Lecture 29: The Ancient Perspective on Nature | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 29: The Ancient Perspective on Nature

Course: The Book of Job

Lecture: The Ancient Perspective on Nature


We are right in the middle of the speeches of God, but at this point we are going to step away from them just for a moment to get a little background information. So for today’s lecture we are not going to be looking at a text. We are going to be looking at how the ancient near eastern people thought about life and the world, and how it relates to God’s speech.

I. Rousseau’s View of the Nobility of the Savage and the Goodness of Wilderness

It has to do with how we view nature. We in the modern west have kind of adopted Rousseau’s ideal of nature as noble and beautiful, something we want to preserve. We have picked up the idea of the noble savage and we have picked up the idea that nature in all of its wildness with its wolves and its lions, is something beautiful that needs to be protected.

A. Highly urbanized environment

Of course, there is truth in that. There are reasons we hold to the view that we do. We live in a highly urbanized environment where getting away from people and seeing nature as it really is, is increasingly difficult to do. Thus, we treasure it.

B. Shrinking wilderness

We live in a world with a shrinking wilderness where there are fewer and fewer places you can go and really get away from civilization, places where wild life as it was meant to be lived still exists. And so we treasure it.

C. Vanishing Species

We are in a world of vanishing species and naturally we do not want to see the species of the world eliminated and so we treasure the wild things and the wild places of the earth.

In the ancient world it was not so. They had no difficulty finding wild places. In fact, the wild places were usually right outside their front door. They lived in a world where lions and wolves were a present reality, where bears weren’t something you snapped pictures of, bears were something that would take your head off. They lived in constant fear of the chaos of nature, the danger of nature, the ferocity of nature. For them, the subduing of nature, the controlling of it, pushing it back was what they valued more than anything else. Wilderness was something to be tamed. Civilization was something to be promoted.

II. Ancient Mesopotamia Believed Civilization was a Gift From Heaven to Push Back the Wilderness

For example, in ancient Mesopotamia they believed that kingship and civilization came down from the gods and were gifts from heaven and that kingship and civilization together pushed back savagery and pushed back the wilderness, enabling the human race to thrive.

We have many examples of this. A very good example is The Epoch of Gilgamesh. The Epoch of Gilgamesh is one of the most ancient stories that we possess. It is a poem that was written in Acadian. It is from the region of Mesopotamia, around Babylon and Nineveh, that general area. A very, very ancient poem and it concerns a king by the name of Gilgamesh. He is a king of Uruk. He has a friend and his friend is Enkidu. Enkidu enters the story as a wild savage man, he is a person of the wilderness. There is nothing civilized about him at all. In fact, he is so wild, he is so uncivilized, that the animals can get along with him. He is one of the animals. He behaves like the animals and the animals will come near him because they do not regard him as a human.

However, Enkidu will be civilized. Interestingly, the way he is civilized is by a woman. He encounters a harlot. He has a sexual relation with the harlot and is
bound to her; and as soon as he does that, all the animals turn from him. They won’t have anything to do with him anymore; and from that point on he has to be a human being, he cannot any longer be an animal.

A. Quote from Gilgamesh Tablet 1

Here is what The Epoch of Gilgamesh says relative to our text, relative to Job: “The harlot said to Enkidu, ‘You are beautiful, Enkidu. You ought to become like a god. Why do you gallop around the wilderness with the wild beasts? Come, let me bring you into Uruk coven, to the holy temple, to the residence of Anu and Ishtar, the place of Gilgamesh, who is wise to perfection, who struts his power over people like a wild bull.’ What she kept saying found favor with him. Becoming aware of himself, he sought a friend. Enkidu spoke to the harlot: ‘Come, Shamhut, take me away with you to the sacred holy temple, the residence of Anu and Ishtar, the place of Gilgamesh, who is wise to perfection, but who struts his power over people like a wild bull. I will challenge him. Let me shout out in Uruk, ‘I am the mighty one. Lead me in and I will change the order of things. He whose strength is mightiest is the one born in the wilderness.’ Shamhut said to Enkidu, ‘Come, let us go, that he may see your face. I will lead you to Gilgamesh. I know where he will be. Look about, Enkidu, inside Uruk coven, where the people show off in skirted finery, where every day is a day for some festival, where the lyre and the drum play continually, where harlots stand about prettily, exuding voluptuousness, full of laughter; and on the couch of night the sheets are spread. Enkidu, you who do not know how to live, I will show you Gilgamesh, a man of extreme feelings. Look at him. Gaze at his face. He is a handsome youth with freshness. His entire body exudes voluptuousness. He has mightier strength than you without sleeping day or night. Enkidu, it is your wrong thoughts you must change. It is Gilgamesh whom Shamhut loves and Anu, Enril and Lau have enlarged his mind.’”

Let’s pause right there. This is the end of one tablet of Gilgamesh. Notice beyond the fact that Enkidu is being civilized by Shamhut the harlot, Enkidu begins as a wild man of the wilderness and he thinks of the wilderness as his strength; but Shamhut says, “No, Gilgamesh is actually more powerful than you. He is a king of a city. He is a mighty man who knows the ways of the cities.” Notice how she describes the city. She describes it as a glorious place where there are constant festivals, where people wear glorious clothing and everybody has a good time.

So the value and beauty of civilization is being put over against the wilderness background of Enkidu.

B. Quote from Gilgamesh Tablet 2

The story goes on. “They placed food in front of him. They placed beer in front of him. Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food and of drinking beer. He had not been taught. The harlot spoke to Enkidu saying, ‘Eat the food, Enkidu. It is the way one lives. Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land.’ Enkidu ate the food until he was sated. He drank the beer, seven jugs, and became expansive and sang with joy. He was elated and his face glowed. He splashed his shaggy body with water and rubbed himself with oil and turned into a human. He put on some clothing and became like a warrior. He took up his weapon and chased lions, so the shepherds could eat. He routed the wolves and chased the lions. With Enkidu as their guard, the herders could lie down.”

Of course there is a great deal more to the story than this. Ultimately Gilgamesh and Enkidu have a little fight, but they stop and they become close friends and they go off and they have adventures together. Finally, Enkidu is killed and Gilgamesh mourns for him. The story ends telling us lessons of human mortality.

What I want to get across to you from this is how the civilizing of Enkidu is described. First of all, what had he been eating? Apparently just whatever the
bears eat. But now he learns to eat bread and to drink beer and to enjoy what it is to be a human being in a city. He becomes powerful and he takes up human weapons instead of fighting like an animal. Then at the end of the text we read, what does he do? He goes off and he chases away the lions so that the shepherds and their sheep would be safe. So he has clearly become the civilized man who protects domestic animals from the wild animals. He is pushing back the wilderness and pushing back the wild animals.

III. Egyptian Concept of Nature and Civilization

In Egyptian thought we have something that is similar. We don’t have a text that says it as beautifully as Gilgamesh does, but they had a very clear understanding of civilization in Egypt.

I mentioned earlier when I gave the geography of Egypt, the Nile Valley, the Country of Egypt was essentially 500 miles long and 5 miles wide, except for the delta, which of course is wider. The Egyptians called that “the black land.” Black land because when The Nile would flood, it would bring up silt from Africa and the silt would overflow, go onto the land and that would then be good soil for farming and they would raise all of their crops just as I said, on either side of The Nile. That was their whole country, just a couple of miles on each side of The Nile River. That was the black land, the land that could be farmed, the land that had the alluvial soil. Everything else was red land.

Red land was the land of savagery. Red land was the land of death. It was the land of the god Set. Set is a god in the Egyptian pantheon who is associated with death. He is kind of the closest thing Egyptian mythology has to a devil figure. He ruled the deserts and winds and chaos. He was a murderer. He murdered his brother, Osiris, who was another god.

What we have in Egyptian thinking is, there is civilization. Civilization is the black land. That is where people farm. That is where they dig canals. That is where they sow crops. That is where they keep the wild animals away. You go out into the desert and you encounter jackals, you encounter all kinds of dangerous snakes. You face the heat of the sun. You face thirst. You face death. That is chaos. That is the enemy of civilization, the red land.

More than that, the Egyptians had the ideal of maat. Maat is a word which is kind of hard to translate. It is often translated as something like “justice;” but what it really connotes more is “order.” The Egyptians believed that within civilization you have to have maat. Maat is achieved when you have a strong pharaoh on the throne. He is the one who protects the land from all its enemies. He is the one who keeps the red land at bay. He is the one who sees to it that all of the canals, all of the irrigation canals are maintained. He is the one who sees to it that farmers are not fighting with each other over land. He is the one who sees to it that taxes are collected and the temples are maintained. In other words, he maintains a well ordered society. And it is the duty of every Egyptian to maintain maat, to live themselves in accordance with the rules of order and civilization; to see to it that their families are ordered according to Egyptian tenets of civilization; and that all of society has order according to the Egyptian ideal of civilization.

So in the Egyptian concept, where there is wilderness there is chaos; there is the red land where there is no government, no civilization, no farming, no life, no culture, only wilderness, wild animals, dangerous snakes and death. Within the black land is what is good and right and everyone should treasure civilization and maat.

The important thing for us to get from all this is the idea that the ancient people conceived of nature as dangerous and threatening; and that it was their job to push it back and to keep it at bay.

What we are going to see in God’s speech is how God speaks of nature; and it will be in many ways quite different from the ideology of the ancient near east.

IV. Job and His Friends Come From a Conventional Wisdom in Which Human Society and Order are Good

Job and his friends come from a conventional wisdom in which human society, order, domestication and submission to order are good. There are established structures that every civilized person should adhere to; and those who don’t adhere to them bring about chaos and destruction.

In this model all life thrives when it follows the precepts of order and understood in this way, wisdom.

V. Violent Creatures Represent Evil and Chaos and are Outside This Order

By contrast, violent creatures represent evil and chaos. They are outside of order. So we have seen in Job and you see elsewhere in the Bible where lions, for example, are referred to. Again, for them lions were not zoo creatures or creatures whose existence is endangered and they live in a few little pockets of Africa or something like that. Lions were right outside their door. Lions killed their people and killed their flocks. They did not think of any of this as something good, something that should be preserved. They thought of it as dangerous. The lions and everything else that goes along with the wilderness was outside of the established order and therefore was dangerous and was part of chaos.

Therefore, for the ancient people, wilderness was a lethal place. The lion as an example, was a lethal killer.

VI. God Describes a Creation That is not Exclusively Anthropocentric

When we get to God’s speech we will see something quite different. He describes a creation that is not really centered on the human race. I don’t mean that God denies what Genesis 1 says. I don’t mean that God denies the fact that human beings are made in the image of God, that human beings are God’s final and great creation, or anything like that.

What I mean is, there is a great deal to creation in which humans are not the center. It is not anthropocentric. It is wild. Yet God cares for it. God watches over it. God manages it. So that for all the chaos that people seem to see, what God sees is something that is entirely under his control, that is entirely dependent upon him for life; something that he manages and even that he cares for.

To end this lecture, we will just look at one short, little passage of God’s speech which we have already briefly looked at. Job 38:25-27: “Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm, to water a land where no one lives, an uninhabited desert, to satisfy a desolate wasteland to make it sprout with grass?”

Of course it is talking about the power of God over the forces of the rain; but I want you to notice where he sends this rain. He sends it to a place where no human dwells, to make it sprout grass. So he is not doing this for the sake of people. He is doing it for the sake of the life that it is in the wilderness. What God will say here – and there will be some things in this speech that from the standpoint of how ancient near eastern people thought will be very shocking -- what God will say in this speech essentially is that he cares about the wild places. He manages the wild places. What does that all prove? It proves that God knows how to handle chaos. Where Job thinks, “The world is out of control. Where is God? Why doesn’t he manage things any better?” God will say, “I manage more wildness and more chaos than you can imagine, and it never gets out of control.”

That will take us into our next lecture, the next speech of God.