The Cursing of Cain

As a vegetarian, it always seemed to me that Cain got a bum rap (Genesis 4:2-16).  There he was, a "tiller of the ground," bringing to the Lord an offering of the "fruit of the ground," while Abel, a "keeper of sheep," brought "of the firstlings of his flock and of his fat portions."  "And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard." Which, understandably, pissed Cain off ("So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell"), at which the Lord said to Cain: "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted?  And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it."  And so, still incensed, Cain invited his brother Abel to go out into the field with him, where he killed him.  At which the Lord set this punishment upon Cain, that when he tilled the ground, it should no longer yield to him its strength while he became a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth--all because (or so the vegetarian in me read it) he had been a peaceful farmer rather than a murderous shepherd.  No wonder he was pissed off.

Thanks to Lierre Keith's impassioned account of the destructive effects of agriculture, I don't read it quite this way anymore (nor am I a vegetarian, although I only just came upon Keith's book).  Do you know what it takes to grow that wheat (or corn or rice or barley) that sits so innocently there on your table?  I did, sort of.  Land, right?  And, um, water.  And a single growing season.  That sounds innocent enough.  No killing, no animals hurt to make your bread.  Except for the bugs, thus the worries that one has about pesticides.  And, of course, the mice and rats.  And all of the other animals who used to live on the land before it was plowed in order to grow the wheat, like, say, bison, antelopes, grey wolves, and black-footed ferrets.  Oh, yes, and all of the other plants, the perennials who used to live on the land but which had to be cleared in order for the wheat or corn or rice or barley to grow because annual grasses like these can only grow where the perennials aren't.  All so that human beings could eat grains that (get this) aren't even good for them.  They just make us feel good (carbs, anyone?), like coffee or opium or tobacco.  Clever of the plants, isn't it?  Wheat is a drug (specifically, it contains opioid exorphins).  And thanks to Cain, along with rice and corn and the other "domesticated" grasses that form the staples of the modern (i.e. agricultural) human diet, it's taken over the world.

But that's okay, right?  Just because agriculture has required clearing the land of all of the other plants that were growing there, that doesn't mean that it's evil, does it?  A sin?  Except that it doesn't end with the plow.  There's also the water.  Gallons and gallons and gallons of it: from 250 to 650 gallons for every pound of rice.*  Water that must be taken from rivers if the land itself is not in a climate that is warm enough and gets enough gentle rain, which, given that there are only a few regions in the world that do (e.g. northern Europe and Japan), means most everywhere.  Water that then runs off, carrying the topsoil with it.  Topsoil that cannot be replaced because there are no plants on it from which soil might be made and no microbes and nematodes and other little creatures left anymore to break down the plants into soil.  What's left is salt.  Salt in which nothing can grow.  Ever.  Meat may be murder, but agriculture is worse than genocide.  Agriculture kills whole ecosystems dead.  Nor is this simply a matter of predictive modeling: it's history.  The "Fertile Crescent" (where Cain and Abel presumably lived) is now a desert.  Likewise, the regions around the Mediterranean where the great ancient civilizations once grew: Israel, Lebanon, Greece, Cyprus, Crete, Italy, Sicily, Tunisia, eastern Spain all used to be covered in trees with plentiful topsoil.  All gone thanks to deforestation and agriculture.

Perhaps predictably, Keith blames patriarchy and the rise of monotheism for the social as well as ecological devastation of agriculture, but here I think that she is on the wrong track.  After all, the ancient Hebrew patriarchs par excellence--Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--were shepherds, not farmers.  It was Abel's offering that the Lord accepted, not Cain's.  Could this be why?  Could it be that Cain's killing of Abel was intended simply as a prediction of what would happen if the tillers of the soil were allowed to get their way?  After all (as Keith points out), this is what followed from agriculture: "slavery, class stratification, militarism, population overshoot, imperialism."  Albeit she adds: "and a punishing Father God in its wake."  But God punished Cain, not Abel; God made it so that Cain tilled the soil in vain and it "no longer [yielded to him] its strength."  Just as, when God cast out Adam and Eve from the Garden where they had disobeyed him, he cursed Adam to eat of the soil: "and you shall eat the plants of the field.  In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground" (Genesis 3: 17-19).  Significantly, in the Scriptures, agriculture is not a blessing, but a curse, just as Keith says it is now. 

It's hard, even as a recovering vegetarian, not to be a bit freaked out.  No, eating only plants does not exempt you from the cycle of killing upon which eating anything depends; this is Keith's principal message.  The soil cannot live without the animals, and vice versa.  The plants need predators to kill their prey otherwise the prey eat all of the plants, the soil dies, and so do the predators.  Everybody dies (including the humans) if no one does, if there is no killing and eating.  But maybe God knew this.  Maybe this is why he accepted Abel's bloody offering of the lamb rather than Cain's offering of grains.  Again, Keith blames the He-God for the spiritual state that we are now in, but it was not the ancient Hebrew patriarchs who built the civilization that devastated the Fertile Crescent.  "Religious theocracies" may be the result of agriculture, but the Sumerians and Babylonians were polytheists, as were the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, and the Romans who were responsible for the ancient deforestation of the Mediterranean littoral.  It may be comforting to believe that all pagans were earth-loving Goddess worshipers, but that is fantasy, not history.  Historically, pagans were agriculturalists, while the Chosen People kept sheep.  At least, until they invaded Canaan and took over its production of milk and honey, but then they had other problems (like being captured by the Babylonians, "for their sins").

So what?  What does it matter if Keith's theology is off-kilter if her moral arguments against agriculture are nevertheless sound?  Because Cain killed Abel because God did not accept Cain's offering.  And we need to understand why God did not accept Cain's offering of grain.

*[Reading the Amazon reviews of Keith's book, I suspect that this is one of her facts that may need checking, but she is still right about the long-term destructiveness of agriculture, particularly irrigation.  And it is also true that crop-raising is not without its impact on the animal life.]


  1. "All gone thanks to deforestation and agriculture"

    Likewise Iceland. The irony there was that it happened very rapidly. The early Norse settlers did the usual thing - cutting down trees to start agriculture - but didn't realise that the soil was different (volcanic ash) from Scandinavia's glacial clays. In a few generations, huge tracts of Iceland's topsoil had blown or weathered away.


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