It is almost impossible to overstate how radically different Old Testament thought was from the thought of the rest of its contemporary world. And it continues to be, given how few societies affirm Judeo-Christian values and how much opposition to them exists in American society, the society that has most incorporated these values.
Among the most radical of these differences was the incredible declaration that God is outside of nature and is its creator.
In every society on earth, people venerated nature and worshipped nature gods. There were gods of thunder and gods of rain. Mountains were worshipped, as were rivers, animals and every natural force known to man. In ancient Egypt, for example, gods included the Nile River, the frog, sun, wind, gazelle, bull, cow, serpent, moon and crocodile.
Then came Genesis, which announced that a supernatural God, i.e., a god who existed outside of nature, created nature. Nothing about nature was divine.
Professor Nahum Sarna, the author of what I consider one of the two most important commentaries on Genesis and Exodus, puts it this way: “The revolutionary Israelite concept of God entails His being wholly separate from the world of His creation and wholly other than what the human mind can conceive or the human imagination depict.”
The other magisterial commentary on Genesis was written by the late Italian Jewish scholar Umberto Cassuto, professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: “Relative to the ideas prevailing among the peoples of the ancient East, we are confronted here with a basically new conception and a spiritual revolution . . . The basically new conception consists in the completely transcendental view of the Godhead . . . the God of Israel is outside and above nature, and the whole of nature, the sun, and the moon, and all the hosts of heaven, and the earth beneath, and the sea that is under the earth, and all that is in them — they are all His creatures which He created according to His will.”
This was extremely difficult for men to assimilate then. And as society drifts from Judeo-Christian values, it is becoming difficult to assimilate again today. Major elements in secular Western society are returning to a form of nature worship. Animals are elevated to equality with people, and the natural environment is increasingly regarded as sacred. The most extreme expressions of nature worship actually view human beings as essentially blights on nature.
Even among some who consider themselves religious, and especially among those who consider themselves “spiritual” rather than religious, nature is regarded as divine, and God is deemed as dwelling within it.
It is quite understandable that people who rely on feelings more than reason to form their spiritual beliefs would deify nature. It is easier — indeed more natural — to worship natural beauty than an invisible and morally demanding God.
What is puzzling is that many people who claim to rely more on reason would do so. Nature is unworthy of worship. Nature, after all, is always amoral and usually cruel. Nature has no moral laws, only the amoral law of survival of the fittest.
Why would people who value compassion, kindness or justice venerate nature? The notions of justice and caring for the weak are unique to humanity. In the rest of nature, the weak are to be killed. The individual means nothing in nature; the individual is everything to humans. A hospital, for example, is a profoundly unnatural, indeed antinatural, creation; to expend precious resources on keeping the most frail alive is simply against nature.
The romanticizing of nature, let alone the ascribing of divinity to it, involves ignoring what really happens in nature. I doubt that those American schoolchildren who conducted a campaign on behalf of freeing a killer whale (the whale in the film “Free Willy”) ever saw films of actual killer whale behavior. There are National Geographic videos that show, among other things, killer whales tossing a terrified baby seal back and forth before finally killing it. Perhaps American schoolchildren should see those films and then petition killer whales not to treat baby seals sadistically.
If you care about good and evil, you cannot worship nature. And since that is what God most cares about, nature worship is antithetical to Judeo-Christian values.
Nature surely reflects the divine. It is in no way divine. Only nature’s Creator is.