The Bible as Ethnography ~ 04 ~ Agricultural Transitions

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In Genesis 4, we see specific reference to herdsmen and farmers as distinct groups, represented by Abel and Cain, respectively. God indicates a preference for the results of herding over planting, and the sibling troubles that ensue result in the world becoming a difficult place to farm, and humans becoming more nomadic, as herders. This is interesting, because it seems like a dramatic shift from reference to irrigation agriculture to herding. Given the usual role of origin stories, we may be seeing a layering of blame in this case. If this is the origin story of cattle keeping nomadic pastoral people, one has to explain the distinction from farming, and if possible, develop a disdain for the practice of farming, typical at least in Africa of herding cultures.


Cain’s mark resembles the placing of a fetish or totemic symbol on an animal or a garden, or a marking on a potential wild bee honey nest, or other resource, indicating ownership. This also brings to mind permanent body markings such as scarification and tattoo.

In the end, Cain moves to “no-man’s land” which is to the east of the Garden of Eden. I have not mentioned anything about details of geography so far, but there is repeated reference. I’m resisting delving into this discussion (and there is quite a bit of literature on this) because my sense is that there are a handful of very different bits of early stories put together in one place, possibly coming from different regions. The geography may be indecipherable. But the fact that there is a geography is interesting. The geographic references are to different biomes and/or to different cultural zones, throughout the early books of the bible. In other words, this is at least in part a set of myths or stories with with a strong geographical component, many African origin stories also include. (Again, I’m not suggesting that this component is missing from other stories in other regions… but I believe there are origin stories that do not involve an exodus or migration, and those that do.)

I won’t discuss the often cited inconsistencies regarding the specific lineages … the first one being “who did Cain marry…” although this is very interesting. But this is where the famous “begats” begin. This is where the early pages of the bible take on the appearance of certain East African oral traditions, wherein the details of the patriline are preserved and considered very important. This is also where we see the first references to polygyny in the bible (Lamech, Adah and Zillah).

This is a key moment in the narrative, because Adah (via her son Jabal) is the mother of all “who live in tents and herd cattle” as well as of musicians — those who play the flute and lyre – via her son Jubal. Zillah, via her son Tubal-Cain, was a blacksmith who made bronze and iron tools. This little tiny piece of the Old Testament (just a few sentences) reifies a plethora of social and economic classes or categories, or possibly even “kinds” of tribal units.

Another interesting connection here is the switch from Cain having been chastised for committing homicide … actually fratricide, to Lamech’s polygyny explicitly linked to his being a rather fierce fellow … claiming to have killed another man, and boasting that his revenge on anyone who disses him will be “77 times” for Cain’s 7 times. The Yamomamo would say that Lamech was “wawateri” … a man of fierceness … which is, in highly patrilineal societies, often linked to polygyny.

This passage also describes Adam’s second lineage … beginning with Seth. With Eve’s declaration that god had given her another son (to replace Abel), it is said in this text that men and women began worshiping god.

In the interpretation I want to put forth, eventually, “god” is a man, or more exactly, a position filled at any one point in time by a man. My hypothesis is that the bible, by and large, describes an East and southern African pastoral system whereby there is a “king” who is socially and spatially isolated from the rest of society, and speaks through an interpreter. The interpreter inherits his role, as a member of a special lineage of interpreters. Seth is the beginning, according to this interpretation, of this line of interpreters.

I want to quickly add that I have no illusion that “Seth” as a person necessarily existed. I’m guessing that these stories were in operation at a time many generations later than a theorized Seth, and that Seth and some of his descendants (as well as everyone mentioned so far) are part of that story that has the critically important role of justifying (with time depth, with the power of the ancestors, and so forth) the status quo (i.e., Moses).

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