By Amy Paulsen-Reed, Assistant Editor and Sales Representative
A Reference Book You Can Read for Fun?
It is my pleasure today to introduce you to a wonderful hidden gem of a book that will delight any student of the Bible. Landscape, Nature, and Man in the Bible is a reference work that you can sit down with and read for pleasure—a rare thing indeed! This book is a collection of exegetical insights that rely on an understanding of how the Israelites lived on and in their land. The author, Menashe Har-El, is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv’s Department of Geography; he knows the land of Israel inside and out and has many fascinating insights to offer that make the Bible come alive. Har-El shows us that a knowledge of the physical, geographical setting of the Bible is not only crucial for understanding its stories, but also its symbolism, its metaphors, and its poetry.
Landscape, Nature, and Man in the Bible consists of 160 mini essays, each under a broader category, such as “Natural Vegetation” or “Wild Animals.” Each essay is focused on elucidating one biblical verse, but in doing so it references many other verses, which are quoted in full. This allows for a seamless reading experience—no stopping to look up Bible verses, although Har-El does provide additional verses if you wish to study the topic more. Each essay, or entry, is only two-three pages on average, which makes it easy to pick up the book and learn something new, even if you only have a few minutes.
Streams in the Desert
Let’s look at a short example. One entry in the “Water Resources and Installations” section begins with Psalm 126:4: “Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams [afikim] in the Negeb.” You can see here that Har-El includes words from the original Hebrew in English transliteration. He often lists close synonyms (for example, the various Hebrew words for “rock”) and explains the differences between them. In this case, he contrasts the afikim, the “channels” in the desert, with the neharot, “rivers,” in the desert that are mentioned in Isaiah 43:20. Har-El points out that you might wonder why the Psalmist is using the smaller afikim as a metaphor for the return of the captives. Why not use neharot? He wants lots of captives to return, does he not? Har-El explains that although the Negeb desert gets little rain, it still experiences powerful floods, mainly because there is no vegetation to capture the rainwater, nor do the rocks and soil of the Negeb retain water very well. When it does rain in the Negeb, all the water rushes into the afikim, providing natural irrigation for much of the desert. It is the forcefulness of the water in the afikim and their connotations with fruitfulness that make them such a powerful metaphor for the Psalmist: “The advantage of the Negeb channels when compared with the channels in the northern part of the country is not just in their strong flow—the symbol of the waves of returning exiles, but in the blessed way in which they irrigate the productive fields—the symbol of Zion’s pilgrims whose fruits are the blessing of fertility.” The way that an arid, dry landscape can suddenly be flooded with water is an apt simile for the Psalmist, who is longing for a dramatic turnaround of his people’s fortunes.
See the Bible through Fresh Eyes
Landscape, Nature, and Man in the Bible is full of such illuminating reflections. Drawing from his experience as a shepherd, watchman, and farmer in the land of Israel as well as his academic expertise, Har-El sheds light on a wide range of biblical verses. Reading his words, you begin to see the ancient Israelites as real people living in close contact with their land: grazing their flocks on the mountain slopes, traveling along the ancient highways, and building stone walls around their fields.
Har-El originally wrote this book in Hebrew, so we have Carta Jerusalem to thank for having it translated and publishing the English version. Their choice of the King James Version for the Bible verses was fortuitous, since its poetic style is quite charming and fits well with Har-El’s own writing style. Landscape, Nature, and Man in the Bible is also dotted with black and white maps and pictures, drawn from Carta’s extensive archives, which provide welcome visual interest.
In closing, I will reiterate that this book requires no prior knowledge of Hebrew, making it accessible to everyone. It is also a wonderful supplement to a concordance or dictionary, since Har-El adds rich background information and nuance to words that usually have rather short definitions. This little-known Israeli book is perfect for anyone looking for fresh, bite-sized biblical insights. Many thanks to Carta Jerusalem for making this hidden gem accessible to the English-speaking world!
Amy Paulsen-Reed is an Assistant Editor and Sales Representative at Hendrickson Publishers. She has a doctorate in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, where she focused on Jewish biblical interpretation in antiquity. She lives in Burlington, MA with her husband Michael and her daughter Lillian. She is a self-confessed language and grammar nerd, and enjoys cooking, baking, and napping in her spare time.
For more information about Landscape, Nature, and Man in the Bible, visit our website.