“The Development of Civilization as Recorded in Genesis”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The Torah is not intended to serve as a history lesson or as a chronicle of the development of ancient culture and civilization. Rather, the Torah is meant to impact on the spiritual growth of humankind and to promote religious and ethical development, the foremost elements being acknowledgment of G-d and the commitment to live in a G-dly manner. Therefore, it is rather intriguing, that in an indirect manner, the Torah nevertheless serves as a critically important source of information regarding the historical and cultural progress of humankind.

In an essay that appears in his popular book, “Questions and Themes in the Jewish Bible,” Professor Menashe Duvshani deftly points out many early societal developments that are found in the Book of Genesis.

Already in the story of the creation of Adam and Eve we encounter the concept of “family” and the idea of the first human organization. We also learn of language and its impact on the intellectual development of humankind. Mention is made of the introduction of clothing, first in the form of fig leaves (Genesis 3:7), then of leather (Genesis 3:20). We find Cain and Abel respectively tilling land and shepherding flocks, confirming that early humans learned to bring forth produce from the ground and developed the necessary skills to domesticate wild animals for their needs. We also learn of the development of belief in the existence of G-d, and the beginning of religious worship in the form of animal sacrifice.

The family of Cain in particular contributes greatly to civilization’s progresses. Cain, (or Enoch his son) builds a city (Genesis 4:17), which serves as the first accommodation for social living. The children of Lemach–Jabal, Jubal and Tubal-Cain, all play extraordinarily important roles in civilization’s development. Jabal is the father of all those who dwell in tents and breed cattle (Genesis 4:20), and becomes the first major herder, greatly surpassing the accomplishments of Abel. Jubal, the father of all those who handle the harp and the flute (Genesis 4:21), is the first instrumentalist and composer. Tubal-Cain, the father of all those who sharpened cutting implements of copper and iron, is in effect, the first metal craftsman (Genesis 4:22).

The story of Noah’s ark confirms the significant progress made in building crafts. So talented a builder was Noah, that, although the ark was made of wood and its measurements extraordinarily large, its design consisted of three floors, a window, an opening, and a roof. The story of the flood includes the first reckoning of time in periods of days, months and years. The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) is the first structure of great height, built of bricks and mortar. We also learn of the development of multiple languages.

After the flood, Noah plants grapes and drinks wine, confirming the existence of vineyards and the skills needed for the manufacture of wine.

While the initial chapters of the book of Genesis reveal much about early human achievements with respect to agriculture, animal-herding, clothing, development of language, domestication of animals, building of homes and cities, copper and iron work and even music, it is only after Genesis 12, that we learn about more highly developed civilizations.

Abraham comes from Ur Kasdim, a significant cultural center in southern Mesopotamia. Abraham travels to Egypt where a sophisticated state already exists that features a king, a royal palace, royal officers and servants. When Abraham returns to the land of Canaan with many flocks and much silver and gold (Genesis 13:2), trade is no longer conducted exclusively through barter. Currency now exists in the form of gold and silver. In fact, the Torah informs its readers that Abraham buys a burial place for his wife, Sarah, in Machpelah from Efron the Hittite for four hundred silver shekels in “negotiable currency” (Genesis 23:16).

From the story of the Akeidah, the binding of Issac, we learn that the skill to pass fire from one place to another had already been mastered.

The most advanced social developments found in the bible however are encountered in the story of Joseph in Egypt. Egypt is a fully developed and organized country. Here a king rules with absolute power. The Pharaoh has officers, priests, servants, administrators, and high officials with very distinct functions, such as the chief baker and chief butler. In Egypt there is already a prison, there are royal privileges, a throne, a signet, clothes of linen, necklaces of gold, as well as beautiful and exotic clothing. Egypt is home to chariots, horses, medicine, doctors, embalmists, storage houses for wheat and for food. There is a king’s court and palace, and a system of government in the form of an absolute monarchy.

Clearly, the book of Genesis serves as a veritable treasure-trove of information regarding cultural and technological developments, as well as a record of the material endowments of the ancients. But nowhere in the Torah do we find a recorded evaluation of these technical achievements unless they are somehow related to spiritual and/or cultural achievements. Religion and ethics, are the essence of the Torah. The Torah is clearly a record of the theological developments and accomplishments of humankind, not a chronicle of human history or sociology.

May you be blessed.