Sun. Feb 25th, 2024

by Ana Grarian

I’m currently reading an essay in Harper’s Magazine (July 2010), Agrarian Anxieties by Steven Stoll. It ties in well with the book I read last month Scripture, Culture and Agriculture by Ellen Davis. I had the good fortune to meet Dr. Davis and to hear her both preach and lecture on the topic. Stoll’s essay speaks to agriculture as the impetus for aggression calling it ” the most destructive and socially transforming technology ever invented”. Whoa? I didn’t see that coming! I thought we beat our swords into plowshares, not the other way around!
Stoll starts of course with Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the garden. Where once the couple could effortlessly pick their food, now they are condemned to working for it. Their sons Cain (the farmer) and Abel (the shepherd) bring to God the fruits of their labor. Cain’s wheat is rejected but Abel’s spotless lamb finds favor. (Another Bible story I never understood) Stoll poses the thought that the lamb is a greater sacrifice because it contains more nutritional value than a bundle of wheat. Cain as we know becomes angry and kills his brother, “marking the beginning of the association of shepherds with peace and farmers with violence”, according to Stoll. What? Farmers equated with violence?
At this point, due to some odd wiring of my brain, I thought of the musical Oklahoma, and the song “The Cowman and the Farmer Should be Friends”. I had always considered the ranchers (cowmen) to be the villains in that drama. Didn’t everyone see it that way? Or is that perhaps because I am from the Northeast, where fences have been necessary for a long time due to population density.


Cain is sent into exile where he founds the first city. Nooooooo! Farmers vs City, I cry! But the die was cast. Genesis is about population as destiny, says Stoll. Which reminded me of a sentence from the beginning of the essay regarding pesticides, antibiotics and the oil spill in the Gulf. “We invent these monsters without intending to, and ignore them for as long as possible with the self-deceiving certainty that they will not harm us.”
The story of Noah’s return to land in Genesis 8 is recollected from a different point of view also. Noah is told that farming will continue:

“As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.” Genesis 8:22 NIV

1 Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. 2 The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. 3 Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. Genesis 9:1-3 NIV

This passage has been often used to validate our degradation of the land. Dr. Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity counsels us to look further. Humankind (adam) is created from the fertile soil (adamah) and the humbled Noah is charged with its care-taking. But as Ellen points out, anything mankind is given to manage, mankind can also abuse. The beasts and birds and fish have plenty to tremble over.
The Levitical laws are developed to stymie human tendencies toward violence. Complicated rules on how to use the land, to eat, to interact with others. The Sabbatical laws can be seen as early environmentalism. Protecting the fertility of the soil is also a method of ensuing a peaceful life, “because a seed planting people able to remain within their ordained territory had no need to go to war with their neighbors”. (Stoll)

Time goes on and the respect for the land as a loan from God eventually becomes warped into the idea that the land is a “gift” from God to a favored people. A reward so to speak. In the new relationship, posession and intensive use of land, is recognized as the road to wealth, and dominion. The Israelites knew this to be a blessing and a curse. Having escaped from Egypt they knew that being an empire also makes you a target.

What about today? How does this knowledge work for or against us?
In VietNam did the spraying of Agent Orange, a precursor to RoundUp, not only remove the jungle canopy which helped the Viet Cong to avoid detection, but also prevent them from feeding themselves in the future?
In Palestine, is the separation of Palestinians from their fields an intentional means to separate them from their God given power to feed themselves?
Did destroying the Haitian hog herds in the Reagan years, and then replacing them with American style hogs and a requirement to raise them in an industrialized manner, ensure the power structure of American agricultural industries?
Is the BP disaster in the Gulf a voice crying:

the land is Mine, you are but strangers resident with me“. Leviticus 25:23
Will we listen this time?

By AFarmer

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