Magazine article Tikkun

The Bible and Our Topsoil

Magazine article Tikkun

The Bible and Our Topsoil

Article excerpt

In what could accurately he termed a disaster of biblical style and proportion, industrial agriculture in this country is taking away soil faster than it is producing food. We lose 2.5 tons of topsoil for every ton of grain or hay harvested, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is a disaster, because topsoil, like oil, is a resource that is renewable only in a geological timeframe. But unlike oil, topsoil is essential for human life. As multiple historical examples attest, no community, nation, or empire has ever survived depletion of the topsoil on which it depends for food. This is a disaster in biblical style, because the way the Bible narrates the early history of the world suggests that, from the beginning, poor choices about eating have damaged the fundamental link between humankind and fertile soil.

The first story about humanity uses Hebrew wordplay to establish both the linkage and the damage. "And YHWH God fashioned the human being (adam), dust from the fertile soil" (adamah; Gen. 2:7). But when the first couple decides to eat against the rules that God has established, they get kicked out of the garden, and even the soil turns against them. The once pleasant work of producing food becomes a bitter struggle against thorns and briars. The first eleven chapters of Genesis, that quick and dirty history of early humankind, is, from one perspective, the story of humanity's progressive alienation from God and fertile soil.

In the next generation, the farmer Cain makes the soil drink the blood of his brother, Abel the herdsman. This may be read as a short reflection on human cultural history. The Bible does not shy away from the recognition that there is an element of violence latent in the practices of agriculture, which began in the Middle East some ten thousand years ago. (Indeed, the Middle East is even now living through the last stage of the struggle between herders and agriculturalists: in Jran, tilled fields have in this generation been laid down across grazing routes that nomads had followed for millennia.) "The curse of Cain" is well known, but what is often forgotten is that the fertile soil is identified as its source. So the first murderer becomes a wanderer, driven simultaneously "away from the face of the fertile soil" and "away from [God's] face" (Gen. 4:14). Tellingly, Cain is also the first city builder. This is another highly condensed account of cultural history, since it was settled agriculture that gave rise to another Middle Eastern invention, the city. Interestingly, Cain's son and his city both have the same name: Hanokh (Enoch). The word itself connotes training, culture. Is there here an ironic suggestion that civilization as we know it is the "offspring" of those who are willing to commit violence, both against their fellow humans and against the soil itself?

The story of the tower of Babel mocks the great urban culture of Babylon rising out of the Tigris and Euphrates flood plains, which were disastrously over-irrigated even in ancient times. Therefore the centers of Mcsopotamian civilization moved steadily northward through the centuries, to escape the creeping salinization that destroyed the soil near the old capitals on the Persian Gulf. The Israelite story makes fun of a people so deluded that they take their eyes off the ground and build a tower "with its head in the heavens .... The heavens are the Lord's heavens, but the earth he gave to human beings" (Ps. …

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