Topography and Theology

When we think about a particular people connected with a land, we often associate the topography and climate with them, as well. While there are obvious nuances and variations within groups, we can understand how, say, Arctic temperatures would influence Inuit culture or the way heat and wind in the Arabian desert would impact how shelters were built. So when we think about the Israelites and their history across millennia, what topography would we associate with them?

Well, you could think of Abraham, Moses, and Rebecca in a nomadic desert setting, looking for an oasis to give water for their livestock. You could think of Joseph in Egypt, who understood the Nile River and Egypt’s potential to store food. You could think of the Israelites as focused on urban life, bringing their sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem. Or you could think of them as an exiled people living in Babylonia separated from the land they knew. 

But for most of us, I think we would probably associate the Israelites with the hill country of Canaan, which features prominently in this week’s portion, Eikev (and much of Deuteronomy). That climate led the Israelites to be farmers, who were dependent on the rains, the cycles of the seasons, and a level of randomness when it came to weather. And while the Nile River had regular flooding, and the desert was predictably arid, the harvest in the hill country in any given year could be bountiful, sparse, or something in between. 

That’s why it’s so surprising that as the Israelites prepare to enter the land of Canaan, God tells them, 

For your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. (Deuteronomy 8:7-9)

On some level, the Israelites must have known that their food supply wouldn’t be so consistent. There would be times when they would lack food, or the land wouldn’t be as plentiful. How do we understand these verses, then? 

Perhaps it’s because these verses aren’t meant to be descriptive; rather, they emphasize the covenant between God and the people of Israel. If the Israelites follow God’s laws, their land will be blessed, while if they follow other gods or act immorally, the land will spit them out. Though we may now feel uncomfortable with a theology of “If you act well and obedient, you’ll be rewarded, but if you act poorly and rebel, you’ll be punished,” it’s a theology that’s very rooted in a climate where the harvest wasn’t always predictable.

Daniel Hillel, professor emeritus of environmental science, is the author of the book The Natural History of the Bible, and he reminds us that the writing of the story of the Israelite (and later Jewish) people arose from multiple different topographies, leading to many different theologies. The way in which they approached rivers, such as the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates, was different from the way in which they had experienced their desert nomadic stage, which was different from their time in Jerusalem, which was different from their interactions with the Philistines and Phoenicians along the coast. What made the Israelite religion unique was its view that all of these ecological domains were under the control of one God.

As he says:

Early in their tumultuous history, the Israelites migrated from domain to domain before and even after their effort to settle permanently in Canaan…The multiple variants of polytheism, each of which was believed to be applicable to its particular domain, no longer provided a plausible explanation for the larger reality that the Israelites had observed in the different domains they experienced. Consequently, they could begin to perceive the over-arching unity of all creation. (16)

It was a challenge to maintain a belief in one God, especially because all the surrounding cultures had their domain-specific deities, and if the Canaanites were successful with their farming, the Israelites would easily be tempted to worship their gods to help them ensure a bountiful harvest, as well. There’s a reason the Israelites needed to be constantly reminded not to follow other gods.

We often forget just how connected we are to land, weather, and, most of all, topography. Even if we ourselves aren’t farmers or nomads, we still feel the impact of the sun, the rain, the cold, and the heat. And perhaps the greatest message of the Israelites, and in particular this portion, is the reminder that even as we may live in disparate realms and climates, we are deeply connected (just ask New Yorkers when the Canadian wildfires turned the sky orange). And while we may not like the idea of divine reward and punishment, the Torah – and its focus on ecology – reminds us of a fact we can’t ignore: our actions have consequences.

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