Ecology, the study of the relations between people and their environment, has become a topic of interest within biblical studies as a result of the global environmental crisis. Standing at the beginning of Western religious, ethical, and philosophical traditions, the Bible has received considerable attention in the search for the sources of modern attitudes toward nature. The results have been paradoxical, some blaming the Bible for a human‐centered ethic that legitimates the exploitation of nature for human ends, others praising it for its reverence for nature and ethic of responsible stewardship of the earth's resources.
The more negative of these assessments of biblical attitudes is based in part on the traditional treatment of biblical religion as uniquely historical. While neighboring religions have been depicted as oriented toward nature, their adherents viewing nature as the place of divine revelation and the realm with which human society had to attune itself through ritual and daily behavior, biblical religion has been described as valuing history supremely, its members seeing human society as the location of divine activity and the arena of primary concern. The result of this approach has been to regard the natural world as separate from and subordinate to human history and to consider nature and human interaction with it of little significance for understanding the genius of biblical religion.
The Bible is without question preeminently about human existence, and in this sense it may be described as historical or human centered in outlook. Yet nature and society are so interdependent in the Bible that to distinguish them sharply or subordinate one to the other misrepresents biblical thought. Biblical languages, for example, possess no terms equivalent to the Western conceptions of nature and history, suggesting that this familiar modern distinction was not a part of biblical thought. A more complex relationship between people and nature is presented in the Bible than either traditional scholarship or recent polemical debates would suggest.
Biblical views of the interrelationship between people and nature are best understood by exploring them within the context of the actual environment within which biblical writers lived and their attitudes were shaped. For the Hebrew Bible, as the texts themselves and archaeological evidence from the Iron Age (1200–587 BCE) both indicate, the ecological setting is a predominantly rural society in the Mediterranean highlands that subsisted on a mixed agricultural economy, including the cultivation of grains and fruits and the herding of sheep and goats. The literature of the Hebrew Bible is the literature of an agricultural society, and this perspective infuses the attitudes toward nature reflected in it.
The essence of the human being and the purpose of human life are both related to agriculture in the Bible's oldest creation story (Gen. 2.4–3.24), in which the first human being (ʿādām) is made out of fertile soil (ʿădāmâ) to which it is destined to return at death, and given the primary task of cultivating—literally “serving” (ʿābad)—the soil from which it was made (Gen. 2.7, 15; 3.19, 23). Life in such an earthly setting, nourished by the agricultural bounty of the fertile soil, was believed to be the highest form of human experience, not a prelude to a better world. As the source of life, the earth and its produce were viewed as God's creation and inherently good (Gen. 1). Historians, although interested primarily in political affairs, recognized a productive land as the basis for Israelite life and identity (Deut. 8). Prophets saw natural disaster and degradation as punishment for sin and agricultural plenty as the experience of redemption (Hos. 2; Joel 1–2; Amos 4; 9). Psalmists sang of divine activity (Pss. 104; 144) and sages reflected on human wisdom (Prov. 25–29) in such an agricultural environment.
The Israelite sense of dependence on the arable land is reflected in its religious ritual which originated in the cycle of the agricultural year. In its major communal festivals, Israel celebrated the primary harvests of Mediterranean agriculture: barley and wheat in the spring and fruit in the fall (Exod. 23.14–17; 34.18, 22, 23; Lev. 23; Deut. 16). As an acknowledgment of the divine powers believed to make the land and the flock fertile and as an appeal for fertility and bounty in the future, the worshiper presented to the deity the first, best fruits of the harvest and the first, choicest specimens of the flock (Exod. 34.19, 20, 26; Lev. 1.2; Deut. 26.1, 2, 10, 15; Neh. 10.35–37). Integrated with these important seasonal celebrations were the commemorations of political events such as the Exodus from Egypt, which were held to be formative and unifying (Exod. 23.15; Lev. 23.39–43). (See Feasts and Festivals.)
The natural phenomena on which the lives of Israelite farmers depended took on for them a kind of sacred character. Features of the landscape, believed to provide points of contact between the earth and the divine worlds above and below—springs (Gen. 16.7), rivers (Gen. 32.22–32), and trees (Gen. 12.6–7; 18.1; Exod. 3.2–4)—marked sites of divine appearances and places of worship. Especially important to Israel were mountains, in particular Sinai and Zion, whose ground was considered holy (Exod. 3.5; Ps. 48.1) and whose summits were the points of Israel's great revelations (Exod. 19–24; 1 Kings 8; Ps. 48; Isa. 2; 11). The thunderstorm, the most powerful and essential natural phenomenon for highland farmers dependent on rain‐fed agriculture, became one of the most common ways of picturing the presence and activity of the deity in biblical theophanies (Exod. 19; Pss. 18; 29; Hab. 3).
The traditional village agrarian culture within which Israelite attitudes toward nature were shaped is essentially the setting within which Christianity originated. The life and ministry of Jesus and his first followers was located in the agricultural world of village peasants who made up the bulk of the population in Roman Palestine. In the New Testament Gospels, the stories about Jesus and the parables he told present human life in terms of the dynamics of planting and harvesting, of herding flocks, and of fishing, an occupation prominent among Jesus' followers because of the Galilean setting of his ministry. Christianity is thus rooted in the land and agrarian culture of its Hebrew scriptures, and its gospel stories reflect modes of thought about nature much like those in these scriptures.
Yet new social and intellectual forces, shared with certain groups within the Judaism of its time, modified in some significant ways the viewpoint of the first Christians toward the natural world. One of these forces was the early urbanization of the Christian movement. Within a decade or two of Jesus' crucifixion, the center of Christianity shifted from the rural villages of Palestine to the great cities of the Roman empire. Paul and his followers were city people and wrote to city churches, and their epistles address issues of religious life in urban settings with little reflection on the world of nature.
A second force was the development in the centuries prior to the birth of Christianity of the notion that humans could hope for a meaningful life in another world. The sources of such thinking were apocalyptic Judaism that, in its mature form already seen in the book of Daniel, affirmed the transcendence of death and a life for the righteous in a better world (Dan. 12:1–4), and Hellenistic dualism, reflected in Neoplatonism and gnosticism, in which the material world was sharply differentiated from the spiritual world and viewed as alien to authentic human experience. The implication of such thought, more prominent in certain strands of later Christianity than in later Judaism, was that the earthly environment was no longer home for humanity, no longer the setting for true human existence, and was thus dispensable if not downright evil. (See Afterlife and Immortality.)
Influenced by both of these movements, early Christians viewed the highest form of human experience as life beyond death in a heavenly realm free from earthly struggles (Mark 13; John 14; 1 Cor. 15; 1 Thess. 4–5). Yet the New Testament vision of the new world, rooted most deeply within apocalyptic Judaism and its ancient holistic heritage, was modeled closely on the earthly environment. The entire world of nature was to participate in the final *redemption (Rom. 8:19–23; Rev. 21–22), and the individual would not escape the prison of matter (as Neoplatonism and gnosticism held) but would experience the resurrection of the body, as had Jesus (1 Cor. 15). Thus, even in its vision of another world, the New Testament is deeply rooted in the conceptions of the interrelatedness between people and their environment found in the Hebrew scriptures.