Tuesday, August 4, 2009

“I’m a grass farmer” and Parashat Ekev

Gary A. Rendsburg

This week’s parasha (portion of the Torah reading) includes several well-known passages, which indicate ancient Israel’s remarkable awareness of its natural surroundings in the land of Canaan and beyond. Among these passages is Deuteronomy 8:8, with the famous list of the seven species (wheat, barley, vines [i.e., grapes], figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and honey [extracted from dates]), and which is preceded by the verse describing Canaan as “a “good land, a land of wadis of water, springs and deeps, coming forth in the valley and in the mountain” (v. 7).

We also read the following description of the land in Deuteronomy 11:10-11, with a contrast to the physical environment of Egypt: “For the land into which you are coming to inherit it, it is not like the land of Egypt from which you came forth; where you must sow your seed and water with your foot like a vegetable garden. And the land that you are entering to inherit it, it is a land of mountains and valleys; from the rain of heaven you shall drink water. A land that YHWH your God cares for; always the eyes of YHWH are on it, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.” Now, from any objective standard, one would assume that Egypt, with the constant flow of the Nile River, providing for plentiful water throughout the land, would be a more desirable place for agricultural productivity. But the biblical author turns this notion on its head, because he/she realizes that the irrigation system required to bring the waters of the Nile to the sown fields takes considerable labor – unlike the land of Canaan, where the rainfall is supplied directly by God, without the involvement of human toil.

Finally, a few verses later, we read: “And I will give the rain (to) your land in its season, former-rain and latter-rain; and you shall collect your grain, and your new-wine, and your fine-oil. And I will give you grass in your field for your cattle; and you shall eat and you shall be satiated” (Deuteronomy 11:14-15). At first glance, it would appear that the latter verse omits a step (or two or three) in the food chain: God states that he will give grass in the field for the cattle, and as a result thereof we humans will eat. But how do we get from the cattle eating the grass to our eating our own food?

The answer is clear to anyone who has ever farmed in a traditional manner, that is, polyculture farming, which naturally is how all farming occurred in antiquity. It all starts with the grass, as everyone who has read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) readily will understand. I refer especially to Pollan’s description of Joel Salatin, the chief operator of Polyface Farms in Virginia: “But if you ask Joel Salatin what he does for a living (Is he foremost a cattle rancher? A chicken farmer?), he’ll tell you in no uncertain terms, ‘I’m a grass farmer.’”

Salatin comprehends the point about grass well, but he clearly is not the first to recognize the importance of grass in the food chain. The ancient author of Deuteronomy, three thousand years ago, already saw the connection between the grass in the field and the food on our tables – if he/she omitted several steps along the way, it is because presumably everyone in ancient Israel, where so many people engaged in farming (of the local, organic, pastured, grass-fed kind), would have understood the connection between the two parts of the biblical verse.

Gary A. Rendsburg holds the Blanche and Irving Laurie Chair of Jewish History and serves as Chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

No comments: