The Natural History of the Bible

An Environmental Exploration of the Hebrew Scriptures

by Daniel Hillel

New York: Columbia University Press, 2006, 376 pp.

Reviewed by Paula Wapnish

In The Natural History of the Bible, Daniel Hillel combines a wealth of scholarship from the fields of history, archaeology and Biblical criticism, but above all, from the environmental sciences, to illustrate the profound effect that environment played in shaping ancient Hebrew society and culture. Long overlooked, or relegated to mere background if considered at all, Hillel puts the ecological setting of the Hebrew saga front and center.

Following the broad outline of Biblical history, he takes us through each of the different physical environments of the Hebrew experience: the irrigation ecology of southern Mesopotamia, the initial settlement in the arid range of southern Canaan as non-sedentary pastoralists, the period in Egypt and encounter with the second great riverine civilization of the Ancient Near East, wandering through the deserts of the Sinai and Negev, settlement in small permanent villages in the central hill country and undertaking, for the first time, the demands of rain-fed agriculture, engagement with the Philistines and Phoenicians in the maritime sphere, the urban context of Jerusalem, which served as the crucible for national and religious cohesion, and the upheaval of the Exile, a time of disparate surroundings as the nation negotiated relocation and continued existence in Babylon, and repatriation to the homeland.

For each of these domains, Hillel describes the natural environments and the human adaptations that resulted in specific lifestyles. These he interweaves with the major episodes recounted in the Bible. We get a better understanding of human decisions and behaviors conditioned by marginal and uncertain rainfall, searing temperatures, sudden catastrophic floods, farming on rocky terraces, and the like, which frame the Hebrews’ experiences and provide perspective for individual thoughts and actions and collective mores. This is especially true for the sections detailing their existence under non-urban conditions, when the environment exerted a greater impact on the way of life.

Hillel brings to his study a deep understanding and love of the Biblical text and the Land of Israel. I especially appreciated the third appendix of selected Biblical passages that reference the seven distinct physical settings described in the book. The Biblical writers were, for the most part, intimately familiar with their surroundings, and we see their wide-ranging observations on natural phenomena in descriptions and figurative expressions regarding plants and animals, climatic conditions, and pastoral and agricultural pursuits of the ancient Hebrews. Hillel lets the Biblical voices speak for themselves, but his comments on “agricultural metaphors” and “parables of plants and people” are insightful and welcome.

Hillel’s objective is not just to show how ecological experiences influenced Hebrew culture and religion. His greater goal is to locate the actual genesis of monotheism in the consecutive physical settings of their history. Each different ecological habitat and people that the Hebrews encountered had a distinct, but similar, belief in a pantheon of gods and anthropomorphized forces responsible for the creation and maintenance of their respective locales. Through exposure to multiple domains, the Hebrews rejected the fractious conception of the many and evolved an understanding of the interconnectedness of all life forces and creation; Hillel calls this “the overarching unity of all creation.” So “the separate deified forces of nature” become “an overall Force of Nature” expressed as a “unifying supreme deity.” Eventually, through a tortuous path, monotheism emerged.

It cannot be demonstrated that Hillel’s explanation is indeed “correct” or charts the evolution of so seminal a belief. We can only embrace or reject the elegance of his argument. I would have less difficulty doing this, one way or the other, had he not tied his whole explanation to the historical narrative as presented in the Bible. The historical accuracy of the Bible has come under intense scrutiny in the past two decades as readers of this magazine well know. Internal contradictions in the Biblical text and the paucity or absence of outside documentary or archaeological evidence have called into question the larger episodes of the Biblical narrative—the Patriarchal histories, the sojourn and Exodus from Egypt, the Sinai wanderings, the Conquest of Canaan—not to mention numerous details the Bible recalls for which contradictory evidence exists. Hillel advances explanations to counter the criticisms of Biblical historicity for these episodes. Some, like the possible environmental causations for the plagues in Egypt he offers, have been effectively refuted. While noting difficulties and inconsistencies in these stories, he accepts the general historical accuracy of the outline of Biblical history. Like-minded readers will therefore find his arguments cogent and be persuaded by his explanations of how environment influenced the core of the Hebrew religion. While there is much to admire and agree with in this book, the argument fails to truly engage a critical evaluation of the Biblical text.

Historian and archaeologist Paula Wapnish is an instructor in the Department of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and Jewish Studies Program at Penn State University.

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