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 "" 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.