Rabbi 'Aḥai ben Josiah says:
He who purchases grain in the market place, to what may he be likened? To an infant whose mother died: although he is taken from door to door to other wet nurses, he is not satisfied.
He who buys bread in the market place, what is he like? He is as good as dead and buried.
He who eats of his own is like an infant raised at its mother's breast.
At the beginning of the creation of the world, the Holy One, blessed be he, began with planting first.
For it is written:
“And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden”
You too when you enter the land shall engage in nothing but planting. Therefore it is written:
“And when ye shall come into the land, ye shall have planted…”
Though he works and worries, the farmer
never reaches down to where the seed turns
into summer. The earth grants.
ETHICS AND EXEGESIS
The first essay in this volume suggests that the contemporary agrarian writers may help us re-member a way of life that honors the wholeness of creation. Now I want to make a stronger and therefore riskier claim: Reading the work of the contemporary agrarians can make us better readers of Scripture. The exegetical project begun in these essays is developing as a conversation between critical biblical study and contemporary agrarian thinking, and the one is as indispensable to it as the other.
If you listen willingly,
the good of the land you shall eat.
And God will turn no one away
who knows how to eat.
Agrarianism is a way of thinking and ordering life in community that is based on the health of the land and of living creatures. Often out of step with the prevailing values of wealth, technology, and political and military domination, the mind-set and practices that constitute agrarianism have been marginalized by the powerful within most “history-making” cultures across time, including that of ancient Israel. Yet, agrarianism is the way of thinking predominant among the biblical writers, who very often do not represent the interests of the powerful. The sheer pervasiveness of their appreciation and concern for the health of the land is the single most important point of this study.
This volume explores the agrarian mind-set of the biblical writers by bringing Israel's Scriptures into sustained conversation with the works of contemporary agrarian writers – most consistently, those of farmer, poet, essayist, and fiction writer Wendell Berry. Over the last three generations, agrarian thought and values have been given their fullest articulation in the nearly three millennia of agrarian writing; it is now clear that this is a comprehensive way of viewing the world and the human place in it. The rapidly growing body of literature is a response to the global dominance of corporation-controlled agriculture.
[T]he catastrophe now threatening us is unprecedented – and we often confuse the unprecedented with the improbable.
OPENING OUR EYES
As an Old Testament scholar, I come naturally (at least, by second nature) to a respect for land and a concern that it be “kindly used,” so that it may continue to be used from generation to generation: for the Hebrew Scriptures are land-centered in their theological perspective. Rarely does one read through two or three successive chapters without seeing some reference to the land or to Zion, the city that is ideologically speaking the source of its fertility. Beginning with the first chapter of Genesis, there is no extensive exploration of the relationship between God and humanity that does not factor the land and its fertility into that relationship. Overall, from a biblical perspective, the sustained fertility and habitability of the earth, or more particularly of the land of Israel, is the best index of the health of the covenant relationship. When humanity, or the people Israel, is disobedient, thorns and briars abound (Gen. 3:17–19); rain is withheld (Deut. 11:11–17; 28:24); the land languishes and mourns (Isa. 16:8; 33:9; Hos. 4:3). Conversely, the most extravagant poetic images of loveliness – in the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Song of Songs – all show a land lush with growth, together with a people living in (or restored to) righteousness and full intimacy with God.
Seek the shalom of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray on its behalf to YHWH, for in its shalom is shalom for you.
The Holy One, blessed be He, said, “I will not enter the heavenly Jerusalem until I can enter the earthly Jerusalem.”
When hope sets out in its desperate search for reasons, it can find them now.
CITIES OF FARMERS
Modern agrarians seek to “re-member” the land, but they cannot afford to forget the city, with half the world's population now living in cities. Certainly North Americans cannot do so, since four out of five of us (including myself) reside in metropolitan areas. Even with in the confines of the much less deeply urbanized world of the biblical writers, the city is never long out of sight. For Israelites, as for virtually all other residents of the ancient Near East (except perhaps the most remote desert dwellers), the existence of cities was a fact already established for millennia. Scholars often cite the biblical suspicion of cities, and there is some truth to that. No city has an entirely positive reputation among the biblical writers; no capital city, including Jerusalem, escapes prophetic denunciation and predictions of doom. It is telling that according to the account of the Israelites' entry into Canaan, they were content to burn Jericho, the world's oldest continually inhabited city, rather than take it over for themselves.
Piety is deepest practicality, for it properly relates use and enjoyment. And a world sacramentally received in joy is a world sanely used. There is an economics of use only; it moves toward the destruction of both use and joy. And there is an economics of joy; it moves toward the intelligence of use and the enhancement of joy.
The stability, coherence, and longevity of human occupation require that the land should be divided among many owners and users. The central figure of agrarian thought has invariably been the small owner or small holder who maintains a significant measure of economic self-determination on a small acreage. The scale and independence of such holdings imply two things that agrarians see as desirable: intimate care in the use of the land, and political democracy resting upon the indispensable foundation of economic democracy.
THE VALUE OF A LOCAL ECONOMY
Agrarians in every culture must reckon with the issue of land possession, usually as a vexed issue. The fact that land possession is a central (arguably the central) issue of the Hebrew Scriptures thus confirms their fundamentally agrarian character. And of course the issue remains vexed; the intensity of the conflict over possession of the land once called Canaan is probably greater today than it was in the Iron Age, and certainly more people and religious perspectives are involved.
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