Daniel Hillel and the Natural History of The Bible

ABSTRACT: The Middle East encompasses five ecological domains: (1) the humid highlands and their intermontane valleys, where rainfed farming was begun and permanent settlements were first established; (2) the semi-arid steppes, where the lesser amount and instability of rainfall made rainfed farming marginal but still provided vegetative resources that could be utilized by semi-nomadic pastoralists; (3) the river valleys, where irrigated farming was practiced in the floodplains and hydraulic works (including diversion canals and ponding basins) were developed; (4) the seacoasts, where fishing, seafaring, and maritime trade were practiced; and (5) the deserts, where a sparse population subsisted by hunting and occasional marauding, and eventually by becoming caravaneers conveying products such as herbs and spices overland from distant sources to centers of population. In each of these domains, a distinctive culture evolved, characterized by a specific set of precepts, beliefs, and rituals based on the deification and worship of the dominant forces of nature whose interplay seemed to govern the particular environment. In an exposition more fully elucidated in his forthcoming book The natural history of the Bible: an ecological reading of the scriptures, the author hypothesizes that it was the encompassing ecological experience of the ancient Israelites (who shifted from one domain to another in the early course of their history) that enabled them to perceive the overarching unity of all nature and therefore to begin worshipping a single God. The holistic perception of nature as an integrated domain governed by consistent principles was compatible with, and probably contributed to, the much later advent of modern science.


DANIEL HILLEL is Professor Emeritus of Plant, Soil, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is currently Visiting Senior Research Associate at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He serves as a consultant to the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and also works at the Center for Environmental Studies at Karkur, Israel. He is the author of 20 books and well over 200 papers in the area of environmental physics.


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