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June 14th, 2009:

Is the bible anti-farmer?

When I was a kid I had a children’s illustrated bible (and a children’s illustrated book of greek myths, the juxtaposition which did a fair bit to inform my young worldview). But in that book, the story of Cain and Abel is presented as being about the evils of jealousy… sort of a prelude to the tenth commandment. That’s generally the moral people think of whenever the story is mentioned.

But why is Cain jealous of Abel? It’s not because Abel has a better car, a nicer house, a more desirable wife. The bible explains that it’s because god likes meat more than plants. Abel grows up and decided to be a keeper of sheep, while Cain becomes a tiller of the ground. A farmer. Since Abel can sacrifice sheep to god while Cain can only offer  the grains and vegetables, god likes Abel more, and doesn’t particularly care for Cain. Cain becomes violently jealous and the story goes from there.

Now the obvious reasoning here is that meat tastes better than vegetables. A statement I definitely don’t disagree with, especially in mesopotamia thousands of years ago when the old testament was being written. Keep in mind that among the uncountable number of benefits civilization brings to us today is easy access to an array of flavoring agents from around the world. With enough of the right herbs and spices even eggplant, a vegetable I particularly dislike, can be made delicious. But in that era even something as simple as salt would be scarce and valuable. Given the  choice between a hunk of lamb and, say, a bowl of unseasoned chick peas, I know which on I’d prefer.

All that said, presumably god isn’t presumed to actually be sitting down to dinner with the sacrifices. So is the message here actually something about the relative importance of shepherds and farmers? I mean the shepherds in the bible include big names like Abraham, Moses and David. Shepherds get to be present at the birth of Jesus. Farmers? Hopefully someone more familiar with the concept will correct me if I’m missing something obvious, but when farming is mentioned in more than passing it’s to give instructions on how to grow crops, or how to sacrifice them (because by the time we get to Leviticus god has decided he’s ok with accepting plant sacrifices after all).

Jealousy and murder are bad things. But is that moral the whole message of the story of Cain and Abel?