The Evolution of Civilization: The Biblical Story
Introduction: The Place of Myths in Ancient Society
Characterizing a story or a recollection as a “myth” suggests to many that the story is untrue or a fantasy reflective of the limited cognitive maturity of the society in which the story emerged. But myths are not wrong science; instead they tell us how societies sought to understand the origin of the world and human life.
Historian of religion Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) viewed myths as cosmogony, efforts to understand the work of the gods in creating life. Jewish myths like the opening stories in Genesis also focus on God’s creative role. Some of these myths, however, focus as much on the life of God’s human creations as they do on the creator. In this piece, I would like to analyze one of these biblical myths—the story of Cain, creating a conversation with contemporary thinking about cultural evolution.
The Struggle between Herding and Agriculture
Herding and agriculture began to coexist some ten thousand years ago; the herd provides fertilizer for the growing crop while the crop helps feed the herd. Nevertheless, the herdsman herding alone, in which the shepherd wanders with his flock, seems to have predated farming and the symbiotic relationship of animal and land.
When farming began, it marked an enormous change in human living patterns. Before this, whether people were herders or hunter-gatherers, they needed to wander, but farming created the option for a sedentary life. We may well imagine that the old ways of living and its representatives did not give up the ghost without a fight. Turning to the story of Cain and his descendants, I believe that reading this story with the realities of the agricultural revolution in the background can produce some important insights.
Two Interpretations of the “Murder” of Abel
After being ejected from the Garden of Eden, Eve and Adam have two sons, Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1). All we are told about them is that Abel was an animal herder and Cain was a tiller of the soil, a farmer. The brothers each bring a sacrifice to God, Cain from his fruits and Abel from his herd. The sacrifice of Abel is favored. Cain murders Abel. We can understand this murder as a product of envy and anger. But we can also understand it metaphorically, as a representation of the struggle between two particular social and economic patterns—the farmer and the herder. Perhaps, the story of the brothers reflects a conflict between modes of life and survival, where the sedentary lifestyle of the farmer emerges victorious over the wandering lifestyle of the shepherd.
Such a reading would put the story of Cain and Abel in conversation with what we know about the development of the agricultural revolution. Around 12,000 years ago, people in the Levant began farming, allowing them to grow their own food and produce surpluses. In turn, these surpluses allowed for population explosions, and the need to build cities to house these large populations, and to create governments to maintain them, etc. This cultural revolution reading fits well the initial chapters of the Bible.
The Emergence of Cities and Technological Progress
Cain is cursed by God for his murder, and forced to wander the earth. Although he was once a farmer, he is now cursed from the land, which will not bring forth food for him. Despite God’s telling him to wander, Cain does nothing of the sort. (The Bible is probably being ironic when stating that he settles in a land called “wandering” [נוד].) Instead, he marries, settles down, and builds the world’s first city:
ד:טז וַיֵּ֥צֵא קַ֖יִן מִלִּפְנֵ֣י יְ-הֹוָ֑ה וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב בְּאֶֽרֶץ נ֖וֹד קִדְמַת עֵֽדֶן: ד:יז וַיֵּ֤דַע קַ֙יִן֙ אֶת אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתַּ֖הַר וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת חֲנ֑וֹךְ וַֽיְהִי֙ בֹּ֣נֶה עִ֔יר וַיִּקְרָא֙ שֵׁ֣ם הָעִ֔יר כְּשֵׁ֖ם בְּנ֥וֹ חֲנֽוֹךְ:
4:16 Cain left the presence of Yhwh and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 4:17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then founded a city, and named the city after his son Enoch.
Although the Torah does not present this as an explicit violation of God’s curse/command to wander, later interpreters took this as a sign that Cain remained in his rebellious ways. Already Josephus, in his retelling of this story (Antiquities of the Jews 1:60-62), writes:
And increasing his property through a great quantity of possessions acquired through robbery and force, enticing to pleasure and robbery those who crossed paths with him, he became a teacher to them of wicked activities. And by the invention of measures and weights he transformed the simple life with that men had previously lived, leading into knavery their life, that had been guileless and magnanimous owing to their ignorance. He was the first who set boundaries of land and built a city and fortified it with walls, necessitating his kinsmen to congregate in the same place (Louis Feldman trans.).
Cain is a complicated mixture of inventiveness and wickedness. When we look at his descendants we see the same two traits.
Inventiveness – Yabal, Yubal, Tubal-Cain (Lamech’s children)
ד:כ וַתֵּ֥לֶד עָדָ֖ה אֶת־יָבָ֑ל ה֣וּא הָיָ֔ה אֲבִ֕י יֹשֵׁ֥ב אֹ֖הֶל וּמִקְנֶֽה:
4:20 Adah bore Yabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds.
ד:כא וְשֵׁ֥ם אָחִ֖יו יוּבָ֑ל ה֣וּא הָיָ֔ה אֲבִ֕י כָּל־תֹּפֵ֥שׂ כִּנּ֖וֹר וְעוּגָֽב:
4:21 And the name of his brother was Yubal; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe.
ד:כב וְצִלָּ֣ה גַם־הִ֗וא יָֽלְדָה֙ אֶת־תּ֣וּבַל קַ֔יִן לֹטֵ֕שׁ כָּל־חֹרֵ֥שׁ נְחֹ֖שֶׁת וּבַרְזֶ֑ל…
4:22 As for Zillah, she bore Tubal-cain, who forged all implements of copper and iron.
Murderousness – Lamech
ד:כג וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לֶ֜מֶךְ לְנָשָׁ֗יו
עָדָ֤ה וְצִלָּה֙ שְׁמַ֣עַן קוֹלִ֔י
נְשֵׁ֣י לֶ֔מֶךְ הַאְזֵ֖נָּה אִמְרָתִ֑י
כִּ֣י אִ֤ישׁ הָרַ֙גְתִּי֙ לְפִצְעִ֔י
ד:כד כִּ֥י שִׁבְעָתַ֖יִם יֻקַּם־קָ֑יִן
וְלֶ֖מֶךְ שִׁבְעִ֥ים וְשִׁבְעָֽה:
4:23 And Lamech said to his wives,
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
Wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech.
I have slain a man for wounding me,
And a lad for bruising me.
4:24 If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
The three sons of Lamech (re)invent herding, music, and metallurgy. All the while, their father continues on their ancestor’s path of killing whoever stood in his way.
Thus, the Torah expresses ambivalence about progress here. On one hand, music, metallurgy and cities would seem to represent progress. The Torah assumes a society where people grow their own food and live in cities. The great King David himself is a musician, and the Ark of the Covenant is made of gold. Thus, farming, music, and metallurgy can all be seen as positive. On the other hand, the combination of intelligence and ambition bring along with it a greater capacity for wickedness and killing, as we see with Cain and his descendants.
The Reflection of the Agricultural Revolution
in the Garden of Eden Story
According the Genesis 2-3, humanity was first meant to live peacefully in a garden, with no clothes and no need to work. Only when Adam and Eve lose their innocence by eating from the Tree of Knowledge and becoming “like God,” that death comes to the world and God casts them out to live off the land and suffer. In this case, the life of the farmer is associated both with knowledge and with death.
This story as well is connected to the agricultural revolution. Before farming, people did not till the soil, plant seed, or reap the crop. They were foragers and hunters, opportunistic in their survival. They ate what they came across: meat or root. With the advent of farming and the explosion of available food, everything changed.
A life of farming is more grueling than that of the hunter-gatherer. Due to the explosion of population, every yield must be adequate to demand; in times of drought and famine the death toll can be devastating. Moreover, with the advent of city life came disease. Another byproduct was large scale conflict, as the control of fertile land and water sources became all important. This lethalness of this last byproduct was increased tremendously by the discovery of metallurgy. Thus, the agricultural revolution was a trade off; the pluses may outweigh the minuses, but the minuses were significant.
The Inevitable Pairing of Technology,
Evolution and Ambition
Perhaps it is impossible to disentangle ambition from aggression on one hand, and from motivation to build, invent, and succeed on the other. Chazal noted the double-edged nature of ambition in a surprising comment on the story of creation, when God calls the sixth day “very good” (Gen 1:31):
נחמן בשם ר’ שמואל הנה טוב מאד זה יצר טוב, והנה טוב מאד זה יצר הרע, וכי יצר הרע טוב מאד הוא אתמהא, אלא שאלולי יצר הרע לא בנה אדם בית ולא נשא אשה ולא הוליד בנים.
Nachman said in the name of Samuel: “‘behold it was very good’ – this is the good inclination; ‘and behold it was very good’ – this is the wicked inclination.” Can the wicked inclination be described as very good? This is shocking! Rather, without the wicked inclination people would not build houses, get married, or have children. (Gen. Rab. 9)
And so, humanity lives with the tension between creating and destroying inherent in our psyches. Old worlds are destroyed as new ones are born, and we move away from the simplicity of life in what the scribes poetically referred to as the Garden of Eden.
Life always becomes more complex, and at times more dangerous and violent. Knowledge does not prevent such violence or danger. Knowledge and the larger brain that promotes it is the source of the technology of killing. But it is also the source of growth. Every generation reflects this conflict. In Jewish tradition, even God is depicted as a destroyer of old worlds while creating new ones.
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October 8, 2015
November 17, 2019
Dr. Rabbi Samuel Z. Glaser is Rabbi Emeritus of the Elmont Jewish Center and retired Adjunct Associate Professor at Hofstra University, NY. He earned his Smicha at Yeshiva University and his PhD in Clinical Psychology at St. John’s University, NY.
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