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).

In all these passages, the Bible presents a very strong statement of human responsibility. The centrality of humanity means that human beings are the intermediaries who influence the condition of the earth both directly, by the immediate polluting impact of their misdeeds, and indirectly by causing a divine reaction that ends the rain and further pollutes the earth. Humanity has long run away from facing this responsibility, but it has become hard to ignore now that technology increasingly gives us the power to impact on the environment and really create destruction by our social misdeeds. At this point a statement that what humans do determines whether the earth continues or not is a simple statement of fact.

The Earth’s Survival May Not Be a Biblical Question

Of course, a statement that human actions determine whether the world continues is only a statement of fact if our definition of the world includes humanity. However, even if (horrors to contemplate) we thoroughly pollute the soil or deplete the ozone; even if we bring a nuclear disaster (God and humanity forbid), it may be that the earth will stand and the cockroaches will still survive as they have survived since the age of the dinosaurs, and so in a sense the world will still continue. We will not have destroyed it utterly: we will only have eradicated it as a habitable place for humanity. The earth, Gaia, the ecosystem, existed before us and will continue after us. Somehow, such thinking, characteristic of the Gaia-thinkers, is supposed to make us feel better.

We should note that this approach is almost totally unbiblical. The late biblical prophetic tradition does consider the question. The prophet Zephaniah’s terrible prediction of doom might envision earth remaining even though life has gone: "I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, I will sweep away humans and beasts, I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea…. I will cut off humankind from the face of the earth (Zephaniah 1:2-3)." But this is not a prophecy that Zephaniah utters with any consolation. Deutero-Isaiah constantly emphasizes the importance of human life in the creation scheme: "[God] who creates heavens and stretches them out, who hammers out the sky and its teeming life, who gives breath to humankind and life-spirit to those who walk upon it (Isaiah 42:5)." Isaiah further tells us that when God created the world, God didn’t create it to be unformed (tohu) but to be inhabited and inhabitable (la-shevet) (Isaiah 45:18). God’s ultimate purpose for the earth, whatever it may be, includes a functioning human and animal community.

The Priestly Voice: An Awesome Earth

I would also like to praise another voice in the Bible, one which is very often maligned in all contexts, including the ecological discussion: "P," the priestly tradition of ancient Israel. It is in priestly writings and in temple writings that we find a profound sense of the awesomeness of nature, of the revelation of God through the beauty of nature, and of the place of humanity as a creature within nature. This love of nature is explicit in such Psalms as 104 and 98. It also underlies priestly legislation, where it is concerned with the land of Israel.

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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