awakening to that voice. Both highlight the texts that decentre humans and challenge the assumptions that the non-human should be viewed simply as resources placed (by God) at our disposal.
If we were to approach these texts in this way, we see a very modern debate taking place in the Bible – one that has a number of parallels with the very issues concerning the environment that we are grappling with at the moment: Questions of value and intrinsic value, how we should view our place within the world, the balance between resource exploitation versus preservation, etc., etc..
It would be anachronistic to attempt to portray even some of the writers of the Bible as ‘ecologically aware’. However, what is clear – and became even more pronounced as I wrote these blogs – is that they thought about their world in ways that we could describe as being ‘ecological.’ If we are to learn anything from the biblical references to non-human life, it was that …. all things had a value/purpose even if it was not at the time evident (see for example, Spider – Day 13 and Flea – Day 12). Moreover, all things are useful to God – and therefore valued (see for example, Fly – Day 23). Even animals that one would expect to be treated wholly negatively, like the snake, are valued and the promise of restoration made (see, Adder – Day 25). Later streams of Jewish tradition developed and served to amplify this further. The Perek Shirah is a development of the poetic songs of creation in the Psalms. Here all non-human life (and even the elements) are given full voice and are shown to be valued within the divine ecology.
Over to you
Over the past 30 days we have become very aware that the Bible writers (and their contemporaries) did not talk about or describe their environment and the things living in it the way that we do. There is an apparent imprecision and fluidity in the terms they used. To the western 21st century temperament this might make us a little uncomfortable and frustrating. We want to know what fish swallowed Jonah, what type of bush burst into flames in front of Moses, whether אַרְנֶבֶת (arnevet) really means hare or rabbit or both.
This apparent ambiguity of terms should not be interpreted as lack of concern or awareness, and certainly not a reflection of ignorance. It contrasts vividly against our (western post-enlightenment) attitude to the world. Taxonomy and classification is a way for us to not only understand, but to order, tame, and domesticate ‘our’ universe. Perhaps Richard Mabey (2008:148) is right when he argues that it is a gesture of respect to each individual (species) and therefore relationship, but there is also truth to John Fowle’s contention (that Mabey cites): “[T]he name of a plant is a pane of dirty glass between you and it.” For good or ill, our preoccupation with identities and names frames how we interact with our environment. It is not the only way to engage with ‘nature’.
This is important for I meet and teach many people who are acutely aware of their ‘lack of knowledge’ in this area. This can act as a significant barrier to a proper engagement with the environment. The biblical writers show us that this need not be the case. Go out, experience it. Names are useful, but not as important as how you relate to it.
So where do we go from here?
What have we learnt and, more importantly, what can we take with us?
- Perhaps it is a reawakened awareness that we can share with our ancient forebears that, whether we understand it or not, all life has its purpose and is valued. It would take centuries before we would discover the place of the wasp, fly, frog, and especially the flea within our ecosystems, but there was a preparedness to accept their place no matter how much of a nuisance they were to humans.They articulated it in the image of a choir of all creation, we might express it differently, but we are getting there.
- Perhaps it is with a more careful use of language. The biblical world was rooted in land, but also an appreciation that that land was given to them; entrusted to them to keep and preserve it. They were also very aware that their survival (literally) depended on how successful they were in that ‘sacred’ task. This again is very ecological language. The language of ‘ownership’ and ‘right’ sounds very hollow in the light of environmental catastrophe.
- Perhaps we might be able to adopt the recognition that humans are not the only lives that matter in God’s eyes. They too enjoy his protection and joy. The rebuke to Job should echo sharply in our western, 21st century, post-Enlightenment ears too. This is much more theologically expressed, but it articulates a truth that runs deep within ecology (particularly with deep ecologists): Hierarchies do not denote importance in ecologies, divine or otherwise.
For those interested in continuing this exploration into the fauna and flora of the Bible, I have posted a list of helpful ‘field-guides’ that you might find useful: Field-guides to Flora and Fauna of the Bible.
Many thanks to all those who have stayed with us throughout the last 30 days and I hope that you have enjoyed it as much as I have. I feel that the most fitting way to finish this series is with two poems; one ancient and one contemporary.
Psalm 104 (vv. 10 – 23 )
10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
11 giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
12 By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
14 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
15 and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
16 The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
19 You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
20 You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
21 The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
22 When the sun rises, they withdraw
and lie down in their dens.
23 People go out to their work
and to their labour until the evening.
The Summer Day – Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
Bauckham, R. (2010) Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the community of creation. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.
Benstein, J. (2006) The Way into Judaism and the Environment. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing.
Hareuveni, N. (1991) Desert and Shepherd in our Biblical Heritage. Translated by Helen Frenkley. Noet Kedumim: Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel.
Mabey, R. (2008) Nature Cure. London: Vintage Books
Person, R.F. (2014) Deuteronomy and Environmental Amnesia. Earth Bible Commentary 3. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
Strømmen, H. (2018) Biblical Animality after Jacques Derrida. Atlanta: SBL Press.