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...

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To these priests, the land of Israel is sacred and primary. Leviticus 18 and 20 explain that when the peoples before Israel polluted the earth, the land vomited out these people. This land belongs to God, and God will protect it. Israel's tenure includes a mandate to protect the land of Israel from becoming polluted by the performance of abominable acts. In this priestly sense of the sacredness of the very soil of Israel, no less than in the prophetic tradition of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, Israel loses its right to the land if it doesn't protect it; the forced exile of the people separates the land from this contaminating force. This exile does not mean that God abandons Israel: the priests hold that God has great allegiance to Israel that goes beyond the land, and present the covenant of circumcision as the sign that land or no land, the relationship with Israel continues forever.

But the land itself is holy, and Israel may be separated from the land and sent far off to a land unknown. In priestly theology, two elements, the land of Israel and the people of Israel, are both extremely vital to God, and neither will be sacrificed for the other.

Interestingly enough, with all the priestly purification rituals, there is no ritual to purify the land. Pollution must be prevented; once it settles in, it cannot be remedied by religious action or petition. The cult helps purify the people and the temple, not the land itself. But the priestly cult did not ignore the land; in fact, the daily tamid sacrifices, offered according to the calendar, were directed towards the whole cosmos to help keep the entire system going.

As we apply the priestly concept of the two independent foci to our current understanding, we must hold both elements, humanity and the ecosystem, in equilibrium. For whatever reason God created the cosmos, God has great allegiance to it. Humanity cannot continue to damage the earth for its own benefit. But, in the biblical viewpoints, humanity also has independent and equal importance.

In biblical theology, the earth must be a place where human ideals of harmony can be fulfilled, a place where humans behave well towards each other, so that the earth is both fertile and inhabited. Forms of deep ecology that place the earth above humanity are not biblical theologies, for the biblical ideal of shalom includes the presence of humanity.

This ancient language does not tell us whether, if humans continue on their current disharmonious path, the whole world will be destroyed, or just the people removed and the land preserved for the cockroaches. But it does bring home the recognition that we cannot escape the consequences of the human impact on the world. It further insists that today, now that we have technology that greatly magnifies our powers of destruction, if we do not make and obey rules of harmony and equity, then our connection with the earth will somehow be broken, and whether the cockroaches survive or not, the end of human history will have come, and with it the end of the Divine plan

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Tikva Frymer-Kensky

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.