Into the Wild: Wilderness in Scripture

carolina mountains*A version of this essay previously appeared at Theologues.com (RIP)

John Muir, a pioneer conservationist whose efforts helped lead to the creation of America’s national park system, spent decades exploring the lands of the western United States, filling up notebooks with his observations. In one of his more reflective passages, he wrote:

Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods… Sleep in forgetfulness of all ill. Of all the upness accessible to mortals, there is no upness comparable to the mountains (Muir, 1979, p. 235).

From its early days, the environmental movement in the United States has placed high value on the preservation of wilderness. However, within some parts of the Christian world, environmental concerns can be hot button issues. Talk about them too much and you can find yourself potentially being labelled a liberal ‘tree hugger.’ Nevertheless, I want to spend a little time exploring how wilderness is viewed in scripture. Is it always portrayed as desolate, full of danger and without use? Is it ever described in ways more like the reverent language used by John Muir?

Wilderness in the Old Testament

In his 2010 book, The Bible and Ecology, Richard Bauckham defines how we currently use the term ‘wilderness,’ writing that:

In modern ecological discussion, ‘wilderness’ refers to all natural habitat that is not manipulated or managed by humans… It lies outside human culture and civilization, and its living inhabitants are wild animals, as opposed to domesticated animals (p.109).

From this standpoint, ‘wilderness’ can be anything from a verdant forest to an arid desert or snowy mountain range. In the Old Testament, though, ‘wilderness’ is typically used in a more limited sense, describing barren land that’s unsuitable for cultivation. Bauckham adds, “We might call it wasteland – and that word captures something of biblical people’s attitude to it” (p.109). Deuteronomy 8:15 gives a vivid description, “the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions” (NRSV).

However, ‘wilderness’ in this more limited, Old Testament sense, is not the only part of the biblical landscape that we would call ‘wilderness’ in our modern sense of the word. In biblical times, significant parts of Palestine were still covered in woodlands, both areas with tall trees and undergrowth and open woodlands with smaller trees and shrubs (p.110). Forests could provide timber for the Israelites, and the shrub lands were suitable for grazing by domestic animals. Thus, forests, while still wild and largely untouched by humans, were seen more positively than the desolate wilderness. Of course, forests still contained wild animals and could be dangerous. The Old Testament writers were not overly-sentimental about nature. Bauckham notes that, “From the perspective of Israelite farmers, forest and especially wilderness were uninhabited, inhospitable, and even threatening to humans, and this was a fairly realistic assessment. We can hardly expect any other from farmers living close to subsistence (p.111).

Regarding the wilderness, I think the Old Testament writers were pretty pragmatic: it was portrayed negatively because it was dangerous and unsuitable for human habitation. However, Bauckham concludes that:

This very judgement of it [wilderness] as the non-human sphere highlights the fact that it is the sphere of other creatures, whom God has made for it. The implication is precisely that not all habitats are for humans; some are for very different kinds of creatures (p.114).

A Doxology of Creation

In Psalm 104 we are given a sweeping, panoramic view of creation, including the more wild regions. Even in these places, God’s role as creator and provider for all of His creatures is highlighted. The psalm begins by extolling God for His creative power over the forces of chaos:

You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken. You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder they take to flight… You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth (vv. 5-9 NRSV).

In From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, Walter Brueggemann suggests that in the first part of this psalm, we find a way of thinking about creation that can be described as “inventory framed by doxology” (2014, p.56). The many ways God provides for his good creation are catalogued:

You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills, giving drink to every wild animal; the wild asses quench their thirst. By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches. You cause grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart (vv. 10- 15 NRSV).

Even the forests and wild animals look to God for their provision. In this case, the focus isn’t on their threat to humans. Instead, they are treated as fellow members alongside humans of a creaturely community dependent upon God:

The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests; the stork has its home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys… The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. (vv. 16-21 NRSV)

And finally:

O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great… These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things (vv. 24-28 NRSV).

Thus, Bauckham notes that in Psalm 104, even the wilder parts of nature like the forests and mountain crags aren’t viewed negatively; they are simply being part of God’s creation. He writes:

Just as humans live in fertile and cultivated areas, so forests are habitats for lions and storks, mountains for mountain goats and rock badgers, the wilderness for wild asses and sand grouse, the mountain crags for vultures… Despite first impressions, the Bible seems closer than we might have thought to contemporary appreciation of wild nature precisely as non-humanised nature, nature whose value lies not in its adaptation to human use or enjoyment, but in its unspoiled otherness (p. 114).

Conclusion

Encountering the stark otherness of wild nature can mediate an encounter with the power and otherness of God that is not always so easily found in urban settings. I think Bauckham puts it well when he writes that, “In the humanly created world it is easy to think ourselves gods; in encounter with the otherness of wild nature it is not” (p. 132). Valuing the preservation of nature isn’t to somehow slip into worship of it, to divinize it. Rather, it is to recognize that God’s care extends to all of His creation, not just humans, and that creation’s goodness doesn’t wholly rest in its usefulness to us. Old Testament scholar Christopher J.H. Wright, in his 2004 book Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, argues that part of what it means to call creation ‘good’ in the biblical sense, is to say that it witnesses to the God who made it (p.106). I think he gives as good a defense of a Christian ecological ethic as any when he writes:

We care for creation because we love the God to whom it belongs and because we long to see God’s glory enhanced through Creation and God’s pleasure in creation served through our loving care. The task has validity in its own right, not merely as a way of serving our own needs (p.127).

For Christians, God’s project of new creation has already begun with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we, as the body of Christ on earth, are called to treat the world around us differently, living in ways that point towards the coming day when the inaugurated kingdom is finally consummated and all of creation is renewed by God.

 

Bibliography

Bauckham, Richard. The Bible and Ecology. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010.

Brueggemann, Walter. From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms. Edited by Brent A. Strawn. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.

Muir, John. John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir. Edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.

Wright, Christopher J.H. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

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