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The Original Sin of Agriculture: Knowledge of Good and Evil

One of the most interesting aspects of this discussion, particularly in Ishmael, is the application to the interpretation of biblical texts. This series is called the “original sin” of agriculture in part because of the interpretation of Genesis 3 and 4 in Ishmael. Chapters 3 and 4 tell the story of the Fall and Cain and Abel respectively. These are stories that are embedded in our culture and ones we read with a lot of assumptions and preconceptions. Without disregarding many of those readings of these texts, let’s try to hear a fresh interpretation and ask what it might contribute to our understanding of sin, history and agriculture.

We’ll begin with Cain and Abel. This story is clearly about the rivalry between two kinds of agriculture, farmers and shepherds. Ishmael contends that this represents the rivalry between Takers and Leavers. Cain, representing Takers, conquers Abel, representing Leavers, through violence as he murders his brother. This is a story told by Leavers against Takers. The nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life is threatened by the surging agriculture and social changes the Takers advocate. After Abel’s murder Cain and his descendants go on to found the first city, domesticated animals, musical instruments, tools of bronze and iron basically all the building blocks of civilization and culture as we know it, agriculture, weapons, art and cities.

Ishmael describes the story of the Fall in Genesis 3 through an alternate mythology. In his interpretation the gods struggle with knowing who should live and who should die. For example, from one perspective it seems right for the lion to kill his prey, a deer, one day in order to keep the population down and feed the lion. However, from another perspective shouldn’t the deer live in order to feed on the grasses and play its role in the ecosystem. You see the conundrum? How do you decide when to let the deer escape and when it should die, along with millions of other decisions within a given ecosystem? The gods decide that one day the deer will live and the next it will be food without any real reason or explanation. It’s left a mystery.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil has always been kind of a mystery. There have been many different ideas and interpretations about what it means or represents. None have ever been very satisfying to me. Ishmael suggests that the knowledge of good and evil is the knowledge of who should live and who should die. The consequence of Adam and Eve eating from the tree was not that they actually possessed this knowledge, but that they thought they possessed this knowledge.

So, what’s the original sin of agriculture? The Leavers originally told the stories of creation and fall to point out the problems in Taker’s way of life, but Takers took it as a flaw in human beings in general. Takers believed that the reason they were not able to ultimately free themselves from the constraints and limitations of creation was something inherently wrong with themselves as human beings and not their way of life.

The original sin of agriculture is the notion that we, humans, possess a kind of knowledge that we do not. We believe that we are able to manipulate and control nature, bending it toward our ends in order to become masters over it and eventually free ourselves from it. The sin is that this way of thinking about who we are and how we are related to the earth is a lie.

This is the final post in a series exploring basic assumptions about agriculture, history and our relationship to creation: The Original Sin of Agriculture Part I, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

6 comments on “The Original Sin of Agriculture: Knowledge of Good and Evil

  1. “We believe that we are able to manipulate and control nature, bending it toward our ends in order to become masters over it and eventually free ourselves from it”

    I don’t know about “free ourselves from it” but how do you jive your thought with Genesis 1:
    “and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.””… “fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.””

    We didn’t believe we could bend nature to become masters over it, God clearly gave us mastery over it.


  2. for the record i’m not entirely advocating these positions although i find them very interesting and compelling. I am putting them out there as ideas worth considering and causing us to rethink some of our assumptions.

    On Genesis 1, I think the translations “rule” and “subdue” are probably misleading. “Dominon” is better but also misleading because we associate the cognate “domination” with it. If we are created in God’s image then we are also given charge of creation in the same way as God who stewards and cares for creation. In the first creation account the earth can be understood in some sense as its own character when the text says “the earth brought forth vegetation.” When God rests on the Sabbath creation continues as the earth and humans do their thing, eating, breathing, dying, being born, etc.

    Remember that what we know of human history includes 4500 years of existence as hunter-gatherers before agriculture. The Bible was not written by hunter-gatherers, but people who were intimately familiar with an agrarian lifestyle.

    So I believe Genesis 1 gives us charge of creation as stewards to “keep it and cultivate it.” That may mean less about manipulating it and more of making sure it continues to be fertile and produce. Throughout the Old Testament the Israelites ability to keep the covenant is tied to the fertility of the land. Much of the Torah that we skip over contains important ideas and information concerning the communities relationship to the land. It’s not about mastering nature, but working with nature to maintain fertility and sustenance. Some would go further to suggest that the charge in Genesis 1 and 2 is basically for us not to screw things up, a passive command rather than active. Perhaps that’s the other extreme.


  3. I’m no Hebrew scholar, but Strong’s Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible says:
    “radah- to tread down as a winepress with the feet, to subjugate, to crumble, to subdue, to oppress, to walk on a person, to rule, to sway, to cause to rule, to have dominion, to prevail against, to reign, to take (possession of honey from a hive), to scrape out. The Talmud used the work for taking bread out of an overn.”

    So, I think the word indicates that we have authority. He is the one who created it for our enjoyment and His glory. How we use that authority will be judged by God– are we good stewards or not?

    I’m not comfortable with the idea that the earth is its own being that we have no authority over, because it’s not written that way in Scripture.


  4. unfortunately it seems to me that Strong’s can sometimes be more confusing than helpful.

    I went back to Davis’ chapter on creation. She notes, “Koehler and Baumgartner observe concerning r-d-h that ‘the basic meaning of the verb is not to rule; the word actually denotes the traveling around of the shepherd with his flock.” Thus the language of Genesis 1 acknowledges the unique power of Homo sapiens, yet without separating us from the other creatures” (55). She suggests the translation “mastery among the creatures” rather than “dominion over” since the Hebrew preposition can have both meanings (over and among).

    I would say that by virtue of our ability to manipulate our environment we have a particular and unique role in creation. I don’t see how that gives us authority over creation in the sense that we can make decisions about its management and care as if we exist above and outside it. We are completely dependent on the creation that you say we have authority over. So, it begs the question, “What kind of authority is it when we are never in complete control and we are bound by the limitations and laws of nature (fertility, erosion, biodiversity, etc.)?”

    I think you and I are generally on a similar wavelength because you mention we will be judged based on whether or not we are good “stewards.” This has become a popular term for our role in creation, yet it is not in the creation account. I think it’s the correct term to describe the kind of role in creation that we are given.

    As long as we think of ourselves as humans as somehow outside of the natural world we will continue to live at odds with creation. In this sense I think the idea of the earth as its own character that is at least in some sense beyond our control is helpful. We cannot control weather patterns. In reality we don’t even control the growth of plants or animals. The more I practice agriculture, the more I realize how much mystery is involved in our relationship with the earth. Humus, for example, is a component of the soil that is absolutely essential to fertility, but something we understand very little about.


  5. Pingback: The Original Sin of Agriculture: Religion « What Would Jesus Eat?

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