Ishmael: Part Nine



When I arrived the next day, I found that a new plan was in effect: Ishmael was no longer on the other side of the glass, he was on my side of it, sprawled on some cushions a few feet from my chair. I hadn't realized how important that sheet of glass had become to our relationship: to be honest, I felt a flutter of alarm in my stomach. His nearness and enormity disconcerted me, but without hesitating for more than a fraction of a second, I took my seat and gave him my usual nod of greeting. He nodded back, but I thought I glimpsed a look of wary speculation in his eyes, as if my proximity troubled him as much as his troubled me.

"Before we go on," Ishmael said after a few moments, "I want to clear up a misconception." He held up a pad of drawing paper with a diagram on it.

"Not a particularly difficult visualization. It represents the story line of the Leavers," he said.

"Yes, I see."

He added something and held it up again.

"This offshoot, beginning at about 8000 B.C., represents the story line of the Takers."


"And what event does this represent?" he asked, touching the point of his pencil to the dot labeled 8000 B.C.

"The agricultural revolution."

"Did this event occur at a point in time or over a period of time?"

"I assume over a period of time."

"Then this dot at 8000 B.C. represents what?"

"The beginning of the revolution."

"Where shall I put the dot to show when it ended?"

"Ah," I said witlessly. "I don't really know. It must have lasted a couple thousand years."

"What event marked the end of the revolution?"

"Again, I don't know. I don't know that any particular event would have marked it."

"No popping champagne corks?"

"I don't know."


I thought, and after a while said, "Okay. It's strange that this isn't taught. I remember being taught about the agricultural revolution, but I don't remember this."

"Go on."

"It didn't end. It just spread. It's been spreading ever since it began back there ten thousand years ago. It spread across this continent during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It's still spreading across parts of New Zealand and Africa and South America today."

"Of course. So you see that your agricultural revolution is not an event like the Trojan War, isolated in the distant past and without direct relevance to your lives today. The work begun by those neolithic farmers in the Near East has been carried forward from one generation to the next without a single break, right into the present moment. It's the foundation of your vast civilization today in exactly the same way that it was the foundation of the very first farming village."

"Yes, I see that."

"This should help you understand why the story you tell your children about the meaning of the world, about divine intentions in the world, and about the destiny of man is of such profound importance to the people of your culture. It's the manifesto of the revolution on which your culture is based. It's the repository of all your revolutionary doctrine and the definitive expression of your revolutionary spirit. It explains why the revolution was necessary and why it must be carried forward at any cost whatever."

"Yes," I said. "That's quite a thought."


"About two thousand years ago," Ishmael went on, "an event of exquisite irony occurred within your culture. The Takers—or at least a very large segment of them—adopted as their own a story that seemed to them pregnant with meaning and mystery. It came to them from a Taker people of the Near East who had been telling it to their own children for countless generations—for so many generations that it had become a mystery even to them. Do you know why?"

"Why it had become a mystery? No."

"It had become a mystery because those who first told the story—their ancient ancestors—were not Takers but Leavers."

I sat there for a while blinking at him. Then I asked him if he'd mind running that past me again.

"About two thousand years ago, the Takers adopted as their own a story that had originated among Leavers many centuries before."

"Okay. What's the irony in that?"

"The irony is that it was a story that had once been told among Leavers about the origins of the Takers."


"The Takers adopted as their own a Leaver story about their origins."

"I'm afraid I just don't get it."

"What sort of story would a Leaver people tell about the appearance of the Takers in the world?"

"God, I have no idea."

Ishmael peered at me owlishly. "You seem to have forgotten to take your brainy pill this morning. Never mind, I'll tell you a story of my own, and then you'll see it."


Ishmael shifted his mountainous bulk into a new position on his pillows, and involuntarily I closed my eyes, thinking, If a stranger were to open the door and walk in at this moment, what on earth would he think?


"There is a very special knowledge you must have if you're going to rule the world," Ishmael said. "I'm sure you realize that."

"Frankly, I've never thought about it."

"The Takers possess this knowledge, of course—at least they imagine they do—and they're very, very proud of it. This is the most fundamental knowledge of all, and it's absolutely indispensable to those who would rule the world. And what do you suppose the Takers find when they go among the Leavers?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"They find that the Leavers do not have this knowledge. Isn't that remarkable?"

"I don't know."

"Consider it. The Takers have a knowledge that enables them to rule the world, and the Leavers lack it. This is what the missionaries found wherever they went among the Leavers. They were quite astonished themselves, because they had the impression that this knowledge was virtually self-evident."

"I don't even know what knowledge you're talking about."

"It's the knowledge that's needed to rule the world."

"Okay, but specifically what knowledge is that?"

"You'll learn that from the story. What I'm looking at right now is who has this knowledge. I've told you that the Takers have it, and that makes sense, doesn't it? The Takers are the rulers of the world, aren't they?"


"And the Leavers don't have it, and that too makes sense, doesn't it?"

"I guess so."

"Now tell me this: Who else would have this knowledge, besides the Takers?"

"I have no idea."

"Think mythologically."

"Okay. . . . The gods would have it."

"Of course. And that's what my story is about: How the gods acquired the knowledge they needed to rule the world."


One day (Ishmael began) the gods were considering the administration of the world in the ordinary way, and one of them said, "Here's a spot I've been thinking about for a while—a wide, pleasant savannah. Let's send a great multitude of locusts into this land. Then the fire of life will grow prodigiously in them and in the birds and lizards that will feed on them, and that will be very fine."

The others thought about this for a while, then one said, "It's certainly true that, if we send the locusts into this land, the fire of life will blaze in them and in the creatures that feed on them—but at the expense of all the other creatures that live there." The others asked him what his point was, and he went on. "Surely it would be a great crime to deprive all these other creatures of the fire of life so that the locusts and the birds and the lizards can flourish for a time. For the locusts will strip the land bare, and the deer and the gazelles and the goats and the rabbits will go hungry and die. And with the disappearance of the game, the lions and the wolves and the foxes will soon be dying too. Won't they curse us then and call us criminals for favoring the locusts and the birds and the lizards over them?"

Now the gods had to scratch their heads over this, because they'd never looked at matters in this particular light before. But finally one of them said, "I don't see that this presents any great problem. We simply won't do it. We won't raise a multitude of locusts to send into this land, then things will go on as before, and no one will have any reason to curse us."

Most of the gods thought this made sense, but one of them disagreed. "Surely this would be as great a crime as the other," he said. "For don't the locusts and the birds and the lizards live in our hands as well as the rest? Is it never to be their time to flourish greatly, as others do?"

While the gods were debating this point, a fox came out to hunt, and they said, "Let's send the fox a quail for its life." But these words were hardly spoken when one of them said, "Surely it would be a crime to let the fox live at the quail's expense. The quail has its life that we gave it and lives in our hands. It would be infamous to send it into the jaws of the fox!"

Then another said, "Look here! The quail is stalking a grasshopper! If we don't give the quail to the fox, then the quail will eat the grasshopper. Doesn't the grasshopper have its life that we gave it and doesn't it live in our hands as truly as the quail? Surely it would be a crime not to give the quail to the fox, so that the grasshopper may live."

Well, as you can imagine, the gods groaned heavily over this and didn't know what to do. And while they were wrangling over it, spring came, and the snow waters of the mountains began to swell the streams, and one of them said, "Surely it would be a crime to let these waters flood the land, for countless creatures are bound to be carried off to their deaths." But then another said, "Surely it would be a crime not to let these waters flood the land, for without them the ponds and marshes will dry up, and all the creatures that live in them will die." And once more the gods were thrown into confusion.

Finally one of them had what seemed to be a new thought. "It's clear that any action we take will be good for some and evil for others, so let's take no action at all. Then none of the creatures that live in our hands can call us criminals."

"Nonsense," another snapped. "If we take no action at all, this will also be good for some and evil for others, won't it? The creatures that live in our hands will say, `Look, we suffer, and the gods do nothing!' "

And while the gods bickered among themselves, the locusts swarmed over the savannah, and the locusts and the birds and the lizards praised the gods while the game and the predators died cursing the gods. And because the gods had taken no action in the matter, the quail lived, and the fox went hungry to its hole cursing the gods. And because the quail lived, it ate the grasshopper, and the grasshopper died cursing the gods. And because in the end the gods decided to stem the flood of spring waters, the ponds and the marshes dried up, and all the thousands of creatures that lived in them died cursing the gods.

And hearing all these curses, the gods groaned. "We've made the garden a place of terror, and all that live in it hate us as tyrants and criminals. And they're right to do this, because by action or inaction we send them good one day and evil the next without knowing what we should do. The savannah stripped by the locusts rings with curses, and we have no answer to make. The fox and the grasshopper curse us because we let the quail live, and we have no answer to make. Surely the whole world must curse the day we made it, for we are criminals who send good and evil by turns, knowing even as we do it that we don't know what ought to be done."

Well, the gods were sinking right into the slough of despond when one of them looked up and said, "Say, didn't we make for the garden a certain tree whose fruit is the knowledge of good and evil?"

"Yes," cried the others. "Let's find that tree and eat of it and see what this knowledge is." And when the gods had found this tree and had tasted its fruit, their eyes were opened, and they said, "Now indeed we have the knowledge we need to tend the garden without becoming criminals and without earning the curses of all who live in our hands."

And as they were talking in this way, a lion went out to hunt, and the gods said to themselves, "Today is the lion's day to go hungry, and the deer it would have taken may live another day." And so the lion missed its kill, and as it was returning hungry to its den it began to curse the gods. But they said, "Be at peace, for we know how to rule the world, and today is your day to go hungry." And the lion was at peace.

And the next day the lion went out to hunt, and the gods sent it the deer they had spared the day before. And as the deer felt the lion's jaws on its neck, it began to curse the gods. But they said, "Be at peace, for we know how to rule the world, and today is your day to die just as yesterday was your day to live." And the deer was at peace.

Then the gods said to themselves, "Certainly the knowledge of good and evil is a powerful knowledge, for it enables us to rule the world without becoming criminals. If we had yesterday sent the lion away hungry without this knowledge, then indeed it would have been a crime. And if we had today sent the deer into the lion's jaws without this knowledge, then indeed this too would have been a crime. But with this knowledge we have done both of these things, one seemingly opposed to the other, and have committed no crime."

Now it happened that one of the gods was away on an errand when the others were eating at the tree of knowledge, and when he returned and heard what the gods had done in the matter of the lion and the deer, he said, "In doing these two things you have surely committed a crime in one instance or the other, for these two things are opposed, and one must have been right to do and the other wrong. If it was good for the lion to go hungry on the first day, then it was evil to send it the deer on the second. Or if it was good to send it the deer on the second day, then it was evil to send it away hungry on the first."

The others nodded and said, "Yes, this is just the way we would have reasoned before we ate of this tree of knowledge."

"What knowledge is this?" the god asked, noticing the tree for the first time.

"Taste its fruit," they told him. "Then you'll know exactly what knowledge it is."

So the god tasted, and his eyes were opened. "Yes, I see," he said. "This is indeed the proper knowledge of the gods: the knowledge of who shall live and who shall die."


"Any questions so far?" Ishmael asked.

I jumped, startled by this break in the narrative. "No. This is fascinating."

Ishmael went on.


When the gods saw that Adam was awakening, they said to themselves, "Now here is a creature so like us that he might almost be one of our company. What span of life and what destiny shall we fashion for him?"

One of them said, "He is so fair, let's give him life for the lifetime of this planet. In the days of his childhood let's care for him as we care for all others in the garden, so that he learns the sweetness of living in our hands. But in adolescence he will surely begin to realize that he's capable of much more than other creatures and will become restless in our care. Shall we then lead him to the other tree in the garden, the Tree of Life?"

But another said, "To lead Adam like a child to the Tree of Life before he had even begun to seek it for himself would deprive him of a great undertaking by which he may gain an important wisdom and prove his mettle to himself. As we would give him the care he needs as a child, let's give him the quest he needs as an adolescent. Let's make the quest for the Tree of Life the occupation of his adolescence. In this way he'll discover for himself how he may have life for the lifetime of this planet."

The others agreed with this plan, but one said, "We should take note that this might well be a long and baffling quest for Adam. Youth is impatient, and after a few thousand years of searching, he might despair of finding the Tree of Life. If this should happen, he might be tempted to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil instead."

"Nonsense," the others replied. "You know very well that the fruit of this tree nourishes only the gods. It can no more nourish Adam than the grasses of the oxen. He might take it into his mouth and swallow it, but it would pass through his body without benefit. Surely you don't imagine that he might actually gain our knowledge by eating of this tree?"

"Of course not," the other replied. "The danger is not that he would gain our knowledge but rather that he might imagine that he'd gained it. Having tasted the fruit of this tree, he might say to himself, `I have eaten at the gods' own tree of knowledge and therefore know as well as they how to rule the world. I may do as I will do.' "

"This is absurd," said the other gods. "How could Adam ever be so foolish as to imagine he had the knowledge that enables us to govern the world and to do what we will do? None of our creatures will ever be master of the knowledge of who shall live and who shall die. This knowledge is ours alone, and if Adam should grow in wisdom till the very eclipse of the universe, it would be as far beyond him as it is right now."

But the other was not disconcerted by this argument. "If Adam should eat of our tree," he persisted, "there's no telling how he might deceive himself. Not knowing the truth, he might say to himself, `Whatever I can justify doing is good and whatever I cannot justify doing is evil.' "

But the others scoffed at this, saying, "This is not the knowledge of good and evil."

"Of course it's not," the other replied, "but how would Adam know this?"

The others shrugged. "Perhaps in childhood Adam might believe he was wise enough to rule the world, but what of it? Such arrogant foolishness would pass with maturity."

"Ah," said the other, "but possessed of this arrogant foolishness, would Adam survive into maturity? Believing himself our equal, he would be capable of anything. In his arrogance, he might look around the garden and say to himself, `This is all wrong. Why should I have to share the fire of life with all these creatures? Look here, the lions and the wolves and the foxes take the game I would have for myself. This is evil. I will kill all these creatures, and this will be good. And look here, the rabbits and the grasshoppers and the sparrows take the fruits of the land that I would have for myself. This is evil. I will kill all these creatures, and this will be good. And look here, the gods have set a limit on my growth just as they've set a limit on the growth of all others. This is evil. I will grow without limit, taking all the fire of life that flows through this garden into myself, and that will be good.' Tell me—if this should happen, how long would Adam live before he had devoured the entire world?"

"If this should happen," the others said, "Adam would devour the world in a single day, and at the end of that day he would devour himself."

"Just so," the other said, "unless he managed to escape from this world. Then he would devour the entire universe as he had devoured the world. But even so he would inevitably end by devouring himself, as anything must that grows without limit."

"This would indeed be a terrible end for Adam," another said. "But might he not come to the same end even without having eaten at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Might he not be tempted by his yearning for growth to take the fire of life into his own hands even without deluding himself that this was good?"

"He might," the others agreed. "But what would be the result? He would become a criminal, an outlaw, a thief of life, and a murderer of the creatures around him. Without the delusion that what he was doing was good—and therefore to be done at any cost—he would soon weary of the outlaw's life. Indeed this is bound to happen during his quest for the Tree of Life. But if he should eat of the tree of our knowledge, then he will shrug off his weariness. He will say, `What does it matter that I'm weary of living as a murderer of all the life around me? I know good and evil, and this way of living is good. Therefore I must live this way even though I'm weary unto death, even though I destroy the world and even myself. The gods wrote in the world a law for all to follow, but it cannot apply to me because I'm their equal. Therefore I will live outside this law and grow without limit. To be limited is evil. I will steal the fire of life from the hands of the gods and heap it up for my growth, and that will be good. I will destroy those kinds that do not serve my growth, and that will be good. I will wrest the garden from the hands of the gods and order it anew so that it serves only my growth, and that will be good. And because these things are good, they must be done at any cost. It may be that I'll destroy the garden and make a ruin of it. It may be that my progeny will teem over the earth like locusts, stripping it bare, until they drown in their own filth and hate the very sight of one another and go mad. Still they must go on, because to grow without limit is good and to accept the limits of the law is evil. And if any say, "Let's put off the burdens of the criminal life and live in the hands of the gods once again," I will kill them, for what they say is evil. And if any say, "Let's turn aside from our misery and search for that other tree," I will kill them, for what they say is evil. And when at last all the garden has been subjugated to my use and all kinds that do not serve my growth have been cast aside and all the fire of life in the world flows through my progeny, still I must grow. And to the people of this land I will say, "Grow, for this is good," and they will grow. And to the people of the next land I will say, "Grow, for this is good," and they will grow. And when they can grow no more, the people of this land will fall upon the people of the next to murder them, so that they may grow still more. And if the groans of my progeny fill the air throughout the world, I will say to them, "Your sufferings must be borne, for you suffer in the cause of good. See how great we have become! Wielding the knowledge of good and evil, we have made ourselves the masters of the world, and the gods have no power over us. Though your groans fill the air, isn't it sweeter to live in our own hands than in the hands of the gods?" ' "

And when the gods heard all this, they saw that, of all the trees in the garden, only the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil could destroy Adam. And so they said to him, "You may eat of every tree in the garden save the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for on the day you eat of that tree you will certainly die."


I sat there dazed for a while, then I recalled seeing a bible in Ishmael's odd collection of books. In fact, there were three. I fetched them and after a few minutes of study looked up and said, "None of these has any comment to make on why this tree should have been forbidden to Adam."

"Were you expecting them to?"

"Well . . . yes."

"The Takers write the notes, and this story has always been an impenetrable mystery to them. They've never been able to figure out why the knowledge of good and evil should have been forbidden to man. Don't you see why?"


"Because, to the Takers, this knowledge is the very best knowledge of all—the most beneficial for man to have. This being so, why would the gods forbid it to him?"


"The knowledge of good and evil is fundamentally the knowledge the rulers of the world must exercise, because every single thing they do is good for some but evil for others. This is what ruling is all about, isn't it?"


"And man was born to rule the world, wasn't he?"

"Yes. According to Taker mythology."

"Then why would the gods withhold the very knowledge man needs to fulfill his destiny? From the Taker point of view, it makes no sense at all."


"The disaster occurred when, ten thousand years ago, the people of your culture said, `We're as wise as the gods and can rule the world as well as they.' When they took into their own hands the power of life and death over the world, their doom was assured."

"Yes. Because they are not in fact as wise as the gods."

"The gods ruled the world for billions of years, and it was doing just fine. After just a few thousand years of human rule, the world is at the point of death."

"True. But the Takers will never give it up."

Ishmael shrugged. "Then they'll die. As predicted. The authors of this story knew what they were talking about."


"And you're saying this story was written from a Leaver point of view?"

"That's right. If it had been written from the Taker point of view, the knowledge of good and evil wouldn't have been forbidden to Adam, it would have been thrust upon him. The gods would have hung around saying, `Come on, Man, can't you see that you're nothing without this knowledge? Stop living off our bounty like a lion or a wombat. Here, have some of this fruit and you'll instantly realize that you're naked—as naked as any lion or wombat: naked to the world, powerless. Come on, have some of this fruit and become one of us. Then, lucky you, you can leave this garden and begin living by the sweat of your brow, the way humans are supposed to live.' And if people of your cultural persuasion had authored it, this event wouldn't be called the Fall, it would be called the Ascent—or as you put it earlier, the Liberation."

"Very true . . . . But I'm not quite sure how this fits in with everything else."

"We are furthering your understanding of how things came to be this way. "

"I don't get it."

"A minute ago, you told me that the Takers will never give up their tyranny over the world, no matter how bad things get. How did they get to be this way?"

I goggled at him.

"They got to be this way because they've always believed that what they were doing was right—and therefore to be done at any cost whatever. They've always believed that, like the gods, they know what is right to do and what is wrong to do, and what they're doing is right. Do you see how they've demonstrated what I'm saying?"

"Not offhand."

"They've demonstrated it by forcing everyone in the world to do what they do, to live the way they live. Everyone had to be forced to live like the Takers, because the Takers had the one right way."

"Yes, I can see that."

"Many peoples among the Leavers practiced agriculture, but they were never obsessed by the delusion that what they were doing was right, that everyone in the entire world had to practice agriculture, that every last square yard of the planet had to be devoted to it. They didn't say to the people around them, `You may no longer live by hunting and gathering. This is wrong. This is evil, and we forbid it. Put your land under cultivation or we'll wipe you out.' What they said was, `You want to be hunter-gatherers? That's fine with us. That's great. We want to be agriculturalists. You be hunter-gatherers and we'll be agriculturalists. We don't pretend to know which way is right. We just know which way we prefer.' "

"Yes, I see."

"And if they got tired of being agriculturalists, if they found they didn't like where it was leading them in their particular adaptation, they were able to give it up. They didn't say to themselves, `Well, we've got to keep going at this even if it kills us, because this is the right way to live.' For example, there was once a people who constructed a vast network of irrigation canals in order to farm the deserts of what is now southeastern Arizona. They maintained these canals for three thousand years and built a fairly advanced civilization, but in the end they were free to say, `This is a toilsome and unsatisfying way to live, so to hell with it.' They simply walked away from the whole thing and put it so totally out of mind that we don't even know what they called themselves. The only name we have for them is one the Pima Indians gave them: Hohokam—those who vanished.

"But it's not going to be this easy for the Takers. It's going to be hard as hell for them to give it up, because what they're doing is right, and they have to go on doing it even if it means destroying the world and mankind with it."

"Yes, that's the way it seems."

"Giving it up would mean . . . what?"

"Giving it up would mean . . . It would mean that all along they'd been wrong. It would mean that they'd never known how to rule the world. It would mean . . . relinquishing their pretensions to godhood."

"It would mean spitting out the fruit of that tree and giving the rule of the world back to the gods."



Ishmael nodded to the stack of bibles at my feet. "According to the authors of that story, the people living between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers had eaten at the gods' own tree of knowledge. Where do you suppose they got that idea?"

"What do you mean?"

"Whatever gave the authors of this story the idea that the people living in the Fertile Crescent had eaten at the gods' tree of knowledge? Do you suppose they saw it with their own eyes? Do you suppose they were there when your agricultural revolution began?"

"I suppose that's a possibility."

"Think. If they'd been there to see it with their own eyes, who would they have been?"

"Oh . . . right. They would have been the people of the Fall. They would have been the Takers." '

"And if they'd been Takers, they would have told the story a different way."


"So the authors of this story were not there to see it with their own eyes. How then did they know it had happened? How did they know that the Takers had usurped the role of the gods in the world?"

"Lord," I said.

"Who were the authors of this story?"

"Well . . . the Hebrews?"

Ishmael shook his head. "Among the people known as the Hebrews, this was already an ancient story—and a mysterious story. The Hebrews stepped into history as Takers—and wanted nothing more than to be like their Taker neighbors. Indeed, that's why their prophets were always bawling them out."


"So, though they preserved the story, they no longer fully understood it. To find the people who understood it, we have find its authors. And who were they?"

"Well . . . they were the ancestors of the Hebrews."

"But who were they?"

"I'm afraid I have no idea."

Ishmael grunted. "Look, I can't forbid you to say, `I have no idea,' but I do insist that you spend a few seconds thinking before you say it."

I spent a few seconds at it, just to be polite, then I said, "I'm sorry. My grasp of ancient history is frankly negligible."

"The ancient ancestors of the Hebrews were the Semites."


"You knew that, didn't you?"

"Yes, I guess so. I just . . ."

"You just weren't thinking."


Ishmael bestirred himself, and to be perfectly honest, my stomach clenched as the half ton of him brushed past my chair. If you don't know how gorillas make their way from place to place on the ground, you can visit the zoo or rent a National Geographic videotape; no words of mine will make you see it.

Ishmael lumbered or shambled or shuffled over to the bookcase and returned with an historical atlas, which he handed to me open to a map of Europe and the Near East in 8500 B.C. A blade like a hand sickle very nearly cut the Arabian peninsula away from the rest. The words Incipient Agriculture made it clear that the sickle blade enclosed the Fertile Crescent. A handful of dots indicated sites where early farming implements had been found.

"This map, I feel, gives a false impression," Ishmael said, "though it was not an intended impression. It gives the impression that the agricultural revolution took place in an empty world. This is why I prefer my own map." He opened his pad and showed it to me.

"As you see, this shows the situation five hundred years later. The agricultural revolution is well under way. The area in which farming is taking place is indicated by these hen-scratches." Using a pencil as a pointer, he indicated the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates. "This, of course, is the land between the rivers, the birthplace of the Takers. And what do you suppose all these dots represent?"

"Leaver peoples?"

"Exactly. They're not designed as a statement about population density. Nor are they intended to indicate that every available stretch of land was inhabited by some Leaver people. What they indicate is that this was far from being an empty world. Do you see what I'm showing you?"

"Well, I think so. The land of the Fall lay within the Fertile Crescent and was surrounded by nonagriculturalists."

"Yes, but I'm also pointing out that at this time, at the beginning of your agricultural revolution, these early Takers, the founders of your culture, were unknown, isolated, unimportant. The next map in that historical atlas is four thousand years later. What would you expect to see on it?"

"I'd expect to see that the Takers have expanded."

He nodded, indicating that I should turn the page. Here a printed oval, labeled Chalcolithic Cultures, with Mesopotamia at its center, enclosed the whole of Asia Minor and all the land to the north and east as far as the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. The oval extended southward as far as the entrance to the Arabian peninsula, which was a cross-hatched area labeled Semites.

"Now," Ishmael said, "we have some witnesses."

"How so?"

"The Semites were not eyewitnesses to the events described in chapter three of Genesis." He drew a small oval in the center of the Fertile Crescent. "Those events, cumulatively known as the Fall, took place here, hundreds of miles north of the Semites, among an entirely different people. Do you see who they were?"

"According to the map, they were the Caucasians."

"But now, in 4500 B.C., the Semites are eyewitnesses to an event in their own front yard: the expansion of the Takers."

"Yes, I see."

"In four thousand years the agricultural revolution that began in the land between the rivers had spread across Asia Minor to the west and to the mountains in the north and east. And to the south it seems to have been blocked by what?"

"By the Semites, apparently."

"Why? Why were the Semites blocking it?"

"I don't know."

"What were the Semites? Were they agriculturalists?"

"No. The map makes it clear that they weren't a part of what was going on among the Takers. So I assume they were Leavers."

"Leavers, yes, but no longer hunter-gatherers. They had evolved another adaptation that was to be traditional for Semitic peoples."

"Oh. They were pastoralists."

"Of course. Herders." He indicated the border between the Takers' Chalcolithic Culture and the Semites. "So what was happening here?"

"I don't know."

Ishmael nodded toward the bibles at my feet. "Read the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis and then you'll know."

I picked up the one on top and turned to chapter four. A couple minutes later, I muttered, "Good lord."


After reading the story in all three versions, I looked up and said, "What was happening along that border was that Cain was killing Abel. The tillers of the soil were watering their fields with the blood of Semitic herders."

"Of course. What was happening there was what has always happened along the borders of Taker expansion: The Leavers were being killed off so that more land could be put under cultivation." Ishmael picked up his pad and opened it to his own map of this period. "As you see, the hen-scratches of the agriculturalists have swarmed over the entire area—except for the territory occupied by the Semites. Here at the border that separates tillers of the soil from Semitic herders, Cain and Abel confront each other."

I studied the map for a few moments and then shook my head. "And biblical scholars don't understand this?"

"I cannot say, of course, that not a single scholar has ever understood this. But most read the story as if it were set in an historical never—never land, like one of Aesop's fables. It would scarcely occur to them to understand it as a piece of Semitic war propaganda."

"That's what it is, all right. I know it's always been a mystery as to why God accepted Abel and his offering and rejected Cain and his offering. This explains it. With this story, the Semites were telling their children, `God is on our side. He loves us herders but hates those murderous tillers of the soil from the north.' "

"That's right. If you read it as a story that originated among your own cultural ancestors, it's incomprehensible. It only begins to make sense when you realize that it originated among the enemies of your cultural ancestors."

"Yes." I sat there blinking for a few moments, then looked at Ishmael's map again. "If the tillers of the soil from the north were a Caucasians," I said, "then the mark of Cain is this." I pointed to my own fair or maggot-colored face.

"It could be. Obviously we'll never know for sure what the authors of the story had in mind."

"But it makes sense this way," I insisted. "The mark was given to Cain as a warning to others: `Leave this man alone. This is a dangerous man, one who exacts a sevenfold vengeance.' Certainly a lot of people all over the world have learned that it doesn't pay to mess with people with white faces."

Ishmael shrugged, unconvinced or perhaps just uninterested.


"In the previous map, I went to the trouble of laying down hundreds of dots to represent Leaver peoples living in the Mideast when your agricultural revolution began. What do you suppose happened to these peoples between the time of that map and the time of this map?"

"I would have to say that either they were overrun and assimilated or they took up agriculture in imitation of the Takers."

Ishmael nodded. "Doubtless many of these peoples had their own tales to tell of this revolution, their own ways of explaining how these people from the Fertile Crescent came to be the way they were, but only one of these tales survived—the one told by the Semites to their children about the Fall of Adam and the slaughter of Abel by his brother Cain. It survived because the Takers never managed to overrun the Semites, and the Semites refused to take up the agricultural life. Even their eventual Taker descendants, the Hebrews, who preserved the story without fully understanding it, couldn't work up any enthusiasm for the peasant life-style. And this is how it happened that, with the spread of Christianity and of the Old Testament, the Takers came to adopt as their own a story an enemy once told to denounce them."


"So we come again to this question: Where did the Semites get the idea that the people of the Fertile Crescent had eaten at the gods' own tree of knowledge?"

"Ah," I said. "I would say it was a sort of reconstruction. They looked at the people they were fighting and said, `My God, how did they get this way?' "

"And what was their answer?"

"Well . . . `What's wrong with these people? What's wrong with our brothers from the north? Why are they doing this to us? They act like . . .' Let me think about this for a bit."

"Take your time."

"Okay," I said a few minutes later. "Here's how it would look to the Semites, I think. `What's going on here is something wholly new. These aren't raiding parties. These aren't people drawing a line and baring their teeth at us to make sure we know . they're there. These guys are saying . . . Our brothers from the north are saying that we've got to die. They're saying Abel has to be wiped out. They're saying we're not to be allowed to live. Now that's something new, and we don't get it. Why can't they, live up there and be farmers and let us live down here and be herders? Why do they have to murder us?'

" `Something really weird must have happened up there to turn these people into murderers. What could it have been? Wait a second . . . Look at the way these people live. Nobody has ever lived this way before. They're not just saying that we have to die. They're saying that everything has to die. They're not just killing us, they're killing everything. They're saying, "Okay, lions, you're dead. We've had it with you. You're out of here." They're saying, "Okay, wolves, we've had it with you too. You're out of here." They're saying . . . "Nobody eats but us. All this food belongs to us and no one else can have any without our permission." They're saying, "What we want to live lives and what we want to die dies."

" `That's it! They're acting as if they were the gods themselves. They're acting as if they eat at the gods' own tree of wisdom, as though they were as wise as the gods and could send life and death wherever they please. Yes, that's it. That's what must have happened up there. These people found the gods' own tree of wisdom and stole some of its fruit.

" `Aha! Right! These are an accursed people! You can see that right off the bat. When the gods found out what they'd done, they said, "Okay, you wretched people, that's it for you! We're not taking care of you anymore. You're out. We banish you from the garden. From now on, instead of living on our bounty, you can wrest your food from the ground by the sweat of your brows." And that's how these accursed tillers of the soil came to be hunting us down and watering their fields with our blood."'

When I finished, I saw that Ishmael was putting his hands together in mute applause.

I replied with a smirk and a modest nod.


"One of the clearest indications that these two stories were not authored by your cultural ancestors is the fact that agriculture is not portrayed as a desirable choice, freely made, but rather as a curse. It was literally inconceivable to the authors of these stories that anyone would prefer to live by the sweat of his brow. So the question they asked themselves was not, `Why did these people adopt this toilsome life-style?' It was, `What terrible misdeed did these people commit to deserve such a punishment? What have they done to make the gods withhold from them the bounty that enables the rest of us to live a carefree life?' "

"Yes, that's obvious now. In our own cultural history, the adoption of agriculture was a prelude to ascent. In these stories, agriculture is the lot of the fallen."


"I have a question," I said. "Why did they describe Cain as Adam's firstborn and Abel as Adam's secondborn?"

Ishmael nodded. "The significance is mythological rather than chronological. I mean that you'll find this motif in folktales everywhere: When you have a father with two sons, one worthy and one unworthy, the unworthy son is almost always the cherished firstborn, while the worthy son is the secondborn—which is to say, the underdog in the story."

"Okay. But why would they think of themselves as descendants of Adam at all?"

"You mustn't confuse metaphorical thinking with biological thinking. The Semites didn't think of Adam as their biological ancestor." '

"How do you know that?"

Ishmael thought for a moment. "Do you know what Adam means in Hebrew? We can't know the name the Semites gave him, but presumably it had the same meaning."

"It means man."

"Of course. The human race. Do you suppose the Semites thought that the human race was their biological ancestor?"

"No, of course not."

"I agree. The relationships in the story have to be understood metaphorically, not biologically. As they perceived it, the Fall divided the race of man into two—into bad guys and good guys, into tillers of the soil and herders, the former bent on murdering the latter."

"Okay," I said.


"But I'm afraid I have another question."

"There's no need to apologize for it. That's what you're here for."

"Okay. My question is, how does Eve figure in all this?"

"Her name means what?"

"According to the notes, it means Life."

"Not Woman?"

"No, not according to the notes."

"With this name, the authors of the story have made it clear that Adam's temptation wasn't sex or lust or uxoriousness. Adam was tempted by Life."

"I don't get it."

"Consider: A hundred men and one woman does not spell a hundred babies, but one man and a hundred women does."


"I'm pointing out that, in terms of population expansion, men and women have markedly different roles. They're by no means equal in this regard."

"Okay. But I still don't get it."

"I'm trying to put you in the frame of mind of a nonagricultural people, a people for whom population control is always a critical problem. Let me put it baldly: A band of herders that consists of fifty men and one woman is in no danger of experiencing a population explosion, but a band that consists of one man and fifty women is in big trouble. People being people, that band of fifty-one herders is going to be a band of one hundred in no time at all."

"True. But I'm afraid I still don't see how this relates to the story in Genesis."

"Be patient. Let's go back to the authors of this story, a herding people being pushed into the desert by agriculturalists from the north. Why were their brothers from the north pushing?"

"They wanted to put the herder's land under cultivation."

"Yes, but why?"

"Ah, I see. They were increasing food production to support an expanded population."

"Of course. Now you're ready to do some more reconstruction. You can see that these tillers of the soil have no sense of restraint when it comes to expansion. They don't control their population; when there isn't enough food to go around, they just put some more land under cultivation."


"So: Whom did these people say yes to?"

"Mm. Yes, I think I see it. As in a glass, darkly."

"Think of it this way: The Semites, like most nonagricultural peoples, had to be wary of becoming overbalanced between the sexes. Having too many men didn't threaten the stability of their population, but having too many women definitely did. You see that?"


"But what the Semites observed in their brothers from the north was that it didn't matter to them. If their population got out of hand, they didn't worry, they just put more land under cultivation."

"Yes, I see that."

"Or try it this way: Adam and Eve spent three million years in the garden, living on the bounty of the gods, and their growth was very modest; in the Leaver life-style this is the way it has to be. Like Leavers everywhere, they had no need to exercise the gods' prerogative of deciding who shall live and who shall die. But when Eve presented Adam with this knowledge, he said, `Yes, I see; with this, we no longer have to depend on the bounty of the gods. With the matter of who shall live and who shall die in our own hands, we can create a bounty that will exist for us alone, and this means I can say yes to Life, and grow without limit.' What you should understand is that saying yes to Life and accepting the knowledge of good and evil are merely different aspects of a single act, and this is the way the story is told in Genesis."

"Yes. It's subtle, but I think I see it. When Adam accepted the fruit of that tree, he succumbed to the temptation to live without limit—and so the person who offered him that fruit is named Life. "

Ishmael nodded. "Whenever a Taker couple talk about how wonderful it would be to have a big family, they're reenacting this scene beside the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They're saying to themselves, `Of course it's our right to apportion life on this planet as we please. Why stop at four kids or six? We can have fifteen if we like. All we have to do is plow under another few hundred acres of rain forest—and who cares if a dozen other species disappear as a result?' "


There was still something that didn't quite fit together, but I couldn't figure out how to articulate it.

Ishmael told me to take my time.

After I'd sweated over it for a few minutes, he said, "Don't expect to be able to work it all out in terms of our present knowledge of the world. The Semites at this time were completely isolated on the Arabian peninsula, cut off in all directions either by the sea or by the people of Cain. For all they knew, they and their brothers to the north were literally the whole race of man, the only people on earth. Certainly that's the way they saw the story. They couldn't possibly have known that it was only in that little corner of the world that Adam had eaten at the gods' tree, couldn't possibly have known that the Fertile Crescent was only one of many places where agriculture had begun, couldn't possibly have known that there were still people all over the world living the way Adam had lived before the Fall."

"True," I said. "I was trying to make it fit with all the information we have, and that obviously won't work."


"I think it's safe to say that the story of Adam's Fall is by far the best-known story in the world."

"At least in the West," I said.

"Oh, it's well known in the East as well, having been carried into every corner of the world by Christian missionaries. It has a powerful attraction for Takers everywhere."


"Why is that so?"

"I guess because it purports to explain what went wrong here." '

"What did go wrong? How do people understand the story?"

"Adam, the first man, ate the fruit of the forbidden tree."

"And what is that understood to mean?"

"Frankly, I don't know. I've never heard an explanation that made any sense."

"And the knowledge of good and evil?"

"Again, I've never heard an explanation that made any sense. I think the way most people understand it, the gods wanted to test Adam's obedience by forbidding him something, and it didn't much matter what it was. And that's what the Fall essentially was—an act of disobedience."

"Nothing really to do with the knowledge of good and evil."

"No. But then I suppose there are people who think that the knowledge of good and evil is just a symbol of . . . I don't know exactly what. They think of the Fall as a fall from innocence."

"Innocence in this context presumably being a synonym for blissful ignorance."

"Yes . . . It's something like this: Man was innocent until he discovered the difference between good and evil. When he was no longer innocent of that knowledge, he became a fallen creature."

"I'm afraid that means nothing at all to me."

"To me either, actually."

"All the same, if you read it from another point of view, the story does explain exactly what went wrong here, doesn't it?"


"But the people of your culture have never been able to understand the explanation, because they've always assumed that it was formulated by people just like them—people who took it for granted that the world was made for man and man was made to conquer and rule it, people for whom the sweetest knowledge in the world is the knowledge of good and evil, people who consider tilling the soil the only noble and human way to live. Reading the story as if it had been authored by someone with their own point of view, they didn't stand a chance of understanding it."

"That's right."

"But when it's read another way, the explanation makes perfectly good sense: Man can never have the wisdom the gods use to rule the world, and if he tries to preempt that wisdom, the result won't be enlightenment, it will be death."

"Yes," I said, "I have no doubt about that—that's what the story means. Adam wasn't the progenitor of our race, he was the progenitor of our culture."

"This is why he's always been a figure of such importance to you. Even though the story itself made no real sense to you, you could identify with Adam as its protagonist. From the beginning, you recognized him as one of your own."