Book Review: Paul H. Wright, Understanding the Ecology of the Bible

Wright, Paul H. Understanding the Ecology of the Bible: An Introductory Atlas. Jerusalem: Carta Jerusalem, 2018. 48 pp.; Pb; $18.00. Link

Paul Wright is the President of Jerusalem University College (the Institute of Holy Land Studies). He has contributed to several other “introductory” Carta atlases including Understanding Biblical Archaeology and Understanding the New Testament, and Understanding Great People of the Bible.

This atlas has a narrow focus, the ecology of the Bible. As Wright suggests, a study of the ecology of the Bible is important because flora and fauna are the natural context of the Bible (7). The daily life of ancient Israel was embedded in an ecosystem, and many of these natural elements form metaphorical language of the Bible.

For each of the six chapters of the book, Wright cites a theme verse. This does not always make the topic of the chapter clear. In “In His Hand is the Life of Every Living Thing” (Job 12:10), Wright introduces the book by arguing for the importance of the land, plants and animals of the Bible in order to better understand the Bible. The second chapter, “How is the Land? Is it Fat or Lean?” (Numbers 13:20), briefly describes the land as “flowing with milk and honey.” As Wright observes, modern visitors to Israel are often surprised by the cry climate of the land. The third chapter deals with geology and climate (“A Land of Hills and Valleys That Drinks Water from the Rain of Heaven,” Deuteronomy 11:11). This is the most map-rich chapter in the atlas, with specialized maps charting the geology, soil types, and precipitation in both Israel and the Middle East. The chapter also includes brief descriptions of the various ecosystems present in the land, illustrated with photographs and at least one verse per section.

In the fourth chapter Wright describes plant life in Israel (“From the Cedar that is in Lebanon Even to the Hyssop that Grows on the Wall,” 1 Kings 4:33). These are illustrated with photographs of modern plants, but Wright shows these plants are known from archaeological evidence. He has examples of ostraca mentioning wine, barley grain, etc. as well as a few illustrations drawn from ancient papyri describing the agriculture of ancient Israel. Since this book is intended as an introduction, Wright’s list of plants and animals is far from comprehensive.

Chapter five, “For He Loved the Soil” (2 Chronicles 26:10), deals with agriculture in ancient Israel, but also examines the damage to the environment in modern times. He relates this damage to the abuse of the poor in the prophets.  The biblical authors, Wright says, recognized the benefits of both the shepherd and village farmer, and eventually urban centers (40), but always speaks in favor of humane treatment of animals and wise use of the land. The reason is the land and all the animals belong to the Lord (Psalm 50:10-11). This is far from a chapter on responsible Christian environmentalism, but Wright offers some pointers in that direction. In the final paragraph of the book, he bemoans the lack of emphasis on environmentalism among biblically oriented Christians (47).

The final chapter demonstrates Israel’s conception of time was tied to the land (“A Land for Which the LORD Your God Cares,” Deuteronomy 11:12). Beginning with one of the earliest extant Hebrew texts, the Gezer Calendar, Wright how the years, days and weeks are integral to Israel’s relationship with their environment. The final page of the chapter traces the importance of Eden in the Old Testament and serves as a conclusion to the book.

The book is richly illustrated with full color photographs illustrating geographical features, plants and animals. Since Wright is credited with most of the photographs, these are not the same images used in other publications. However, for an atlas, there are not very many maps, only fourteen in all.

One minor criticism of the book is a misleading title. Although the book claims to be an ecology of the Bible, it is really an ecology of ancient Israel. Certainly olive oil and pomegranates are the same in the New Testament, but there is little here specifically on the New Testament. Much of the plot of the New Testament in the book of Acts takes place in Asia Minor, which goes beyond the scope of this book.

Conclusion. Like the other volumes in this Introductory Atlas series, the book is 9 x 12 inches and only forty eight pages. This makes for an inexpensive book, although it is not a durable handbook one might toss in their backpack on a trip to Israel. This is not a Carta Field Guide (on Masada, En-Gedi, and Qumran). Nevertheless, Wright has contributed a good introduction to the physical environment in which the Bible takes place.

 

NB: Thanks to Hendrickson and Carta Jerusalem for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Paul H. Wright, Understanding the Ecology of the Bible

  1. It is important to understand the everyday life and what was popular and socially acceptable during the time of the Bible whether Old Testament or New Testament. As we read the Bible we need to understand the importance of all concepts that are discussed. What the people were doing, how animals were viewed, what crops were valuable, and who owned what. When we are examining land we need to dig into its valuable if it beneficial to the people or if the land is leading them to nothing. Throughout the Bible there are landmarks and environmental settings that bring life and success for individuals. As readers and believers we need to understand that all people and all animals belong to the God, so their judgement and their purpose on Earth is strictly up to God and no man. As Christians we need to value the environment that we are in and we need to begin to realize their purpose they have in our lives and take care of the things that God places in our hands.

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