The Natural History of The Bible


This article is based on a compilation of my notes of Dr. Daniel Hillel's "Science and the City" lecture from his book "The Natural History of the Bible". Knowing the history of the Near East and its Semitic Tribes are essential to understanding the Bible. Daniel Hillel is professor emeritus of environmental studies, University of Massachusetts, and senior research scientist, Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University. In his book the "Natural History of the Bible" he discusses the ancients of the Near East, how the Israelites came about and shows how their environment shaped their folklore and their beliefs.

Dr. Hillel divides the Near East region up into different environmental domains, the Riverine Domain, the Pastoral Domain, the Desert Domain, the Rainfed Domain, the Maritime Domain, the Urban Domain, the Exile Domain. After the last ice age (Pleistocene period) in the neolithic revolution, the Fertile Crescent developed. Over time people settled there and began to work the land. As they worked the land they domesticated plants and animals and began to adopt a sedentary mode of life as farmers. They were polytheists. They created societies and cultures based on their environment (domain) and they imagined that the forces for which they had no control, were controlled by gods. They deified the elements of the environment in order to try to have some influence over them. They prayed to them, tried to please and placate them. The god of rain was Baal and to this day rain-fed farming has retained its traditional name of Baal farming. The earth was depicted as a reclining fertile woman, identified as Ashera, Ashtarte or Tanit etc. They imagined the processes of fertility as sexual mating between the sky god and the earth god, the sky god sending his rain into mother earth. The reddish soil they called adamma (earth). The first man was born out of the soil and he was called Adam.

Life in the pastoral domain centered around the well. Where the maiden would go to draw water and bring it to the flocks and to the home. The bible is full of stories of meetings around the well. Abraham's servant Eleazar met Rebbecca, Jacob met Rachel and Moses met daughters of the priest of Midian Jethro. They were primarily tending cattle so they worshiped animal gods, the calf, the bull, the ram, etc.

People in the desert engaged in hunting and worshiped what they found in the desert. The lizard, scorpion, whispering snake, sun, moon and mysterious spirits that lurked in the caves in the mountains. Moses used the snake cast out of copper. The word for copper is the same or similar as the one for snake. He used the snake symbol to cure the people afflicted in the desert. The symbol was used until it was purged by King Hezekiah, but today the medical profession still uses the snake as their symbol.

One of the Riverine domains consisted of the five tributaries of the Indus river. They realized that they could divert waters, take the seeds from the rain fed domain and control agriculture better. They did not need to depend on rain. They worked around the floods. Southern Mesopotamia, the most organized civilization, to survive needed to control the water and agriculture. It was in the center of four rivers. This was a "Garden of Eden". It contained "gardens" of delightful fruit trees. This is where the Enuma Elish was created. Marduk fought the evil goddess of the brine lurking beneath the soil and split her body and created the arc of the heaven, the canopy of the firmament and the earth. There is a stone with an engraving of the King Hammurabi receiving the code of law from the sun god Shamash. It is interesting to compare it to the story of moses, and the mosaic code of law. In this area the Ziggurats were built. They make an appearance in the bible as the Tower of Babel.
The rivers meandering around the plane break through their banks and flood uncontrollably from time to time. Hence the story of the the Flood. The people of southern Mesopotamia started a destructive process that caused the water table to rise and caused the destruction of their civilization. The salt bearing water underneath rose and the process of evaporation of the water increased the concentration of salt in the soil and ruined the land. In contrast, in another riverine domain, the rivers of the Nile flooded every summer bringing silt from other parts of the land renewing the soil along the Nile keeping it fertile. It was an automatic process of fertilization and irrigation which made that civilization stable for 5-6000 years.
Those people had no idea where the rivers came from. The further upstream they went the more terrible the conditions became so they gave up and they believed the river emanated miraculously from Hopi the riverine god, bringing bounty to Egypt. Compare this to the idea of turning the Nile river to blood and of the Holy Spirit as a river.

The Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible, have similarities with Egyptian culture. Findings in Egypt are similar to the Old Testament. There is a story where an Egyptian god makes a man out of clay and the custom of circumcision (also referred to as Genital Mutilation) seems to have originated there. There are drawings of Semitic tribes depicting pastoralists that tried to immigrate into riverine Egypt during periods of drought, begging to be accepted, making bricks by mixing mud and straw and the scourging of slaves by slave masters etc. Gerald Massey a poet, scholar and amateur archaeologist talks more about this in his books on the subject of Egypt.
Wall carving were found describing sea battles with 'sea peoples' these were people from Eastern Mediterranean, Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, Cyprus, and Crete. They roamed over the sea like the Vikings which followed thousands of years later. They settled on the southern coast of Canaan and became the philistines.

The people of Lebanon became fishermen and farmers of cedar. They engaged in trade, learned to make glass, extract a dye from snails which reminded the Greeks of the legendary Phoenix so the Greeks called those people the Phoenicians. The land of Canaan became the land of Israel. Its principle source of water was the Jordan river. Micro and Macro climates exist in the hills. The south sides are barren and north sides are vegetated. The wells were dug into the water tables. There was a discovery 50 years ago. A depiction made by the Israelites showing the God Yahweh and his consort Asherah. Before adopting Yahweh as the only god, he had a consort that played the traditional role of the feminine. There was a triune of the male god, the female earth, and the child as crops.

In each of the domains the people developed a distinctive culture, but the bible tells us that a single unique group of people traversed each of the domains. This group absorbed elements of each culture and this experience enabled them to see the overarching unity of nature, which gave them a comprehensive view of nature and thereby its creator.

In Jerusalem, in trying to unite the squabbling tribes of Israel, King David conquered the Jebusites and founded a capital to elicit the loyalty of the people and unite them to defend against the invading forces of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans and Persians that came around time to time in that little sliver of land that is the intersection of Africa, Asia and Europe. To unite the people the King needed to administer them effectively. He needed a strong faith and initiated the construction of the holy temple. They formalized their religion. The temple mount had a perennial source of water and was the reason why Jerusalem was located there. Before people learned to build cisterns they depended on streams. In times of siege, king Hezekiah ordered the stream to be diverted into the city. The town dump was where the outcasts were made to live and became known as Gehenna, which later came to mean purgatory or hell.

From time to time the land of Israel was overwhelmed by armies. Drawings depict Egyptians attacking the walls of the city. It shows the Israelite defenders beseeching their god and burning incense and sacrificing children in order to ward off the invaders. There exist depictions of the Judean King of Northern Israel King bowing down to Assyrian invaders after being defeated. Two or three generations later Jerusalem succumbed and were led into captivity into Babylonia. There, the Israelites had spiritual leaders that collected, collated, edited and unified scripture to create a 'portable temple' on parchment (the word) giving the unique and revolutionary idea that god was not associated with a region or a land, but with a people. It was stronger than a temple of stone and it focused the peoples loyalty and raised their hopes and faith. When the Persian king conquered Babylonia, he let the people of Judea return bearing what came to be know as their Torah.

The scriptures were a sort of private diary of the people as they wandered across all the domains of the near east and tried to settle in that vulnerable sliver of land as a small vulnerable community, vulnerable to nature and invaders. It was the intersections of continents. The land was marginal and was always being conquered. They had no one to depend on but their God. He would manipulate chance to their advantage because he loved them so much. Paganism preceded monotheism. For example, they believed that the nephilim, the sons of the gods, came to earth to mate with human women who had children that became the Heroes of old. But because they were always vulnerable, the Israelites chose to have Yahweh, the warrior god whom they needed as protector, to be their only God. They were always looking to please him. But even this monotheism was not a unique idea since an Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV, 1364-1347 B.C.), had done the same thing earlier. But this religion survived and out of it branched Christianity and Islam.

References related to The Natural History of The Bible

Columbia University website featuring Hillel's book "The Natural History of the Bible"

Lopate interview with Hillel

Science and the city web page
and you can download or listen to the audio here

- Neolithic Revolution

- Fertile Crescent

- Wisconsin Glaciation

- Post flood ice age, no mention of it in the bible. This is a link to how "Answersingenesis.org" handles it.


Beyond Mesopotamia: A New View Of The Dawn Of Civilization



References for more information on the Bible as Folklore.


- My DC Article "The Bible As Truth?" which includes links to more data.

- Callahan, Tim. 2002. Secret Origins of The Bible. California. Millennium Press.

- Davis, Kenneth C. 2006. Don't Know Much About Mythology: Everything You Need to Know About the Greatest Stories in Human History but Never Learned. New York. Harper.

- Dundes, Alan. Holy Writ as Oral Lit: The Bible as Folklore. Lanham, Maryland. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

- Finkelstein, Israel and Silberman, Neil Asher. 2002. The Bible Unearthed. New York. Simon and Schuster Free Press

- Frazer, James George. 1975. Folklore in the Old Testament. New York. Hart Publishing

- Friedman, Richard Elliot. 2003. The Bible With Sources Revealed. 2003. New York. HarperCollins.

- Helms, Randel. 1988. Gospel Fictions. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.

- Massey, Gerald. 1992. The Historical Jesus and the Mythical Christ. Brookly, New York. A & B Book Dist Inc.

- Matthews, Victor H. and Benjamin, Don C. 1997. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from that Ancient Near East. New Jersey. Paulist Press.

- Smith, Mark S. 2002. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. Dearborn, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Publishing.

29 comments:

lowendaction said...

lee,

Great read! thanks

Though I am a bit puzzled as to how this study debunks the bible, ergo God/Christianity.

A few examples to outline my confusion.

So are you (referenced material) saying that, though the bible makes references to judeism and other polytheistic belief systems in co-existance, that the singular judeo God "evolved" at a much later date?

And my only other point, regarding the scientific and geological explanations of corelating biblical miracles, is...so what? I personally have no problem with God "using" natural events to "make a point". I think one must take in to consideration why these claimed miracles took place. Also, as the author pointed out, the scientific ignorance of that time would have naturally spawned supernatural explanations from those events. I believe that such context will help put all this in perspective.

It's strange, and maybe you might chalk it up to my poor programmed Christian mind, or a lacking ability to properly absorb substantial evidence, but much of this reading seemed to support my belief in the validity of the bible.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Lee: An excellent piece, certainly major in the assembling of the jigsaw puzzle that is 'understanding the history of the Bible.' I've been studying it from a different perspective currently, and would like to add a book I mentioned in another thread:
The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century: The Legacy of Julius Wellhausen. -- Ernest W. Nicholson. (It's available on Questia.com -- which I continue to recommend to everyone. The Randel Helms is as well, and another book by Mark S. Smith on the same topic, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism. And those books not available seem to be frequently cited in journal articles and other books.)

Anyway, I am looking more at the actual assembling the Bible from the numerous threads that existed. (I can't help mentioning Max Dimont's wonderful point -- in THE INDESTRUCTIBLE JEWS p. 62 -- that when King Josiah produced the 'Book of the Laws' he got the 'third-rate Prophetess Huldah' to authenticate it rather than Jeremiah, one of the greatest Prophets, who was 'right at his elbow.' Why? Because Jeremiah considered it a deceitful forgery by the scribes. See Jeremiah 7:8)

One point I'm wondering if Hillel covered. The two distinct and contradictory 'Creation narratives' in Genesis I and Genesis II seem to show different places of origin -- by their treatment of water. The first one sees water as a 'blessing from God' and would be the natural creation of a desert people such as the Israelites, or the pre-existing tribes that were welded into the 'people of Israel.'
But the second narrative, in Genesis 2, seems to see water as the 'enemy' that God strives against, more natural for a people living in a flood plain.

Just a couple of random natterings that I hope are helpful -- 'flu-like symptoms' are not the best for coherence.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

One further point. Always remember the story of the blind men and the elephant. Any of the approaches to Old (or New) Testament study, archaeology, philology and linguistic, historical, comparative, scientific, and now ecological all give valuable insights. The only mistake is to assume that any of them give "THE Key" to the problem. You have to take an eclectic view, working all the insights into a picture to have any chance of really understanding this -- or most -- topics.

And why did I not include 'faith' as an approach? My bias? No, since faith can serve as an inspiration and a motivator for these studies and many of the scholars began -- and remained -- believers in Christianity or Judaism.

But too often the attidue of faith -- particularly evangelical faith -- is 'It has already been Revealed to me what an elephant is. Therefore there is no need for me to actually touch one, since anything I learn either is something I already know, or it conflicts and therefore is, of course, wrong.' This is not exactly helpful.

Lee Randolph said...

HI Lowendaction,

Though I am a bit puzzled as to how this study debunks the bible, ergo God/Christianity.
it shows how the data recovered by archaeologists, historians etc don't support the bibles version of history. It shows where the bible differs from apparent fact.


So are you (referenced material) saying that, though the bible makes references to judeism and other polytheistic belief systems in co-existance, that the singular judeo God "evolved" at a much later date?
The people that were to become Gods chosen did not give yahweh preference from the time of abraham on. Yahweh was one of many, with apparently no compelling reason above any others to worship him. If there were really one 'live' god among a bunch of delusions, it should be obvious, and no reasonable person should be expected to have picked a delusion to worship over a 'live' god.


And my only other point, regarding the scientific and geological explanations of corelating biblical miracles, is...so what?
In all other areas of your life scientific explanations (for example) make a difference, such as in medicine and your use of electricity, what principle would justify it not making a difference in the rest of your life?


I personally have no problem with God "using" natural events to "make a point".
bravo.

I think one must take in to consideration why these claimed miracles took place.
using the bible to validate itself, circular reasoing.

Also, as the author pointed out, the scientific ignorance of that time would have naturally spawned supernatural explanations from those events. I believe that such context will help put all this in perspective.
I believe you are right. It does put it in context. the supernatural explanations were spawned by their experience, most subsequently shown to be misgiven, which is consistent with their lack of belief in 'one true living god' for so long contrary to such "compelling" evidence compared to the "god delusions".

It's strange, and maybe you might chalk it up to my poor programmed Christian mind, or a lacking ability to properly absorb substantial evidence, but much of this reading seemed to support my belief in the validity of the bible.
I'm glad you recognize it is strange. According to Social Psychologist Carol Tavris, as noted in my cognitive dissonance article your lacking ability to properly absorb substantial evidence is a product of cognitive dissonance and is what I and probably every other atheist reading this blog or student of 'self-justification theory' would have predicted to have happened to you when shown an article like this. Fortunately recognizing a problem exists is the first step in solving it.

Pile said...

I encourage everyone to visit the new FreeThinker's WIKI at:
http://FreeThoughtPedia.com/

Ben said...

Circumcision is not "medically known" as genital mutilation. (Anti-circumcision activists might call it that, but that's hardly the neutral medical term.)

You might as well say, "Abortion, medically known as baby killing..."

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Thank you, Ben. Without getting into a debate on the pros and cons of circumcision -- this is NOT the place -- you are right about the terminology. It is, however accurate for the (mis)-named "female circumcision."

Ben said...

Agreed.

Lee Randolph said...

Hi ben and prup,
I won't say anymore on circumcision after this, but I don't see how you can justify calling one type of procedure on one gender 'mutilation' and the same type of procedure on another gender 'not-mutilation'.

Personally I don't care what it is called, or anything about it, but if the term genital mutilation is accepted for women, what prevents it from being accepted for men aside from 'societal spin'?

And in case anyone is thinking about claiming that circumcision demonstrates that god imparted knowledge that was ahead of its time since circumcision helps prevent disease, I want to point out that Pediatrician professional societies say that the benefits of circumcision do not justify its practice.

Not very God-like I'd say. Cutting the foreskin off your penis to show allegiance? pretty silly.

Lee Randolph said...

Hi ben and prup,
your argument was compelling so I changed the 'medically referred' to 'also referred' in the text of the article.
;-)
peer review, gotta love it!

Jason said...

Lee, circumcision wasn't to show allegiance, it was intended as a sign of the covenant between God and the seed of Abraham. Gen 17:10-11. It's symbolic of the required separation between man and sin (Jer 4:4, Col 2:11).

richdurrant said...

"it shows how the data recovered by archaeologists, historians etc don't support the bibles version of history. It shows where the bible differs from apparent fact."

Are you talking about inerrancy? By showing that the bible differs from what archaeologists and historians find should tell us that the bible has errors?

Lee Randolph said...

Hi Rich,
yes, the perspective that I am addressing is evangelical christian.

But if you want to get into non-literal or metaphorical understanding that would be fun.

richdurrant said...

I can see how this is a problem for inerrancy. If you don't believe the bible to be inerrant, it really doesn't give you a major boost but you did you the phrase "apparent fact" which is correct because we can't say for certainty that we know what happened in the past. While I believe we can get a pretty good idea, I'm not so confident in our ability to map out the past with great accuracy. I think if we start down the road of metaphors and non-literal understandings it would get interesting.
We try real hard to show that the bible is a real history. I remember watching a show on discovery channel some time ago about the wandering of Israel in the desert. They (whoever did the show) claimed to have the path that Israel took in the wilderness mapped out by satellite. It ended up with the show claiming that what we believe is mount Sinai today is in the wrong place. If I can find any link about it I will post it.
It was an interesting read, your post.
"But if you want to get into non-literal or metaphorical understanding that would be fun."
If you got something to through out there lets see where it goes:)

Derenda said...

I came across your site while looking for a book on another site. I was heartbroken. To you Lee, I don't know where you were raised or what you heard but I know the love of God,and when you have TRULY been shown the wickedness of your heart by a HOLY and RIGHTEOUS GOD and you truly see your sin and He gloriously saves you as you cry out to him for forgiveness for sinning against a HOLY GOD then you will fall in love with HIS HOLY WORD and you will meditate on 2nd Timothy Chapter 3 verse 16 . It says, All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine,for reproof, for correction,for instruction in righteousness. You won't say things like I was raised in church here, or I'm a church member there, or somebody told me about this or that and I just don't beleive it. Lee, was there ever a point in your life when you truly in your heart abhorred the things you used to love and love the things you use to hate? Did you have a desire to be with God's people? Did you have a desire to read his word? I'm asking this to all of you guys and girls. maybe you have never been truly converted. When GOD truly takes out that heart of stone and puts in a heart of flesh you not only will believe HIS WORD but you will desire and hunger for it! I love you all in the Lord! My church's website is fbcms.org. Our services our live on Sunday 1030am central and 615pm. you can also go to past services in the archives. thanks. hHave a great week! By the way this was a response to Lee's deconversion story in March. I had just found this site, and had to speak to Lee personally. You will be in my prayers.

Tommy said...

Derenda, another person trapped in the mental prison of the Bible.

Lee Randolph said...

Hi Derenda,
Thank you for the invitation, but if I come do I have to tithe, or will you cover my part?

Can I bring lowendaction and jennifer? They can help me set you all straight.
;-)

Lee Randolph said...

Hi rich,
ok heres the pitch!
If you don't accept the bible literally, then how do you determine what is 'real' and what is not?
For example, adam and eve. were they real? if not, then was the fall of man real? if yes, then how do you account for biological bases for behavior? I can show you evidence that undermines the philosophical argument for freewill . Due to some biological factors, doing the right thing doesn't even occur to some people as a consideration. Due to some biological factors, it should be impossible to believe in god. I ask because this is one of two articles that i have waiting in the wings doing research for.

If you want to 'play',
Please focus on the 'how do you tell the difference' rather than the bioligical bases for behavior because I want to stay on topic.

Lee Randolph said...

I want to clean up my last post and say that "I can show you evidence that undermines aspects of the philosophical argument for freewill". Always want to steer clear of those absolute claims......
;-)

Lee Randolph said...

Hi derenda,
I'm asking this to all of you guys and girls. maybe you have never been truly converted.
This question is covered in some detail in our FAQ
link at the top of the page.

thanks for asking though.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

I am not sure if it is worth replying to someone like Derenda, not just because his comments are the usual, insulting, 'I'm not sure you really were Christians to begin with,' but also because he seems to contradict himself as to whether he just discovered the site or discovered it months ago, or what.

However, I find his suggestion that we 'attend' services at Muscle Shoals Baptist interesting. (He seems to mean that services are broadcast over the web, not that we fly to Alabama.) DC is very good on the theoretical problems with Christianity, but rarely deals with 'Christianity as she is spoke,' and it might be interesting for some of us to 'attend' a service and comment on it. I may do so, either picking one from the archives or 'going to' this week's service, since I've never attended an evangelical service. Any other takers?

Lee Randolph said...

Hi Prup,
I think that is a good idea, and when I run out of ideas, I probably will.

That may be a good idea for a team-blog in itself, criticism of webbased services.

all it needs is someone knowledgeable with some time on their hands....maybe with an account on questia.....or something like that....

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

C'mon Lee, it's not that dumb an idea. Christianity isn't just (bad) ideas, they are reinforced by ceremonies, preaching, and various types of effects. How many people would stil be Christians if the only experiences that kept them there were ideas.

I thought, while we were debunking the ideas of Christianity, it was worth looking at their presentation.

(Btw, I don't know what was funnier, the idea of me having 'time on my hands' -- ask my correspondents -- or the idea of me trying to run another blog, after the mess I made of my last ones.)

Lee Randolph said...

Hi prup,
I was serious, I think it is a good idea, and I think you would be good at running a blog like that.
I'm sorry I wasn't clear enough.

richdurrant said...

"If you don't accept the bible literally, then how do you determine what is 'real' and what is not?"
I believe in other sets of scripture, outside the bible, and modern day prophet who receives revelation, and personal study.
I guess I'll wait for you articles before commenting on things you're going to write about. I'm sure there are people who fit what you describe but not everyone. How do I account for them as in what happens to them? We will be judged on what we know of right and wrong and our choices based on that knowledge. So if someone doesn't have the ability to understand right from wrong, I don't believe they are accountable for their actions.

Jospeh said...

Jim, you have an excellent idea--blogging about Christian broadcasts. I listen to Christian radio quite a bit and now that I listen with a more critical ear, I can't believe some of the stuff I hear from mainstream evangelists like Chuck Swindoll, John MacArthur, and even the usually mellow Charles Stanley. It's especially revealing when they start sermonizing on the stories of the Old Testament (the attempted murder of Issac by Abraham, the rebuke of Samuel to Saul for not exterminating everyone in his conquests, etc, etc). Needless to say, most believers take their cues from such trusted voices.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Lee and Jospeh:
Thanx for the compliment -- and sorry I misread yours, Lee, as sarcasm. If someone wanted to start such a blog, or open such a thread here -- discussing Christian broadcasters, that is -- I'd be glad to contribute, but I won't start such a blog myself, simply because I am aware of how badly I messed up my previous attempts. (I never was even able to figure out how to start a blogroll. I am 'technologically declined,' I'm afraid.)

But if it gets started, I'll be glad to add my usual long-windedness.

Jospeh said...

It would be a brand new venture for me! But it sounds like a lot of fun, when I have some downtime to learn. I've also been thinking about starting a blog for believers who are questioning their faith. It would be sort of a "safe area" for people to discuss believes and much less combative than some of the exchanges in forums like this one (not that passionate debate is always bad). If anyone else is interested in helping me or giving me advice on how to get one started, please email me at deepthinker101@gmail.com

Shygetz said...

derenda said:

you will fall in love with HIS HOLY WORD and you will meditate on 2nd Timothy Chapter 3 verse 16 . It says, All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine,for reproof, for correction,for instruction in righteousness.

And exactly which scriptures do you suppose the author was referring to, considering the New Testament was not canonized until the late second century at the earliest (and that's if you accept the Muratorian fragment as a canon) and the Old Testament wasn't canonized until 90 AD? How can you be sure that the Bible you have now is the same sacred writings (no more, no less) that the author insisted were completely valid?

How do you interpret Jeremiah 8:8 into your discussion (which clearly states that the Bible has been corrupted by the scribes who handled the Word of God)? If all Scripture is God-breathed and correct, and the Scripture says that the Scripture is corrupted by Man, where does that leave you?