BILL MOYERS'S latest television series, "Genesis," which is currently running on PBS, asks us to reconsider the first book of the Bible, to ponder the meaning of the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the paradise that was the Garden of Eden into the imperfect world in which we live. What does this story have to tell us today, Moyers asks? One possible answer, which the sage of the public airwaves does not consider, is that Genesis is a male allegory, based on the very real experience of the earliest human societies, about the mammoth consequences that flowed from the invention of agriculture. This allegory, in turn, has shaped the roles of women and men for thousands of years.
My revisionist take on Genesis is grounded in the now widely accepted belief of scholars that women invented agriculture. Women, it is known, were the ones responsible for plant food in earlier hunter-gatherer societies. The myths of numerous cultures attribute the teaching to men of how to grow food to a goddess. In Greek mythology, for example, Demeter is the teacher of planting arts. The book of Genesis can be read as another version of this story.
Let's go back 10,000 years to pick up the story. Women had developed the practice of intentional production of food, according to such scholars as sociologist Elise Boulding and anthropologist Margaret Ehrenberg. The attractions were irresistible -- a more plentiful and healthy diet, the ability to stockpile foods for periods of drought and so on. But for men, agriculture ultimately showed itself to be a Faustian bargain. When people could produce all the food -- both meat (through herding) and plant -- that they needed, the principal male role of hunter was largely devalued. Eventually, men were obliged to take up the "women's work" of farming. Yet farming seemed both less "manly" and harder work than hunting.
Once agriculture was well established, it was not possible for human society to go back to hunting and gathering. Populations had grown sufficiently large that they were dependent on continued farming. The oral stories of hunter-gatherer life gave that pre-agricultural time the appearance of a lost paradise. Men in that golden age, it seemed, had been able to walk about, easily finding food, without work. And who was responsible for losing this paradise? The women who had tempted men with the knowledge of how to grow food, of course. If this story sounds familiar, it is with good reason. It is a rough summary of the first four chapters of Genesis.
The first chapter tells of the creation of a self-propagating pre-agricultural paradise in which humans had everything they needed, without work. Eden, in this reading, is the long-gone life of the hunter-gatherers, where there was no agriculture and people lived well merely by picking the fruit from trees whenever they so desired. While this certainly was an idealization of hunting and gathering, the onset of agriculture did require far greater discipline and harder and more consistent work than had hunting and gathering.
If women had invented agriculture and were still associated with it in the minds of men at the time that Genesis was composed, then castigating Eve makes a certain amount of sense. The "sin" of acquiring knowledge is what brought about the end of this way of life and obliged man to work by the sweat of his brow to obtain food. Genesis 3:17-19 is eloquent about the unpleasantness of this new way of life:
Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.
Genesis 3:23 makes the equation of expulsion from Eden and the beginning of agriculture even explicit:
Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken.
One of the changes that the invention of agriculture produced was the placing of a premium on a growing population, which meant that women were obliged to spend more of their lives in child-bearing. Ultimately, the combination of women ceasing to be major producers (as men replaced them in farming) and becoming more fully occupied as reproducers helped to subordinate women more fully to men. All of this is reflected in Genesis 3:16:
To the woman he said, I will greatly increase your toil and your pregnancies; Along with travail shall you beget children. For to your man is your desire, And he shall predominate over you.'
The people who told the stories that were compiled in Genesis, it seems, knew a great deal about human prehistory and what agriculture had wrought. Unfortunately the Hebrews' allegory of the transformation from the natural "paradise" of the hunter-gatherer to the troubled surplus of the agricultural warrior has been taken too literally by the faithful. If we understand the imagery of Genesis, in light of what we now know about the earliest human societies, the Adam and Eve story reemerges as an exaggerated, but not wholly inaccurate, assessment of prehistory. Now it is time that we consider the impact that it has had on our ideas about women and men. Hell hath no fury like a man devalued. Robert McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. He is completing a manuscript about how sexual metaphors and misunderstandings have shaped world history.