In the Beginning

In chapter 2 of Genesis, God places the first man Adam in the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden is identified as the source for four rivers: the Pishon, Gihon, Hiddekel and Euphrates. The Hiddekel is identified with the Tigris, which lies to the east of the Euphrates. While the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers are known to us, the Pishon and Gihon Rivers are not. The Jewish medieval commentator Rashi writes that the Pishon is the Nile River.

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve sin by eating from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. As a punishment God curses Adam that he will have to work for his food. God “banished Adam to till the soil.” For Adam and humanity, this represents the shift from being hunter-gatherers to settled farming and civilization.

Early humans were hunter-gatherers. Humans would wander in small bands to find their daily food, picking fruits and vegetables, hunting, fishing, or scavenging for animal remains. In the Garden of Eden story, Adam and Eve can find their daily food without having to farm the land.

Eventually, humans learned how to domesticate plants and animals. Humans could then settle in one location and work the land, planting, harvesting and storing their food. They could raise animals such as sheep, cows and pigs to supply their protein. In this system, one person could supply food for a larger group, allowing for a division of labor. While one farmed, others could be engaged in activities such as homebuilding, sewing clothing, tool and pottery production, and trade.

To manage the growing society, humans established judicial systems and appointed rulers. To better manage trade and bureaucracy, writing was invented.

The key condition for settled farming and human development was the availability of consistent and stable water. The earliest known settled villages were in Mesopotamia, the area of today’s Iraq, between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, and in Egypt, along the Nile River. Early farmers dug channels to divert water from these rivers to irrigate their fields or saw the waters rise above their banks and deposit mineral rich silt and water. 

We take it for granted today that humans are better off in farming based societies; after all, who does not like indoor plumbing or going to sleep without the fear of being eaten by a lion? But in his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that humans are not necessarily better off for all our advances. With the advancements have also come stratified societies, large-scale war and disease. Skeletal remains show that settled farmers were shorter and suffered from cavities, arthritis and other conditions that did not affect hunter-gatherers.

Today we can more clearly appreciate the advances of a farming based society over that of the hunter-gatherer. But in the case of Adam, before today’s technological advances, farming could be seen as a curse, and not a blessing.

This gradual process in part began in Egypt. The Nile River was important not just for Egypt, but for all of humanity.