Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading Of The Bible
Agrarianism is a way of thinking and ordering life in community that is based on the health of the land and of living creatures.1 Often out of step with the prevailing values of wealth, technology, and political and military domination, the mind-set and practices that constitute agrarianism have been marginalized by the powerful within most “history-making” cultures across time, including that of ancient Israel. Yet, agrarianism is the way of thinking predominant among the biblical writers, who very often do not represent the interests of the powerful. The sheer pervasiveness of their appreciation and concern for the health of the land is the single most important point of this study.
This volume explores the agrarian mind-set of the biblical writers by bringing Israel’s Scriptures into sustained conversation with the works of contemporary agrarian writers – most consistently, those of farmer, poet, essayist, and fiction writer Wendell Berry. Over the last three generations, agrarian thought and values have been given their fullest articulation in the nearly three millennia of agrarian writing; it is now clear that this is a comprehensive way of viewing the world and the human place in it.2 The rapidly growing body of literature is a response to the global dominance of corporationcontrolled agriculture. It discloses the illogic and danger of the practice, now routine in industrialized culture, of allowing food production – the largest and most essential of all human industries – to be managed by “specialists” and ignored by the rest of us. Yet ironically, agriculture has become moreworthy of widespread attention than it ever was, and for tragic reasons. According to the 2005 United Nations–sponsoredMillennium Ecosystem Assessment, agriculture as currently practiced may constitute the “largest threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function of any single human activity.”3 Worldwide, it is also a major threat to economic and political democracy; sociologist and political scientist James Scott compares the functioning of industrial agriculture to that of a “totalizing state.”4
My interest in the global crisis of agriculture comes as a direct result of my normal professional activity of reading and interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures. Some fifteen years ago, I began using biblical interpretation as a way of informing my understanding of the ecological crisis. A confirmed urbanite, I had never been curious, let alone knowledgeable, about farming until, throughmy study, I first noticed and then gradually acquired something of the biblicalwriters’ own abiding interest in land care. In contrast to ourselves, they belonged to a culture that recognized land care as the life-and-death matter it unquestionably is. Thus, they can provide a vantage point from which to view and develop a nuanced critique of our current cultural practices regarding land use and food production.
In attending to issues of land care in Israel’s Scriptures, I am to some degree shifting the terms common to biblical scholarship and contemporary theology,, which have given more attention to possession of land as a national territory. The biblical writers themselves consistently regard the two matters as related; land tenure is conditional upon proper use and care of land in community. However, shifting the focus to the latter brings into view aspects of well-worked texts that have previously received scant attention, such as the pronounced emphasis on seeds in Genesis 1. Things that the biblical writers must themselves have intended as important conveyors of meaning become intelligible when the Bible is read from an agrarian perspective. The range of texts treated in these chapters – selected from Torah, Former and Latter Prophets, Psalms, Proverbs, and the Song of Songs – indicates how widely agrarian concerns are shared among the various writers, strands, and periods of biblical tradition. Numerous (probably countless) other passages could be adduced to support these arguments and add new insights. The very pervasiveness of agrarian thinking in the Bible challenges the common assumption that those who composed or edited the writings were members of an urban elite whose perspectives “distort or ignore the everyday reality of [villagers’] lives.”5 If the sharp urban/rural dichotomy that now characterizes the industrialized West existed at all in Israel, it was only late, in the Hellenistic period. Certainly the Bible attests to ongoing tensions between city and countryside, but there was also deep interpenetration, as my final chapter shows. An urban world completely uninvolved in and ignorant of agriculture is a quite new phenomenon, and necessarily a transitory one.
Agrarian reading is not a distinct method but rather a perspective for exegesis; it is the¯oria – literally, a way of viewing our world and the texts’ representation of it. Bringing to bear a perspective unfamiliar to most biblical scholars (who are themselves in most cases “members of an urban elite”) means asking a question rarely posed in the scholarly literature: How do these texts view the relationship between humans (or Israelites in particular) and the material sources of life as an essential aspect of living in the presence of God? If the question is unusual, the methods used to answer it are not. On the whole, this study will follow procedures that are standard for professional exegesis: paying close attention to rhythm, diction, and the poetics of a text; reading it within the larger literary context and, to whatever extent is possible, in light of the particular historical, social, and even geographical conditions related to its composition and promulgation.
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