Sutherland: The Land of Ancient Israel Was No Desert
Many detractors of Christianity like to slander the faith with the pejorative “desert religion.” This is quite a display of ignorance on part of our opponents who seem to be oblivious to the nature and history of the Fertile Crescent. Certainly the land of milk and honey (Exodus 3:8, Numbers 13:27, Deuteronomy 6:3) was no desert.
The climate of Palestine has changed significantly since Biblical times and large swaths of the region that were once lush and temperate have been subjected to desertification. In addition, invading armies all but entirely depleted the forests of Palestine.
The change in the climate and the deforestation of the region has been detailed by Ellsworth Huntington in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society (vol. 40, no. 9 pp. 513-522). Much of Palestine today has been successfully reforested with indigenous flora, a testament to the fertility of the land.
The Roman author Pliny the Elder remarked upon “Jericho, covered with groves of palm-trees, and watered by numerous springs” as well as “En-Gedi, second only to Jerusalem in the fertility of its soil and its groves of palm-trees” (Natural History 5.15).
The Judean historian Flavius Josephus said of the Galileans that “their soil is universally rich and fruitful, and full of the plantations of trees of all sorts, insomuch that it invites the most slothful to take pains in its cultivation, by its fruitfulness” (Wars 3.42).
Of Samaria and Judea he tells us that “They have abundance of trees, and are full of autumnal fruit, both that which grows wild, and that which is the effect of cultivation” and “those rivers which they have, all their waters are exceedingly sweet: by reason also of the excellent grass they have, their cattle yield more milk than do those in other places”(ibid. 3.49-50).
Concerning the country about Gennesareth he says that “its nature is wonderful as well as its beauty; its soil is so fruitful that all sorts of trees can grow upon it, and the inhabitants accordingly plant all sorts of trees there; for the temper of the air is so well mixed, that it agrees very well with those several sorts” (ibid. 3.516).
In an ancient Judean prayer called the Song of the Sage (4Q510-511 in the Dead Sea Scrolls) “desert dwellers” are found among a list of demonic entities. Apparently the people of Judea considered the desert an inhospitable or strange environment home to demons and did not regard their own people as desert dwellers.
Forests of the land of Canaan are mentioned throughout Scripture (Joshua 17:15, 1 Samuel 22:5, 2 Samuel 18:6, Ezekiel 34:25, Zechariah 11:2). The Israelites marvelled at the abundance of the land of Canaan when they first sent their scouts into the land (Numbers 13:23-27). Certainly the land of ancient Israel was no desert.
— Sloan Sutherland