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Boersema, Jan J.


The Torah and the Stoics on Humankind and Nature. A Contribution to the Debate on Sustainability and Quality.


Leiden-Boston-Köln: Brill 2001. IX, 322 S. gr.8. Kart. Euro 64,00. ISBN 90-04-11886-1.


Peter Harrison

It has been over 30 years since Lynn White Jr. first suggested that the environmental problems confronting the globe were to be attributed largely to the Judeo-Christian tradition. White's contentions have been the subject of vigorous debate ever since, and Jan Boersema's new book makes an important contribution to the ongoing discussion. B. shares with White the conviction that the cultural history of the West provides an important background for an understanding of our contemporary environmental predicament, but unlike White he extends his examination of the sources of our attitudes to nature to the thought of the ancient Greeks. B. also offers a solution similar in principle to that hinted at by White himself, with an appeal "to our own history" and to "the valuable elements of the worldviews of the ancient Israelites and Greeks" (245). Generally, B. is more inclined than White to identify positive attitudes to nature in the Western tradition. In significant respects, then, B.'s arguments parallel those of John Passmore, who stressed the importance of Greek anthropocentrism in the formation of Western attitudes to the natural world, and who also identified a "stewardship" tradition within Judeo-Christian thought.

The second and third chapters, which comprise the bulk of the book, present a detailed and thought-provoking analysis of significant sections of the Hebrew Bible. These chapters spread the exegetical focus beyond the familiar biblical injunctions involving subduing the earth, exercising dominion over the animals, and tilling the ground, to consider a broader perspective that encompasses not only the first eleven chapters of Genesis but, in a quite original development, the dietary laws of the Torah. With a refreshing honesty B. concedes the harshness of the biblical language of "subduing" and "having dominion", but also suggests that in the notion of Sabbath-keeping we encounter a moderating tradition of rest, recuperation, and meditation. Thus imperatives endorsing the active life are counterbalanced by those that enjoin the contemplative. These chapters provide a very useful overview of recent biblical scholarship on the creation narratives and on the dietary codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, particularly in relation to the human relationship to nature. The author's own observations on the significance of this scholarship, moreover, are stimulating and insightful. Of particular interest is B.'s use of the work of Mary Douglas and others to suggest that the dietary regulations of the Torah are part of a purity code, linked to the cosmology of Genesis, and serving to separate the realms of the sacred and profane. This thesis, developed in the third chapter, is one of the most significant contributions of the book.

The views of the ancient Greeks are considered next in a single chapter. Here B. deals with the Presocratics, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. All are treated in somewhat cursory fashion in comparison to the detailed commentary of the previous chapters. The Stoics of the book's title, for example, are covered in a scant four pages. A good attempt is made to extract some broad motifs from this material, but over all the treatment is a little thin. Whether the schools of Greek thought considered here might amount to a single coherent "cosmology" or world-view, as B. implies, is open to question.

The fifth and concluding chapter attempts to show how the various currents of Greek and Hebrew thought were taken up into the Western tradition, and seeks to trace these influences from the patristic period to the twentieth century. This is ambitious undertaking, which arguably should have been dealt with in much more detail. Indeed this leads us to what is perhaps the main deficiency of the book. One of the difficulties with the careful exegetical work done by B. is that while it may go some way towards establishing the meaning of the biblical texts in their ancient context or, alternatively, provide an account of what modern biblical commentators now take these texts to mean, this approach tends to downplay the historical impact of these canonical writings. Thus if part of the intention of the book is to consider the manner in which these writings have exercised an influence on Western culture, the history of their reception ought to weigh more heavily than the exegetical efforts of modern commentators.

Further to this, while the insight that the dietary laws of the Torah shed light on the whole issue of the relation of the ancient Israelites to the creation is an important and original one, the question must be asked whether the impact of these texts on Western attitudes to nature has been as significant as the material in Genesis. One might reasonably argue, for example, that the New Testament ambivalence towards these dietary regulations, and the more general contrast of law and grace, marginalized their significance for an emerging Christian culture. Thus the dietary restrictions of Torah came to be neglected in the Christian West in a way that was never true for the creation narratives. Admittedly, it may now be argued that these overlooked aspects of the Hebrew Scriptures now have a renewed significance in light of our current environmental woes.

The book also contains some minor irritations - occasional infelicities of translation, a somewhat idiosyncratic index, and the frustrating omission from the bibliography of some of the works cited in abbreviated form in the notes. In spite of these faults, however, the book makes an important and original contribution, not least because of its recognition that the solutions to our current environmental problems require neither technological nor political solutions in the first instance, but rather a re-examination of the values that lie at the heart of the Western tradition. And as B. indicates, the means to effect a reorientation of values may well lie in the untapped resources of that same tradition.