Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Genesis As History

We know that for thousands of years mankind subsisted primarily - and by all indications happily & healthily - on acorns as a primary source of food.  From time to time I attempt to answer the question: Why did we stop?  Why did we start instead to do battle with the soil every year rather than being content with the bounty falling on us from above?

Well it turns out that these dudes called Gideons put Bibles in hotel rooms so that secular humanist acorn lovers can search for clues at the very Beginning: The book of Genesis.  What a coincidence! This is hardly a novel idea; J. Russell Smith wrote a brilliant essay nearly 70 years ago about Agriculture in the Garden of Eden.  But I had never gone back to the original words.  So here they are.

1:29 And God said, "See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every trees whose fruit yields seed; for you it shall be for food.

1:30 "Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, the earth, in which there is life, I have given every herb for food"; and it was so.

2:8 The Lord God planted a Garden eastward of Eden*, and there He put the man whom He had formed.

(The East of Eden reference is a bit eerie, since just a couple hours ago I drove past the spot where James Dean crashed his Porsche and died.)

2:9 And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.  The tree of life (an oak, no doubt - Ed.) was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (probably a 'Crimson King' Norway Maple - just kidding) was there also.

2:15  And the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.
2:16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely it,
2:17 but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."

Of course we know what happened next.  For Eve's part womankind was punished with painful childbirth and with, well, men.

3:17 Then to Adam He said, "Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you saying, 'You shall not eat of it,' Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.
3:18 Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you and you shall eat the herb of the field
3:19 In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread til you return to the ground for out of it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return."

2:22 Then the Lord God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"-
2:23 Therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to til the ground from which he was taken.
2:24 So He drove out the man and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden and a flaming sword which turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

Wow, it really is all there.
In the Beginning - if not of the world at least of humankind's collective memory and oral history - humankind, symbolized by Adam and Eve, lived happily in the Garden (forest really) of Eden, eating the "fruit," meaning also nuts, for time beyond reckoning.
Humankind, not content to live in Paradise in leisure and plenty, then tries to acquire the knowledge and power of God.
We are cast out from the forest and onto the plains, cursed to till the soil and live by the sweat of our toil.
The Fall from Grace, the eating of the forbidden fruit, was, of course, not a single event, but a series of events over time.  Did we overuse and exploit (fail to "tend") the Eden we were given, forcing us to search for food elsewhere? Did we multiply beyond the number that could be sustained by the forest?  Did we fight among our selves until some groups were driven from Eden and forced to draw food from the soil of the plains? Given the history of humankind these things all seem likely.  However I also believe - and this is closer to the idea of humankind trying to become Gods - that cultivation of annual grain crops allowed for a stratification of society that allowed some people to wield power over others in a way that communal gathering of the bounty of Eden did not.

However it happened, we now know the cost.  The difficulty is getting back to Eden.  Especially with those pesky cherubim and that flaming sword guarding the east entrance.

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