I’m currently reading this fascinating book by Yuval Noah Harari, a historian from Isreal, called ‘Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind’.
Harari has some very refreshing and surprising views on things. The chapter on the emergence of agriculture in human history he calls ‘History’s Biggest Fraud’.
Now I think most, if not all of us learned in school that agriculture, which began to transform human societies roughly 10,000 years ago, was and still is a fabulous thing, right? Human beings didn’t need to hunt and gather anymore, they didn’t rely on the whims of nature anymore, and could settle down, reap abundant harvests and just take from the herds of domesticated animals as needed.
Agriculture, in a nutshell, led to population growth, the founding of larger settlements, the emergence of written language, economic structures, politics, and everything we like to call ‘culture’. We would not be the same as a human race today if some of our ancestors had not figured out how to save some of the grain they were gathering – and to purposely plant it.
We were taught that this was a stroke of genius. And that the domestication of wheat in the Fertile Crescent in the Near East changed the course of history for the better. Progress started with agriculture, and progress is good.
However, Harari claims that it wasn’t humanity that domesticated wheat – it was wheat that domesticated human beings. We think we are in control – but agriculture – and the economic systems that eventually resulted from it – have ever since controlled us.
Let’s step back here for a moment and look at Harari’s argumentation: as long as human beings were hunters and gatherers, they actually lived fairly good lives. They lived in small bands with strong family ties, were nimble and healthy, and flexible – they learned that certain foods may not be available at certain times and in certain places and adjusted accordingly. They knew how to identify and hunt or gather a wide variety of foods. These archaic human beings already knew how to store foodstuff for those seasons when little would grow. They most likely hunted and gathered for a while, and then had time to rest – to share stories around the campfire, to create the first art, to sing songs, to worship the deities that surrounded them.
Human beings of that period very seldom died of starvation, but rather through violence – either because they were hurt or killed by an animal, or through tribal warfare. Archeological finds show that hunters and gatherers could live well into their seventies.
Human population was held in check by the fluctuation of availability of food. Females wouldn’t give birth as often as in later times. In Harari’s words, it was a time of ‘enough’.
Harari stops short of saying that this period in human history was paradise – but looking at the creation account in Genesis 2, human beings live in Paradise as (not even hunters, but) gatherers. Part of the curse as they are expelled from the Garden is their toil in the fields.
So as the period of ‘enough’ came to a close, there was the emergence of agriculture. Suddenly, there was more food – and more led to more: more births, more mouths to feed, which then of course led to the need to produce more. Human beings actually worked much harder than during the age of hunting and gathering: now they worked the fields pretty much around the clock – and had to eat their bread by the sweat of their brow, as the Bible says. And: agriculture wasn’t a guarantee for a steady food supply – the harvest could be destroyed through floods, droughts or locusts, or through marauding armies, and that led to mass starvations. There is a reason why agricultural societies from early on asked the gods to favor their efforts – and gave thanks, often through sacrifices, to the gods when the harvest was plentiful.
We have become slaves to the cycle of ‘more’. Many are caught in the rat race. And humanity as a whole is not necessarily living better because of it. And that’s why Harari calls the development of agricultural societies as ‘History’s Biggest Fraud’. We as the human race have been cheated out of a much simpler and egalitarian life. We’ve been cheated out of the age of ‘enough’.
Now you may agree with Harari or not. But I think he’s on to something when he puts the finger on what ails us as the human race: the ever-growing need – and want – for more.
With the emergence of agriculture, the period of ‘enough’ was over. The age of ‘more’ began. And we still experience the consequences of the age of ‘more’: many animal species have been hunted to extinction – or went extinct through indirect human influence – , formerly fertile lands have been robbed of their topsoil and are deserts today, fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides poison our water – and everything therein – and eventually us as well.
The excessive burning of fossil fuels has contributed to an awfully fast and furious warming of the planet. Yes, there have been periods of warming on this planet before. But those happened over the course of many thousand years, gradually, and not within decades, as suddenly as today.
And it seems that we as the human race are slaves to economic systems to the degree that we can’t stop wanting for more. We like to call it ‘progress’ – but are on the way of changing life on this planet as we know it forever – mostly by killing it. We are tempted to think that, whatever we have, it’s never enough, that we need more and more, and it is the opposite of life-giving and life-affirming. This leads to the opposite of the fullness of life as God created it in the beginning. It is the opposite of the fullness of life God envisions for all humanity.
The Prophet Isaiah, who lived about 2,800 years ago, already had to say something about that. It seems that, back then as today, the ‘haves’ in their longing for more forgot about the needs of the ‘have-nots’. “If you offer food to the hungry and satisfy the need of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness…the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”
God wants life abundant for all – but this only works when those who have a lot acknowledge that they have enough and share with those in need.
The Apostle Paul warns against stinginess. God’s blessing, so Paul, is on those who are satisfied, who know they have enough and can share freely of what they have. The awareness that I have everything I need is a blessing in itself – because I don’t have to strive for the next thing, haunted by the feeling that there is something missing in my life. Worried that I can’t keep up with the Joneses.
In today’s gospel, Jesus uses the example of the lilies of the field and the birds in the air to show that God is there to provide all we need. There is enough.
Don’t worry, Jesus says. And this worry Jesus talks about is a selfish worry, it is a worry about my needs, my wants, worry that somehow I don’t have enough. And this worry distracts me, pulls me away from striving for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
And what do we know about the kingdom of God? Whenever the prophets or Jesus talk about it, it is a realm of joy, a party, a feast where everyone is invited and there is enough for everyone. A realm where pain and suffering and death are no more, but where God and eternal life to the fullest reign.
And this is not just a vision of some afterlife – as Jesus says in another passage, this kingdom already grows among us, like a mustard seed, like a weed. Life to the fullest for all creation is something we are to strive for here and now. And, among other things, this means to acknowledge that we have enough – to be thankful for what we have – and to share with those in need. Enough is enough! Then we shall be blessed. Then we are like a spring of water whose waters never fail to nourish all life around us. Then we have part in God’s kingdom and righteousness.
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