The Nat­ur­al His­to­ry of the Bible: An Envi­ron­men­tal Explo­ration of the Hebrew Scriptures

Daniel Hil­lel
  • Review
By – June 25, 2012
The for­ma­tive eco­log­i­cal expe­ri­ences of the ancient Israelites affect­ed their out­look and behav­ior not only for a time but, indeed, for all time.” Daniel Hil­lel, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of envi­ron­men­tal sci­ences at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts and senior research sci­en­tist in cli­mate sys­tems at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, argues that envi­ron­ment helped shaped the Israelites’ beliefs and val­ues, and Judaism as we know it today. 

Trav­el­ing through and liv­ing in all the regions of the Near East, the Israelites absorbed the cul­tures of the peo­ples who tra­versed this cross­roads and lived in a vari­ety of eco­log­i­cal set­tings. This back­ground, Hil­lel pro­pos­es, led the Israelites to see a uni­ver­sal­i­ty in the broad range of human and nat­ur­al envi­ron­ments they expe­ri­enced, a uni­ver­sal­i­ty that even­tu­al­ly evolved into a belief in one God, a God who would move with them and pro­tect them against hos­tile envi­ron­ments and hos­tile peo­ple. And when, now and then, that God did not pro­tect them, the Israelites looked into them­selves for the reasons. 

Whether or not the read­er ful­ly accepts Hillel’s argu­ments, The Nat­ur­al His­to­ry of the Bible makes the ter­rain and peo­ple of the Bible vis­i­ble and alive — the winds of the desert, the ris­ing and falling of the Nile, the hos­pi­tal­i­ty and harsh­ness of nomadic clans. With habi­tat as a back­drop, Hil­lel uses his inti­mate knowl­edge of the Bible and Israel’s envi­ron­ment to lead the read­er through the Bible, plac­ing its words, peo­ple, and actions in the set­tings that inspired them. 

More than an envi­ron­men­tal explo­ration, the book draws on schol­ar­ship in sci­ence, his­to­ry, arche­ol­o­gy, anthro­pol­o­gy, and lit­er­a­ture to recre­ate a cul­ture that has out­lived all its con­tem­po­raries and per­sists to this day. Side­bars exam­ine byways of Jew­ish lore and cul­ture, open­ing new paths. Stim­u­lat­ing and rich­ly infor­ma­tive, this book can be seen as eco­log­i­cal midrash, with insights that will ani­mate any read­ing of the Bible. Appen­dices, bib­lio., charts, illus., index, maps, notes.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions