The foundation thinkers of our culture very naturally assumed that humans had been exactly like them from the beginning, that humans had been born as agriculturalists and civilization-builders. Since they could estimate when the birth of civilization occurred, they saw no reason to doubt that the birth of humanity occurred at the same time—in other words, just a few thousand years before.
If they’d known the truth, that humanity was born some three million years ago, their way of thinking would have of necessity been very different, and the works they produced would have been similarly different. When the truth finally began to emerge in the nineteenth century, the descendants of these foundation thinkers—philosophers and theologians—should have felt powerfully impelled to reexamine those foundations, but they didn’t.
They weren’t even slightly interested in the matter. They went on exactly as before, thinking and writing as if nothing had changed, as if humanity had been born just a few thousand years ago. I began to be struck by this oddity in my middle twenties, back in the 1960s, and I began to reexamine those foundations on my own.
Historians naturally had to fall in with the revelation that humans weren’t born agriculturalists and civilization-builders. So instead of perceiving agriculture as being innate to us (as previous generations had), they began to see it as a fairly recent innovation. The concept of the Agricultural Revolution was born.
They knew where and when it began—about 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent now encompassed by Iraq. Being historians rather than theologians or biblical scholars, it was not their business to note that Genesis also has a story about the beginning of agriculture—set in the misty past, near the beginning of time, in the same general region. It was similarly not the business of biblical scholars to note this fact or to attempt to connect the two.
I made it my business. I began with the assumption that the historians’ account and the account in Genesis both referred to the same event. The difference between them was that the historians viewed the event as a great step forward for humanity, while the authors of Genesis viewed it as a punishment and a curse for humanity.
This punishment and curse resulted from the acquisition of “the knowledge of good and evil.” Theologians and biblical scholars really had no tools to use to figure out what was so wrong about having the knowledge of good and evil. Some speculated that knowing good and evil is a metaphor for losing your innocence; for them, Adam and Eve lost their innocence by losing their innocence, and having lost their innocence no longer belonged in the Garden of Eden and so were driven out to live by the sweat of their brows—as agriculturalists.
Anthropologists know all about people who live the way Adam and Eve lived before the Fall. They’re hunter-gatherers. But, being anthropologists rather than theologians or biblical scholars, it was not their business to consider the possibility that the story of Adam and Eve was the story of the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture in the Fertile Crescent—and of course it wasn’t the business of theologians or biblical scholars either.
I made it my business. I learned, for example, that missionaries reported that, like Adam and Eve before the Fall, their aboriginal clients didn’t have the knowledge of good and evil. It was something that had to be taught to them, and they conceived it to be their duty to do so (despite the fact that God had expressly forbidden this knowledge to Adam and Eve). To us the forms good/evil and right/wrong seem almost innate to the human mind; they aren’t; they’re special to our culture (though that’s a different story).
But I learned a great deal more than that. I learned to see things from the hunter-gather/aboriginal/Leaver point of view. I learned, for example, that the subjugation and slaughter of the aboriginal peoples of the New World bore an uncanny resemblance to the story of Cain and Abel.
Cain the tiller of the soil “watered his fields with the blood” of Abel the herder (a metaphorical way of saying that he killed Abel in order to gain the territory he wanted to farm). This is of course exactly what we did on coming to the new world. All our fields were watered with the blood of hundreds of thousands (perhaps even millions) of hunting-gathering Abels.
The authors of the story of the Fall were Semites—the ancestors of the Hebrews who claimed the story as their heritage. But the agricultural revolution didn’t begin among the Semites, it began among their neighbors to the north, the Caucasians. So the Fall was not something that happened to THEM.
I formed a theory– like all theories, an explanation to be judged on the basis of how well it explains the facts it sets out to explain. My theory was this: Like Cain (and us), the Caucasians began to encroach on the territory of their neighbors–the Semites being their neighbors to the south. They began to water their fields with the blood of the Semites.
The Semites (the theory continues) needed some sort of explanation for this behavior on the part of their neighbors to the north. Their neighbors were acting as if they were the gods of the world, as if they had the right to decide what and who shall live here and what and who shall not. They must believe, therefore, that they have the very knowledge the gods use to rule the world. And what is that knowledge?
It’s the knowledge of good and evil, because whatever the gods do, it’s good for one but evil for another. It’s impossible for it to be otherwise. Their neighbors were acting as if they ate at the gods’ own tree of wisdom, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But embracing this knowledge carried its own penalty. Instead of living the easy and carefree life they formerly enjoyed, they were now living by the sweat of their brows as tillers of the field. Eating at the gods’ tree of wisdom is assuredly going to carry a curse, and the authors of the story felt sure that this curse would be the death of man (Adam, in Hebrew).
Many readers of Ishmael (including clergy of all faiths, seminarians, and even biblical scholars) have written to me to confess that my theory makes more sense than any other they’ve seen. But I repeat that it is “just” a theory—and will never be proven as a fact. The only way to judge it is to ask: Does it make sense of the facts that are known—and does it make more sense than any OTHER theory?
updated: 08 Mar 2003