Mari Jørstad, The Life of the World: The Vitality and Personhood of Non-Animal Nature in the Hebrew Bible (Duke University, 2016)
The heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament tells of the work of God’s hand” (Psalm 19:2) – the Hebrew Bible is full of texts like this one, in which trees clap, mountains romp, lands vomit, and stars fight in wars. In my dissertation I explore such texts – what I call “personalistic nature texts” – and their potential contribution to contemporary environmental ethics. I argue that the biblical writers lived in a world populated with a wide variety of “persons,” only some of whom are human. These include cloud persons, river persons, mountain persons, and soil persons; attention to such non-human persons profoundly influenced how biblical writers imagined and narrated human interactions with the world. History here is not a human enterprise, but a cooperative venture between humans, their landscapes, and God.
Personalistic nature texts have received little attention in previous research for a variety of reasons. Animistic understandings of the world have been associated with pagan religions, specifically with other ancient Near Eastern religions, and their supposed absence in the Bible has served as a distinguishing feature of Israelite religion. Furthermore, biblical scholars have tended to focus on issues of dating, genre, Sitz im Leben, and cultural borrowing when studying such texts, leaving unanalyzed what they say about Israelite ideas concerning nature and human interactions with nature. A handful of short studies have begun to address this void, including Jonathan Morgan’s article “Transgressing, Puking, Covenanting: The Character of Land in Leviticus,” and Terence Fretheim’s chapter on non-human praise in the Psalms and Isaiah in his book God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, but this dissertation is the first comprehensive study of this literary feature of the Hebrew Bible.
Methodologically, the dissertation employs both standard tools of biblical studies, including close reading, attention to the ancient context of the text, and linguistics, as well as theory borrowed from anthropology, in particular from the school that has become known as “new animism.” The latter provides the terminology to describe rather difficult ideas for modern Western minds, namely that personhood extends beyond the human and that the whole world is social.
The dissertation consists of seven chapters: an introduction, two theoretical chapters, three exegetical studies, and a conclusion.
The introduction sets out the aims of the study: to provide new insight into a particular literary feature of the Hebrew Bible and to consider its consequence for environmental ethics today. I briefly introduce readers to the conceptual distance between ancient Near Eastern worldviews and those of Western modernity (the primary example being Western understandings of personhood as coterminous with humanity versus the more expansive understanding of personhood in the ancient world) and point to ways in which considering this gap might be useful for contemporary ecological engagement. I use the tentative attempts by anthropologist Hugo Reinert to interact with a Sami seidi stone, a kind of rock person, and his account of how this influences his later engagement with a coastal property in Denmark, to illustrate the potential of social interactions with non-human persons to influence human behavior.
The next chapter surveys past approaches to personalistic nature texts in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars have mined these texts for traces of the influence of other ancient Near Eastern cultures on Israelite thought, used them as clues to help date texts, and have interpreted them as poetic anthropomorphism, that is, as aesthetic but counterfactual attributions of human characteristics to that which is not human. These approaches assume that personalistic nature texts do not provide reliable information about ancient Israelite views on nature, and they largely leave unexplained the prevalent attribution of activity, vitality, and affect to rocks, skies, waterways, stars, etc., in the Bible. This is the lacuna that I seek to address.
Chapter three introduces readers to conceptual loss using the work of Cora Diamond. She argues that to understand a concept requires more than grasping an idea; understanding necessitates “life-with-a-concept” – that is, it requires living in a particular way. Conceptual loss, then, involves changes in how people live. This is important for this project, because the difference between modern and pre-modern understandings of personhood and sociality, especially sociality that goes beyond human interactions with other humans, have practical consequences. I apply this understanding of conceptual loss to the gap between modern Western understandings of nature and those of animists in general, and ancient Israelites in particular, arguing that attention to biblical descriptions of other-than-human persons can motivate and support contemporary environmental activism by making possible different ways of living. I also draw on metaphor theory, especially the work of Janet Soskice, in order to consider the ways in which metaphor provides access to relationships and referents that would otherwise be elusive. Though social interactions with other-than-human persons feel inaccessible to most Westerners, the metaphors of the Bible can help as starting points. The chapter concludes with a look at patience in the writing of Annie Dillard, offering her as a model for coping with forms of ignorance peculiar to the modern West. It can be frustrating to realize that though scholars have described animist concepts of the world, such cerebral engagement is not sufficient to grasp what it is to live in an animist world. Dillard’s stories caution us against assuming too soon that we are able to listen and understand the non-human world, and instead offer a posture of patient readiness, a commitment to be present should the world be willing to meet us.
In the next three chapters, I trace the activity of non-animal nature throughout the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Torah chapters explore the story of other-than-human nature in Genesis through Deuteronomy. I pay particular attention to the activity of the soil and the earth, which emerge as central characters in these opening books, as persons who affect and respond to humans and God, and to Israel in its time in the wilderness. Due to the abundance of personalistic nature texts in the Prophets (and the abundance of prophetic books, period), the second exegetical chapter proceeds thematically. Roughly following the order of appearance of personalistic nature texts in the Former and Latter prophets, I discuss the most common ways in which other-than-human persons behave in the text. The section on war, which only treats texts in the Former Prophets, analyzes the participation of other-than-human persons in Israel’s battles. The remaining sections primarily cover the Latter Prophets and trace the ways in which non-animal nature is caught up in the biblical drama of judgment and deliverance. To avoid repetition, in the final exegetical chapter I focus on aspects of personalistic nature texts that have not been considered in the previous two chapters. In the section on Psalms, I consider conversations between other-than-human persons, in which humans are only peripherally included. The primarily example here is Psalm 19. With regards to the Book of Job, I argue that Job’s place, in particular his farm land, serves as a secondary judge in his dispute with God.
In the conclusion, I consider ways in which personalistic nature texts can contribute to ecological action and responses to the environmental crisis. I look to artist Patricia Johanson and poet Jules Renard for modern models of relational ways of being in the world. Johanson creates large public art installations that include habitats shared by humans, animals, insects, and plants. Her approach to art depends on a minute attention to particular places and their creatures, and her installations make it possible for humans, animals, and plants to share spaces in mutually beneficial and pleasurable ways. Renard’s poetry is marked by a willingness to learn from and imitate non-human creatures, from field mice to groves of trees, and a deep affection for the plants and animals on and around his farm. Though Renard sometimes makes use of obvious anthropomorphism, his poetry also communicates the importance of being open and receptive to learning from every inhabitant of a landscape. Neither Johanson nor Renard is an animist per se; as such they can serve as a bridge between the rather foreign world of the Bible and our own.
 Jonathan Morgan, ‘Transgressing, Puking, Covenanting: The Character of Land in Leviticus’, Theology, Vol. CXII No. 867, (May/June 2009) 172-80; Terence Fretheim, “Nature’s Praise of God,” pp. 249-368 in God and the World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon, 2005.
 Hugo Reinert, “About a Stone: Some Notes on Geologic Conviviality,” Environmental Humanities Vol. 8, No. 1 (2016), 95-117.
 Cora Diamond, “Losing Your Concepts,” Ethics Vol 98, No. 2 (Jan., 1988), 266.
Mari Jørstad was born in 1984 in Bærum, Norway. In 2006, She received a Bachelor of Arts (Art & Art History and Political Science) from the University of Toronto. She then completed a Master of Religion at Wycliffe College, Toronto School of Theology. In 2016, she completed a Ph.D. in Religion at Duke University, in the Hebrew Bible track. She is currently a research associate at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, working on a Luce-funded project on the Anthropocene. She has published two academic articles: “The Ground that Opened its Mouth: The Ground’s Response to Human Violence in Genesis 4,” in Journal of Biblical Literature, 135, no. 4 (2016) and “As for You, Do Not Pray on Behalf of this People: Intercession, Deception, and Shalom in the Book of Jeremiah,” Theology, 119, no. 5 (2016). This dissertation will soon be published with Cambridge University Press under a new title: The Hebrew Bible and Environmental Ethics: Humans, Non-Humans, and the Living Landscape.