Nature and Holiness in the Writings of Priests and Prophets

To the Israelite prophets, humans are central to the relationship of God and the created world...


Reprinted with permission of the author from "Ecology in a Biblical Perspective," in Torah of the Earth, Volume I, published by Jewish Lights.

Biblical Prophecy: Israel’s Behavior in its Land

After Genesis 1-11, the biblical discourse of the Pentateuch and the Prophets is not about humanity and the cosmos, but specifically about the people and the land of Israel. These books talk about the responsibility of Israel and the protection of the sacred land of Israel. As modern readers, we extrapolate and restore a universalist sense to the text. The universalism may have always been there, but the text expresses itself in the immediate terms of its audience, the people of Israel.


In the Pentateuch, the sense that human behavior is responsible for the condition of the earth is very strong. Moral misdeeds pollute the earth: Israel is told to refrain from murder because it will contaminate the land; to refrain from allowing killers to go free because it will contaminate the land (Numbers 35); to refrain from acts of sexual abomination in order to keep the land pure (Leviticus 18, 20).

The book of Deuteronomy, produced by the teachers, makes this explicit. Deuteronomy 11 states the responsibility of humanity starkly: if you do good, God brings rain and abundance and you live a long time on the land; if you do wrong, then skies dry up, the earth will not produce, and you lose the land.

In such a text, we get a strong sense that humans are the intermediary between God and nature, and that God’s behavior towards the earth is very reactive to human deeds. In this tradition, unlike in the priestly tradition of Numbers 35 and Leviticus 18, God does not show any more allegiance to the earth than did the gods of Mesopotamia who were prepared to send a drought to decimate humanity. Not only do human misdeeds immediately pollute the earth, but God adds to the earth’s suffering by stopping up the skies.

In Israel’s prophetic books, particularly Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, the contamination of the land of Israel will lead to disaster. The most extreme formulation of this idea is found in Jeremiah’s vision in Chapter 4: here, because of the deeds of Israel, Jeremiah sees the entire collapse of creation. The skies go dark, and no Adam can be found. So, too, Isaiah sees the very earth broken and falling apart (Isaiah 24:19-23).

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Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) was a professor of Hebrew Bible at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. She was the author of many works of biblical scholarship and spirituality. She was a foremost assyriologist, biblical scholar, and feminist.

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