Civilization: Evil of Biblical Proportion
One book that really affected me is Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. The theme of the book is the place of greed in the history of humanity. I found it to be hugely imaginative and unexpectedly gripping. Still, as I was already a member of that choir, the message was not the source of the book’s impact on me.
At the end of his book Mr. Quinn related that message to the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible. That positively astonished me.
For many years after I read that book I consciously had my subconscious working on what else might be gleaned from the book of Genesis. That is to say, I consciously assigned my subconscious the task of getting more in that vein from that first Book of the Bible.
Once thing I have consciously pondered is the ways in which creation as it is related in Genesis accords with the findings of science. Here I must note one thing a lot of people are unaware of, which is that there are two accounts of creation as it applies to Earth and humans, in Genesis. The first comes in Chapter 1 and the second in Chapter 2. I write that, not to delegitimize anything, but simply for precision.
I do acknowledge that there is not much to be said for compatibility of details between science and the Bible. Nothing really follows from it. The Bible’s focus is morality, not materiality.
Even so, there is a surprising amount of coincidence between the Bible and scientific knowledge in Genesis. For instance, in the (first) Biblical account of creation there is to begin with a “void” and in science before the Big Bang there is nothing (that can be known). In the Bible as with science, “Light” comes before anything else; what we call the Big Bang could more accurately be called the Phenomenal Flash: there was light, but no atmosphere to carry sound waves, and it was the phenomenon that was literally the Mother of all phenomena. In the Bible as with science, stars come later. In the Bible (in the second account of creation) as with science, when it was first formed Earth had no water on it. One scientific theory is that the oceans were created by a rain of comets; the Bible says God caused rain to make the oceans. In the Bible as with science, animal life first appears in the ocean. In the Bible as with science, humans came last.
The last of those is the only really important accordance between science and the (first) Biblical account of creation. Both there and in science, humans are as much a part of the material world as anything else existing in nature.
Eventually I had a, well, revelation about the narrative(s) of creation in Genesis. It occurred to me that they can be seen as an attempt by human beings to account for the fact that human beings are so obviously a part of Creation (i.e., the Universe, i.e., material existence) and yet so obviously different from the rest of nature.
The Book of Genesis was probably written down about twenty-five hundred years ago. Its authors doubtlessly drew on oral transmissions that had been passed down from generation to generation for many thousands of years before that.
With less than an eyedropper’s worth of the ocean of knowledge that we have accumulated as a species, people were trying to explain to themselves the profound difference between human beings and the rest of the natural world of which we are so much a part. To do that you have to go all the way back to, you know, the beginning.
The Bible could be conveying several narratives that had been related in oral history: besides an explanation of the how and the why of the profound difference between humans, especially Homo sapiens, and the rest of Creation, it might be speaking of the sudden appearance of Homo Sapiens, so similar to, yet so different from Homo erectus — as well as the near-extinction of the new species. It definitely has something to say about the advent of civilization, a creation of Homo sapiens, and its inherently immoral existence.
In the first account of creation in Genesis “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him: male and female created he them.” (Note the lack of hierarchy.) In the second account “the man he had formed” (not yet named) is “put” in the Garden of Eden, which is a particular place on Earth, to perform particular tasks. God then takes a rib from the now-named Adam to make for him a helpmate, Eve.
That narrative does not include any statement that Adam was the only Homo on the planet. There are in fact several references in that part of Genesis to other people being present in the world.
Is the story of Adam and Eve an echo of oral traditions relating the startling encounter between ‘moderns’ and ‘pre-moderns’ long before the Bible was written? Might the Bible’s first account of creation end with the advent of (using our terminology) Homo erectus and the story of Adam and Eve refer to the appearance of Homo sapiens? In other words, physics and biology (evolution) could account for the existence of the former, but only the intervention of God could account for the latter — us.
Getting to the important point for present purposes, I have come to the conclusion that Genesis tells us that the Bible was written by people living in civilization for people living in civilization. Already, where cities existed at that time they dominated human culture.
In this view the Bible makes use of oral tradition going back to pre-civilized times to provide moral instruction for living in the relatively new and immeasurably different conditions of civilization. Karen Armstrong’s book, The Great Transformation, is about the emergence of new religions where civilization had developed in various parts of the world (as well as the concurrent development of rationalism in Greece) around the time that the Bible was being written in the Middle East.
It is telling, I think, that the people who have used the Bible to try to calculate the age of Earth have come up with figures ranging from about 5,000 to about 8,000 years. According to science, that is a woefully inaccurate estimate for the age of the planet. It is, however, a very excellent estimate of how long civilization has been around.
For the Bible’s account of the start of civilization we do have to go to the story of Cain and Abel. They were sons of Adam and Eve.
Abel was a husbandman and Cain was a farmer. For reasons that need not detain us, Cain murdered Abel.
It is important, however, for us to know that the murder occurred after ‘the Fall’. Although Adam and Eve had sinned by “eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of right and wrong” and had been expelled from the Garden of Eden, they were still very much with God. God ‘walked among them’. They had regular, everyday kinds of conversations with God. God came to Cain after Cain had killed Abel to ask if he knew where his brother might be.
For murdering his brother, Cain was expelled from among those who were with God. (God apparently is against capital punishment.) Even at that, Cain was given a mark by God on his forehead to protect him, so other people would know not to hassle him.
At any rate, the last we hear of Cain is that he built the world’s first city. Here the body of secular knowledge and the Bible do agree explicitly: farming is integral to civilization. So the Bible has civilization — living in cities — initiated by Cain, who was banished from the godly folk to go live among the other people in the world for murdering his brother.
That is huge. In other words, according to the Bible civilization is what we get with human beings who are separated from God.
How, after all, might we say today that civilization got started? How about this: farming required people to be in the same place, not nomadic; farmers were easy targets for raiders; some raiders started offering farmers protection in exchange for food; fortresses were built; protection became a racket, with the would-be protectors extorting the farmers, taking almost all they produced; the would-be protectors eventually realized that it would be more efficient to enslave people for farming; meanwhile, the fortresses had grown to become walled cities. That account looks perfectly plausible and immanently immoral to me.
The rest of the Bible is the story of the descendents of Seth, born to Adam and Eve after Cain got banished. That comes towards the end of Chapter 4 of Genesis (after Lamech, a descendent of Cain, announces he has committed what is apparently the world’s second murder).
Actually, with Chapter 5 of Genesis the Bible sort of starts over. That Chapter opens with a modified reiteration of the first account of God’s creation of human beings, with Seth as the descendent of “Adam” (referring to both male and female humans — so way anti-hierarchical) and no mention of Abel or Cain or a city (or the Garden of Eden or the Fall). It goes from there, via a chain of genealogy, to the story of Noah and the Flood.
With the Flood, science and the Bible again in a sense draw close together. Science tells us that modern humans were doing well as a species, then suffered an almost complete collapse of the population. That is not attributed by science to a great flood, but it is attributed to a changed climate. It did happen long before civilization got underway, but, again, the Biblical account of the Flood does not mention the existence of any city.
Perhaps the ‘reset’ at the start of Chapter 5 that leaves out Cain and the building of the first city is meant to impress more strongly upon us that his ‘gift’ of civilization was a deviation from godliness. That is in any event where my meditations on these matters joins up with (or rejoins) the narrative in Ishmael. Through his gorilla-character (named Ishmael) Mr. Quinn terms people living in civilization “takers.” They take from nature far more than they give back to it. Non-civilized people are “givers.” They seek to give back to nature as much as possible, to replenish its bounty.
The moral lesson to be learned is unequivocal: from the start, civilization has been infected with evil, especially the evil of greed. To redeem civilization — and save humanity materially from the ill effects of greed — we must begin by rejecting greed.