Conceptualizing Nature in Eastern Mediterranean Cultures

of the Second-First Millennia BCE:

The Use of Textual and Pictorial Evidence


Emory University and Tel Aviv University Collaborative Research Grants 2021–22


Organizing Committee

Izaak de Hulster

Joel LeMon

Dalit Rom-Shiloni


The Emory-TAU colloquium promotes an interdisciplinary conversation around a set of questions shared by Hebrew Bible scholars and scholars of other ancient Near Eastern and East Mediterranean cultures of the second and first millennia BCE. Did these ancient cultures have conceptions of nature?  If so, how can we decipher such conceptions of nature in pictorial and literary sources? And further, how do the conceptions of nature in the Hebrew Bible compare with those in its cultural milieu?

These questions arise from the fact that there is no word in the Hebrew Bible for “nature.”  More broadly, in contrast to the ancient Greek culture, it seems that biblical literature and the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultures from which it emerged did not formulate conceptions of nature in systematic or explicit ways. Nevertheless, biblical texts abound with references to the natural world and are full of literary imagery drawn from natural phenomena.  This Emory-TAU research cooperation is designed to investigate in broad context the methodological questions: How and where could conceptions of nature be located in ancient societies and their cultural remains?

Thus, our goals for this colloquium are the following:

1) To discuss and develop sound methods for deciphering implicit conceptions of nature in ancient sources that reflect natural phenomena in their literary and pictorial imagery.

2) To conduct comparative studies of four second-first millennia BCE ANE cultures/regions (the Hebrew Bible, Hittite Anatolia and the Levant, Mesopotamia, Egypt), and compare those with Greek conceptions of nature. In looking at the broad spectrum of ancient East Mediterranean sources, we seek to understand how nature was construed in each of these regions/cultures.

3) To study the interplay between literary and pictorial evidence. Iconography (alongside other material cultural evidence) found in those ANE cultures provides an important source of data to reconstruct conceptions of nature. These conceptions of nature can be compared between cultures and across time. Similarly, imagistic language and metaphor in the HB and other ANE texts provide another source for reconstructing conceptions of nature. Thus, we will explore the question of whether the Hebrew Bible and the larger ancient Near East share a conventional “language of nature” or “syntax of the natural world” that can be discerned through both literary and pictorial evidence.

This colloquium works with the premise—one still open to confirmation or annulment—that the cultures of the ANE did have conceptions of nature. Moreover, such conceptions were operative in daily life, in the cultures’ constant interaction with and experience of natural phenomena. We also assume that those implicit conceptions of nature found expression in iconographical and textual remains. As such, we can begin to uncover these conceptions through interdisciplinary studies and methodologically transparent modes of analysis.

The structure of our conference as a five-day colloquium in Israel (May 14–18, 2023) reflects this intellectual agenda, with a highly interdisciplinary team of scholars engaged in three full days of discussions and two days of field-study excursions. Scholars of the Humanities (Hebrew Bible [HB], ANE cultures) that specialize on textual-literary compositions and on pictorial evidence found in excavations, will work with scholars of Archaeology, Social Sciences, and Life & Natural Sciences. Thus scholars of various disciplines will participate in the workshop: Hebrew Bible, Assyriology, Hittitology, Egyptology, Classics. These scholars will exchange ideas and eventually co-author clusters of studies with scholars of Archaeology, and specifically: iconography, archaeobtany, archaeozoology; and with specific experts in Botany, Zoology, Climatology, and Geography. The colloquium draws together teams that will be engaged in studying the relationship between specific literary imagery found in the HB and/or ANE textual and pictorial sources, amidst their natural and conceptual backgrounds. We are, again, particularly eager to identify clear methodologies for uncovering such conceptions of nature on the basis of literary and pictorial sources that refer to natural phenomena.


The multi-disciplinary approach to nature imagery and conceptions of nature stems from PI Rom-Shiloni’s research project (funded twice by ISF 2015–2019, 2019–2022), the DNI Bible project (Dictionary of Nature Images of the Bible, http://dni.tau.ac.il/). This project, the first of its kind globally, is a dynamic, multi-disciplinary, open-access online encyclopedia, encompassing professional knowledge of natural phenomena of the land of Israel and its environs in five fields: Fauna, Flora, Landscape Characteristics, Climate Systems, and Water Sources. Every entry is considered in six sections, written by experts in the different disciplines: Biblical Data, History of Identification, Life & Natural Sciences, Material Culture, and Reception Literature.

PI Rom-Shiloni has extended the breadth of the DNI Bible project to the field of conceptions of nature in her second funded project: “Anthropocentrism and Ethnocentrism as Keys to the Conceptions of Nature in the Hebrew Bible” (ISF 1884/19, 2019–2022).

This colloquium is a major development of this ISF 1884/19 grant, and is expected to be a fundamental contribution to developing knowledge on this intriguing topic. The Emory-TAU co-operation broadens our search for biblical conceptions of nature to a trove ANE literary and pictorial evidences. The works of de Hulster and LeMon among others have helped to establish methods by which this ANE pictorial material can be brought to bear on the interpretations of biblical text. Particularly important for the current project is the interdisciplinary work that these scholars have done on establishing how both images and texts can be integrated to arrive at an understanding of ancient concepts (see e.g., de Hulster’s work on coropolastics [2015, esp. §§910,  https://journals.openedition.org/acost/572?lang=en]).


We envision new answers to longstanding questions concerning conceptions of nature in the HB in light of ancient East Mediterranean sources, answers that draw fully from the biblical context and reveal the limitations of unquestioned, anachronistic perspectives in earlier scholarship.


Collaboration. This joint project supports interdisciplinary discourse between scholars at Emory and TAU, but also much beyond these two institutions. Collogues from the UK, Europe and Israel, are also participating, including scholars of various departments and faculties within TAU, the Hebrew University, Bar Ilan, and Haifa, as well as experts situated in several Colleges (Beit Berl, Levinsky). All invitees employ different cutting-edge methodologies in their own disciplines.

Before, during, and after the colloquium, this project develops unprecedented modes of cooperation that will set new grounds for future studies on nature imagery and conceptions of nature for each of the participants and for their respective fields. We further anticipate that the project will influence other fields of interest, ranging from historians of research to scholars of modern and post-modern thought.

This conference is an Emory-TAU Universities’ research co-operation, selected for funding (of 20,000 USD) by the Halle Institute at Emory and TAU research authorities in December 2021. This collaboration builds on partnership that Dr. Rom-Shiloni and Drs. LeMon and de Hulster, initiated in 2019 through the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting (a partnership that continued in 2021, 2022). That partnership consisted in bringing together two well-established research sections: “Nature Imagery and Conceptions of Nature in the Bible,” co-chairs Dalit Rom-Shiloni (Tel Aviv University) and Mark Boda (McMaster Divinity School, Canada), and “Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Bible,” co-chairs Joel LeMon (Emory University, USA) and Izaak de Hulster (Göttingen University). In this colloquium at TAU 2023, we broaden the cooperation that began in the joint session “Conceptions of Nature in Literature and Iconography: Methodological Considerations” (SBL AM 2019, 2021, 2022), which will develop into a co-edited volume (de Hulster and Rom-Shiloni, eds.).


Outcomes. We anticipate that the interdisciplinary collaborations before, during, and after the conference will result in a second volume of collected essay in the DNI Bible Supplements Series published by Bloomsbury T&T Clark. Volume 4 will focus on the broad methodological issues presented above and on the correspondence of literary and pictorial imagery related to nature in the HB and ANE. It will be coedited by the three organizers: de Hulster, LeMon and Rom-Shiloni.

On a longer term, this pioneering multi-disciplinary scholarly cooperation over the five-day workshop is expected to create a broad and lively community of scholars that can lead to ongoing mutually beneficial work.


Workshop structure. We plan a five-day colloquium: three full days of discussions at TAU, May 14, 16, 18, 2023 at the Steinhard Museum of Nature; and two days of study-field excursions, May 15 and 17, 2023. See the general program of the sessions.

Sessions (of 90 or 120 min each) are structured to bring together scholars of different disciplines. Participants are encouraged to share a draft with their session colleagues prior to the colloquium to allow more fruitful discussions. Each session has a time allocated for open-floor discussion.

Our goal throughout the program is to create a scholarly atmosphere that encourages conversations that otherwise might not happen, both indoors at a conference table and outside in nature.


List of participants. As an initiative of the Emory-TAU Universities’ research co-operation fund, the workshop is committed to invite scholars of the two Universities. Yet, with the desire to study those issues of nature and conceptions of nature in situ, as much as possible, we join forces to bring to the workshop a large group of scholars from Israel and to Israel (and TAU). We are glad to report that 32 participants will be with us (12 international and 20 from Israel).

We further anticipate that many more members of the community will want to join our in-room discussions as interested members of the audience. The colloquium takes place within the Spring semester in Israel, and thus we will surely invite students of all programs and different institutions in Israel (and the broad audience) to join in for at least some of our sessions.


Fundings. This colloquium is funded by a Collaborative Research Grant provided by the Halle Institute for Global Research at Emory University and Tel Aviv University, and by the Israel Science Foundation (ISF 1642/23).


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