How the Jews Lost Nature
The highest skies belong to God,
but the earth God gives to humanity.
The dead cannot praise God,
nor can those who go down into silence.
Western style dualism was non-existent. Spirit and matter were both recognized as such, yet they were never separated into different realms or separate dimensions. People understood the world as one metaphysical reality. Take this typical quote from Psalm 96, prayed in the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy.
Let the skies rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it;
let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them.
Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy;
they will sing before God for he comes, God comes to judge the earth.
God will judge the nations in righteousness and the peoples in truth.
Contemporary biblical scholarship demonstrates that the “history over nature” interpretation of scripture had more to do with Hegel’s philosophic idealism than anything the ancient Israelites thought or did. We are particularly indebted to Theodore Hiebert’s 1996 landmark study, The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel.
The World According to J
Hiebert demonstrates that every aspect of ancient Israelite practice and belief was indigenous—a response to the specific landscape in which the Israelites lived. That landscape consisted of the central highlands of Canaan, from Schem (today Nablus) southward along the backbone of the hill country to Jerusalem and Hebron, then sloping down towards the desert and Beersheva. Frequented by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, these highlands became home to the Hebrew tribes during the third and second millennia BCE. Most Israelites were farmers. Unable to penetrate the fertile but Canaanite-dominated coastal plain, they adapted to the hill country by carving terraces into the mountainsides to grow fruit and grain. Families also maintained flocks of goats and sheep, as nearby desert borderlands in the Jordan river valley and the Judean desert above the Dead Sea, provided suitable pasturage.
The land was wonderfully productive—if the rains were timely and abundant. But unlike the irrigation farming of Egypt and Mesopotamia, Israelite subsistence was tenuous. Drought and pestilence meant suffering and death. A donkey eats all the food that it can carry in ten days; food didn’t travel to people, people traveled to food. When Canaan suffered draught, the ancient Israelites were forced to leave their homes for neighboring countries to avoid starvation. The pressing demand that preoccupied Israelite religion was to guarantee life-giving rains and fertile soil.
J’s texts begin at the beginning with the biblical account of creation. Not everyone realizes that there are two! The creation story most people remember, chapter one of the Book of Genesis, is famous for the majestic “Let there be light…,” the orderly, “and there was evening, there was morning…,” and the optimistic, “God saw all that God had made, and it was very good.” This cosmic story of the universe’s origins is a text from P, the Priestly writer. Even though it is older, the J creation story appears afterwards in chapter two.
J starts with a problem. When God created the earth, there was no vegetation, no rain and “no adam (human) to work the adamah (soil)” (Gen. 2:4-5). J’s concern is not to account for the creation of the world, but the creation of farming! The word for earth is not the general term eretz, used to denote the land of nations and the planet, but adamah, a specific term for “arable soil.” God solves the problem by creating an adam from the adamah – a human from humus, an earthling from earth, a farmer from farmland. People are literally made of fertile soil. Then God puts this Adam in the Garden of Eden, where he is commissioned to protect and “work” the soil (Gen. 2:15). The many resonances of the Hebrew word for work, avad, do not translate well. The same root provides us with the word for “servant,” and avad becomes the term used for “worship” in the Temple ritual. Eventually, it comes to connote “prayer.”
Made from arable soil, Adam’s life purpose is to protect that soil and farm it. The first person is the first farmer, a servant to the land.
This respectful relationship between humans and land extends to the animals as well. The animals are created from the same adamah as the human; they are animated by the same divine breath; both humans and animals are called nefesh chaya, living ones (Gen. 2:7, 19). Read Genesis chapter two without the priestly baggage of chapter one and we see that Adam’s naming of the animals, explicitly created to assist him in the fields and provide friendship, is an expression of communion, not dominion.
The Torah’s account of Abraham’s family was seen by scholars as evidence for their dualistic theories. Israel’s radical departure from paganism could only result from the experience of a non-agricultural, nomadic people at home in the desert. In reality, these stories directly relate to the needs of a farming nation. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob call on God and establish shrines in the major centers of the agricultural heartland—Bethel, Schem and Hebron—staking the Israelite claim to the highland adamah. The possible exception, Isaac in the semi-arid lands around Beersheba, proves the rule. Isaac is specifically noted for his success as a farmer (Gen. 26:12)!
Most instructive, the promises made by God to the patriarchs continually pledge the hill-country adamah, the productive soil, to their descendants (Gen. 12:7, 13:14-17, 26:2-5). Isaac’s blessing to his firstborn son Esau (actually Jacob in disguise) is totally out of character. The desert hunter is blessed with abundant grain and productive vineyards (Gen. 27:28)! Because he is meant to lead the family, he receives a farmer’s blessing. J knew desert peoples and nomadic culture; they are other nations, descended from Ishmael.
The most conclusive evidence is provided by the nuts and bolts of Israelite religious practice. In the sacrificial Temple rituals, first fruits from the fields, orchards and flocks were returned to the One who brought fertility to the seeds and rain to the soil. The three major pilgrimage holidays celebrated the three major harvests of highland agriculture—Pesach for barley, Shavuot for wheat and Succot (here chag heasif) for fruit (Ex. 34). The one historical event marked was the Exodus from Egypt. Originally a separate observance, it was apparently combined with the barley harvest since both occurred in the Spring. No hierarchy is established. The remembrance of the Exodus is not privileged over thanksgiving for the harvest, or vice versa. God in history is not extolled at the expense of God in nature.
A small detail in J’s writings speaks volumes about the ancient Israelite attitude towards the world around them. The sacrificial altar, the literal bridge between the people and God, was made from undressed rock and adamah (Ex. 20:21-22). If metal touched a stone, if human artifact and artistry interfered with the earth’s handiwork, it was invalidated for ritual use.
J’s history and ritual, then, center around a common theme. God creates humans from the adamah, designates the same arable soil for the Israelites to inhabit, and commissions them to farm it. God instructs them on the proper ceremony to insure its productivity and to express gratitude for the bounty they would starve without. For all the shepherd imagery in the Torah and Israel’s prophets, and without denying the essential, supplementary role of husbandry in ancient Israel’s economy, Israelite ritual was organized around farming. This is not a desert religion centered on history instead of nature.
Born of the soil, the farmer relates to it like a servant to a master. While J’s texts are human centered—primarily concerned with Israelite survival and politics—they reflect a humble aspiration to live in harmony with the natural world.
In fact, the Hebrews were so grounded in the natural world, their experience of God was itself sensual. In contradiction to post-biblical theology (and its attempt to reinterpret scripture), an unbiased reading of the Torah shows that God is rarely revealed without some kind of physical manifestation. When Abraham calls out to God, he does so near majestic oak trees recognized as sacred shrines (Gen. 12:6, 13:18). Mountains are frequently sites of revelation, and not only Mt. Sinai (Gen. 12:8, 22:14).
More astounding to the modern sensibility, God appears in and through nature. Only Moses sees God directly—just once and only God’s “back” (Ex. 33:23). On the other occasions, God’s presence is explicitly mediated by natural phenomena. Fire is a preferred vessel, as Moses discovers at the burning bush (Ex. 3:2). God appears to Abraham as fire and smoke (Gen. 15:17), and likewise to the Israelites in a pillar that guides them through the Sinai wilderness during their 40 year desert sojourn (Ex. 13:20). And it is in fire and smoke, of course, that God descends for the greatest revelation of all on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:18).
It is incredible, and ironic, from the dualistic prejudices of our 21st century world view, but when J wants to emphasize God’s overwhelming power and unique Otherness—transcending human understanding and independent of nature—God appears through exceptional but thoroughly natural phenomena.
Most significant, of course, was God’s role in agriculture, bringing the life-giving rains and controlling the fertility of the soil. This is Israel’s reward for keeping its side of the Covenant. In Hiebert’s words, “The realm of agriculture was a sacred sphere full of divine presence and power” (p. 77).
To accuse the ancient Hebrews of desacralizing nature, then, is baseless. The very opposite is correct. We give the last word to Theodore Hiebert. “Such a religious consciousness cannot be labeled as narrowly historical but must be recognized as possessing a profound sense of the intimate and defining relationship between people and land. It is a consciousness that considers space, as well as time, as a sacred category” (p. 112).
Ancient Judaism is a classic example of indigenous religion.
The World According to P
The central priestly task was to administer the elaborate Temple rite, designed to bring rain and insure the soil’s fertility. They too recognized the land as God’s primary area of activity. They did not eradicate the indigenous character of Israelite religion; they expanded its range.
The unique priestly contributions to ancient Israelite religion also recognize God’s pervasive presence in the world. For P, Judaism is a bodily experience. The kashrut or kosher laws delineate permitted and forbidden foods. Eating itself connects one to God. The priests are pre-occupied with ritual cleanliness and impurity, physical states that determined whether or not a person could enter the Temple to offer sacrifices. Impurity is a bodily condition caused by physical proximity to things considered unclean, such as a corpse. No dualism here! Yes, God is transcendent. But without contradiction people not only think and speak about holiness. They embody it!
And just like the Yahwist, P sees divinity in the natural world. For P’s texts, the land is an independent player, with physical needs and a moral status not dissimilar to human beings. Every seven years the land must receive a Sabbath, a rest (Lev. 25), and if the land doesn’t get it, it takes it! Indeed, this is one of the explanations for the destruction of the first Temple and subsequent exile (Lev. 26:35). The Israelites denied the adamah its Sabbaths. Even more striking, if people violate the prohibitions against incest (Lev. 18:24), the land is defiled. It then vomits out its inhabitants in order to regain its sanctity! Just as human beings possess moral agency, so does the land.
We can conclude with certainty. The perception of God as transcendent and universal did not necessitate the denial of God as immanent, dwelling in and working through the natural processes of the Israelite landscape. The natural world is sacred. If not for the exile, Judaism might well have remained an indigenous, non-dualistic religion.
In this age of ecological degradation, it is a worldview we would do well to recover.
Recovering Our Roots
This is surprisingly problematic from the viewpoint of the Hebrew Bible. For the most part, biblical writers loathed the unsettled, arid deserts that comprised the wilderness they knew. For them, the Sinai was that “vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions” (Deut 8:15).
Wilderness meant death. When the prophets warned of impending doom, the substantive threat was expressed in verses like these from Isaiah’s rant on Edom (34:10ff):
From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no-one will ever pass through it again.
The desert owl and screech owl will possess it; the great owl and the raven will nest there.
God will stretch out over Edom the measuring-line of chaos and the plumb-line of desolation…
In our time, too, we face subtle and not so subtle difficulties in relating to wild nature. What we think of as wilderness is actually a new and unusual idea in the history of humankind. Until recently, protecting large areas from human exploitation was unheard of. Wilderness areas are opposed, of course, by those who would like to milk the earth’s resources to the last drop, but even among environmentalists the notion of wilderness is controversial. On the public policy level, these areas are meant to be free of human influence. In reality, they are heavily managed, usually with the goal of enhancing tourism. Is the stock broker with a camera so different from the British lord hunting elephant in Africa? Are we truly respectful of nature, or simply continuing the relentless Western exploitation of the world for our selfish purposes?
This question also applies to people like me who backpack the mountains and “leave no trace.” Are we interacting with the natural world, or are we touring a museum? Are we avoiding sticky environmental issues that have been removed to less-beautiful areas or the third world? Do we come to serve the earth, or to make our urban lives doable by taking relief in the quiet and solitude, by entertaining ourselves with another good view, by exercising our bodies in the pursuit of adrenaline rushes, by flattering our egos through the pursuit of adventure, by fulfilling our spiritual but self-centered yearnings?
These are challenging questions without easy answers. For all the difficulty of the modern idea of wilderness and the flaws in our wilderness management system, however, I do not see another solution. Wilderness areas are too small and too close to human settlement to avoid human affect. While imperfect, the wilderness designation is our most effective tool in protecting habitat.
Most of us city-dwellers go to wilderness to serve ourselves in one fashion or another. I have learned from my teachers that we must always ask ourselves: are we simply taking from nature or do we give something in return?
I believe that we can give back to the natural world. If our time in wilderness catalyses us to respect, protect and serve the natural world, our human-centered use of wilderness can be part of a genuine and balanced relationship.
Into The Wilderness
In the Hebrew Bible, wilderness is the special, unique and ultimate place to meet God. Wilderness is where the Torah is given, where David and the psalmists find inspiration, where Elijah hears the “still, small voice” (I Kings 19:12). Wilderness is the enduring home of revelation.
We cannot, of course, return to a 10th century BCE mindset. Nor should we. But we can turn to the Torah for a non-dualistic take on the world. There is much to learn from the ancient Israelites’ close relationship with God.
And if we do turn to wilderness with the help of the Hebrew Bible, we will not be the first. It is no coincidence that so much of the Jewish thought most conducive to contemporary spiritual sensibilities comes from people who were drawn to nature. In seeking to renew the experience of revelation for themselves and their communities, medieval Jewish mystics, as well as twentieth century Jewish thinkers Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, met God in the natural world. Each wrote extensively on the Bible, liberally quoting scripture to ground their innovative thinking.
We turn now to them, to learn why and how a Jew might enter the wilderness—to seek God and to overcome the spiritual/material, mind/body, Torah/nature divide.
© Rabbi Mike Comins
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Welcome to the TorahTrek eJournal! Here you will find videos, interviews, articles, photos, and educational materials on the interconnections between Judaism, wilderness, spiritual practice and sustainability. Our goal is to support the spiritual/ethical lives of individuals, enliven and strengthen the Jewish community, and promote a sustainable society living in balance with the earth. Explore the eJournal by clicking on the topics below. Please share these resources with your friends!
1 Torah And Ecology
2 Spiritual Practice In Wilderness
3 Wild Judaism
4 Educator's Corner
6 The Spiritual Wilderness