Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and the Environment

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Environmental Studies

No. 3   

In the Western world, there is growing interest in the attitude of organized religion toward the environment.1 One strong motivation for this is the desire to mobilize religion in the battle for global environmental protection. This development also means that representatives of Judaism are being asked to participate in discussions on the subject.

Understanding the Jewish approach to the way in which humanity’s — and particularly Jews’ — relationship to the natural world should be structured must start with reading classical sources from an environmental perspective.2 The first step on this long road is an analysis of what would now be called the “environmental” themes in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). Many such motifs are dispersed through its normative, narrative, and wisdom texts. Only a selection can be presented below.

A Theocentric Worldview

The Bible expresses the theocentric worldview of Judaism, which is developed further in rabbinic literature. It also states the fundamental belief that heaven and earth are God’s property, as the Psalmist writes: “The heaven is Yours, the earth too; the world and all it holds — You established them.3

God is the Creator of the natural world, and can thus do with it whatever He sees fit. The Jewish attitude toward the environment must be seen in the framework of the central theme of the Tanakh: that man — and the Israelites, in particular — should recognize and serve God in whatever ways He commands.

The issue of sustainability plays a crucial role in the contemporary environmental discourse, its main aim being to create equal chances for succeeding generations. Resource policies are an important element of this.4 They should thus also be central when analyzing the behavior of any society from an environmental viewpoint.

In the Tanakh, God instructs the Jews about the limitations on their use of natural resources. When one integrates these rules, one obtains a normative program of action sufficiently distinct to express an underlying “Jewish resource policy.” Many of its basic elements are developed further in classical Jewish writings.

Biblical Law

Numerous biblical laws refer to key categories of modern environmental concern including protection of nature, the prevention of causing pain to animals, resource conservation, urban planning, and avoiding nuisance and pollution.

These biblical laws should not be confused with orthodox Jewish law as it is interpreted today. From Moses onward, oral laws which accompanied and explained the written Torah were passed down through the generations. In the Jewish tradition, the written and the oral law are one. The oral law was written down in the Mishnah early in the third century CE by R. Judah the Prince. Since then, Jewish law has continued to develop through rabbinical interpretation.

The law of bal tashkhit, which prohibits the destruction of fruit trees during a siege to a city, is a cornerstone of Jewish resource policies. Its rabbinical interpretation has become very broad, forbidding all wanton destruction. The biblical origin of this is: “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks.5

However, not all destruction is wanton from the Jewish perspective. When elements of nature become objects of idolatry, as happens in pagan cults, the Israelites are told to demolish them: “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their Asherahs to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.”6 Some claim that the Asherah may have been a sacred grove, but it is more likely to have been a man-made, wooden cultic object.

Animal Welfare

Several biblical laws deal with animal welfare. In the Decalogue, man is commanded to rest on the seventh day, and to ensure that his animals do the same: “on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest” and “the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle.7 Furthermore, farmers are forbidden to plough with an ox and an ass yoked together, as this would impose hardship upon the weaker animal.8

Part of animals’ function is to provide food for humanity. As such, they are also God-given resources and their Maker puts many limitations on their consumption. The Jewish tradition relates a prohibition against eating the limbs of a living animal to the text of Deuteronomy 12:23. This is also one of the Noahide laws, which are valid for all humanity.

Many detailed rules are given as to which animals Jews may not eat.9 Other dietary prohibitions include the eating of carrion10 and of blood.11No animal should be slaughtered on the same day as its young.12 When taking eggs from a nest, one must let the mother bird go free.13 An animal’s young should not be boiled in its mother’s milk.14 Another commandment, which expresses both Jewish resource policies and constancy of species, forbids the mating of two different types of animals: “You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind.15

A further theme in Jewish law may be interpreted as meaning that animals may bear responsibility: an ox that kills a human must be stoned to death.16

Natural Resources

Several biblical commandments refer to the preservation of natural resources. These include the laws of the sabbatical year, according to which the land must rest every seven years: “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.17

The same prohibitions apply to the jubilee year, which marks the end of seven sabbatical cycles: “the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land.18

Other commandments are also founded on the view that the basic resource of human sustenance — land — is God-given and belongs to Him. This makes the use of its produce subject to His orders. God tells the Jew that he may not gather all that his fields yield: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.”19 The same should be done with a sheaf that has been overlooked.20 Tithes must also be set aside from the harvest.21 The first produce of the year should not be eaten before certain dates.22 Consumption of the fruit from new trees also carries time restrictions.23

The earlier-mentioned commandment of the constancy of species limits what Jews may plant on God’s land. A Jew is forbidden to sow his field with two different kinds of seeds: “You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed, else the crop — from the seed you have sown — and the yield of the vineyard may not be used.24

The Torah also addresses the concept of land use in another way. The Levite cities had to be surrounded by open space on which building and growing crops was forbidden: “you shall also assign to the Levites pasture land around their towns….[T]he pasture shall be for the cattle they own and all their other beasts. The town pasture that you are to assign to the Levites shall extend a thousand cubits outside the town wall all around. You shall measure off two thousand cubits outside the town on the east side, two thousand on the south side, two thousand on the west side and two thousand cubits on the north side, with the town in the center. That shall be the pasture for their towns.25

Nuisance and Pollution

Several texts deal with the prevention of nuisance and pollution. Following the exodus from Egypt there had to be “an area…outside the camp, where you may relieve yourself. With your gear you shall have a spike, and when you have squatted you shall dig a hole with it and cover up your excrement.26 After the priest had dealt with certain offerings in the Tabernacle, he was to change his vestments and carry the ashes beyond the camp.27

Another important issue in the contemporary environmental discourse is the precautionary principle. We find in the Torah a precursor of the concept that one should lay out funds in order to prevent possible future risks: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.28

Many of the above biblical commandments show consistent concern for the environment. They also express the hierarchical position of nature protection in biblical law, as compared to other priorities such as the prevention of idolatry.


The Jewish theocentric worldview can also be identified in many narrative and wisdom texts in the Tanakh. The first chapters of Genesis relate how God creates nature and humanity.29 He is thus above nature which is not sacrosanct per se. On the one hand, it expresses Divine majesty; on the other, God may use or change nature in order to teach man a lesson, punish, or reward him.

Several narratives in Genesis recount the destruction of ecosystems, or humanity’s removal from them, as a punishment for failing to obey Divine commandments. Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise;30 Cain is punished for murdering his brother Abel, and becomes a permanent wanderer over the earth;31 almost all of humanity, birds, and land animals are destroyed by the Flood;32 verbal communication between the builders of the Tower of Babel becomes confused, and they are scattered over the face of the earth;33 and Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by sulfur and fire because their inhabitants’ behavior is so wicked that even ten righteous men cannot be found there.34

God’s order to Abram — later called Abraham — provides a very different motive for leaving his ecosystem. In order to be blessed and father a great nation, he must depart from his native land of Ur of the Chaldees for the Land of Canaan.35

After the Flood, God promises that the earth will not be destroyed again because of human misbehavior. He also assures humanity of some elements of constancy in nature: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man….So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.”36 The rainbow symbolizes this general covenant.37

With regard to specific situations, however, the prophet Isaiah forecasts that what happened to Sodom will happen again: “Babylon…shall become like Sodom and Gomorrah overturned by God. Nevermore shall it be settled nor dwelt in through all the ages. No Arab shall pitch his tent there, no shepherds make flocks lie down there. But beasts shall lie down there, and the houses be filled with owls; there shall ostriches make their home, and there shall satyrs dance. And jackals shall abide in its castles and dragons in the palaces of pleasure. Her hour is close at hand; her days will not be long.”38

Nature as a Tool of Punishment and Reward

The motif of Divine punishment and reward through changes in nature frequently recurs in later narratives, e.g., the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea and the subsequent drowning of the Egyptians pursuing them.39 Another is the story of Korah, in which he and his fellow mutineers are swallowed by the earth.40

The narrative of the Ten Plagues is a paradigm of the relationship between God, humanity, and nature. It describes a series of modifications of nature as tools of punishment.41 A number of environmental disasters kill part of the Egyptian population, their slaves, animals and crops, but these plagues do not affect the Israelites living nearby in Goshen.

When the Nile waters turn into blood, “the fish in the Nile died. The Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile.42When Moses and Aaron throw handfuls of furnace soot into the air, the resultant air pollution from the fine dust causes inflammations of boils on man and beast alike.43

Such “environmental” punishments may take many forms. When the Israelites complain, a fire from God breaks out in the desert and ravages the outskirts of the camp.44 The Israelites are warned that idolatry will lead to starvation because no rain will fall and the ground will yield no produce.45

When the Philistines capture the Ark of God, they are punished with a plague of mice.46 The prophet Ahijah warns that the descendants of Israel’s King Jeroboam who die in the cities will not be buried but “shall be devoured by dogs; and anyone who dies in the open country shall be eaten by the birds of the air.47 Similar prophecies are made about the Israelite Kings Baasha and Ahab.48

Jeremiah forecasts that God will use nature to punish the idolatrous Israelites: “And I will appoint over them four kinds [of punishment] — declares the Lord — the sword to slay, the dogs to drag, the birds of the sky, and the beasts of the earth to devour and destroy.49 The Psalms state that He wrecks ships with the wind “as the Tarshish fleet was wrecked in an easterly gale.50

The Manna Narrative

A notable example of nature’s modification for the Israelites’ benefit is the Manna narrative, with its many environmental aspects.51 The heavenly food came down every morning, except the Sabbath, close to the Israelite camp in the Sinai desert.

The Torah ascribes spiritual characteristics to the Manna. A fixed quantity of this one food provides all the Israelites’ requirements, which represents the antithesis of conspicuous consumption: “He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees.”52

The manna is white, a color symbolizing cleanliness, according to Isaiah: “Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white.53 Moses tells the Israelites to collect only what they need. As any leftovers become infested with maggots and stink, the Israelites are unlikely to hoard manna again. Manna that remains uncollected in the desert melts in the sun.

The Israelites become dissatisfied with their exclusive dependence on this Divine food, however, craving the meat, fish, and vegetables they used to eat in Egypt. While God then supplies them with quail, they are subsequently punished for their gluttony with a severe pestilence.54Miraculous provision of water is another example of beneficial modification of nature. When, at God’s command, Moses throws a piece of wood into the bitter waters at Marah, they become sweet.55 On another occasion, Moses strikes a rock to provide water for the Israelites.56 He later repeats this action to cause the same miracle, although he has been instructed by God only to speak to the rock.57

Changing Nature for Individuals

Changes in natural phenomena also occur in order to help or punish individuals or teach them a lesson. Abraham sends his second wife Hagar away together with her son Ishmael. When they become thirsty in the desert, Hagar discovers a well because God opens her eyes.58

In the desert, Moses sees a bush that is burning but is not consumed; it is there that God gives him his mission to free the Israelites from Egypt.59 Later, his rod is turned into a snake, then becomes a rod again. When Moses puts his hand in his bosom and takes it out, it is encrusted with snowy scales; upon putting it back and taking it out once more, it becomes normal again. Subsequently, Aaron’s staff is turned into a serpent in Pharaoh’s presence.60 The prophet Balaam rides off to curse the Israelites; when an angel blocks his ass’s path and the prophet strikes it, the animal starts speaking to him.61

At Gideon’s request, God grants him two miraculous signs, in which water — in the form of dew — plays a crucial role: “And Gideon said to God, ‘If You really intend to deliver Israel through me as You have said — here I place a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If dew falls only on the fleece and all the ground remains dry, I shall know that You will deliver Israel through me, as You have said.’ And that is what happened. Early the next day, he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew from the fleece, a bowlful of water. Then Gideon said to God, ‘Do not be angry with me if I speak just once more. Let me make just one more test with the fleece: let the fleece alone be dry, while there is dew all over the ground.’ God did so that night: only the fleece was dry, while there was dew all over the ground.62

After slaying the Philistines, Samson calls out to God for water: “‘You Yourself have granted this great victory through Your servant; and must I now die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?’ So God split open the hollow which is at Lehi, and the water gushed out of it.63

Another personal miracle in which water plays a role occurs in the case of Na’aman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram. The prophet Elisha sends a messenger to tell him: “Go and bathe seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.64 Initially Na’aman is insulted but, at his servants’ insistence, he follows the prophet’s advice: “So he went down and immersed himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had bidden; and his flesh became like a little boy’s, and he was clean.65

The book of Jonah contains several examples of changes made in nature in order to teach an individual a lesson. The prophet flees from God by ship, but a storm arises to prevent his flight. When the crew throws him overboard he is swallowed and saved by a huge fish.66 Later, near Niniveh: “The Lord God provided a ricinus plant, which grew up over Jonah, to provide shade for his head and save him from discomfort. Jonah was very happy about the plant. But the next day at dawn God provided a worm, which attacked the plant so that it withered. And when the sun rose, God provided a sultry east wind; the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he became faint.67


The theocentric worldview determines the relationship between man and God. This often leads to self-deprecation on man’s part. This view also affects the way in which the Jewish tradition perceives the relationship between humanity and elements of nature. For example, the difference between man and animal pales compared to that between God and man. “For in respect of the fate of man and the fate of beast, they have one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other, and both have the same lifebreath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing.68

Bildad the Shuhite, one of Job’s friends, is even more pessimistic: “Even the moon is not bright, and the stars are not pure in His sight. How much less man, a worm, the son-of-man, a maggot.69 Job states: “There is hope for a tree; if it is cut down it will renew itself; its shoots will not cease. If its roots are old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, at the scent of water it will bud and produce branches like a sapling. But mortals languish and die….The waters of the sea fail, and the river dries up and is parched. So man lies down never to rise; he will awake only when the heavens are no more, only then be aroused from his sleep.70

In one of the Psalms, David expresses his feeling of abandonment, contrasting his lowly standing with that of God: “You are the Holy One, enthroned…in You our fathers trusted….But I am a worm, less than human, scorned by men, despised by people.71

The fragility of human life is compared several times to that of grass: “Man, his days are like those of grass; he blooms like a flower of the field; a wind passes by and it is no more, its own place no longer knows it.72 While this text refers to any person, the same expression is used specifically for wrongdoers: “Do not be vexed by evil men; do not be incensed by wrongdoers; for they soon wither like grass, like verdure fade away.73 Psalm 129 repeats this idea: “Let all who hate Zion fall back in disgrace. Let them be like grass on roofs that fades before it can be pulled up.74

Recycling: Man is Dust

An important goal in the contemporary quest for sustainability is recycling resources to make them available for secondary uses. Psychological self-deprecation in the Bible contains elements not only of man’s sense of place in the world, but also of the geochemical recycling of humanity. Facing God, the Israelite sees himself as dust or future dust. This concept goes back to the pre-Israelite period. At the time of Creation, God tells Adam: “By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground — for from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.75

Abraham begins his plea for the survival of Sodom by saying: “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.76 This motif recurs in Psalms: “What is to be gained from my death, from my descent into the Pit? Can dust praise You? Can it declare Your faithfulness?“;77 “all those at dust’s door“;78 and “For he knows how we are formed; He is mindful that we are dust.79

The book of Job mentions this theme several times: “Consider that You fashioned me like clay; will You then turn me back into dust?80 and “He regarded me as clay, I have become like dust and ashes.81 If God wants to, He can put geochemical recycling into action: “All flesh would at once expire, and mankind return to dust.82 Ecclesiastes compares humanity and animals in this respect: “Both go to the same place; both came from dust and both return to dust.83

When analyzing the Tanakh’s attitude toward the environment, much — often misguided — attention has been given to Genesis 1:28: “God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.’84

In the normative context of the Torah, this verse — which is interpreted in many different ways — is secondary to the array of specific commandments defining humanity’s relationship with the environment. In another text, God tells man to “till and tend” the Garden of Eden.85 We have seen above, when discussing the laws concerning the Land of Israel, that the success of the Israelites’ flourishing upon the land is conditional upon their meeting binding conditions within the framework of understanding that land is God’s property.

The narrative of Cain’s sacrifice indicates a similar view with regard to humanity.86 His offering is rejected because its defective character expressed his failure to recognize God’s ownership. However, defining the role toward nature that the Tanakh ascribes to humanity as one only of stewardship — as is frequently done — is an incomplete reflection.

The Tanakh deems an expanding population as a blessing for all humanity.87 Abraham the Patriarch is blessed with the promise of many descendants.88 References to this motif also appear elsewhere in the Tanakh, in various forms.89 Many currents in contemporary environmentalism oppose this idea.

Nature is a Manifestation of God’s Majesty

The theme of nature as a manifestation of Divine majesty frequently recurs in the Tanakh. Another is that humanity should thank God, who provides for him through nature.90 The heavens are also told to praise their Creator.91

The Garden of Eden is described as an environmental Paradise, a lush ecosystem with abundant water and many trees. An environmental impact study would show the Garden of Eden to represent an ideal sustainable society.92 Several prophesies foretell that elements of such a society will return in the Latter Days, when humanity and animals will no longer harm each other.93

In the future, ecosystems will change again. This motif is frequently repeated. Isaiah says: “The arid desert shall be glad, the wilderness shall rejoice and shall blossom like a rose. It shall blossom abundantly, it shall also exult and shout. It shall receive the glory of Lebanon, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon“;94 and again: “For waters shall burst forth in the desert, streams in the wilderness. Torrid earth shall become a pool; parched land, fountains of water; the home of jackals, a pasture; the abode [of ostriches], reeds and rushes.95

Later, the prophet repeats this idea: “I will open up streams on the bare hills and fountains amid the valleys; I will turn the desert into ponds, the arid land into springs of water. I will plant cedars in the wilderness, acacias and myrtles and oleasters; I will set cypresses in the desert, box trees and elms as well.96 Fourthly: “I will make a road through the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts shall honor Me, jackals and ostriches, for I provide water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.97

Similarly, Isaiah prophesies of Jerusalem: “Truly the Lord has comforted Zion, comforted all her ruins; He has made her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the Garden of the Lord.98

The Psalmist elaborates further on this theme, saying of God: “He turns the rivers into a wilderness, springs of water into thirsty land, fruitful land into a salt marsh, because of the wickedness of its inhabitants. He turns the wilderness into pools, parched land into springs of water. There He settles the hungry; they build a place to settle in. They sow fields and plant vineyards that yield a fruitful harvest.99

Perspectives on Animals

The Tanakh narrative provides many perspectives on animals and their place in society. The offering of animals as a substitute for humans is described in the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac.100 Hosea forecasts that animal sacrifices will be replaced by offerings from “our lips,” which later Jewish tradition interpreted as prayer.101

Animals are also used as a tool of Divine punishment. This is the case with regard to several of the Ten Plagues: the frogs;102 the dust turning into lice,103 and locusts eating the grass and trees until no greenery remains.104 It is also prophesied that hornets will be instrumental in driving the Canaanites out of the Land of Israel.105

Animals can also have an informative role: the pagan prophet Balaam is scolded by his ass.106 Another example of this motif can be found in the book of Job.107

The Identity of Animals

God brings all animals to Adam to be given a name. This may be interpreted as a paradigm of biodiversity. This “due diligence” action of taking an inventory of all creatures and naming them means that their identity and specificity are recognized: “And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts.108

The narrative of Noah’s gathering all the animals into the Ark is a second example of maintaining biodiversity.

The Bible mentions the specific usefulness to humanity of several animals. The raven and the dove help Noah to discover whether the earth has dried up sufficiently for the survivors of the Flood to leave the Ark.109 Animals can also save people: upon Divine command, ravens bring food to the Prophet Elijah who is fleeing from the Israelite King Ahab. God tells him: “You will drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.110

Humanity can learn from the ant, as is written in Proverbs: “Lazybones, go to the ant; study its ways and learn. Without leaders, officers, or rulers, it lays up its stores during the summer, gathers in its food at the harvest.111

Animals: Responsibility and Punishment

The Tanakh indicates that animals are held responsible for their deeds. They are punished either separately or jointly with humanity. In the Paradise story, the snake tempts Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge: thereafter it is doomed to crawl on its belly and eat dirt all of its days.112 In the days of Noah, the animals are punished alongside the humans: “When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.’113

The narrative of the Ten Plagues relates how man and beast alike are punished with vermin, boils, and hail.114 Animals also die in order to punish humanity: “the hand of the Lord will strike your livestock in the fields — the horses, the asses, the camels, the cattle and the sheep — with a very severe pestilence.115

Several narratives indicate that animals should be properly treated. Abraham’s servant chooses Rebecca for Isaac’s wife because, unasked, she offers to water his camels.116 On his deathbed, Jacob speaks negatively of his sons Simon and Levi, mentioning metaphorically the murder of humans and the killing of animals.117 Similarly, an angel reprimands Balaam for beating his ass.118

The biblical metaphors that relate to nature are another indication of the biblical attitude toward the environment. Animals are often described in terms of human personality or vice versa.119 Isaiah likens the Israelites to a watered garden,120 and Jeremiah compares the believer to an evergreen tree.121

Resource Policies

Several narratives also address resource policies. Scarcity of water leads to conflicts in the days of the Patriarchs.122 Joseph advises the Pharaoh to hoard surplus grain in the years of plenty.123

The Tanakh indicates specifically that humanity may use natural resources for its benefit. The Israelites are told that, when they come into their land, they may mine copper from its hills.124 When, upon entering Canaan, Joseph’s descendants complain to Joshua that they have not been given enough land for their numbers, he tells them to clear forest land in the hill country.125

A few narratives recount destruction of elements of the ecosystem by biblical figures. The judge Samson considers fighting the enemy a higher priority than protection of animals and natural resources; binding the tails of two foxes together, he fixes torches between them and lets the animals loose among the Philistines’ standing grain.126 Before the battle against the Amalekites, the prophet Samuel tells King Saul to kill all their people and their animals.127 The prophet Elisha orders the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom in their battle with Moab to fell all good trees, stop up all wells, and ruin all fertile fields with stones.128

When King Sennacherib of Assyria invades Judea and marches on Jerusalem, the religiously faithful King Hezekiah stops up all the springs outside the city in order to halt water supplies to the enemy.129 The wisdom texts in the Tanakh also indicate that some destruction is part of the normal cycle of life: there is a time for planting and a time for uprooting what has been planted.130

Perception of Water

The Tanakh also contains detailed perceptions on various elements of nature, e.g., water131 and trees. Inter alia, it sees in water a vitalizing agent of the earth: “no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth“;132 a natural resource most essential for the survival of living beings: “You gave them water when they were thirsty“;133 a tool of destruction;134 having religious functions;135 a tool for testing people;136 a natural barrier;137 a means of identity, particularly through the possession of wells;138 and a carrier for transport.139

Furthermore, water is a symbol in a great variety of metaphors, e.g., in Jacob’s final words to his son Reuben:”Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer.140 Ezekiel mentions water as a symbol of weakness: “All hands shall grow weak, and all knees shall turn to water.141Proverbs says:”The words a man speaks are deep waters, a flowing stream, a fountain of wisdom.142


Pollution is also mentioned a number of times in the Tanakh. Sometimes the ideas expressed coincide with contemporary environmental concepts, e.g., the above-mentioned law that excrement must be removed from public places.

In other instances, however, this is not the case. After Aaron constructs the Golden Calf in the desert, this spiritually-polluting object is destroyed by being burned and ground to dust; the gold dust is subsequently thrown into a brook.143 In modern terminology, this is destruction of resources but not pollution, the dust being inert matter.

The relationship between human wickedness, pollution, and destruction is a familiar biblical motif, often with religious connotations. There is no mention of decay in the story of the perfect society: Paradise.144 The Israelite King Jehu tears down the temple of Baal and turns it into latrines.145 Isaiah speaks of Jerusalem as a sinful city in which “silver has turned to dross.146

He also refers to the reverse process of purification and renewal, with a metaphor from the world of waste management where God “will smelt out your dross as with lye, and remove all your slag.147 Similarly, Ezekiel speaks about purifying polluted water with clean water from the Temple.148

Yet another aspect of spiritual pollution and destruction is mentioned in the story of the separation of Abram and Lot. They have so many flocks, herds and tents “that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together.149 Abram tells Lot that they should each go their own way, as there are grazing resources available elsewhere. For environmental and economic reasons, Lot chooses the plain of the Jordan for grazing grounds.150 Morally, however, this is the wrong choice because it is close to the wicked city of Sodom.151 Its destruction turns Lot into a refugee.152

Noise pollution can play an important role in warfare. After entering Canaan, the Israelites laid siege to Jericho. The city walls collapse after the Israelites’ combined shouting and horn-blowing.153 The motif of noise pollution is also mentioned in the narrative about the judge Gideon.154


As various new disciplines have emerged over the centuries, their methods of analysis have often been applied to the Bible and have found broad acceptance. The application of the discipline of environmental studies to scriptural traditions enables us to obtain additional understanding of ancient writings. While looking at the Tanakh from a modern environmental viewpoint is not a classical method of exegesis, it does fit a long tradition of ever-widening interpretation of its texts.

The above selection of biblical themes with environmental connotations gives only a limited perspective on the many environmental motifs in the Jewish scriptural tradition and the way in which they relate to each other. Systematic analysis of the Tanakh and its Jewish commentators from the viewpoint of environmental studies is a daunting task which remains to be undertaken.

*    *    *



1. See Libby Bassett, ed., Earth and Faith: A Book of Reflection for Action (New York: United Nations, Interfaith Partnership for the Environment, 2000); Daedalus,“Religion and Ecology” (Fall 2001); Manfred Gerstenfeld, Environment and Confusion: An Introduction to a Messy Subject (Jerusalem: Academon, 1994), pp. 61-2; Sarah Hobson and Jane Lubchenco, eds., Revelation and the Environment AD 95-1995, Patmos Symposium I: 20-27 September 1995 (Singapore: World Scientific, 1997); Sarah Hobson and Laurence David Mee, eds., The Black Sea in Crisis, Religion, Science and the Environment, Symposium II: 20-28 September 1997 (Singapore: World Scientific, 1998).
2. For a more detailed analysis of this subject, see Manfred Gerstenfeld, Judaism, Environmentalism and the Environment (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and Rubin Mass, 1998).
3. Psalm 89:12. Throughout this essay, the 1985 Tanakh translation by the Jewish Publication Society is used.
4. For a more detailed discussion of sustainability, see Manfred Gerstenfeld, The Jewish Environmental Tradition: A Sustainable World (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, forthcoming; Hebrew).
5. Deuteronomy 20:19-20.
6. Deuteronomy 12:2-3.
7. Deuteronomy 5:14. See also Exodus 23:12.
8. Deuteronomy 22:10.
9. Leviticus chapter 11 and Deuteronomy 14:3-20.
10. Exodus 22:30.
11. Leviticus 3:17.
12. Leviticus 22:28.
13. Deuteronomy 22:6-7.
14. Deuteronomy 14:21.
15. Leviticus 19:19.
16. Exodus 21:28. One may also read this, however, as meaning that such an ox is a dangerous nuisance that must be removed from society.
17. Exodus 23:10-11.
18. Leviticus 25:23-24.
19. Leviticus 19:9-10. See also Leviticus 23:22.
20. Deuteronomy 24:19.
21. Deuteronomy 14:22.
22. Leviticus 23:9-14.
23. Leviticus 19:23-25.
24. Deuteronomy 22:9.
25. Numbers 35:2-5.
26. Deuteronomy 23:13-14.
27. Leviticus 6:4.
28. Deuteronomy 22:8.
29. Genesis, chapters 1-2.
30. Genesis, chapter 3.
31. Genesis, chapter 4.
32. Genesis, chapters 6-7.
33. Genesis, 11:1-9.
34. Genesis, chapters 18-19.
35. Genesis 12:6.
36. Genesis 8:21-22.
37. Genesis 9:12-17.
38. Isaiah 13:19-22.
39. Exodus, chapter 14.
40. Numbers 16:30-33.
41. Exodus, chapters 7-12.
42. Exodus 7:21.
43. Exodus 9:10-11.
44. Numbers 11:1.
45. Deuteronomy 11:16-17.
46. I Samuel 6:4-5.
47. I Kings 14:11.
48. I Kings 16:4 and I Kings 21:24.
49. Jeremiah 15:3.
50. Psalm 48:8.
51. Exodus 16:14ff.
52. Deuteronomy 8:3.
53. Isaiah 1:18.
54. Numbers 11:4-6, 33-34.
55. Exodus 15:23-25.
56. Exodus 17:5-6.
57. Numbers 20:8-11.
58. Genesis 21-19.
59. Exodus, chapters 3-4.
60. Exodus 7:8-10.
61. Numbers 22: 23-30.
62. Judges 6:36-40.
63. Judges 15:18-19.
64. II Kings 5:10.
65. II Kings 5:14.
66. Jonah 2:1.
67. Jonah 4:6-8.
68. Ecclesiastes 3:19.
69. Job: 25:5-6.
70. Job 14:7-12.
71. Psalm 22:4-5, 7.
72. Psalm 103:15-16.
73. Psalm 37:1-2.
74. Psalm 129:5-6.
75. Genesis 3:19.
76. Genesis 18:27.
77. Psalm 30:10.
78. The JPS translation of the text (Psalm 22:30) uses the word “death” rather than “dust” which appears in the Hebrew.
79. Psalm 103:14.
80. Job 10:9.
81. Job 30:19.
82. Job 34:15.
83. Ecclesiastes 3:20.
84. For a detailed analysis of the interpretations of this verse, see Jeremy Cohen, “Be Fertile and Increase, Fill the Earth and Master It”: The Ancient and Medieval Career of a Biblical Text (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).
85. Genesis 2:15.
86. Genesis 4:3-5.
87. Genesis 1:28, 9:1.
88. Genesis 18:18.
89. Genesis 32:12-13; I Kings 4:20; Isaiah 10:22, 48:19; Jeremiah 29:4-6; Hosea 2:1.
90. Psalm 147:7-9.
91. Psalm 148:4-5.
92. Genesis 2:8-17.
93. Isaiah 11:6-8, 65:25; Hosea 2:20.
94. Isaiah 35:1-2.
95. Isaiah 35:6-7.
96. Isaiah 41:18-19.
97. Isaiah 43:19-20.
98. Isaiah 51:3.
99. Psalm 107:33-37.
100. Genesis, chapter 22.
101. Hosea 14:3.
102. Exodus 8:1-10.
103. Exodus 8:12-13.
104. Exodus 10:15.
105. Exodus 23:28.
106. Numbers 22:30.
107. Job 12:7-8.
108. Genesis 2:19-20.
109. See Genesis 8:6-12.
110. I Kings 17:4.
111. Proverbs 6:6-8.
112. Genesis, chapter 3.
113. Genesis 6:12-13.
114. Exodus 8:13-14, 9:10, 25.
115. Exodus 9:3.
116. Genesis 24:12-20.
117. Genesis 49:6-7.
118. Numbers 22:32-33.
119. Genesis, chapter 49.
120. Isaiah 58:11.
121. Jeremiah 17:7-8.
122. Genesis 21:25-26, 30; 26:19-21.
123. Genesis, chapter 41.
124. Deuteronomy 8:9.
125. Joshua 17:15-18.
126. Judges 15:4-5.
127. I Samuel 15:3.
128. II Kings 3:19ff.
129. II Chronicles 32-2-4.
130. Ecclesiastes 3:2ff.
131. See Manfred Gerstenfeld, The Jewish Environmental Tradition: A Sustainable World, ch. 6.
132. Genesis 2:5.
133. Nehemia 9:20.
134. Exodus 14:27-28.
135. Leviticus 16:4.
136. Genesis 24:13-14.
137. Exodus 14:29.
138. Genesis 26:18.
139. Isaiah 18:2.
140. Genesis 49:4.
141. Ezekiel 7:17.
142. Proverbs 18:4.
143. Deuteronomy 9:21.
144. Genesis, chapter 2.
145. II Kings 10:27.
146. Isaiah 1:22.
147. Isaiah 1:25.
148. Ezekiel 47:8-12.
149. Genesis 13:6.
150. Genesis 13:10-11.
151. Genesis 13:12-13.
152. Genesis, chapter 19.
153. Joshua, chapter 6.
154. Judges 7:15-22.