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.