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Homer’s Odyssey is the sequel to the Illiad, taking place after the destructive end of the Trojan
War. Odysseus, one of the surviving heroes of the War, has angered Poseidon, god the sea, and
is continually prevented by the god from returning to his home in Ithaca. The story recounts not
only Odysseus’ numerous harrowing adventures, but also the plight of his wife, Penelope, and
his son, Telemachus, as they struggle with a gang of violent and scheming suitors attempting to
coerce Penelope to remarry one of them.
The Odyssey was likely written in the 8th century BC during the early days of the Archaic Age but
depicts events, like the Illiad, which took place much earlier. If the Trojan War (or something like
it) occurred, it likely happened some time toward the beginning of the 12th century BC, placing it
during the end of the Mycenaean period.
While reading, keep in mind the following:
-Who wrote this and when, who was his audience and what was he trying to convey to them?
-How people behave towards each other. What kinds of behavior are praised and what kinds are
-The nature of Odysseus’ heroics
-The nature of the Greek afterlife
Odysseus confronts Circe
As was necessary in ancient seafaring, Odysseus is compelled to make frequent stops among the
various islands of the Aegean Sea, among them the island of the powerful sorceress Circe.
And so, numbering off my band of men-at-arms
into two platoons, I [Odysseus] assigned them each a leader:
I took one and lord Eurylochus the other.
We quickly shook lots in a bronze helmet —
the lot of brave Eurylochus leapt out first.
So he moved off with his two and twenty comrades.
weeping, leaving us behind in tears as well …
Deep in the wooded glens they came on Circe’s palace
built of dressed stone on a cleared rise of land.
Mountain wolves and lions were roaming round the grounds —
she’d bewitched them herself, she gave them magic drugs.
But they wouldn’t attack my men; they just came pawing
up around them, fawning, swishing their long tails —
eager as hounds that fawn around their master,
coming home from a feast,
who always brings back scraps to calm them down.
So they came nuzzling round my men — lions, wolves
with big powerful claws — and the men cringed in fear
at sight of those strange, ferocious beasts … But still
they paused at her doors, the nymph with lovely braids,
Circe — and deep inside they heard her singing, lifting
her spellbinding voice as she glided back and forth
at her great immortal loom, her enchanting web
a shimmering glory only goddesses can weave.
Polites, captain of armies, took command,
the closest, most devoted man I had: ‘Friends,
there’s someone inside, plying a great loom,
and how she sings — enthralling!
The whole house is echoing to her song.
Goddess or woman — let’s call out to her now!’
So he urged and the men called out and hailed her.
She opened her gleaming doors at once and stepped forth,
inviting them all in, and in they went, all innocence.
Only Eurylochus stayed behind — he sensed a trap …
She ushered them in to sit on high-backed chairs,
then she mixed them a potion — cheese, barley
and pale honey mulled in Pramnian wine1 —
but into the brew she stirred her wicked drugs
to wipe from their memories any thought of home.
Once they’d drained the bowls she filled, suddenly
she struck with her wand, drove them into her pigsties,
all of them bristling into swine —with grunts,
snouts — even their bodies, yes, and only
the men’s minds stayed steadfast as before.
So off they went to their pens, sobbing, squealing
as Circe flung them acorns, cornel nuts and mast,
common fodder for hogs that root and roll in mud.
Back Eurylochus ran to our swift black ship
to tell the disaster our poor friends had faced.
But try as he might, he couldn’t get a word out.
Numbing sorrow had stunned the man to silence —
tears welled in his eyes, his heart possessed by grief.
We assailed him with questions — all at our wits’ end —
till at last he could recount the fate our friends had met:
‘Off we went through the brush, captain, as you commanded.
Deep in the wooded glens we came on Circe’s palace
built of dressed stone on a cleared rise of land.
1 A dark, high quality wine.
Someone inside was plying a great loom,
and how she sang — in a high clear voice!
Goddess or woman — we called out and hailed her …
She opened her gleaming doors at once and stepped forth,
inviting us all in, and in we went, all innocence.
But /stayed behind — I sensed a trap. Suddenly
all vanished — blotted out — not one face showed again,
though I sat there keeping watch a good long time.’
At that report I slung the hefty bronze blade
of my silver-studded sword around my shoulder,
slung my bow on too and told our comrade,
‘Lead me back by the same way that you came.’
But he flung both arms around my knees and pleaded,
begging me with his tears and winging words:
‘Don’t force me back there, captain, king —
leave me here on the spot.
You will never return yourself, I swear,
you’ll never bring back a single man alive.
Quick, cut and run with the rest of us here —
we can still escape the fatal day!’
But I shot back, Eurylochus, stay right here,
eating, drinking, safe by the black ship.
I must be off. Necessity drives me on.’
Leaving the ship and shore, I headed inland,
clambering up through hushed, entrancing glades until,
as I was nearing the halls of Circe skilled in spells,
approaching her palace — Hermes2 god of the golden wand
crossed my path, and he looked for all the world
like a young man sporting his first beard,
just in the prime and warm pride of youth,
and grasped me by the hand and asked me kindly,
‘Where are you going now, my unlucky friend —
trekking over the hills alone in unfamiliar country?
And your men are all in there, in Circe’s palace,
cooped like swine, hock by jowl in the sties.
Have you come to set them free?
Well, I warn you, you won’t get home yourself,
you’ll stay right there, trapped with all the rest.
But wait, I can save you, free you from that great danger.
Look, here is a potent drug. Take it to Circe’s halls —
Hermes: god of roads and travelers.
its power alone will shield you from the fatal day.
Let me tell you of all the witch’s subtle craft …
She’ll mix you a potion, lace the brew with drugs
but she’ll be powerless to bewitch you, even so —
this magic herb I give will fight her spells.
Now here’s your plan of action, step by step.
The moment Circe strikes with her long thin wand,
you draw your sharp sword sheathed at your hip
and rush her fast as if to run her through!
She’ll cower in fear and coax you to her bed —
but don’t refuse the goddess’ bed, not then, not if
she’s to release your friends and treat you well yourself.
But have her swear the binding oath of the blessed gods
she’ll never plot some new intrigue to harm you,
once you lie there naked —
never unman you, strip away your courage!’
the giant-killer handed over the magic herb.
pulling it from the earth,
and Hermes showed me all its name and nature.
Its root is black and its flower white as milk
and the gods call it moly.3 Dangerous for a mortal man
to pluck from the soil but not for deathless gods.
All lies within their power.
Now Hermes went his way
to the steep heights of Olympus, over the island’s woods
while I, just approaching the halls of Circe,
my heart a heaving storm at every step,
paused at her doors, the nymph with lovely braids —
I stood and shouted to her there. She heard my voice,
she opened the gleaming doors at once and stepped forth,
inviting me in, and in I went, all anguish now …
She led me in to sit on a silver-studded chair,
ornately carved, with a stool to rest my feet.
In a golden bowl she mixed a potion for me to drink,
stirring her poison in, her heart aswirl with evil.
And then she passed it on, I drank it down
but it never worked its spell —
she struck with her wand and ‘Now,’ she cried,
‘off to your sty, you swine, and wallow with your friends!’
Moly: Possibly the flowering plant Galanthus, commonly known as “Snowdrop”; used in ancient medicine as an
antidote to various poisons
But I, I drew my sharp sword sheathed at my hip
and rushed her fast as if to run her through —
She screamed, slid under my blade, hugged my knees
with a flood of warm tears and a burst of winging words:
‘Who are you? where are you from? your city? your parents?
I’m wonderstruck — you drank my drugs, you’re not bewitched!
Never has any other man withstood my potion, never,
once it’s past his lips and he has drunk it down.
You have a mind in you no magic can enchant!
You must be Odysseus, man of twists and turns —
Hermes the giant-killer, god of the golden wand,
he always said you’d come,
homeward bound from Troy in your swift black ship.
Come, sheathe your sword, let’s go to bed together,
mount my bed and mix in the magic work of love —
we’ll breed deep trust between us. ‘
Odysseus speaks to Achilles in the Underworld
In order to return home, Odysseus must speak with the legendary prophet Tiresias who resides in
the Underworld. There, he encounters the spirits of many famous deceased, including Achilles,
his former ally and the mightiest, near-invulnerable hero of the Trojan War.
But now there came the ghosts of Peleus’ son Achilles,
Patroclus, fearless Antilochus — and Great Ajax 4 too,
the first in stature, first in build and bearing
of all the Argives 5 after Peleus’6 matchless son.
The ghost of the splendid runner knew me at once
and hailed me with a flight of mournful questions:
‘Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of tactics,
reckless friend, what next?
What greater feat can that cunning head contrive?
What daring brought you down to the House of Death? —
where the senseless, burnt-out wraiths of mortals make their home.’
The voice of his spirit paused, and 1 was quick to answer:
‘Achilles, son of Peleus, greatest of the Achaeans, 7
1 had to consult Tiresias, driven here by hopes
he would help me journey home to rocky Ithaca.
Never yet have I neared Achaea, never once
Patroclus, Antilochus, and Ajax: deceased heroes of the Trojan War
People of the City of Argos
Peleus: Father of Achilles
Achaea: formerly, referring to Greece in general, i.e., Greeks, usually in distinction from Dorians; usually now used
for a region in the northern Peloponnesus
set foot on native ground …
my life is endless trouble.
But you, Achilles,
there’s not a man in the world more blest than you —
there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.’
I reassured the ghost, but he broke out, protesting,
‘No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man —
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive —
than rule down here over all the breathless dead…’
Athena Compels Peace
After twenty years, Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca where he discovers the plight of his wife
and family. He slaughters the suitors and reclaims his home, but the families of the suitors are
angered and rise in rebellion against him. Seeing this, Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, who
has long aided Odysseus and his son Telemachus in various disguises, is distressed that the
violence will continue.
Athena at this point made appeals to Zeus8:
“Father, son of Cronus,9 our high and mighty king,
now let me ask you a question …
tell me the secrets hidden in your mind.
Will you prolong the pain, the cruel fighting here
or hand down pacts of peace between both sides?”
“My child,” Zeus who marshals the thunderheads replied,
“why do you pry and probe me so intently? Come now,
wasn’t the plan your own? You conceived it yourself:
Odysseus should return and pay the traitors back.
Do as your heart desires —
but let me tell you how it should be done.
Now that royal Odysseus has taken his revenge,
let both sides seal their pacts that he shall reign for life,
and let us purge their memories of the bloody slaughter
Zeus: god of sky and thunderstorms, chief god, head of the Olympian pantheon, ruling from Mount Olympus, called
“ruler and father of gods and men.”
Cronus: ancient Titan, son of Ouranos and Gaea, Heaven and Earth, spouse of his sister Rhea, and father of Zeus
and the Olympian gods; in Classical times, identified as Chronos, god of time
of their brothers and their sons. Let them be friends,
devoted as in the old days. Let peace and wealth
come cresting through the land.”
So Zeus decreed and launched Athena already poised for action —
down she swept from Olympus’ craggy peaks.
By then Odysseus’ men had had their fill
of hearty fare, and the seasoned captain said,
“One of you go outside — see if they’re closing in.”
A son of Dolius 10 snapped to his command,
ran to the door and saw them all too close
and shouted back to Odysseus,
“They’re on top of us! To arms — and fast!”
Up they sprang and strapped themselves in armor,
the three men with Odysseus, Dolius’ six sons
and Dolius and Laertes11 clapped on armor too,
gray as they were, but they would fight if forced.
Once they had all harnessed up in burnished bronze
they opened the doors and strode out, Odysseus in the lead.
And now, taking the build and voice of Mentor12,
Zeus’s daughter Athena marched right in.
The good soldier Odysseus thrilled to see her,
turned to his son and said in haste, “Telemachus,
you’ll learn soon enough — as you move up to fight
where champions strive to prove themselves the best —
not to disgrace your father’s line a moment.
In battle prowess we’ve excelled for ages
all across the world.”
Telemachus reassured him,
“Now you’ll see, if you care to watch, father,
now I’m fired up. Disgrace, you say?
I won’t disgrace your line!”
Laertes called out in deep delight,
“What a day for me, dear gods! What joy —
my son and my grandson vying over courage!”
Goddess Athena rushed beside him, eyes ablaze:
“Son of Arcesius, 13 dearest of all my comrades,
Dolius: Penelope’s slave and gardener
Laertes: Odysseus’ father and a former Greek hero
Mentor: Athena in the guise of a wise, old man guiding and advising Telemachus
Arcesius: Laertes’ father
say a prayer to the bright-eyed girl14 and Father Zeus,
then brandish your long spear and wing it fast!”
Athena breathed enormous strength in the old man.
He lifted a prayer to mighty Zeus’s daughter,
brandished his spear a moment, winged it fast
and hit Eupithes,15 pierced his bronze-sided helmet
that failed to block the bronze point tearing through —
down Eupithes crashed, his armor clanging against his chest.
Odysseus and his gallant son charged straight at the front lines,
slashing away with swords, with two-edged spears and now
they would have killed them all, cut them off from home
if Athena, daughter of storming Zeus, had not cried out
in a piercing voice that stopped all fighters cold,
“Hold back, you men of Ithaca, back from brutal war!
Break off — shed no more blood — make peace at once!”
So Athena commanded. Terror blanched their faces,
they went limp with fear, weapons slipped from their hands
and strewed the ground at the goddess’ ringing voice.
They spun in flight to the city, wild to save their lives,
but loosing a savage cry, the long-enduring great Odysseus,
gathering all his force, swooped like a soaring eagle —
just as the son of Cronus hurled a reeking bolt
that fell at her feet, the mighty Father’s daughter,
and blazing-eyed Athena wheeled on Odysseus, crying,
“Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, master of exploits,
hold back now! Call a halt to the great leveler. War —
don’t court the rage of Zeus who rules the world!”
So she commanded. He obeyed her, glad at heart.
And Athena handed down her pacts of peace
between both sides for all the years to come —
the daughter of Zeus whose shield is storm and thunder,
yes, but the goddess still kept Mentor’s build and voice.
Goddess Athena, daughter of Zeus, goddess of wisdom, strategy, and war, by the epithet “bright-eyed.”
Eupithes: Father of Antinous, slain leader of the suitors of Odysseus’ wife, and leader of the uprising
Genesis 1-5 in Ancient Near Eastern Context
Directions: Please take your time and ponder this text deeply, as this is the last great
classic of ancient Near Eastern literature we will be discussing, and would also
become, despite its being so short, probably one of the most impactful stories
informing Western thought, especially when brought into conversation with Greek
philosophy (such as Plato’s Timaeus among others), by Jews, Christians, and
Muslims. And remember too this story is shared by all three major world religions,
though remembered and interpreted differently by each.
Also, read the footnotes which I have prepared. You may want to read the story
straight through without the footnotes first.
While reading, consider similarities and differences with the Epic of Gilgamesh, the
Enuma Elis and Egyptian creation mythology (especially Genesis 1 here), the Baal
Cycle, Epic of Keret, and the Story of Aqhat – the last three being Ugaritic and thus
sharing the same Semitic culture as early Israel. Also consider depictions of kingship
we have seen, especially Assurbanipal’s palace, since this actually is a major theme
in Genesis 1-3, even it’s not immediately apparent.
Consider the following themes and depictions:
1. wilderness, nature and animals, and civilization,
2. the purpose of human beings,
3. men and women (and children),
4. “cosmic maintenance” and the depicted relationships between gods and rulers,
5. what separates divine nature from human nature, human nature from animal
nature (if at all),
6. god(s) and their obligations to humans
1In the beginning of Elohim’s1 creating the heavens and the earth,
2Now the earth (underworld)2 was astonishingly empty,3
and darkness was on the face of the deep,
and the breath of Elohim (or, ‘Spirit of Elohim’) was hovering (‘trembling/shaking’)4 over
the face of the waters.5
Here modifying a singular verb, and so functionally singular, Elohim is the grammatical plural and is
used as one of the two standard names for the one God through the Pentateuchal narrative, alongside
Yhwh. Using the grammatical plural in the singular may represent a superlative sense – that is, God
possessing the full sum of divine power, the greatest God, or “God of gods” (cf. Deuteronomy 10:17). See
Greenstein, “Presenting Genesis 1 Constructively and Deconstructively,” pp. 13-15. Elohim is related to
El, sometimes used as a proper name for the chief God in both Ugarit and some parts of the Bible,
particularly personal names (for example, Samuel and Nathaniel, “posterity of El” and “El has given [a
child]” respectively). However, Elohim as a plural-singular name is more so the collective or superlative of
the common noun el, which can mean any “god,” the class of “godhood.” Compare with Latin, where
Deus can mean “Jupiter,” and later “God,” but also can be used as a common noun deus / dei, as in deity.
In the present form of the Pentateuch, in a more “synchronic” literary perspective, Elohim may also
represent a more distanced understanding of God, i.e. the God of nature, “Nature’s God,” to borrow from
Thomas Jefferson, common to all peoples, whereas Yhwh would be a special covenant name given for
Israel’s special invocation representing their intimate relationship. Traditionally, many biblical scholars
have ascribed different sections alternating between these names to different sources, the Yahwist (J)
and Elohist, which were subsequently brought together.
Since the “earth” (‘eres) is unformed and parallel with the watery abyss, the ‘eres may carry
connotations of the watery underworld, similar to, though not identical with, the Greek concept of
primordial Chasm. See discussion of Scott Noegel, “God of Heaven and Sheol: The ‘Unearthing’ of
Creation,” Hebrew Studies 58 (2017): 119-144. On the different connotations of “abyss” and “chaos”
between ancient Greece and the Near East, see Sonik, “From Hesiod’s Abyss to Ovid’s rudis
indigestaque moles: Chaos and Cosmos in the Babylonian ‘Epic of Creation’” (in Drive).
“Astonishingly empty” is an attempt to render the Hebrew tohuvabohu, sometimes translated
“barrenness and emptiness,” “desolation and emptiness,” “waste and empty” or “welter and waste.” There
exists a long and ancient Jewish tradition, sometimes mentioned by early Church Fathers, too, which links
tohu etymologically with connotations of dread and fear.
The Hebrew merahefet has been translated a few different ways: hovering, trembling or shaking,
sweeping in flight, or even “surveying,” etc. See JoAnn Scurlock, “Searching for Meaning in Genesis 1:2:
Purposeful Creation out of Chaos Without Kampf” (in Drive).
Probably one of the most weighted and mysterious lines in the entire Hebrew Bible, exegetes and
scholars have proposed many different meanings and connotations for this: 1. a divine storm and a
chaoskampf over the waters, which would imply hostility; 2. a benign presence of God coming into
relationship with unformed creation, possibly waiting in God’s mind to be expressed through spoken word
(cf. Mark S. Smith, Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 for a theologically compelling account of that); 3. an avian
breath brooding like a mother bird by impartation of the spirit of life into the waters. Even early Christian
tradition did not uniformly identify this wind, or breath, with the Holy Spirit, though this was a general
liturgical trend. Personally, I lean towards the third position, given the Egyptian and Phoenician parallels.
This also had been Jerome’s position, and hence a popular one in the Middle Ages, used by Hildegard of
Bingen (1098-1179 CE) among others. Hildegard describing the Spirit as imparting a life-giving heat and
3And Elohim said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.6
4And Elohim saw the light that it was good, and Elohim separated between the light
and the darkness.
5And Elohim called the light day, and the darkness He called night, and it was evening
and it was morning, one day.
6And Elohim said, “Let there be an expanse7 in the midst of the water, and let it be a
separation between water and water.”
7And Elohim made the expanse and it separated between the water that was below the
expanse and the water that was above the expanse, and it was so.
fire (see Joy Schroeder, “A Fiery Heat: Images of the Holy Spirit in the Writings of Hildegard of Bingen,”
Mystics Quarterly 30, no. 3, 2004). The great English Puritan writer John Milton (1604-1674) in Paradise
Lost described it as “Thou from the first / wast present, and with mighty wings outspread / dove-like satst
brooding on the vast Abyss / And mad’st it pregnant…” In any case, based on my own research, it’s fairly
clear to me at least this is the benign presence of God in some way, regardless of how the image is being
used, rather than just a destructive and “mighty wind blowing,” as some modern translators say, which, in
my opinion, bleaches out a lot of the power of the phrase. The breath of God is acting in a positive and
caring way, rather than attacking the waters. See William H. McClellan, S.J., “The Meaning of Ruah
Elohim in Genesis 1,2,” (in Drive) and A. Niccacci, O.F.M., “The Spirit, Divine Force of Creation.” Taking
the word “hover” to mean motherly “brooding,” and identifying the Spirit with Lady Wisdom in Proverbs,
Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon (the latter also interacting with this passage in turn), ancient Syriac
Christians saw the Spirit as God’s feminine relationship with creation as mother and midwife to the
waters, and even composed liturgical prayers invoking the Spirit as “Mother” of the believer and the
creation. See Kaniyamparampil, O.C.D., “Feminine-Maternal Images of the Spirit in Early Syriac
Tradition.” For Spirit language in early Judaism and Christianity, I highly recommend Michel Rene Barnes,
“The Beginning and End of Early Christian Pneumatology,” Augustinian Studies 39, no. 2 (2008).
A minority of scholars, following one tradition within Judaism and Christianity, have argued this light was
in fact the revealed light of divinity, something like Marduk’s or Assur’s radiant halos (melammu), rather
than just simply a created object. See Mark S. Smith, Priestly Vision of Genesis 1. Outside of Genesis 1,
a tradition drawing a linkage between divine radiance and the sky’s own radiance was fairly clear (cf.
Psalm 104:1-2, most prominently). Whether Genesis itself makes this identification is debatable, though
early Jews (for example, Apocalypse of Abraham Ch. 17 and the Wisdom of Solomon) – and a certain
strand of medieval Jewish mysticism – namely, in the Zohar – and early Christians did make this
interpretation (cf. John 1:1-4).
“Expanse” here translates the Hebrew raqia, which means “stamped out, spread out, or beaten out,” as
in a sheet of metal, though sometimes the image of cosmic tent-cloth (cf. Psalm 104), much more
permeable, was used instead. Either way, the heavens were seen as a solid structure holding back the
upper waters and supporting the throne of God. In some ways, the raqia’s construction here is not that far
from the Egyptian primordial mound in terms of function – both support the divine throne over the waters.
In later Jewish literature, the substance of the heavens was much debated, usually seen as a miraculous
reconciliation of fire (manifested in lightning and stars) and water, or a kind of radiant air. See C.R.A.
Morray-Jones, A Transparent Illusion: The Dangerous Vision of Water in Hekhalot Mysticism (Boston:
8And Elohim called the expanse heaven, and it was evening, and it was morning, a
9And Elohim said, “Let the water beneath the heavens gather into one place, and let the
dry land appear,” and it was so.
10And Elohim called the dry land earth, and the gathering of waters He called seas, and
Elohim saw that it was good.
11And Elohim said, “Let the earth bring forth vegetation, seed-yielding herbs and fruit
trees producing fruit according to its kind in which its seed is found, on the earth,” and it
12And the earth gave forth vegetation, seed-yielding herbs according to its kind, and
trees producing fruit, in which its seed is found, according to its kind, and Elohim saw
that it was good.
13And it was evening, and it was morning, a third day.
14And Elohim said, “Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens, to separate
between the day and the night, and they shall be for signs and for appointed seasons
and for days and years.
15And they shall be for luminaries in the expanse of the heavens to cast light upon the
earth.” And it was so.
16And Elohim made two great luminaries: the great luminary to rule the day and the
lesser luminary to rule the night, and the stars.
17And Elohim placed them in the expanse of the heavens to cast light upon the earth.
18And to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate between the light and
the darkness, and Elohim saw that it was good.
19And it was evening, and it was morning, a fourth day. 20And Elohim said, “Let the
waters swarm a swarming of living creatures, and let fowl fly over the earth, across the
expanse of the heavens.”
21And Elohim created the great sea monsters, and every living creature that crawls,
with which the waters swarmed, according to their kind, and every winged fowl,
according to its kind, and Elohim saw that it was good.
22And Elohim blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters of the
seas, and let the fowl multiply upon the earth.” 23And it was evening, and it was
morning, a fifth day.
24And Elohim said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kind,
cattle and creeping things and the beasts of the earth according to their kind,” and it
25And Elohim made the beasts of the earth according to their kind and the cattle
according to their kind, and all the creeping things of the ground according to their kind,
and Elohim saw that it was good.
26And Elohim said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall
rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heaven and over the animals and
over all the earth and over all the creeping things that creep upon the earth.”
27And Elohim created man in His image;
in the image of Elohim He created him;
male and female He created them.
28And Elohim blessed them, and Elohim said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill
the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky
and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth. ”
29And Elohim said, “Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing herb, which is upon
the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; it will be yours
30And to all the beasts of the earth and to all the fowl of the heavens, and to everything
that moves upon the earth, in which there is the breath of life, every green herb to eat,”
and it was so.
31And Elohim saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good, and it was
evening and it was morning, the sixth day.
1Now the heavens and the earth were completed and all their host (sebaim,
“assemblies” or “troops”). 2And Elohim completed on the seventh day His work that He
did, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He did.
3And Elohim blessed the seventh day and He hallowed it, for thereon He rested from all
His work that Elohim created to do.
Beginning of the So-Called “Second Creation Story”8 9
These are the generations10 of the heavens and earth11
Biblical scholars in the past, since the 19th century and well into today in many quarters, have held that
the text of Genesis 1, and not just the story as such, belongs to a different author than the Garden of
Eden story, labeled the Priestly (P) and Yahwist (J) creation accounts. Their styles and vocabularies differ,
as well as, most obviously, the divine names they use. A small minority of scholars, who emphasize these
sections were not just traditional folk-tales but artistic compositions by individual artists, have argued
these differences may be more part of an overall literary message and emphasize how these texts work
together. Some, such as Gary Rendsburg, hold they are in fact one written composition. Outside of this
“synchronic” minority, greater numbers of scholars, particularly Mark S. Smith and Terje Stordalen, have
supported the view that one composition was at the very least aware of the other, and was written in order
to be in dialogue with the other and add to the other. In other words, these so-called “two stories” at the
very least were never “two stories” in separate written forms but additions in conversation and were
meant to be read together as we are doing here.
With some modifications, I am following the translation of Nicholas Wyatt, “A Royal Garden: The
Ideology of Eden,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament (2014), whose putting the story into poetic
stanzas is meant to emphasize the poetic nature of the texts and couplets. In fact, much of what Bible
translations usually give as prose narrative is semi-poetic – like Homer or Hesiod, epic literature, and
coming from the same milieu and time as these great Greek writers. For recent research on “orality” and
“oral literature” in the epic strands of the Hebrew Bible, distinct from the more annalistic parts, see the
work of Frank Polak.
“Generations” here does not simply mean “story” or “account,” but can actually mean “genealogy,” as in
the “genealogy of the heavens and earth,” much like Anu and Ki in the Sumerian. See Terje Stordalen,
“Genesis 2:4 – Restudying a Locus Classicus.” Thus Adam, Eve, and all living things are part of heaven
and earth’s genealogy – not unlike Hosea 6, where Yhwh responds to the heavens in the giving of rain,
and then the heavens and earth respond together, the latter responding with plant life.
Especially in a time when we are more conscious of ecological concerns and climate change, it is
interesting that the Hebrew Bible, especially in these tightly connected stories about creation at the
beginning (Genesis 1, Garden of Eden narrative, Cain and Abel, Lamech and Noah’s flood), often treats
the “earth” and “ground” as an independent character. In fact, some have argued that we should see the
“earth” as a speaking character alongside Yhwh Elohim, Adam and Eve, and the Serpent, a character in
whom Yhwh is invested as the creator. To give one example, the “second creation story” is framed as the
“genealogy of the heavens and earth,” and then Adam (meaning “red earth/ground”), is taken out of the
earth and returned to the earth. He is said to work with the earth, “the ground from which he had been
– on the day when Yhwh Elohim12 made the earth and heaven,
Before any plant of the steppe was on the earth,
Or any herb of the steppe had sprouted
For Yhwh Elohim had not yet caused it to rain upon the earth,
And there was no man to till the soil;
A spring/mist 13 had begun to rise up from the earth
And was watering the whole face of the ground.
Then Yhwh Elohim fashioned the Man from the dust from the ground,
And he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,
And the Man became a living soul.14
taken.” Then Eve, “Mother of All the Living,” a title traditionally used for goddesses like Asherah and also
the earth in poetic texts, is taken – “born,” as it were – out of Adam, whose name means “red/ground.”
Yhwh is acting as Adam’s midwife and also, by the way, as midwife in the creation of Cain, whose very
name puns with qnh, meaning “begotten.” When Cain kills Abel, the earth as character intercedes for Abel
with Yhwh and refuses to yield crops. Like the beautiful lines of Hosea 6, Yhwh, the heavens, the earth,
human beings, and in fact all living things cooperate together and suffer together. This is a Biblical
example of “cosmic maintenance,” just as we saw in Ugarit and Egypt. See Terje Stordalen, “Mother Earth
in Biblical Hebrew Literature: Ancient and Contemporary Imagination” (in Drive).
Yhwh Elohim, which actually only appears as a full divine name only a few times in the Hebrew Bible
outside this story, which can read “unevenly,” has been interpreted in different ways: 1. “redactional”
clarification – that is, an editor who brought together the first and second creation stories, Priestly (“In the
beginning…”) and Yahwist (Garden of Eden), fused the names here in order to bridge the two stories, 2.
double name: Just like Amun-Re carried both the names “Amun” and “Re,” Yhwh Elohim is two names
brought together for emphasis 3. a way of saying “Yhwh – the Elohim par excellence,” 4. Yhwh as the
head of the court of gods, and thus “Yhwh of the Gods” (cf. “God of gods” and “Yhwh of Starry Hosts”
used elsewhere). Most scholars see this as a double name, like Amun-Re. Only Nicholas Wyatt, so far as
I know, is currently supporting the last position. Supporting the second option, that of the double name, is
Ellen van Wolde who suggests that the divine names Yhwh and Elohim correspond to the attributes of
God symbolized in the two trees, the Tree of Life (Everlasting) and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and
Evil, i.e. latter representing omniscience and the capacity for judgment and discernment. In this case,
Genesis 2 functions as a commentary on the divine names and the divine nature, fitting for an introduction
to the Torah. In her reading, Yhwh, at least for our storyteller, would derive from the verb hwh/hyh “to be”
and mean “He Who Is, Was, and Will Be,” i.e. “the Existing One” or “the Everlasting One,” as opposed to
the transitory nature of human beings, cf. Psalm 90, not unlike the titles of El at Ugarit, “Father of Years,”
or the Egyptian-Canaanite mining site Serabit el-Khadem, “the Grey One.” See E.J. van Wolde, A
Semiotic Analysis of Genesis 2-3 (1989) and Theodore J. Lewis, The Origin and Development of God
(2020), pp. 210-252.
The word ‘ed here has been hotly debated. Options include: “cloud” (Futato, “Because It Had Rained”;
Rogland, “Interpreting ‘ed in Genesis 2:5-6”) – which favor a more Baal-like depiction of Yhwh as
rain-giver, “Charioteer of the Clouds”; “dew / moisture” (Hasel); “flooding storm”; “flood, groundswell”; and
“fountain-spring.” The latter option would be more El-like, since El lives at the “spring of the two deeps,”
that is, the origin of the waters of the heavens and the underworld. The Septuagint and Vulgate took that
In pre-modern exegesis, the “living soul” and “breath of life” had been read as the special creation of a
human soul, which endows people with divine rationality and immortality, like the angels, the “spark of
God,” which contained the “image of God” in the human being, as it were. A good example of the
pre-modern exegesis is the ancient Jewish-Christian Teachings of Silvanus (c. 3rd or 4th centuries). More
recently, scholars have emphasized the “breath of life” was given to all creatures, rather than being the
“rational soul” as such. However, some scholars have also recognized too there may in fact be a link
And Yhwh Elohim planted a garden in primeval times,15
And he placed there the Man whom he had fashioned.
Then Yhwh Elohim caused to grow from the ground every tree
That is pleasant to the sight and good for eating,
And the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden,
And the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil.
A river came out of Eden to irrigate the garden,
And from here it divided into four sources.
The name of the first is Pishon:
This encircles the whole land of Havilah, where gold is found.
And the gold of this land is pure.
Bdellium and carnelian are also found there.
And the name of the second is Gihon:
This encircles the whole land of Cush.
And the name of the third river is Tigris:
This flows this side of Assyria.
And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
And Yhwh Elohim took the Man and put him in the garden of Eden16 to till it and care for
Then Yhwh Elohim commanded the Man,
‘From every tree in the garden you may eat.
But from the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil you may not eat.
For on the day that you eat it you will certainly die.’
And Yhwh Elohim said, ‘It is not good for the Man to be alone. I shall make a suitable
partner for him.’
So Yhwh Elohim fashioned from the ground all the living things of the country,
And all the birds of heaven,
And he brought them to the Man to see what he should call them. And what the Man
called every living thing, that became its name.
Then the Man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of heaven, and to every
living thing of the country.
between the “breath of life” and Adam’s naming power of speech, seen as marker of divinely-infused
rationality and cognition. See Stordalen, Echoes of Eden (2000).
The word qedem can be read as either a location, “in the east,” i.e. towards the rising sun, or temporal,
as “at the beginning” or “at primeval times.”
The word “Eden” puns with a word meaning “delights” but also carries the meaning of “well-watered”
(‘dn) and also “luxuriant” and fruitful. See Stordalen, Echoes of Eden, pp. 250-261. See also Terje
Stordalen, “Heaven on Earth – Or Not? Jerusalem as Eden in Biblical Literature,” who makes the point
that ancient readers probably would have recognized immediately that Gan Eden was a mythological
place, outside of the realms of ordinary history, and was allegorically related to any sanctuary, especially
Jerusalem but also the sacred ground of the Burning Bush.
But for the Man he did not find a suitable helper.
Then Yhwh Elohim caused a deep sleep to fall on the Man. And he fell asleep.
Then he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place.
And Yhwh Elohim turned the rib which he had taken from the Man into a Woman,
And he brought her to the Man. Then the Man said:
‘At last! Bone from my bone!
Flesh from my flesh!
This one shall be called Woman (issa),
For from Man (ish) this was taken.’
So a man supports17 his Father and Mother and cleaves to his wife, and they are one
And the two of them were naked (arummim), the Man and his Wife, and they were not
Now the serpent was wiser (arum) than all the living things of the country which Yhwh
Elohim had made, and he said to the Woman:
“Did Elohim really say, ‘You shall not eat from every tree in the garden?’”
And the Woman said to the snake,
“From the fruit of the trees of the Garden we may eat,
But from the fruit of the Tree which is in the middle of the garden, Elohim said, ‘You may
not eat from it, nor may you touch it, in case you die.’”
And the snake said to the Woman, “You will not die. For Elohim knows that on the day
that you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be as gods, knowing all
And the Woman saw that the tree was good for food,
And that it was delightful to the eyes,
And that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,
And she took of its fruit and ate it,
And gave it as well to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
And both their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked,
And they plucked fig-tree leaves, and made themselves loin-cloths.
Then they heard the sound of Yhwh Elohim moving to and fro in the garden in the
This whole line is a very powerful one, which you might recognize from weddings. Traditionally, this has
been read as “a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they are one flesh.”
Recently, noting the emphasis elsewhere in Hebrew Scriptures on duties owed to parents, scholar Ziony
Zevit, followed by Nicholas Wyatt in his translation, has argued the word should actually be read as
“strengthen,” “support,” or “help.” In that case, the verse would be more about the different duties owed to
both parents and the spouse.
breeze of the day,18
And the Man and the Woman hid themselves from the presence of Yhwh Elohim in the
midst of the trees in the garden.
And Yhwh Elohim called out to the Man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’
And he replied, ‘I have the sound in the garden, and I was afraid because I am naked
(‘erom). So I hid.’
Then he said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree from
which I said that you must not?’
And the Man replied, ‘The Woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me from the
tree, and I ate.’
And Yhwh Elohim said to the Woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’
And the Woman said, ‘The snake deceived me, so I ate.’
Then Yhwh Elohim said to the snake, ‘What is this you have done? Cursed are you
above every animal and above every living thing of the country: On your belly you shall
proceed. And dust shall you eat all the days of your life. And I shall establish enmity
between you and the Woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He shall
bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.’
And to the Woman he said: ‘I shall make your child-bearing pain very great. In pain you
shall bring forth children, yet for your husband shall be your desire, and he shall rule
And to Adam he said: ‘Because you obeyed the voice of your wife, and ate from the tree
which I commanded you…
Cursed is the ground because of you.
In distress you shall work it all the days of your life, but thorn and thistle will grow for
you. So you shall eat the vegetation of the steppe.
‘By the sweat of your brow you shall eat food, until you return to the ground, for from it
you were taken.
Dust indeed you are, and to dust you will return.’
Then the Man named his wife Eve (havva), because she was the Mother of All Living
Then Yhwh Elohim made clothes of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.
Traditionally, this verse has been translated as “sound of Yhwh Elohim walking in the cool of the day,”
though others have argued for a storm theophany here and translate as “voice (of thunder) of Yhwh
Elohim moving to and fro in the wind of the storm.” See Jeffrey Niehaus, “In the Wind of the Storm,” VT
(1994). He sees an Akkadian loan-word umu, meaning “storm,” in the Hebrew yom. Most scholars have
not accepted this suggestion, though I personally think it’s at least interesting, especially given the parallel
with the divine voice and breath in Genesis 1:1-2.
Then Yhwh Elohim said: ‘Look! The Man has become one of us, 19 knowing good and
evil. So now, lest he stretch out his hand and take also from the Tree of Life, and eat
and live forever.’
So Yhwh Elohim expelled him from the Garden of Eden, (to prevent him) from tilling the
ground from which he had been taken.20
So he drove the Man out.21
And he settled in front of the Garden of Eden Cherubs,
And the Flame of the Ever-Turning Sword,
The divine council – that is, Yhwh Elohim and the council of his divine children, “angels” as it were,
though technically angels are not elim (cf. Psalm 29:1-2) but rather malakhim, “messengers.” This is a
royal court scene, similar to that in the Baal Cycle and Daniel 7. These divinities may be the astral bodies
from Day Four, given rule over day and night previously. See Jeffrey Cooley, “Psalm 19: A Sabbath
Song,” VT 64, no. 2 (2014), received by request of author.
Nicholas Wyatt, “A Royal Garden: The Ideology of Eden,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament
28 (2014), put forward this possible translation, emphasizing that Adam was created precisely to work the
soil of the Garden. The traditional reading “to work the ground from which had been taken” made the
working the ground into part of the divine punishment rather than Adam’s (and our own) reason for being
as God’s gardener before the “fall.” I highly recommend this article.
Whether the original writer intended something like the “fall” or “original sin,” along with death, as a
result of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden has been hotly debated among scholars. While
most agree that “original sin” as such is a specifically later Christian reading, some do emphasize
something like the human brokenness, and tendency towards falling into sin and corruption, at least first
hinted at here and made fuller as the narrative moves along. For discussion, see Mark S. Smith’s article
below and also Andreas Schüle, “‘All Flesh’: Imperfection and Incompleteness in Old Testament
Anthropology” (in Drive); Schüle, “The Dignity of the Image: A Re-reading of the Priestly Pre-history” (in
Drive); Konrad Schmid, “The Ambivalence of Human Wisdom: Genesis 2-3 as a Sapiential Text” (in
To guard the way to the Tree of Life.22 23
Now the Man had relations with his wife Eve,
and she conceived and gave birth to Cain,25
and she said, “I have brought forth a son with Yhwh.”26
An alternative reading is: “Having driven the Man out, he settled himself east of the garden of Eden with
the cherubim and with the revolving-sword-flame.” This other reading comes from a suggestion of Raanan
Eichler, “When God Abandoned the Garden of Eden,” VT 65 (2015). He suggests Yhwh Elohim settled
with the cherubim, thus setting “himself” up with the cherubim, as seen later in the Pentateuch, and
“exiling” himself to watch over Adam and Eve in Yhwh’s full title associated with the Ark of the Covenant,
“Yhwh of Hosts Who Dwells Among Cherubim.” Notice that Yhwh Elohim’s relationship with the first family
did not end here, but he continues to be in a familiar speaking relationship with Cain outside the garden of
Eden. This would set up the theme of divine accompaniment so prominent in the rest of the Torah. Recent
scholars have tried to emphasize Genesis 1-3 should be read with the rest of Torah and acts as the
introduction of its themes, rather than a separate set of independent stories which stand alone. Just to
give a brief example, the “Tree of Life” as an extension of the life-giving presence of Yhwh can be seen in
the burning Tabernacle menorah and the Burning Bush. See Wyatt, “The Significance of the Burning
Bush,” VT 36, no. 3 (July 1986). There are also allusions to Eden again in Yhwh’s encounter with
Abraham and Sarah prior to the birth of Isaac: “And Sarah laughed inside her to say ‘After I have
withered, shall I have moisture/Eden (‘edna)? And my master is old?” Like the garden of Eden itself and
the ground, Sarah is described as “withered” but will become “moist,” rejuvenated, capable of luxuriance,
like Eden, by Yhwh, so she can give birth to Isaac, one of the fathers of the Israelites. It can also mean
“shall I again have Eden?” – implying the garden’s happiness can be partially experienced for Sarah. See
Nachman Levine, “Sarah/Sodom: Birth, Destruction, and Synchronic Transaction,” Journal for the Study
of the Old Testament 31, no. 2 (2006); Andrew R. Davis, “Eden Revisited: A Literary and Theological
Reading of Genesis 18:12-13,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 78 (2016); Sandra Collins, “The Pleasure of
Sarah: Recovering Eden Again,” Conversations With the Biblical World 33 (2018).
Even though we are stopping at Genesis 5, Mark S. Smith has persuasively argued Genesis 1-3 was
never intended as a self-contained story with a full plot and its own conclusion. Rather, to get the full “fall”
of humanity, as it were, rather than focusing on just the serpent and the Garden, one has to read the
cumulative “fallout” through Genesis 6. See Mark S. Smith, “Before Human Sin and Evil: Desire and Fear
in the Garden of God,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 80 (2018).
Like I said before, there really is no good place to conclude the story because the Torah’s plot ultimately
just keeps moving rather briskly, and, unfortunately, we are forced as readers to leave Eden, too, into the
“real world.” I wanted to include the first of Chapter Four to show how these interconnections work and
the importance of the ground and Yhwh as midwife-creator, and how, even at the beginning of the story of
Cain and Abel, the narrator has already hinted at more trouble to come.
“Cain” is a pun on qnh, “to beget,” i.e. the “begotten.”
This is a fascinating line, filled with meaning. As the first natural birth in the story, Yhwh is still made to
be the creator and midwife to the birth – meaning, like Khnum the Potter in Egyptian mythology, Yhwh is
present in the conception and delivery of all births, human and animal. In fact, biblical scholars have
observed that the most common personal name in ancient Israel involved praising Yhwh for a successful
birth, indicating this act was considered one of his important domains in everyday religion. This also
means that naming a child was usually something done by mothers in thanksgiving to God, as Leah and
Rachel also do in the Patriarchal stories. On a mythological level, too, considering that Eve begets with
Yhwh, and Eve means “Mother of All Life,” like the earth herself, there may be a sense in which the earth
is paired with Yhwh, as in Genesis 2:4, where Adam is the “begotten.”
Again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. 27
And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground…
This is the account of the generations of Adam.
In the day when Elohim created the Man, he made him in the likeness of Elohim.
He created them male and female,
And He blessed them and named them ‘Man’ in the day when they were created.
When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot a son in his own likeness, according to his
image, and named him Seth.28
Then the days of Adam after he became the father of Seth29 was 800 years, and he had
(other) sons and daughters.
So all the days of Adam lived were 930 years, and he died…
Remember, these stories were probably originally oral compositions later written down. The storyteller,
like a skilled movie director, is getting us ready for a tragedy even here (“don’t open that door…”) – in
some ways, the first great act of evil (more so than the incident with the serpent, which was more about
misled desire, anticipating sin, than sin itself per se). The name “Abel” derives from the Hebrew hevel,
meaning “(shortness or briefness of) breath,” the same used for “puffs of air,” translated as “vanity” in
Ecclesiastes. In other words, we know even now that Abel will be merely a “puff of air,” who will die
The storyteller of Genesis 1, whoever that was, returns with their core theme. Notice how this returns us
to the creation of humans in Genesis 1 and then extends this theme of sonship (we will talk about this!) as
Adam makes Seth “in his own likeness, according to his image.”
“Seth” means “appointed,” “placed,” “set up,” and thus was appointed to replace Abel after his death.
Biblical name etymologies – or, more often, the intentional puns, or pseudo-etymologies, set up by the
storyteller – are often critical to understanding the meaning of biblical stories. This etymology has a long
afterlife in the reading of the Classical Gnostics, who take Seth as a type of Savior.
Attitudes About Kingship in the Tanakh and A Glance at Themes in Early Israelite Poetry:
===[1 Samuel 8:1-20 (NABRE) – Samuel’s Fears About Kingship]===
6 Samuel was displeased when they said, “Give us a king to rule us.” But he prayed to Yhwh. 7
Yhwh said: Listen to whatever the people say. You are not the one they are rejecting. They are
rejecting me as their king. 8 They are acting toward you just as they have acted from the day I
brought them up from Egypt to this very day, deserting me to serve other gods. 9 Now listen to
them; but at the same time, give them a solemn warning and inform them of the rights of the
king who will rule them.
10 Samuel delivered the message of Yhwh in full to those who were asking him for a king. 11 He
told them: “The governance of the king who will rule you will be as follows: He will take your
sons and assign them to his chariots and horses, and they will run before his chariot. 12 He will
appoint from among them his commanders of thousands and of hundreds. He will make them
do his plowing and harvesting and produce his weapons of war and chariotry. 13 He will use
your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. 14 He will take your best fields, vineyards, and
olive groves, and give them to his servants. 15 He will tithe your crops and grape harvests to
give to his officials[a] and his servants. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, as well as
your best oxen and donkeys, and use them to do his work. 17 He will also tithe your flocks. As
for you, you will become his slaves. 18 On that day you will cry out because of the king whom
you have chosen, but Yhwh will not answer you on that day.”
19 The people, however, refused to listen to Samuel’s warning and said, “No! There must be a
king over us. 20 We too must be like all the nations, with a king to rule us, lead us in warfare, and
fight our battles.
Scholars have offered slight variations in translation of these texts (which are very old), and these may differ from editions of
various Bibles. These translations are from as follows: G. Del Olmo Lete, “David’s Farewell Oracle: A Literary Analysis,” VT 34, no. 4
(1984); Gianni Barbiero, “The Two Structures of Psalm 29,” VT 66 (2016), also from articles of David Noel Freedman and Dennis
Pardee; Meindert Dijkstra, “El, Yhwh, and their Asherah: Continuity and Discontinuity in Canaanite and Ancient Israelite Religion”;
Nicholas Wyatt, “Ch. 4. The Seventy Sons of Athirat, The Nations of the World, and the Myth of Divine Election,” Archaeology of
Myth; Deuteronomy 33 drawn from multiple people (Duane Christiansen, Robert Gordis, Gareth Wearne, New American Bible 2004)
– full citations upon request; Psalm 89 drawn from Nicholas Wyatt and Meindert Dijkstra, full citations upon request; Theodore J.
Lewis, “The Textual History of the Song of Hannah,” VT 44.
===[Ugaritic Comparison: Genesis 17-18, So-Called Priestly and Yahwist Stratums, Abram’s Visitor]===
Chapter 17 (NABRE), “Priestly” Stratum
Covenant of Circumcision. 1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Yhwh appeared to Abram
and said: I am El Shaddai [El of fertility].2 Walk before my face and be blameless. 2 Between you
and me I will establish my covenant,3 and I will multiply you exceedingly.
3 Abram fell face down and Elohim said to him: 4 For my part, here is my covenant with you: you
are to become the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram; your
name will be Abraham, for I am making you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make
you exceedingly fertile; I will make nations of you; kings will stem from you. 7 I will maintain my
covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout the ages as an
everlasting covenant, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 I will give to
you and to your descendants after you the land in which you are now residing as aliens, the
whole land of Canaan, as a permanent possession; and I will be their God. 9 God said to
Abraham: For your part, you and your descendants after you must keep my covenant throughout
the ages. 10 This is the covenant between me and you and your descendants after you that you
must keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 Circumcise the flesh of your
foreskin. That will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 Throughout the ages,
every male among you, when he is eight days old, shall be circumcised, including houseborn
slaves and those acquired with money from any foreigner who is not of your descendants. 13
Yes, both the houseborn slaves and those acquired with money must be circumcised. Thus my
covenant will be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant. 14 If a male is uncircumcised, that is, if
the flesh of his foreskin has not been cut away, such a one will be cut off from his people; he has
broken my covenant.
15 Elohim further said to Abraham: As for Sarai your wife, do not call her Sarai; her name will be
Sarah. 16 I will bless her, and I will give you a son by her. Her also will I bless; she will give rise to
nations, and rulers of peoples will issue from her. 17 Abraham fell face down and laughed as he
said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah give birth
at ninety?” 18 So Abraham said to Elohim, “If only Ishmael could live in your favor!” 19 Elohim
replied: Even so, your wife Sarah is to bear you a son, and you shall call him Isaac. It is with him
that I will maintain my covenant as an everlasting covenant and with his descendants after him.
20 Now as for Ishmael, I will heed you: I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and will multiply
Scholars still debate the exact meaning of “El Shaddai,” traditionally translated as “God the Almighty.” Proposed meanings include
“El of the Mountains,” “El of the [Cow] Udders,” “El of the Breasts/El Suckling,” “El the Helpful,” or “El, the Rain-Giver/Who Pours
Out.” See, for example, David Biale, “The God with Breasts: El Shaddai in the Bible,” History of Religions 21, no. 3 (1982); Eduard
Lipinski, “Shadday,” Zeitschrift für Althebraistik (1995); Aren M. Wilson-Wright, “The Helpful God: A Reevaluation of the Etymology
and Character of El Sadday,” VT 69 (2019). “God of fertility” has been used as a wide approximation of intended here.
For more on the idea of covenant and covenant ritual, see my annotated excerpt of Exodus 19-24 also in the Drive. A covenant
essentially is a treaty or agreement sealed with blessings and curses for both parties. While used politically, the language itself is
often familial and kinship-based so that both parties enter into a fictive or ritual kinship relationship. Covenants can be witnessed by
the gods or forces in the natural world, cf. Deuteronomy 32. Sometimes the natural world can be held together by a covenant oath,
too. For an overview, see Moshe Weinfeld, “The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East,” Journal of
the American Oriental Society 90, no. 2 (1970).
him exceedingly. He will become the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great
nation. 21 But my covenant I will maintain with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you by this time
next year. 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, Elohim departed from him.
23 Then Abraham took his son Ishmael and all his slaves, whether born in his house or acquired
with his money—every male among the members of Abraham’s household—and he circumcised
the flesh of their foreskins on that same day, as Elohim had told him to do. 24 Abraham was
ninety-nine years old when the flesh of his foreskin was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael
was thirteen years old when the flesh of his foreskin was circumcised. 26 Thus, on that same
day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised; 27 and all the males of his household,
including the slaves born in his house or acquired with his money from foreigners, were
circumcised with him.
Chapter 18, “Yahwist” Stratum
Abraham’s Visitors. 1 Yhwh appeared to Abraham by the oak of Mamre, as he sat in the
entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot.
2 Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance
of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, 3 he said: “Lord, if it please you, do not go
on past your servant. 4 Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest
under the tree. 5 Now that you have come to your servant, let me bring you a little food, that you
may refresh yourselves; and afterward you may go on your way.” “Very well,” they replied, “do as
you have said.”
6 Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick, three measures of bran flour! Knead it
and make bread.” 7 He ran to the herd, picked out a tender, choice calf, and gave it to a servant,
who quickly prepared it. 8 Then he got some curds and milk, as well as the calf that had been
prepared, and set these before them, waiting on them under the tree while they ate.
9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There in the tent,” he replied. 10 One of them
said, “I will return to you at the time of life, and Sarah will then have a son.” Sarah was listening
at the entrance of the tent, just behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in
years, and Sarah had stopped having her menstrual periods. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself and
said, “Now that I am withered/dried up and my husband is old, am I still to have moisture
The word translated here as “moisture” (‘edna) has been translated as “pleasure” or “delight” (cf. Psalm 16), but is translated
primarily as “abundant moisture,” in order to show the contrast with Sarah being literally “dried up/withered,” thus equating human
fertility with gardens and plant-life, a common theme in the Hebrew Bible and elsewhere in the ancient Near East. There is also a
pun by the so-called Yahwist author being made with the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3, also referring to “delight/abundant moisture.”
See Andrew R. Davis, “Eden Revisited: A Literary and Theological Reading of Genesis 18:12-13,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 78
(2016) and Sandra Collins, “The Pleasure of Sarah: Recovering Eden Again,” Conversations with the Biblical World 33 (2018).
13 But Yhwh said to Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really bear a child, old as I
am?’ 14 Is anything too marvelous for the Lord to do? At the appointed time, about this time
next year, I will return to you, and Sarah will have a son.” 15 Sarah lied, saying, “I did not laugh,”
because she was afraid. But he said, “Yes, you did.”
===[2 Samuel 23, “Last Words of David”]===
Oracle of David, son of Jesse,
Oracle of the man whom the Most High established,
Of the Anointed One of the God of Jacob,
The Favorite One of the Defense of Israel:
‘The Spirit of Yhwh spoke through me,
His word is on my tongue;
To me said the God of Jacob,
To me spoke the Rock of Israel:
‘Who rules as a righteous man,
Who rules fearing God,
He is of a truth like the light of a morning in which the sun shines,
A morning without clouds because of the brightness,
And because of the rain with vegetation from the earth.
So my house will be with the help of God,
For the Eternal One made me a covenant-oath,
That all my saving activity and any request
God will surely cause to bear fruit.’
The unrighteous, however, like a rejected thorn
–which surely no man grasps with the hand,
Nor any one touches unless with an iron-tool-Will be burned up by fire.
When Pharaohs ‘pharao’ed’
When the people volunteered—bless Yhwh!
Hear, O kings! Give ear, O princes!
I will sing, I will sing to Yahweh,
I will make music to Yahweh, the God of Israel.
Yahweh, when you went out from Seir,
When you marched from the plains of Edom,
The earth shook, the heavens poured,
The mountains streamed before Yhwh;
This one, Sinai,
before Yhwh, God of Israel.
Caravans and wayfarers held back
Caravans traveled by roundabout routes,
Villagers in Israel held back.
They held back until you arose, Deborah,
Until you arose, a Mother in Israel.
When new gods were chosen,
there was no war [for defense] in the gates
No shield was to be found, no spear,
Among forty thousand in Israel!
My heart is with the leaders of Israel,
With the dedicated ones of the people—bless Yahweh
You riders on tawny asses,
You who sit over Midian,
And you who walk on the road:
To the sound of cymbals
Between the watering places
There they recite the victories of Yahweh,
The victories of his villagers in Israel.
Awake, awake, Deborah!
Awake, awake, stir up a song!
Take captive of your captors, son of Abinoam!
Then down went Israel against the mighty,
The army of Yahweh went down for him against the warriors.
From Ephraim, whose root is in Amalek;
Behind you, Benjamin, among your troops.
From Machir came down commanders,
From Zebulun wielders of the marshal’s staff.
The princes of Issachar were with Deborah,
Issachar, faithful to Barak;
In the valley they followed at his heels.
Among the clans of Reuben
Great were the searchings of heart!
Why did you stay beside your hearths
Listening to the sound of the herds?
Among the clans of Reuben,
Great were the searchings of the heart!
Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan;
Why did Dan spend his time in ships?
Asher remained along the shore,
He stayed in his havens.
Zebulun was a people who defied death,
Naphtali too on the open heights!
The kings came and fought;
Then they fought, those kings of Canaan,
At Taanach by the waters of Megiddo;
No spoil of silver did they take.
From the heavens the stars fought;
From their courses they fought against Sisera.
The Wadi Kishon swept them away;
The wadi overwhelmed them, the Wadi Kishon.
Trample down the strong!
Then the hooves of the horses stammered,
The galloping of steeds.
‘Curse Meroz,’ says the messenger of Yhwh,
‘Curse, curse its inhabitants!
For they did not come when Yahweh helped,
The help of Yahweh against the warriors.’
Most blessed of women is Jael,
The wife of Heber the Kenite,
Blessed among tent-dwelling women!
He asked for water, she gave him milk,
In a princely bowl she brought him curds.
With her hand she reached for the peg,
With her right hand, the workman’s hammer.
She hammered Sisera, crushed his head;
She smashed, pierced his temple.
At her feet he sank down, fell, lay still;
Down at her feet he sank and fell;
When he sank down, there he fell, slain.
From the window she looked down,
The mother of Sisera peered through the lattice:
‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why are the hooves of his chariots delayed?’
The wisest of her servants answers her;
She replies to herself,
‘They must be dividing the spoil they took:
A slave woman or two for each man,
Spoil of dyed cloth for Sisera,
Spoil of ornate dyed cloth,
A pair of ornate dyed cloths for my neck in the spoil.’
May all your enemies perish thus, O Yhwh!
But may those who love him be as the Sun as it arises in its strength! (Judges 5)
Give to Yhwh, sons of El,
give to Yhwh glory and power.
Give to Yhwh the glory of his name,
bow down before Yhwh in [his] holy splendor.
Voice of Yhwh on the waters
El of glory has thundered,
Yhwh on the great waters.
Voice of Yhwh in strength,
Voice of Yhwh in splendor.
The voice of Yhwh splits the cedars—
Yhwh has split the cedars of Lebanon,
and made them leap like a calf,
Lebanon and Sirion like a son of buffalo—
the voice of Yhwh cleaves flames of fire.
The voice of Yhwh puts the desert into labor pains,
into travail Yhwh puts the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of Yhwh causes the deer to bring forth young
—he has uncovered [storms]/poured forth upon the forests—
and in his palace each says: ‘Glory!’
Yhwh has sat down enthroned since the flood,
Yhwh has sat down as King from eternity.
Yhwh gives power to his people,
Yhwh blesses his people with peace.
===[Genesis 49 Excerpt, “Blessing of Joseph”]====
Joseph is a Cow’s son,
Son of a young Cow near a spring,
Of the creature who walks aside the Bull.
Harrying him and shooting,
The archers opposed him;
But his bow remained taut,
And his arms were nimble,
By the power of the Bull of Jacob,
by the name of the Shepherd and Stone of Israel,5
By El, your Father, who aids you,
And Shaddai who blesses you,
The blessings of the Heavens (shammayim) above,
The blessings of the Abyss crouching below;
The blessings of ‘Breasts (sadayim) and Womb,’
The blessings of your Father,
Warrior-Hero and Most High
The blessings of the everlasting mountains,
Of the boundary/out-lying eternal hills.
====[Deuteronomy 32 Excerpt, “Song of Moses”]====
Is he not your Father, your Progenitor?
He made you and begot you.
When the Most High apportioned out the nations,
When he dispersed the sons of Adam,
He set up the boundaries of the nations
In accordance with the number of the sons of Bull El
Indeed, Yhwh’s allotment was his kinsman,
Jacob was to be the portion of his inheritance.
He found them in a wilderness,
A wasteland of howling desert.
He shielded them, cared for them,
Guarded them as the pupil of his eye.
As a hawk incites its nestlings,
Hovering over its young,
So he spread his wings, took them,
Bore them upon his pinions.
Yahweh alone guided them,
No foreign god was with them.
He had them mount the summits of the land,
Fed them the produce of its fields;
He suckled them with honey from the crags
And olive oil from the flinty rock;
Butter from cows and milk from sheep,
With the best of lambs;
Bashan bulls and goats,
Or, “Shepherd of the Sons of Israel.”
With the cream of finest wheat;
And the foaming blood of grapes you drank.
====[Deuteronomy 33 Excerpt, “Blessing of Moses” Reconstructed]====
Yahweh—from Sinai he came forth,
and dawned from Seir for them,
He glowed forth from Mount Paran,
and went from among the myriads of holy ones,
streams of light from his right surround him.
Surely, O Protector of the Peoples,
all the holy ones are in your hand,
they gather at your feet,
that they might be lifted up on account of you [on pinions]
The Beloved of Yahweh dwells securely,
The Most High (?) watches over him,
and between his shoulders (wings?) he dwells.
Blessed of Yahweh is his land,
with the best of the heavens above,
and of the abyss crouching beneath;
with the best of the produce of the sun,
and the choicest yield of the moons,
with the finest gifts of the ancient mountains,
and the best of the everlasting hills;
with the best of the earth and its fullness,
and the favor of Him Who Dwells in the Bush.
Let these rest on the head of Joseph,
on the brow of the prince among his brothers.
First-born of the Bull is his splendor,
and the horns of an Auroch are his horns.
With them he gores peoples.
Even to the ends of the earth.
There is none like El, O Jeshurun,
Who mounts the heavens for your help,
And his Splendor is in the Clouds
—[In] a Refuge, is El, the Ancient One,
Outstretched by the Arms of the Eternal One
He drove out from before you the enemy;
And He said: ‘Destroy!’
So Israel settled in untroubled safety—
To the land belong grain and wine;
Indeed, his heavens drip soft rain.
Happy are you, Israel!
Who is like you?
A people delivered by Yhwh,
Shield of your help.
And [Shaddai*] [Asher*, ‘Fortune’]—Sword of your Splendor
Your enemies prostrate before you,
as you tread upon their heights.
For you said, ‘My love is established forever;
My loyalty will stand as long as the heavens,
I have made a covenant with my Chosen One;
I have sworn to David, my servant:
‘I will make your dynasty stand forever
And establish your throne through all ages.’
The heavens praise your marvels, Yhwh,
Your loyalty in the assembly of the holy ones.
Who in the clouds ranks with Yhwh?
Who is like Yhwh among the gods?
El dreaded in the council of the holy ones,
Greater and more terrible than all who sit there!
Yhwh, God of Hosts, who is like you?
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like a carcass
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
The heavens are yours, the earth yours;
the world and all that is in it—you have founded them.
Saphon and Yamim (Seas)—you created them;
Tabor and Hermon praise your name.6
I have seen this translation. However, a more conventional translation has not seen a merism between
the heavens (Saphon, “the heavenly North,” “the Outstretched”) and the seas (yamim), meaning
everything in-between, but rather a series of four ancient mountains or perhaps primordial or foundational
beings who support the earth as mountains: “Saphon and Amanus – you created them / Tabor and
Justice and Judgment are the foundation of your throne;
Love and Loyalty march before you.
Happy the people who know you, Yhwh,
Who walk in the light of your face.
‘I will set his hand upon the Sea,
His right hand upon the Rivers.
He shall cry to me, ‘You are my father,
My God, the Rock that brings me victory!’
I myself make him firstborn,
Most High over the kings of the earth.
Where are your promises of old, Adonay,
The loyalty sworn to David?
Remember, Adonay, the insults to your servants,
How I bear the slanders of the nations.
Your enemies, Yhwh, insult your Anointed;
They insult my every endeavor.
Hermon praise your name.” See the great classic on ancient Israelite religion and cult, Frank More Cross’
Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel.
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| MIND | TECHNOLOGY | HEALTH | ENVIRONMENT | PLANET EARTH
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To science we owe dramatic changes in our smug self-image. Astronomy taught us that our earth
isn’t the center of the universe but merely one of billions of heavenly bodies. From biology we
learned that we weren’t specially created by God but evolved along with millions of other species.
Now archaeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million
years has been a long tale of progress. In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of
agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe
from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality,
the disease and despotism, that curse our existence. At rst, the evidence against this revisionist
interpretation will strike twentieth century Americans as irrefutable. We’re better off in almost every
respect than people of the Middle Ages, who in turn had it easier than cavemen, who in turn were
better off than apes. Just count our advantages. We enjoy the most abundant and varied foods, the
best tools and material goods, some of the longest and healthiest lives, in history. Most of us are
safe from starvation and predators. We get our energy from oil and machines, not from our sweat.
What neo-Luddite among us would trade his life for that of a medieval peasant, a caveman, or an
For most of our history we supported ourselves by hunting and gathering: we hunted wild animals
and foraged for wild plants. It’s a life that philosophers have traditionally regarded as nasty, brutish,
and short. Since no food is grown and little is stored, there is (in this view) no respite from the
struggle that starts anew each day to nd wild foods and avoid starving. Our escape from this
misery was facilitated only 10,000 years ago, when in different parts of the world people began to
domesticate plants and animals. The agricultural revolution spread until today it’s nearly universal
and few tribes of hunter-gatherers survive.
From the progressivist perspective on which I was brought up, to ask “Why did almost all our
hunter-gatherer ancestors adopt agriculture?” is silly. Of course they adopted it because agriculture
is an ef cient way to get more food for less work. Planted crops yield far more tons per acre than
roots and berries. Just imagine a band of savages, exhausted from searching for nuts or chasing
wild animals, suddenly grazing for the rst time at a fruit-laden orchard or a pasture full of sheep.
How many milliseconds do you think it would take them to appreciate the advantages of
The progressivist party line sometimes even goes so far as to credit agriculture with the remarkable
owering of art that has WANT
the past few thousand years. Since crops ALREADY
can be stored,
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food from a garden than to nd it in the wild, agriculture
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free time that hunter-gatherers never had. Thus it was agriculture that enabled us to build the
Parthenon and compose the B-minor Mass.
THE SCIENCES | MIND | TECHNOLOGY | HEALTH | ENVIRONMENT | PLANET EARTH
While the case for the progressivist view seems overwhelming, it’s hard to prove. How do you show
that the lives of people 10,000 years ago got better when they abandoned hunting and gathering
for farming? Until recently, archaeologists had to resort to indirect tests, whose results (surprisingly)
failed to support the progressivist view. Here’s one example of an indirect test: Are twentieth
century hunter-gatherers really worse off than farmers? Scattered throughout the world, several
dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support
themselves that way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal,
and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week
to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza
nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by
adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the
While farmers concentrate on high-carbohydrate crops like rice and potatoes, the mix of wild plants
and animals in the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers provides more protein and a bettter balance
of other nutrients. In one study, the Bushmen’s average daily food intake (during a month when
food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and 93 grams of protein, considerably greater than the
recommended daily allowance for people of their size. It’s almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who
eat 75 or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and
their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s.
So the lives of at least the surviving hunter-gatherers aren’t nasty and brutish, even though farmers
have pushed them into some of the world’s worst real estate. But modern hunter-gatherer societies
that have rubbed shoulders with farming societies for thousands of years don’t tell us about
conditions before the agricultural revolution. The progressivist view is really making a claim about
the distant past: that the lives of primitive people improved when they switched from gathering to
farming. Archaeologists can date that switch by distinguishing remains of wild plants and animals
from those of domesticated ones in prehistoric garbage dumps.
How can one deduce the health of the prehistoric garbage makers, and thereby directly test the
progressivist view? That question has become answerable only in recent years, in part through the
newly emerging techniques of paleopathology, the study of signs of disease in the remains of
In some lucky situations, the paleopathologist has almost as much material to study as a pathologist
today. For example, archaeologists in the Chilean deserts found well preserved mummies whose
FREEconditions at timeWANT
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Usually the only human remains available for study are skeletons, but they permit a surprising
number of deductions. To begin with, a skeleton reveals its owner’s sex, weight, and approximate
the few cases
are many skeletons,
ones life insurance companies use to calculate expected life span and risk of death at any given age.
Paleopathologists can also calculate growth rates by measuring bones of people of different ages,
examine teeth for enamel defects (signs of childhood malnutrition), and recognize scars left on
bones by anemia, tuberculosis, leprosy, and other diseases.
One straight forward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns
historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of
hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5′ 9” for men, 5′ 5” for women.
With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5′ 3”
for men, 5′ for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern
Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors.
Another example of paleopathology at work is the study of Indian skeletons from burial mounds in
the Illinois and Ohio river valleys. At Dickson Mounds, located near the con uence of the Spoon and
Illinois rivers, archaeologists have excavated some 800 skeletons that paint a picture of the health
changes that occurred when a hunter-gatherer culture gave way to intensive maize farming around
A. D. 1150. Studies by George Armelagos and his colleagues then at the University of
Massachusetts show these early farmers paid a price for their new-found livelihood. Compared to
the hunter-gatherers who preceded them, the farmers had a nearly 50 per cent increase in enamel
defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-de ciency anemia (evidenced by a bone
condition called porotic hyperostosis), a theefold rise in bone lesions re ecting infectious disease in
general, and an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, probably re ecting a lot of hard
physical labor. “Life expectancy at birth in the pre-agricultural community was about twenty-six
years,” says Armelagos, “but in the post-agricultural community it was nineteen years. So these
episodes of nutritional stress and infectious disease were seriously affecting their ability to survive.”
The evidence suggests that the Indians at Dickson Mounds, like many other primitive peoples, took
up farming not by choice but from necessity in order to feed their constantly growing numbers. “I
don’t think most hunger-gatherers farmed until they had to, and when they switched to farming
they traded quality for quantity,” says Mark Cohen of the State University of New York at
Plattsburgh, co-editor with Armelagos, of one of the seminal books in the eld, Paleopathology at
the Origins of Agriculture. “When I rst started making that argument ten years ago, not many
people agreed with me. Now it’s become a respectable, albeit controversial, side of the debate.”
There are at least three sets of reasons to explain the ndings that agriculture was bad for health.
First, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a varied diet, while early farmers obtained most of their food from
or a few starchy crops.
gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition,
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— wheat, rice, and corn — provide the bulk of the
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essential to life.) Second, because of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk
of starvation if one crop failed. Finally, the mere fact that agriculture encouraged people toSUBSCRIBE
many of which then
with other crowded
led to the spread of parasites and infectious disease. (Some archaeologists think it was the
crowding, rather than agriculture, that promoted disease, but this is a chicken-and-egg argument,
because crowding encourages agriculture and vice versa.) Epidemics couldn’t take hold when
populations were scattered in small bands that constantly shifted camp. Tuberculosis and diarrheal
disease had to await the rise of farming, measles and bubonic plague the appearance of large cities.
Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon
humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated
food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain
each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized
from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the
disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae c. 1500 B. C. suggest that royals
enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and
had better teeth (on the average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth). Among Chilean
mummies from c. A. D. 1000, the elite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold hair clips
but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease.
Similar contrasts in nutrition and health persist on a global scale today. To people in rich countries
like the U. S., it sounds ridiculous to extol the virtues of hunting and gathering. But Americans are an
elite, dependent on oil and minerals that must often be imported from countries with poorer health
and nutrition. If one could choose between being a peasant farmer in Ethiopia or a bushman
gatherer in the Kalahari, which do you think would be the better choice?
Farming may have encouraged inequality between the sexes, as well. Freed from the need to
transport their babies during a nomadic existence, and under pressure to produce more hands to till
the elds, farming women tended to have more frequent pregnancies than their hunter-gatherer
counterparts — with consequent drains on their health. Among the Chilean mummies for example,
more women than men had bone lesions from infectious disease.
Women in agricultural societies were sometimes made beasts of burden. In New Guinea farming
communities today I often see women staggering under loads of vegetables and rewood while the
men walk empty-handed. Once while on a eld trip there studying birds, I offered to pay some
villagers to carry supplies from an airstrip to my mountain camp. The heaviest item was a 110pound bag of rice, which I lashed to a pole and assigned to a team of four men to shoulder together.
When I eventually caught up with the villagers, the men were carrying light loads, while one small
woman weighing less than the bag of rice was bent under it, supporting its weight by a cord across
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As for the claim that agriculture encouraged the owering of art by providing us with leisure time,
modern hunter-gatherers have at least as much free time as do farmers. The whole emphasis
time as a critical
to me misguided.
have had ample free
time to EARTH
their own Parthenon, had they wanted to. While post-agricultural technological advances did make
new art forms possible and preservation of art easier, great paintings and sculptures were already
being produced by hunter-gatherers 15,000 years ago, and were still being produced as recently as
the last century by such hunter-gatherers as some Eskimos and the Indians of the Paci c
Thus with the advent of agriculture the elite became better off, but most people became worse off.
Instead of swallowing the progressivist party line that we chose agriculture because it was good for
us, we must ask how we got trapped by it despite its pitfalls.
One answer boils down to the adage “Might makes right.” Farming could support many more
people than hunting, albeit with a poorer quality of life. (Population densities of hunter-gatherers are
rarely over one person per ten square miles, while farmers average 100 times that.) Partly, this is
because a eld planted entirely in edible crops lets one feed far more mouths than a forest with
scattered edible plants. Partly, too, it’s because nomadic hunter-gatherers have to keep their
children spaced at four-year intervals by infanticide and other means, since a mother must carry her
toddler until it’s old enough to keep up with the adults. Because farm women don’t have that
burden, they can and often do bear a child every two years.
As population densities of hunter-gatherers slowly rose at the end of the ice ages, bands had to
choose between feeding more mouths by taking the rst steps toward agriculture, or else nding
ways to limit growth. Some bands chose the former solution, unable to anticipate the evils of
farming, and seduced by the transient abundance they enjoyed until population growth caught up
with increased food production. Such bands outbred and then drove off or killed the bands that
chose to remain hunter-gatherers, because a hundred malnourished farmers can still out ght one
healthy hunter. It’s not that hunter-gatherers abandoned their lifestyle, but that those sensible
enough not to abandon it were forced out of all areas except the ones farmers didn’t want.
At this point it’s instructive to recall the common complaint that archaeology is a luxury, concerned
with the remote past, and offering no lessons for the present. Archaeologists studying the rise of
farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history.
Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the
latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.
Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In
contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear
FREEwe can solve it. WANT
archaeologist who had visited from outer ALREADY
trying to explain human
might illustrate the
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a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the
The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race | Discover Magazine
human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our rst day. We lived
as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, SUBSCRIBE
| PLANET will
Finally, at 11:54
p. m.| we
As our| second
plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve
those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering facade, and that have so
far eluded us?
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THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH English version by N. K. Sandars Penguin Classics ISBN 0 14
044.100X pp. 61-125
GILGAMESH KING IN URUK
I WILL proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh. This was the man to whom all things
were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw
mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went on a
long journey, was weary, worn-out with labour, returning he rested, he engraved on a stone the
When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body. Shamash the glorious sun
endowed him with beauty, Adad the god of the storm endowed him with courage, the great gods
made his beauty perfect, surpassing all others, terrifying like a great wild bull. Two thirds they
made him god and one third man.
In Uruk he built walls, a great rampart, and the temple of blessed Eanna for the god of the
firmament Anu, and for Ishtar the goddess of love. Look at it still today: the outer wall where the
cornice runs, it shines with the brilliance of copper; and the inner wall, it has no equal. Touch the
threshold, it is ancient. Approach Eanna the dwelling of Ishtar, our lady of love and war, the like
of which no latter-day king, no man alive can equal. Climb upon the wall of Uruk; walk along it,
I say; regard the foundation terrace and examine the masonry: is it not burnt brick and good? The
seven sages laid the foundations.
THE COMING OF ENKIDU
GILGAMESH went abroad in the world, but he met with none who could withstand his arms
till he came to Uruk. But the men of Uruk muttered in their houses, ‘Gilgamesh sounds the tocsin
for his amusement, his arrogance has no bounds by day or night. No son is left with his father,
for Gilgamesh takes them all, even the children; yet the king should be a shepherd to his people.
His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble; yet
this is the shepherd of the city, wise, comely, and resolute.’
The gods heard their lament, the gods of heaven cried to the Lord of Uruk, to Anu the god of
Uruk: ‘A goddess made him, strong as a savage bull, none can withstand his arms. No son is left
with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all; and is this the king, the shepherd of his people? His
lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble.’ When
Anu had heard their lamentation the gods cried to Aruru, the goddess of creation, ‘You made
him, O Aruru, now create his equal; let it be as like him as his own reflection, his second self,
stormy heart for stormy heart. Let them contend together and leave Uruk in quiet.’
So the goddess conceived an image in her mind, and it was of the stuff of Anu of the
firmament. She dipped her hands in water and pinched off clay, she let it fall in the wilderness,
and noble Enkidu was created. There was virtue in him of the god of war, of Ninurta himself. His
body was rough, he had long hair like a woman’s; it waved like the hair of Nisaba, the goddess
of corn. His body was covered with matted hair like Samuqan’s, the god of cattle. He was
innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land.
Enkidu ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with wild beasts at the water-holes;
he had joy of the water with the herds of wild game. But there was a trapper who met him one
day face to face at the drinking-hole, for the wild game had entered his territory. On three days
he met him face to face, and the trapper was frozen with fear. He went back to his house with the
game that he had caught, and he was dumb, benumbed with terror. His face was altered like that
of one who has made a long journey. With awe in his heart he spoke to his father: ‘Father, there
is a man, unlike any other, who comes down from the hills. He is the strongest in the world, he is
like an immortal from heaven. He ranges over the hills with wild beasts and eats grass; he ranges
through your land and comes down to the wells. I am afraid and dare not go near him. He fills in
the pits which I dig and tears up my traps set for the game; he helps the beasts to escape and now
they slip through my fingers.’
His father opened his mouth and said to the trapper, ‘My son in Uruk lives Gilgamesh; no
one has ever prevailed against him, he is strong as a star from heaven. Go to Uruk, find
Gilgamesh, extol the strength of this wild man. Ask him to give you a harlot, a wanton from the
temple of love; return with her, and let her woman’s power overpower this man. When next he
comes down to drink at the wells she will be there, stripped naked; and when he sees her
beckoning he will embrace her, and then the wild beasts will reject …
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