Ethics in the Law of Moses: Environmental Welfare

Care for the environment enshrined in the Law

The early Hebrews maintained an unparalleled degree of ecological sustainability, since the Law of Moses regulated fruit crops, prohibited certain mixed crops, and required the non-cultivation of the land in the seventh year, enabling the land to recover from human activity.

“Archaeological records show that the Israelites were the first example in world history of a society that succeeded in managing a sustained management of their environment for about thousand and seven hundred years.”1

This “was unique in the region”,2 and differentiated the Hebrews from their neighbours.

“Israelite agriculture at that time was probably among the most advanced in the ancient world.”3

“In fact, biblical Israel displayed considerably more environmental sensitivity than its neighbors in the ancient Near East.”4

The legal codes of Mespotamia contained no environmental legislation. Legislation such as the Hittite laws of the Old Kingdom (ca. 1650-1500 BCE), contained detailed descriptions of penalties for stealing crops, cutting down trees on other people’s property, causing damage to vegetation by setting fires, and for owners of domesticated animals which stray into another property and cause damage.5 However, all of these penalties were for the sole purpose of compensating owners for lost property, not for the sake of the environment; since the environment had no intrinsic value, there was no penalty for the misuse or exploitation of land.

The consequences of ecological neglect

Although Mesopotamian societies must have been aware of the dangers of over-using the land, and must have experienced the negative effects of environmental damage,6 they nevertheless show no concern for the ecology in their legislation, and there are no environmental protection laws. This lack of attention to ecological concerns contributed significantly to the Early Bronze Age crisis, when rapidly increasing population density and wealth distribution inequity, compounded with environmental exploitation, resulted in an increasingly desperate conflict for diminishing resources.

“It appears that the causes of the crisis of the second urbansation were mostly internal processes. For instance, there was the excessive exploitation of the land, the concentration of wealth in the cities and palace, and the accumulation of this wealth for prestige, which with time led to the ultimate collapse of the system.”7

“This period of decreasing resources naturally caused the rise of competition and rivalry between groups.”8

These centuries of exploitation left an indelible mark on the local environment, forcing economic changes.

“At the beginning of the Bronze Age the declining importance of pig breeding seems to show that for the first time man’s activity caused such irreversible changes in the ecology that man had to adapt his economy.”9

The ecological damage caused by this earlier exploitation was so severe and long lasting, that societies in the Middle to Late Bronze age were forced to change their hunting patterns.

“In the Middle and Late Bronze Age the exploitation of the natural resources became very intensive and reached a high point in which also animals that were hunted never before, were now exploited.”10

Ecological care & the entry into Canaan

The fact that the ecological impact of pre-Bronze Age environmental exploitation was still having a significant effect in the Late Bronze Age, provides a significant background to both the Bible’s record of the Exodus and the Law of Moses.

Under the widely accepted late date for the exodus (thirteenth century), Israel was entering Canaan during the late Bronze Age collapse, not only a time of political and social instability, but also of widespread ecological damage resulting from climate change and environmental exploitation by human activity. Particular care would be necessary in order to manage the land sustainably.

Corroborating evidence for this is found in Moses’ speech to Israel, in which he warns them specifically that the ecology of Canaan is not like that of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 11: 10 For the land where you are headed is not like the land of Egypt from which you came, a land where you planted seed and which you irrigated by hand [Hebrew “with your foot”]11 like a vegetable garden. Instead, the land you are crossing the Jordan to occupy is one of hills and valleys, a land that drinks in water from the rains, a land the LORD your God looks after. He is constantly attentive to it from the beginning to the end of the year.

Egypt was irrigated reliably every year by the flooding of the Nile, and although the canals and fields still required human intervention to receive water, the Egyptians were able to control their irrigation system through their own efforts. In contrast, the land into which Israel is entering is said to be fully dependent on rainfall, which the land itself “drinks up”.

The implication is not that the land would be easier to manage and more readily watered, but that it would be harder to manage, and the water supply less regular. This is borne out by the sudden appearance of large scale use of water cisterns near domestic and agricultural sites, shortly after the time that Israel would have entered the land.12 This system of water collection was necessary in an ecologically damaged area in which agriculture was heavily dependent on rainfall, and the local water systems were unreliable.

This background provides an obvious rationale for the ecological care legislation in the Law of Moses; Israel would be entering an environmentally impoverished land which had previously suffered from unchecked human exploitation of the ecology. The Law of Moses appears to be not only aware of this damage, but also aware of the need to preserve the land from further exploitation. In turn, this corroborates the historicity of the Bible’s record of the exodus.


  1. Aloys Hütterman, “Ecology in Ancient Judaism”, in Jacob Neusner, Alan J. Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green, eds., The Encyclopedia of Judaism vol. 4 (Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill, 2000), 224.
  2. Ibid., 1726.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Alister McGrath, The Reenchantment of Nature: The Denial of Religion and the Ecological Crisis (Crown Publishing Group, 2002), 50.
  5. Hittite Laws, §102-108, in William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Context of Scripture (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2000), 114.
  6. “It would appear that while early dry-farming and irrigation were pushing population densities up at a rapid rate, the relative amount of land which could be considered “prime”, or “highly productive” was decreasing with equal rapidity”, Kent V. Flanner, “Origins and Early Effects of Domestication in Iran and the Near East,” in The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals, ed. G. W. Dimbleby and Peter J. Ucko (Routledge, 2017).
  7. Mario Liverani, The Ancient Near East: History, Society and Economy (Routledge, 2013), 184.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Hijlke Buitenhuis, “Archaeozoological Aspects of Late Holocene Economy and Environment in the Near East,” in Man’s Role in the Shaping of the Eastern Mediterranean Landscape: Proceedings of the Symposium on the Impact of Ancient Man on the Landscape of the E Med Region & the Near East: Groningen, March 1989, ed. S. Bottema, G. Entjes-Nieborg, and W. van Zeist (CRC Press, 1990), 195.
  10. Ibid.
  11. The rendering “by hand” given here by the New English Translation is intended to capture the sense using the English idiom of doing things “by hand”; the translators see here an emphasis on human effort and manual labor.
  12. “It is only in the Iron Age, when the dense settlement of the hill country began, that we encounter the first large-scale, intensive use of cisterns, many (though not all) lime-plastered.”, William G Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites? And Where Did They Come From? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2003), 117.