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.

Bible Atlas Review: Conclusion

Over the last two weeks I have posted reviews of four major Bible Atlases released in the last few months.  All four of the atlases reviewed are excellent and each would be an important addition to any library.  Each has strengths and weaknesses, but each is worth owning and using in personal Bible study.

Best Maps: ESV Bible Atlas.  The maps in this volume are detailed and clear, and the Regional Maps section goes well beyond the other volumes reviewed. The maps are detailed and complete, including Italy, Macedonia and Achia, Western and Southern Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Sinai and Egypt.  These maps span two large pages and are printed to the interior edge of the page so nothing is missing.

Best Photography: Zondervan Atlas of the Bible. I think I was drawn to the photography in this Atlas because more than once I saw a picture which I took on one of my trips to Israel.  The atlas treats us to some unusual angles of traditional sites as well as photos one does not often see in an atlas.  I found myself browsing through this Atlas for the pictures more than the others.

Best Illustrations: ESV Bible Atlas. The drawings of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in various periods provide a concrete view of scholarly speculation.  The IVP Atlas has excellent illustrations as well, but the ESV illustrations are more rich in details.

Best Articles: ESV Bible Atlas and The New Moody Atlas of the Bible. Both of these volumes are worth considering for a college level Old Testament survey course.  The Zondervan Atlas is nearly as good, but the depth of the ESV and Moody atlases is hard to beat.  I might give the edge to the Moody Atlas since it includes a great deal of documentation and footnotes.

Best Layman Atlas: The IVP Atlas. The maps are clear and the art well-presented.  The articles are brief and contained to a pair of pages.  I can imagine someone using this Atlas while reading through Joshua or Judges and tracking events on the maps.  The IVP Atlas is not “dumbed-down” by any means, but will likely be a favorite for the casual reader.

Best Scholarly Atlas: ESV Bible Atlas. While the New Moody Atlas is close, there is simply more details provided in the ESV Atlas.

What is missing from these Atlases?  As I said a few times in the reviews, I like to compare the map of David’s to Solomon’s Jerusalem, to Nehemiah’s Jerusalem, and then to the New Testament period.   This is harder to do with these maps on separate pages.  I would have liked two facing pages with all four periods on it.  What ever happened to the plastic overlays that used to appear in Atlases and encyclopedias? I suppose they have been dropped to keep price down, but they could be useful for demonstrating the growth of the city of Jerusalem.

Another general problem with Bible Atlases is that they seem to be limited in the New Testament period.  A few pages for the world of Jesus and then a few more for the Pauline mission.  I know that the “biblical world” tends to refer to the Canaan, but there is far more that could be done on the Roman world in which Paul ministered.  Some of this is in Ephesus, Corinth and Rome could be given more details and maps.  All the atlases include a section on the seven churches of Revelation, but these  cities were already a part of the Pauline mission.  Dismissing the geography and history of Asia Minor in two or three pages covering the seven cities seems to me too limited.  I would like to see an atlas that was focuses solely on the New Testament geographically and historically.

These four volumes are all excellent contributions to the study of the geography of the Bible. I think that the ESV Bible Atlas and the New Moody Bible Atlas would make excellent textbooks for an Old Testament survey course, although all four would serve well.

Bible Atlas Review: The New Moody Atlas of the Bible

Beitzel, Barry J.  The New Moody Atlas of the Bible.  Chicago: Moody, 2009.  304 pages, $49.99.  Link to Moody

This recent atlas from Moody replaces Beitzel’s 1985 Moody Atlas of the Bible.  Few scholars are as qualified as Beitzel in the field of biblical geography.  Along with the 1985 Moody Atlas, he edited Biblica and served as the Geography Editor on the ESV Study Bible. The original Moody Atlas was highly regarded as a scholarly work yet was still readable for the layman.  It was recommended by Victor H. Matthews and James C. Moyer in their 1990 round-up of recent Bible Atlases.  (“Bible Atlases: Which Ones are Best?” Biblical Archaeologist 53 (1990)).  Likewise, F. Duane Lindsey considered Beitzel’s “historical geography” approach to be  excellent and highly recommended the volume in his 1987 review (BibSac 144 (1987): 112).

The New Moody Atlas builds on the strengths of the 1985 atlas.  The new volume is about 70 pages longer despite dropping the short third chapter in the older atlas on biblical mapmaking.  The table of contents has been greatly improved in this new edition with each topic in the Historical Geography chapter included.

There are 118 maps in the book, many are full page (11.2×9.6 inches).  All the maps have been redrawn from the 1985 edition.  These maps are conveniently numbers and are all well-textured to show elevation, although most of the versions of the map of Canaan are the same light brown color (no difference between hill country and coastal plain, for example).  Given the specialized nature of most of these maps, this an understandable decision.  However, when necessary, color is added (Map 40, for example, shows tribal divisions with colors).  Few maps span two pages, although Map 22 spans four pages with a long map of Palestine with important cities included in the index marked.  This is a beautiful map in terms of texture and color but really ought to have been printed on fold-out pages so that the student could seen the whole of the Land.

There are a remarkable number of specialty maps in this atlas.  Just a few examples: Map 44 summarizes Egyptian incursions into Canaan from Thutmosis III in 1457 B.C. to Shishak in 935 B.C., along with 2 full pages of text describing the exploits of these pharaohs.  Map 55 is a remarkable full page map of the Judgeship of Jephthah showing the territory of Ammon and the movements of the armies.  Map 70 provides details on the battle of Qarqar along with more than a page of detailed text on the battle.  Map 79 is a detailed half page map showing the movements of the Egyptian and Babylonian forces at Carchemish accompanied by nearly a page and a half of text on the importance of this battle.

Unlike the IVP Atlas, the Moody Atlas has a lengthy section on the physical geography of the Land.  In addition to the normal sorts of maps for topography and climate, there are sections on the geology and hydrology of the Land.  Maps of the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea showing underwater elevations are unusually interesting.  Beitzel has shown which cities on Galilee had Roman Harbors in the first century is quite useful.

What sets this New Moody Atlas ahead of other atlases is its excellent collection of essays on biblical history.  In fact, almost 200 pages are devoted to the history of Israel through the New Testament. About 35 pages are devoted to the intertestamental period, including several pages on Alexander the Great and two full pages on the Battle of Issus.  An eleven page essay on the history of Jerusalem includes maps of each major period of the city’s history, including the modern city.  The essay discusses the name and topography of the city as well as a brief history of excavations.  There are less than 40 pages devoted to the New Testament period, predictably the majority to Paul’s travels (12 pages).  The final 8 pages of the Historical Atlas cover the fall of Jerusalem and the spread of Christianity.  The Historical Atlas is well researched although the text uses to avoid cluttering the atlas pages.  A Map Citation, Scripture and General Index are provided.

Illustrations are almost all photographs rather than artistic renderings.  These are used sparingly compared to the IVP Atlas and appear to be mostly stock photography.  A few photos are clearly old (Caesarea, p. 42, Chorazin, p.242).  I find this limited use of photographs odd since Barry Beitzel is listed in the ESV Atlas as one of several who helped supply photography for that volume.  While there is no need to repeat the bloated excess of Biblica (a coffee-table style atlas), additional photographs would have made this atlas even better.

The New Moody Atlas of the Bible is an excellent text for any Bible Survey course, although the volume is most valuable for a study of the Hebrew Bible. The text will appeal to Bible teachers and Pastors but it is not too technical for the laymen.  The New Moody Atlas is a valuable addition to any library.