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Meeting the divine in nature

by
05 August 2022

Early biblical writers had to work out who — and where — God was, writes Karen Armstrong

ALAMY

The flowing mane of a horse in Ireland

The flowing mane of a horse in Ireland

ISRAEL experienced the divine in history rather than the natural world. So instead of finding the sacred in the phenomena of nature, the Hebrew scriptures focus on the victories and disasters, battles and plagues that befell the Israelites: their god Yahweh was not immanent in the wondrously repetitive rhythms of nature; he revealed himself in the convulsions of history.

This break with most other religious traditions became clear in about 1250 BCE, when Moses, who was tending a flock of sheep, saw something strange — a bush that was on fire but not burnt up. When he stepped closer to investigate, Yahweh called to him from the bush.

Other Middle Eastern religions would have regarded this divinity as inseparable from the burning shrub — as the numinous force that enabled it to exist, thrive, and flourish. But Yahweh dissociated himself from the bush — from nature — and allied himself with Moses’s ancestors. He was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who made himself known in the events of history.

But this radical break with tradition was not achieved overnight. In the ninth century BCE, the prophet Elijah was engaged in a conflict with the followers of the fertility god Baal in northern Canaan. At this time, most Israelites still found the idea of worshipping a single god bizarre.

Yahweh was a god of war who had helped them to conquer the promised land. He had little known expertise in agriculture, whereas Baal made their fields fertile, enhanced their understanding of the natural world, and gave meaning to their back-breaking struggle against sterility and famine. In the cult of Baal, they felt that they encountered the sacred energies that made the earth productive.

After a deadly skirmish with Baal’s priests, Elijah had to flee the wrath of the people, and took refuge on Mount Horeb to await Yahweh’s arrival.

“There came a mighty wind, so strong it tore the mountains and shattered the rocks before Yahweh. But Yahweh was not in the wind. After the wind came an earthquake. But Yahweh was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire. But Yahweh was not in the fire. And after the fire there came the sound of a gentle breeze. And when Elijah heard this, he covered his face with a cloak.”

Unlike his fellow Israelites who worshipped Baal, Elijah no longer experienced the sacred in the convulsions and rhythms of nature. For him, Yahweh had become so distant from the natural world that he was scarcely perceptible — expressed only in the timbre of a light breeze.

 

THROUGHOUT the Hebrew scriptures, the sacred is usually celebrated not as an immanent presence but as a distant reality. Unlike the Indian devas, the God of Israel has not hidden himself in the natural world; nor is the sacred present in everyday reality, as in the wanwu of Daoism. Instead, Yahweh is presented as the creator and ruler of the cosmos.

When the psalmist looks up at the moon and the stars that his God single-handedly set in place, he does not dwell on their extraordinary beauty and inherent sanctity.

His thoughts almost immediately turn to man, whom Yahweh has appointed the ruler of nature: “You have made him little less than a god, you have crowned him in glory and splendour, made him lord over the work of your hands, set all things under his feet.” Everything in the universe, the psalmist exults, is subservient to humanity — sheep, oxen, wild animals, the “birds of the air and the fish in the sea”.

In another psalm, the marvels of nature have been reduced to mere accessories of the divine: “You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you build your palace on the waters above; using the clouds as your chariot, you advance on the wings of the wind; you use the winds as messengers and fiery flames as servants.” No longer divine themselves, the natural elements are totally reliant on Yahweh.

In the book of Job, however, we find a very different approach to nature, which is expressed in some of the most passionate and beautiful poetry in the Bible. Based on an ancient folk tale, this dramatic poem seems to have been composed by an Israelite who was involved in the Wisdom movement, which emerged in various religious traditions around the world and considered nature rather than the gods to be the true source of morality.

In Israel, the Wisdom teachers revered King Solomon as the quintessential sage: “He could talk about plants from the cedars in Lebanon to the hyssop growing on the wall; and he could talk about animals, and birds and reptiles and fish. Men from all nations came to hear Solomon’s wisdom, and he received gifts from all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.”

During the seventh century, editors known as the Deuteronomists composed a second (Greek: deutero-) history of Israel in the biblical books of Deuteronomy and Kings. They emphasised the importance of God’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai, and were challenged by the Wisdom writers, who argued that the lessons we learned from the natural world were just as important as the Ten Commandments.

But the author of the book of Job went further, arguing that nature shattered the narrow ethics of Sinai. He tells us that Satan persuaded God to put Job, a famously righteous man, to the test, and God obliged by inflicting a series of disasters on him and his household. His extensive livestock — oxen, sheep, and camels — was destroyed; a thunderbolt fell on his house, killing all his children; and Job himself was struck with a hideous disease, which covered him with malignant ulcers from head to foot.

His three friends, loyal advocates of the Wisdom movement, tried to comfort Job, but also argued that God could not have treated him so cruelly if he were not guilty of serious sin. But Job stubbornly insisted on his innocence, loudly lamenting his fate.

Falling into profound despair, he cursed the day he was born. Entrenched in his all-too-human egotism, he turns his back on the entire cosmos. Why, he demands to know, should a virtuous man suffer? It is a typically anthropocentric question, and, when God finally responds to Job, he pointedly ignores it.

Instead, God compels Job to face up to the limitations of his understanding, bombarding him with questions of his own that Job finds impossible to answer. God reveals a cosmic order of staggering beauty in which violence and suffering are essential to the life of all species, and also, paradoxically, to their glory, because the animals rise so magnificently to these challenges.

Instead of repining and lamenting the hardships they endure, they become even more courageous and splendid. Human beings would do well to follow their example. Instead of whining self-indulgently like Job, they must learn that they are not the centre of the world. Their parochial vision is not only blinkered but pusillanimous and wholly inappropriate.

For the first and only time in the Bible, we see that nature has its own intrinsic value, power, integrity, and beauty. Where Job had seen darkness and death, God reveals a cosmos pulsing with energy and life. Whereas Job had yearned for non-existence, God reveals the glory of the first dawn and the primal sea leaping triumphantly out of the womb of darkness, compelling him to confront the inadequacy of his vision.

Had Job any idea of how vast the earth is? Had he seen where the snow is kept? Could he fasten the harness of the Pleiades? Could he grasp the celestial laws and make the clouds and pent-up waters do his bidding? Human beings may think they are the centre of the universe, God insists, but animals have far nobler values than the humans who exploit them.

The mountain goats give birth to their calves and nurture them, but they don’t hang on to their offspring as humans do; when they are grown, they “leave them, never to return”, allowing them perfect liberty. In the desert, where God intended him to live, the wild donkey is free, living proudly with no rope round his neck and never having to hear the cruel shouts of a driver.

Humans think that the ostrich is stupid to lay her eggs on the ground where anyone can tread on them: “Yet, if she bestirs herself to use her height, she can make fools of horse and rider, too.”

And how could Job think that he rivals the beauty and magnificence of the horse? “Are you the one who makes the horse so brave and covers his neck with flowing hair? Do you make him leap like a grasshopper?. . . On his back the quiver rattles, the flashing spear and javelin, Quivering with impatience, he eats up the miles; when the trumpet sounds there is no holding him.”

But it is Behemoth, the hippopotamus, whose immense strength — “his bones as hard as hammered iron” — makes him “the masterpiece of all God’s work”. God has forbidden him to live in the mountain regions lest he endanger other animals; so he lies serenely beside the Nile, his massive strength voluntarily in abeyance.

Behemoth symbolises the harmony of conflicting opposites in nature that epitomises the sacred. Thus nature shocks us out of our human complacency and forces us to confront the limitations of our vision. In nature, we have a harmony in which violence and beauty, terror and serenity, mysteriously coexist, defying our own restricted categories.

 

WHEN Yahweh reaches the end of his questions, he asks Job for his response. All Job can say is, “‘My words have been frivolous, what can I reply?” Humbly, he puts his hand to his mouth, a ritual expression of awe in the presence of the sublime. He has experienced a revelation that recalls the theophany of Sinai, when nature responded exuberantly to the divine presence with “peals of thunder on the mountain and lightning flashes, a dense cloud, and a loud trumpet blast”.

Job, the author of the biblical poem seems to suggest, is a new Moses, a prophet to whom God has revealed the beauty, strength, and mystery of sacred nature that pushes against the limited horizons of human beings. Still, Job was a prophet unrecognised in Israel. Perhaps at this perilous juncture in our history, it is time to acknowledge him.
 

This is an edited extract from Sacred Nature: How we can recover our bond with the natural world © Karen Armstrong, published by Bodley Head on 30 June at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-84792-688-3.

Read the book review here

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