Book reviews — Creator and Creation: Nature in the Worldview of Ancient Israel by Ronald A. Simkins

Schmitz, Philip C

RONALD A. SIMKINS, Creator and Creation: Nature in the Worldview of Ancient Israel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994). Pp. xii+ 306. Paper $14.95.

This book’s principal concern, “the Bible’s view of the natural world,” was neglected in much previous study of the Bible “because biblical scholars had understood the Bible from an exclusively history-oriented, that is, human-oriented, perspective”(p.1). Simkins’s corrective is a careful argument that ecology (defined p. 3 n. 1) is central to biblical interpretation.

In the introduction S. takes up recent indications that ecological themes are receiving more attention from biblical interpreters, addresses Lynn White’s now exhausted thesis that biblical views of creation and dominance are responsible for the destructive exploitation of the environment, evaluates Gerhard von Rad’s subordination of doctrines of creation to doctrines of redemption, opens an exploration of ancient Israelites’ perception of nature, and provides an overview of the six chapters that follow.

Chapter 1 sets out a methodology for describing the value orientation of the biblical worldview with respect to the natural world. (The phrase employed by S. throughout, “values toward nature,” strikes this reviewer as annoyingly ungrammatical and semantically opaque; “value orientation,” p. 31 and passim, is grammatically satisfying and better defined.) Three models of interpretation are explained: a model of human-environmental relations, a model of worldviews, and a model of value orientations. These models shape the interpretations of ancient Near Eastern and biblical texts undertaken in the five succeeding chapters of the book. Diagrams (figs. 1-5) provide visual representations of the arguments. (This helpful technique continues through the book; seventeen illustrations are employed, only chaps. 2 and 3 having none.)

The sustained application of these powerful hermeneutical models invigorates the exegeses of ancient Near Eastern texts offered in chap. 2. After a very brief discussion of metaphor an even briefer treatment of myth follows. Mental images or scenarios, the textual correlatives of culturally shared understandings, are tracked by S. in his explications. Mesopotamian texts are more thoroughly examined than Egyptian ones (although Berlin, VAT, 17019, an important Neo-Babylonian creation text, is not discussed). The restriction of Canaanite texts to Ugaritic is not unexpected, but it is unfortunate; the restriction of that textual base to Coogan’s translation of the major “myths” is harder to defend.

The governing metaphorical homology in ancient Near Eastern creation myths compares the human body to the earth: “the human body is related analogically to the earth, as a microcosm is related to a macrocosm;” (p. 75). A matrix (fig. 6, p. 75) presents in tabular form relevant correspondences. Order, boundaries, differentiation in the homunculus are represented metaphorically from the external perspective in creation accounts; threats to each are personified in conflict myths. From the internal perspective, semen corresponds to seed in creation accounts, to water or moisture in personifications; gestation and birth are metaphorically represented as shaping and pinching off clay.

This heuristic model guides S.’s investigation of creation in the Bible (chaps. 3-5). Creation, he argues, paradigmatically represents the human condition and its redemption under metaphors of the birth process, agriculture, and conflict (chap. 3). The interface of the historical and natural is biblically represented as theophany and covenant. Theophanies and covenants are located in sacred spaces, perceived “horizontally” as sacred land, “vertically” as the sacred mountain centered around the axis mundi, alternately Sinai and Zion (chap. 4). A sustained contrast of the Yahwistic and Priestly accounts of creation completes S.’s examination of biblical protology (chap. 5).

In chap. 6 S. examines eschatology, principally as it is found in the prophetic corpus. The mythic pattern underlying biblical eschatology involves catastrophe and new creation. The readings of prophetic passages that S. offers here seem routine. The conclusions and the ten-page epilogue will be of particular interest to readers who wish to relate biblical mythology to biblical theology, or who wish to undertake the more difficult task of establishing the relevance of biblical doctrines to contemporary ecological crises.

This is a theory-building work. Although the book is written for the advanced undergraduate student as well as the graduate student and specialist reader, it conveys deep insight. It is timely, and it expresses concerns also voiced by theologians like James Barr, comparativist historians of religion like David Kinsley, anthropologists like Roy A. Rappaport, and others at the conjunction of religious and ecological concerns.

Philip C. Schmitz, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI 48197

Copyright Catholic Biblical Association of America Jan 1996

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