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 Other people might be more interested in the texts as historical documents and want to gain a clearer historical, anthropological understanding: What do they tell us about how the ancients viewed their world and their place within it?
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.
Fish – דָּגָה (dagah); דָּג (dag); ἰχθύς (ichthus); ὀψάριον (opsarion)
Another image that can capture the delights being outside on a slow summer’s day is sitting beside a flowing stream and catching the flash of light and plop of water as the surface is disturbed by flick of a fish’s tail. It is a great reminder of those completely different, almost alien, and often hidden, habitats populated by life and character that can lie just feet away from us.
When you spot a cormorant, and especially a colony of cormorants, you know you’ve spotted something a little unusual.* This is not because they are especially rare, it is because they have a singular character about them. Their black plumage has that iridescent sheen that is associated with oil slicks, and their long necks and hooked bills can give them a rather prehistoric, reptilian feel. It is an incredible swimmer (see video below), resembling underwater more a fish than a bird. One of the great UK conservation success stories of the past few years has been the improvements to the water quality in our rivers and waterways. This has helped to attract cormorants, once again, inland – much to the anger of anglers!
I find the word ‘adder’ extremely evocative for a specific time and place. As soon as I hear or read it, I am immediately transported into the warmth of sunshine, the gritty, dusty feel of a sandy heath-land with gorse-scrub abd a hint of pine, and, above all, the rich, fresh tang of new-growth bracken.
As we are drawing into the final week of this 30 Days Wild challenge, if you have spotted – or if you do happen to spot – an adder you can count yourself very fortunate and lucky. Triply lucky really. Firstly, adders are becoming increasingly rare. Secondly, they are extremely shy creatures who excel at keeping out of sight. Thirdly, you really need warm dry day, as the times that you are most likely to spot one in the open is when it is drowsily sunning itself. In the rather damp and cool June of 2019, these types of days have been a rarity!
Newman University is situated next to a reservoir and, over the last few days, the current system of very warm air over Britain has resulted in the (sort of) annual ‘infestation’ of flies on the Newman campus. I have to admit to rather enjoying the sight of them, dancing lazily in loose veils in the soft afternoon sun and their sudden appearance on a paper I am reading or scurrying across the desk. However, I am also aware that, for those living in halls, it can create feelings that are far less poetic! Nevertheless, it got me thinking about flies in the Bible and the wider Ancient Near Eastern traditions.
When you are out enjoying the countryside, if you are unfortunate enough to encounter a flea it is more than probable (and I have my fingers crossed here!) that it will not be a human flea (Pulex irritans), but one of the other strains that parasitise other animals/birds. As with some of the other posts in this series, the flea might not be one of the most obvious animals associated with biblical literature, but then again it is not often associated with calls for ‘getting back to wild’. Nevertheless, they may be discomforting irritation, but they are also an integral part of the ecological landscape.
In my experience, bats are like Marmite. They tend to divide opinion. Some people detest them while others are enchanted by them. Perhaps this is because they literally flit on the peripheries of our lives. The darting dots, like fireflies in reverse, that fly in the gloaming in such apparently random and unpredictable ways. The bat is a liminal creature in so many ways. Then there is that archive of folktales and family stories. The (always distant) relative for whom a bat got caught up in her (it usually is a ‘her’) hair. As a child I was assured that this could never happen, the bat’s skill at echolocation, as well as at flying, was far too good for that. Although, in later life, I found that the swarms of midges, drawn by my body-heat, just above my head, provides a very rich hunting ground and, on more than one occasion, I have felt the rush of air from the wings of a swooping bat.
There is a general air of ambivalence surrounding the caterpillar… France (1986:35) suggests that, being “nurtured with the notions of the woolly caterpillar of Little Arabella Millar and the amiable [really??!] and bumbling creature of Alice in Wonderland“, we have a somewhat romanticised view of the humble caterpillar. While it is true that this literary tradition continues to the present (with the popularity books like Eric Carle’s (1969) The Very Hungry Caterpillar), I am not totally convinced that most people view them quite so benignly. Despite the love that is often accorded to butterflies, my experience is that people tend to be rather squeamish of them and react in a similar way to spiders or worms.
What is noticeable is that, although there are possible references to caterpillars in the Bible, there are no references to butterflies at all. Israel hosts a large number of resident and migrant species – as well as moths (which do receive mentions in both the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and New Testament.
Once more we turn our gaze upwards to, what Richard Jefferies (1885) described as ‘nature on the roof’* as we look at the ubiquitous sparrow.
The cheeky sparrow
Although the rook will forever be my ‘favourite’ among birds, I have to confess to an utter delight when it comes to sparrows. Their sheer energy and collective vibrancy as you walk past a suburban bush and it erupts with a whirling chaos of chirps and cheeps! If find their wonderful chattering antics around the bird feeders as they squabble and bicker, like a bunch of adolescent monkeys, or dust-bathing at the kerbside of a local road, totally engrossing and entertaining.