Stories of civilization


* Supplementary Reading: Memories and Visions of Paradise by Richard Heinberg

It’s been years since I’ve read any of the bible, and I had really forgotten how the Book of Genesis really does pack in most of the key stories of the Old Testament. (There’s a great summary of its key events here).

But for all that, at its core Genesis is a single story of longing for the “Golden Age” of humanity – ie: Eden. Far from unique to the Bible, this desire shows up throughout the history of literature and philosophy – belying a dominant theme in human consciousness – as well as some possible clues about our relationship to life pre-civilization.

For many years I have ascribed to (what I thought was) my own personal theory that Genesis is really the story of human transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural society and finally civilization.That the “fall” of man is really about the descent from a time of truly living in accordance with “God’s will” or nature, into the manufactured sin of co-creation and trying to bend that nature to the will of man.

Hence, when Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden for having knowledge – of their nakedness (for one) which represents their clear demarkation from the life of the wild animals with whom they lived – man is cursed to eat plants of the soil that will only come from his hard labour rather than eat easily from the trees and bushes of the garden. God condemns Adam above all animals to have to work the land in order to feed himself – become a farmer. From this event onward there is great wickedness and war, which God tries to cleanse with the flood, but even afterward he has to do a lot more smiting in order to encourage man to clean up his act. All that aside, there isn’t a lot of good going on post-Eden. Cities are built and they are wicked, tribes of people keep getting sent out to establish settlements across the land – so much so that God commands them to mark themselves with circumcision (a practice the demarcates the transition from clan living to tribal life), the primary goal of most people seems to be to have as many children as possible in order to establish greater settlements and so wives are swapped and brothers are forced to impregnate their sisters-in-law, and so on. The end of Genesis in particular really ramps up the whole human misery quotient by demonstrating through Joseph that the only real way to survive (beyond believing in God) is to get in good with nasty rulers, become a profiteer on the people’s misery (selling food during a famine), and enslave whole communities (Goshen).

Ending with the death of Joseph at 110 years, Genesis is a portrait of people in distress at being forced out of a previously abundant life.  And if we look at the timing of the whole affair? The first cities in the Sumerian region (which is close to where Eden is thought to have referenced) were established around the time that the fall of man is documented as a historic fact in the Bible. Interesting, no?

As part of my supplemental reading, I found the supplemental reference – Memories and Visions of Paradise – which was first in print in the late eighties. Turns out that my hunter-gatherer transition theory has been thought of before and by people much more in touch with the archeological evidence than me. The following long passage sums up the core argument – and I would really like to find more writing on this subject if it exists out there because so far this is the best I’ve found:

“Recently, however, the Genesis passage describing the four rivers of Eden has inspired another round of speculation and research. In 1980, following a decade of fieldwork in Saudi Arabia, archaeologist Juris Zarins of Southwest Missouri State University decided to apply himself to the old problem of locating the original Garden [of Eden]. Zarins began with the textual account, and he then familiarized himself with the geology and hydrology of the Near East and the language patterns of its ancient inhabitants. But his crucial clue was to come from space-age technology: satellite survey images show that the Tigris and Euphrates were once met by two other rivers, one of which is now dammed, the other a dry bed. Moreover, the valley where the rivers met was once rich in bdellium, an aromatic gum resin, and in gold, which was still being mined there until the 1950s. As we saw earlier, both of these substances are mentioned in Genesis. On the basis of this new evidence, Zarins concluded that Eden was a relatively small area south of the spot where the four rivers met, a region now covered by the top of the Persian Gulf.

Paleontologists agree that around 5000-6000 B.C., southern Mesopotamia was a forager’s dream. While the region had previously been aris, there was now abundant rainfall and diverse plant and animal life. Agriculture had been developed at least two millennia earlier and settlements were appearing in the valley. As the climate changed and people began to migrate into the region, competition must have arisen between farmers and gatherer-hunters for the fertile land. Zarins theorized that the Eden myth originated in that era of competition and change. “The whole Garden of Eden story… could be seen to represent the point of view of the hunter-gatherers.”

“It was the result of the tension between the two groups, the collision of two ways of life. Adam and Eve were heirs to natural bounty. They had everything they needed. But they sinned and were expelled. How did they sin? By challenging God’s very omnipotence. In so doing they represented the agriculturalists, the upstarts who insisted on taking matters into their own hands, relying upon their knowledge and their own skills rather than his bounty.”

In the Eden story we find Adam and Eve naked and unashamed, eating the fruits of the trees. It requires little stretching or twisting of the story to read this as a description of the lives of primitive foragers. After all, it was only after the Fall that God sent Adam forth to till the ground. The author of the passage seems to be telling us that human beings were innocent and happy as long as they simply lived off the bounty of Nature. Once they began to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil — once they began to bend the cycles of Nature to their own presumed benefit — their innocence was lost. It was only then that the symbolic original couple realized their nakedness and were cast out of the garden.”

From Memories and Visions of Paradise, Richard Heinberg 165-66

There is so much more that can be written on this theme, but for an introduction to the argument I will leave off here. I’m sure to say much more on this at some near-future point.

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