Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Second Man Born, the First to Die

a (1):  of, relating to, or composed of shepherds or herdsmen (2):  devoted to or based on livestock raising
b:  of or relating to the countryside :  not urban pastoral setting>
c:  portraying or expressive of the life of shepherds or country people especially in an idealized and conventionalized manner <pastoral poetry>
d:  pleasingly peaceful and innocent :  idyllic
a:  of or relating to spiritual care or guidance especially of a congregation
b:  of or relating to the pastor of a church


Pastoral.  Idyllic.  The Lord is my Shepherd. 

It is not only the nineteenth century, response-to-the-enlightenment, Romantics who have romanticized pastoralism.  Real pastoralism, however, developed in tandem with, or shortly after the pre-historical dawn of agriculture.  Pastoralists may have been  (and still are in some places) nomads, but they were not hunter-gatherers.  Not that they never hunted, nor gathered, of course. Further, they were not peaceful, or at least not more so than people in general.  And in many times and places, they were, indeed, fierce tribal warriors.

The historical, anthropologic, and archaeologic records have limits, naturally, but scholars have described in detail what is known about the complex interactions between sedentary farmers (who often had livestock, as well), and the pastoralists with their nomadic herds.  There is a division, as well, between the pastoralism that existed before and after the development of horsemanship.  There are also important geographic considerations.  In open areas, pastoralists were especially successful.  This is true of the Middle East, North Africa, and the great Eurasian steppe.

One of the best books I have read in the last twenty years is War in Human Civilization by Azar Gat .  It is a thoroughly engaging “big” history that looks at the history of humankind – through the lens of violent conflict - in three broad epochs:  1.  Hunter/Gatherer  2.  Agricultural/Pastoral  3.  Modernity.  It is scholarly and long (673 pages not including 100+ pages of endnotes) but remarkably accessible and clearly written.   As such, while it contains more traditional military history, it is not limited to the “historical” era.  In order to present the history of violent human interaction (the lines necessarily blur between homicide and “war” in this regard) it is necessary to sketch what is known of the history of humankind more generally, and this is accomplished splendidly. Due to these factors, I think the book would be of interest to those who would not normally be interested in military history specifically.  Violence is, unfortunately, a part of human nature.  The reading of this book pays great dividends in my opinion to those interested in understanding human nature.

It is my source for understanding, among other things, the rough outlines of what is known about the pastoralist peoples and their interactions with the agriculturalists.  Often the pastoralists, particularly in more open areas, and particularly after the development of  the horse (but not only after the advent of horsemanship) were the more successful aggressors against the agrarians:

“…pastoral societies in general, for reasons we have already seen, tended to be more menacing to the farmers than the other way around.  The evolution of horseback pastoralist and horseback fighting would vastly increase the pastoral threat. (p. 209)”

In the Near East, examples are given regarding the various interactions, which ranged from outright conquest to theft and “protection-racket” type extortion and over-lordship, to more fluid cooperative and competitive relationships.  The over-lordship of the pastoralists would often develop into a frank aristocratic relationship between the (former) pastoralist warriors and the subservient farmers.  “These rulers, too, boasted that ‘their fathers had lived in tents. (p. 195).’”  Some of this brief summary necessarily simplifies Mr. Gat’s much more thorough presentation, obviously.

But with this in mind, it led me to an insight (unoriginal I am sure) regarding the Cain and Abel story – from which the title of the post derives.  I will note that I mean this reading to be from the standpoint of scholarship more than that of the believer.  However, I will note, that holy scripture demands to be read from the standpoint of belief; or put differently, to read scripture from outside of the position of at least potential belief, is to judge the claims before they are made.  I will leave this difficulty aside, even as I acknowledge it.

As we all know, the second creation story in the Bible begins in Eden when God creates Adam (“Man”) from the Adamah (fertile soil).  “Eve,” created from one of Man’s ribs, has an etymology related to the word for “life.”  So, while the story may not only be allegory, there are clearly archetypes in the original.  Cain, the firstborn, is a farmer, we are told.  “Cain,” evidently means either “created one,” and/or “smith.”  Abel is a shepherd.  “Abel” means “breath.”

The story (KJV): 

  And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord.
2 And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.
3 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord.
4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering:
5 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.
6 And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?
7 If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
8 And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.
9 And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?
10 And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.
11 And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;
12 When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.
13 And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear.
14 Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.
15 And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.
16 And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

Now, what is the meaning?  In particular, why does God seemingly arbitrarily favor Abel’s offerings?  Perhaps this is, among other things, an explanatory tale about the origins of both homicide (fratricide here) and war (here between archetypes of shepherds and farmers). 

In addition – and this was my insight from reading Gat’s book - perhaps it is an explanatory tale about why the shepherds seem to be favored in the world – that is, by God - over the farmers. 

Remember, as well, the nomadic pastoralist-warrior history of the Hebrews - God's chosen people - wandering in the desert before conquering the promised land.  Remember, also that the holiest of holies resided in a tent before the building of the temple.

2 Samuel 7:
 And it came to pass, when the king sat in his house, and the Lord had given him rest round about from all his enemies;
2 That the king said unto Nathan the prophet, See now, I dwell in an house of cedar, but the ark of God dwelleth within curtains.
3 And Nathan said to the king, Go, do all that is in thine heart; for the Lord is with thee.
4 And it came to pass that night, that the word of the Lord came unto Nathan, saying,
5 Go and tell my servant David, Thus saith the Lord, Shalt thou build me an house for me to dwell in?
6 Whereas I have not dwelt in any house since the time that I brought up the children of Israel out of Egypt, even to this day, but have walked in a tent and in a tabernacle.

Other similar textual questions to consider:  Why is Cain, the farmer, the firstborn?  What is the significance?  Why is Cain the aggressor?  Is it significant that the first man to die is a blameless pastoralist?  Is it significant that the first man to die dies unnaturally?

Now, the answers to such questions would be similar in nature to the insight I highlight above.  And while that insight - i.e that pastoralists appear to be favored by God from the standpoint of the ancient Hebrews – perhaps adds some context that is not obvious to us, it clearly falls short of being a full analysis of the story.  None of the above is a discussion of the central mystery of why God acts as He does, or why He favors what He favors, particularly from the standpoint of the believer.  Nor, does it address the troubling question of evil in the world after the fall that is central to the story.  It only serves as one more tool with which to better understand this story about the beginning of humanity, and the beginning of human evil. 

The problem of evil, of course, is a profound theologic question.  The problem of evil, however, is not just a theologic one.  It is not escaped by disbelief.

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