The Soapboxer

Farming a divine calling? ... think again

It’s an evocative image. The noble farmer rising at the break of day, toiling in earnest so we may be fed. Running soil through his fingers, adjusting his ball cap, squinting at the sky to gauge whether a storm is coming. It’s not a stretch to imagine farmers living out some sort of divine calling, that working the land is what we humans were “meant” to do.

I might be inclined to agree.

But then I read the book of Genesis, and, well, if you believe that account, the noble farmer is actually a disobedient child, serving out a millenia-old sentence, with farming as a form of punishment. Yeah, his ancestors lived in a bountiful garden paradise, until they were banished to plow the fields because they pissed God off. The supposed bucolic ideal is actually penance for disobeying our maker. Ouch.

But don’t take my word for it, check it out yourself:

Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return. (Genesis 3:17-19)

Seems unambiguous to me. Painful toil. Thorns and thistles. Cursed ground. Eating “the plants of the field” is not the sacrosanct act we’ve made it out to be; it’s actually an inescapable curse.

Now, before you try to dismiss the Genesis story as a “myth,” keep in mind that it’s a whopper of a worldview-shaper for us Western types – and by extension, those we colonized. It’s a story our ancestors have told for centuries to explain where we come from. Seen through this lens, then, the biblical Fall is a clear chronicle of our passage from hunter-gatherer to agriculturist. The primordial hunters’ world is represented by Eden, the paradise where God provides so long as we don’t muck with things too much. The Fall, in turn, represents the Neolithic revolution – the domestication of plants and animals (approximately 9,000 BCE).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have to labor for our daily bread. But shouldn’t our most-foundational myth couch it in more favorable terms?

It continues. After the exile from paradise, Eve gave birth to Abel, who kept flocks, and Cain, who worked the soil. God was pleased with the herder, but not the tiller. Hence, an enraged farmer Cain killed his shepherd brother. In response, God condemned Cain to live as a “restless wanderer.” Cain proceeded to build the first city and ever since, his descendents have subsequently been driven by a perpetual need to colonize new territory.

So there you go. From foraging, to herding, to farming … and each step required offending God. Humans spent 290,000 years as hunter-gatherers; then a mere 10,000 years ago we embarked on an expansionist agricultural project that has become such a runaway “success” that we refuse to truly grapple with how unsustainable it is.

Nicholas Klassen is a former senior editor at Adbusters magazine and a principal at BiroCreative in Vancouver, BC.

Issue 8

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 8, Winter 2007, The Future of Food in an Urbanized World.

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Issue 8, Winter 2007

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