The Biblical text swarms with life. Goats, trees, bees, and bears form part of a background against which prose narrative tells stories and poetic passages draw inspiration. Occasionally, the created order steps forward and occupies center stage: a lion mauls, an oak tree snares, a donkey speaks! Such moments are brief though, and nature returns to its more familiar role.
Hundreds of different words in the Bible refer to plants and animals. These are named and ordered along lines that appear ancient, pastoral, descriptive, and utilitarian. No modern ranking system of genus and species is found. Animal life is conceived between the poles of domesticated and wild, the clean and the unclean. The ordering of plant life is less obvious but may be surmised. Gen 1:11 contrasts the low-lying grasses and herbs with the overarching trees. Elsewhere, edible grains are contrasted with undesirable thorns and thistles (e.g., Job 31:40; Heb 6:7-8). Other categorical terms include the “wild,” the “creeping,” and the “swarming” creatures of the creation account, or herds of sheep and goats, unfortunately translated by some as “small cattle,” (e.g., Qoh 2:7). The term “beasts” metaphorically describe persons or forces hostile to God (e.g., Dan 7:1-12; 1 Cor 15:32; Rev 11:7).
Some specific terms are also found. Examples include the “turtle-dove” (e.g., Lev 5:7), whose name in Hebrew (tor) resembles the sound it makes, the eerie “howler,” believed to be the jackal, or the almond tree, literally, the “waker” (e.g., Jer 1:11), whose early blossoms announce the coming of spring. No classification of fish is discerned, yet eight different Hebrew terms are translated as “snake” (Yikes!). Words that appear only once are often difficult to identify, although occasionally, as with the liwyatan (Job 41:1-34), the additional description adds mystery.
These examples suggest why it is challenging to draw links between the “text world” of the Bible and the “natural world” to which it refers. It is a necessary study, however, because it reveals how ancient people viewed, organized, and interacted with their natural environment. Interpreting the text in a fair manner demands it. But it is a challenging study too. I can think of four reasons why.
First, it is challenging because the “natural world” is enormous. Biblical texts address a space sprawling from Spain to India, a distance of more than 4,000 miles. Not surprisingly, an extraordinary range of habitats is encountered here. Second, it is challenging because habitats and populations change with time: urbanization, extinction, cultivation, and denudation limit the view from the present to the past. Third, until quite recently, archaeological excavation has ignored material remains that help reconstruct past patterns of flora and fauna. This challenge is being met by new archaeological approaches that are more “landscape” oriented and take into account ecofacts (seed, pollen, and bone) as well as artifacts. Fourth and finally, such study is challenging because barriers of language and culture hinder hasty links and force confrontation with issues of local dialect and classification, poetic usage, and slang. As these challenges are met, the identification of many Bible plants and animals may be explored.