Landscapes in the Bible

[This article was taken from Chapter One of Bible Manners & Customs by Rev. G.M. Mackie, M.A, 1898 (which we have revised and reprinted)].

When Palestine is seen for the first time, the eye is charmed with the bright distinctness of everything and with the beautiful blue of sea and sky. Then comes a feeling of disappointment as favorite features of beautiful scenery in other lands are looked for in vain. There are no farm houses dotting the landscape; no fields of grass, no horses or cattle grazing at liberty; no forests are visible; the lakes lie low in the Jordan Valley; the rivers are small, and the brooks are dry in summer. Where are the cedars, vines, fig trees, and the beauty of the olive? Is this the Promised Land? Was this the inheritance of the chosen people?

Notwithstanding the deterioration that the land has undergone since the time of the kingdom of Israel and the Roman Empire, it is still beautiful when the eye has learned what to look for. The chief glory of Palestine is in its color, the beautiful tints of morning and evening, and the purity of its atmosphere. There is much to enjoy and admire in the restful outline of the great Lebanon range, the sublimity of the mountain gorges, the weird desolation of the wilderness, the great olive forest of Beirut, the green loveliness of Damascus and Nabulus (Shechem), the palm adorned plains of Acre and Jaffa, and the gorgeous sunsets on the Lake of Galilee and the Dead Sea.

Looking east from Tiberius across the widest part of the “Sea” of Galilee, which is actually only a modest lake. The deep blue waters look almost black on the photo compared with the light blue sky.

Have you ever wondered why the Bible seldom describes scenery the way that modern travelers do, why more attention is not paid to the effect of the beautiful landscape on the mind, and why little is said about what we call the moods of nature? In the East, nature is more of a servant who has to wait and bring what is wanted, than a teacher to whom the pupils come for inspiration and beautiful ideals. The inquiry is instructive when we remember that the Bible abounds in instances of accurate description of artistic effect when the occasion requires it. Thus in Psalm 80 the resemblance between Israel and a ruined vineyard is set forth, with much detail. An artist reads with rapture the description of the downfall of Tyre (Ezek. 27) and calls it pre-Raphaelite, bold in the particulars of reality. Again, in the Song of Solomon 4:1, dark, glossy hair is very effectively likened to the intense luminous black of a flock of goats on the hillside, and in 4:3, the comparison of an olive-skinned brow to the smooth rind of a pomegranate, with its pale skin-like gloss and green shading for the temples, is a simile that would satisfy the fastidious eye of a Herkomer or Tennyson. But one feels that a different range of feeling is reached when the Christian poet says:

“And beauty born of murmuring sound
Shall pass into her face.”

In one case nature remains outside, passive and appealing to the senses; in the other she has passed within, is active, and molds the disposition.

In explanation of this, three reasons may be given:

(A) The special purpose of the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God, its message is from Him, about Him, and ultimately, even in our salvation, for Him. Its first place is not for nature, but for the God of nature and of the soul. When reference is made to the sublime and beautiful in the external world, it is to proclaim that God rejoices in His works and rules over all. This supreme connection is never lost, although nature is sometimes represented as a personality and rejoicing in herself (Ps. 65:12 and 13, 114:4). Thus, in Psalm 104, the survey of life and history becomes a hymn of praise to the wisdom and power of the Creator: “O LORD, how manifold are thy works!…” (Ps. 104:24; cp. Job 28; Ps. 147 and 148; Isa. 60; Hab. 3).

Much in the same way, when an Easterner is shown anything beautiful or wonderful in nature he invariably exclaims, “Praise to the Creator!” Such absorbing pre-occupation with God’s glory and the moral life explains how in the Psalms, Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles the objects and effects of natural scenery are only referred to when serving the purposes of illustration. This important connection with solemn and sacred subjects, natural objects in Palestine, the humble implements of its trades, and the various parts and furnishings of its houses, have a sanctity and symbolism unmet with elsewhere. It is almost with a feeling of profanation that the Western resident watches the people of Palestine in their ordinary work doing things that, to us, but not usually to them, wear a high meaning of parable, and handling with simple unconcern things that to us have become exponents of the Gospel and preachers of immortality. Thus the Lebanon peasant stands on the threshing floor with his “fan” (wooden pitchfork) in his hand and separates the wheat from the chaff.

The Jordan River
“So crooked that a man does not know which side he is on half the time.” Mark Twain [1]

Similarly, peasants come to a ford in the Jordan River and wade waist deep across the stream, and one stands midway in the current and looks back to see how the others are faring, without any thought of Bunyan’s vision and the hopes of the dying Christian. The fisherman mends his net by the Sea of Galilee without thinking that he has a soul to be caught, and the farmer sets up pillars of rough stone in his vineyard and splashes them with a wash of lime to gleam in the night and frighten away the jackals, without thinking that there are far more important grapes to be protected. Thus, busy and expanding Jerusalem of today, with its sects and impostures, has a wall far wider than the explorer sinks his shaft to discover; its name Zion now belongs to many nations, and the city of God to the whole world.

(B) The Eastern mind and landscape. The enjoyment of landscape beauty for its own sake is a modern product of Western life, and the ordinary Easterner has no eye for it. His mind is practical rather than aesthetic or scientific. He accepts devoutly the signs and results of adaptation in the natural world, but he does not trouble about the process. He is indifferent to botany, geology, and archaeology, and generally regards the study of secondary causes and the explanation of nature as impertinence. He is interested in plants for food and medicine, in the forest for fuel, in the hills for health and defense, in ancient ruins for hidden treasure, and in the stars for direction and destiny.

Thus Lot was an Eastern artist when he looked upon the Plain of Sodom and saw that it was well watered (Gen. 13:10). Achsah was also, when she petitioned her father for the springs of water in her inheritance (Josh. 15:19). Isaac was, when the woodland smell of Esau’s raiment reminded him of “…a field which the LORD hath blessed” (Gen. 27:27). Doubtless the ordinary Israelite of ancient times, like the modern Syrian, generally regarded the world around him from the point of view of industrial thrift: it was a world that he had been appointed to farm and subdue, and into which labor, as a curse, had entered because of sin.

The modern Syrian sees in nature what the heroes of Homer and Virgil usually looked for, namely, fertility and refreshment, the beauty of the abundant crop, and the pleasure of the shading tree and cool fountain. In all likelihood the Israelite of ancient times was the same, with a strong sense of attachment, however, to familiar and favored localities, as we see in the justified pride with which all Israelites regarded Jerusalem, in Naaman’s chivalrous protest on behalf of the rivers of Damascus, and in the Samaritan woman’s championship of Jacob’s well.

(C) Idolatry and landscape. A third thing that affected the outlook upon nature was the heathen worship of the powers of nature. This polluted the beauty in Creation, just as gambling now threatens to pollute some of our best indoor games and outdoor recreations. The “high places” of Baal and Ashtoreth had their green trees, cool air, sparkling springs, and pleasant prospects. In such scenes, away from the common routine, where the sun’s heat could not oppress, and the spring, bursting from the cavern, spread life and beauty wherever it went, it seemed not only an impulse from within but a call from above to cast aside care, and give the heart up to merriment and revelry.

The Israelite had his ancestral seat under the vine trellis and sweet scented fig tree, and his legitimate rejoicings at the Feasts of Pentecost and Tabernacles, but the heart had always a secret and dangerous leaning towards the festivities of nature worship. The keeping of the Law, which was both their political protection and the safeguard of the weak against the strong, left a loveless, unfilled place in the common hearts of men. While securing morality, it did not create the joyful, purified heart. Constraint was not comfort. The Law was not life: it needed the express prohibitions in the second commandment, and the constant warnings of the prophets, to make Palestine the Holy Land, that is, with all its scenery, industries, and institutions devoted to God and to Him only. Hence there might have been a note of defiance mingling with the adoration when the psalmist said, “The heavens declare the glory of God…” (Ps. 19:1), not the grandeur of Baal or the fancies of the heathen soothsayer.

Heathen contamination would tend to alienate the earnest Israelite, and make him suspicious and silent towards the beauty of nature. The antagonism between holiness and happiness was removed when Christ said, “…I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10), rebuking at once the narrowness of the letter and the heathen debasement of the physical world. Since then, the Book of the Law has been to us a larger volume than it was to the ancient Israelite; and nature, delivered from the bondage of idolatry, has given us many beautiful thoughts about the mind of God. At the present day in Syria and Palestine, the Christian monasteries occupy many of the sites of the idolatrous high places. Sadly, in cloisters built of the great stones and pillars taken from the ancient temples of Baal, Christians perpetuate the error of the Pharisee—that religion means separation from the world.

The time when Palestine looks greenest and most beautiful is the beginning of April (Song of Sol. 2:11-13). At that time the hills and valleys are green with fresh growth, and there is a great simultaneous outburst of flowers—daisies, poppies, and red anemones appearing in astonishing abundance. This sudden greenness of the landscape, along with the multitude of bright flowers, is short-lived and therefore much more impressive than in a country where one sees green fields during the greater part of the year. In the month of May the green and the rich colors rapidly disappear as the plants wither for lack of rain and the crops ripen and are gathered in. The brevity of the time of green and brilliant color is an apt and often used illustration of the brevity of human life. “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away” (1 Pet. 1:24. cp. Ps. 37:2, 102:4 and 11; Isa. 40:7 and 8; James 1:11). [2] The fleeting but splendid beauty of the flowers gives a special emphasis to the appeal, “…if God so clothe the grass of the field…” (Matt. 6:30). The modern Arabs notice the same features of brevity, profusion, and beauty, saying in their familiar proverbs, “The sons of flesh are like grass,” “The troubles of life are more than the grasses of the field,” and “Children are the flowers of the world.”

Endnotes

[1] Mark Twain, op. cit., Innocents Abroad, p. 446. This picture shows the dense forest that once existed on both banks of the Jordan and was the haunt of many wild animals, including lions and bears. Now that forest has been completely deforested by the governments of Israel and Jordan so it cannot provide cover for guerrilla warfare.
[2] The use of the word “grass” is misleading to the average Western reader due to our tendency to identify and label everything and also to Western attention to nice lawns of green grass. When a Westerner hears “grass,” he thinks of the green, carefully cut grass that surrounds houses and makes parks and golf courses so attractive. In the East, especially in the biblical period, no one had a lawn of nicely cut grass, and to Easterners “grass” is the mixed vegetation (not bushes or trees) that grows in the open field. Westerners would call it “a field of weeds” and then label each individual weed and flower. To the Easterner, the open field is “grass.”

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