David Sedley
David Sedley

The plowman (Parshat Noah)

Winslow Homer - The Plowman, 1878. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Winslow Homer - The Plowman, 1878. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

On the evening of November 9th, 1965, at 16 minutes and 11 seconds past five, a protective relay at the Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Complex in Niagara Falls detected a power increase on one of the lines, cascading the electricity onto another line. That line now had too much power, so another relay tripped, and another on the next line, until within seven seconds, the cascading overload began to take out power stations all over Northeastern USA, from Boston to New York.

Over 30 million people were suddenly left without power. More than 800,000 people were trapped underground in the subway; the lights went out in hospitals midway through operations; airplanes about to land at JFK suddenly lost their guidance and headed out over Manhattan trying to find the runway. Everything was completely chaotic.

Fortunately, power was restored again within a few hours. By 7:00 the next morning, New York City was reconnected to the electricity supply.

Similar blackouts hit New York in 1977 and again in 2003. The 1977 outage saw a huge crime spree including citywide looting and arson.

Fortunately, in each case, power was restored relatively quickly and people continued to go about their regular business as if it had never happened.

But what if the power really went out for good? What would happen to our world if there was no electricity? There would be no lights, no internet, no phones, no hospitals and no banking. Most of our money is stored electronically, so unless the power was restored, we would be virtually bankrupt. Fairly soon the petrol would stop flowing, so we would have no transport. That means no food on our supermarket shelves. How long could our society survive?

Science historian James Burke asked this question in the first episode of his 1978 television documentary “Connections.” He went through, step by step, how society as we know it (or at least the society of the 1970s) would fall apart.

His conclusion was that the few who survived would have to start the whole process again, and to do that they would need a plow.

The only way you’re going to survive is if you find the one thing you need to keep on providing the food you’re going to have. And you don’t need the mechanized version of that thing. You need the kind people haven’t used in a hundred years. Ah, you need that kind of plow. It’s taken a series of miracles just to get you this far and here you are with the biggest miracle of all a plow and animals to pull it so maybe after a few days of fumbling around with the harnesses and the bits and pieces you managed to yoke up the oxen and plow the land and then and only then can you say that you have successfully escaped the wreckage of technological civilization and lived off the land.

Without the plow, we would not have the technological civilization of today.

Before the invention of the plow, people were nomadic hunter-gatherers. They would have to move from place to place, following the migration of the animals they hunted and foraging for wild plants to eat. Families would of necessity be smaller – it would have been impossible to care for more than one small child at a time if the group had to be ready to trek long distances at short notice. They would have to wait until a child could walk before having another. And people would have lived in small clans of no more than a few dozen – no more than could be provided for with the animals and plants.

Perhaps they could plant some seeds and return to that place six months later to see if anything had grown. But they would have been unable to cultivate fields or to stick around to care for plants as they grew. And if they succeeded in growing a crop, they would not have been able to reuse the land later because the nutrients at the soil’s surface would have been already used up. They would have had few domesticated animals, because it was much more difficult to move with flocks of sheep or herds of cows.

They were exposed to the elements, and at constant risk of being attacked by animals or even by different clans looking to steal their food or kidnap the women.

The plow changed everything.

With a plow, a person can turn over the top layer of soil to bring the nutrients below to the surface. That same piece of land can be worked year after year. All one needed was a handful of seeds to plant, and six months later, not only would there be more food than the hunter-gatherer ever had at one time, but there would also be more seeds to plant the next year. No more wandering from place to place following the animals and food. The food would be right where you put it; they could sit and wait for it to grow.

Actually, one needed more than just seeds. Perhaps the first plows were pulled by people, but someone quickly realized that an animal could pull a plow further and for longer. So, they gradually domesticated cattle, donkeys or horses to pull the heavy machines, and they selected better strains of crops to turn simple grasses into barley, wheat and rice which could feed entire cities.

A man plowing. (CC BY, Park Jong-jin/ Wikimedia Commons)

In fact, even today, over 90 percent of the world depends on those few plants domesticated by our ancestors thousands of years ago. And the animals we rely on today, — horses, donkeys, sheep, cows, goats, pigs and chickens — are the same that the former hunter-gatherers used all those years ago. (Camels were domesticated slightly later than the others, but since then there have been no new domestic species).

And now they had a field of grain and animals, the people could build homes for themselves and for their animals. Instead of living in caves or out in the open, they could put up walls and roofs to protect themselves from the elements. Families could grow larger, because children could be put down in cots or left to play in the house. Pretty soon, instead of just a few dozen people living together, they could have a whole city.

With the plow, they could easily produce many times as much food as they needed. So, for every person working the land with his animals, four or five people could focus on other tasks – for example, bakers could turn the grain into delicious bread, blacksmiths could devise stronger and better plows. But also, people could trade their grain for other things, which meant some people could be in charge of business while others tracked exchanges with writing; and perhaps there was even time for poets and musicians to devote to their muse, and inventors to come up with newer and better ways of working.

Tractor with a two-furrow plough. (CC BY-SA, Amanda Slater/ Wikimedia Commons)

Eventually, because of the plow, there would be enough spare time for others to develop new kinds of technology, leading to one invention after another, until a few thousand years later, we can sit at our computers (or walk with our phones) and surf the internet.

But there was a downside to the plow’s civilization-changing technology.

A field needed to be protected. So, some of the people would eventually have to become soldiers, to protect the fields and the cities that sprung up around them. And soldiers needed an army structure with generals, and eventually, kings to lead them.

An individual would not have had the resources to own enough animals or land to maximize the yield. So, people would pool resources, or one person would end up owning all the land and animals in what eventually became the feudal system.

An army and king would require taxes to fund them. And with this money, the king had resources to clear more fields and buy more animals and expand his territory and his ownership of the people under him. Which ultimately led to the creation, not only of strong cities, but of entire countries and even empires. And the same people who worked the ground with their plow now watched as the king siphoned off his share of their work to fund his country and his palace. When people lived at almost subsistence levels, there was nothing spare for anyone else to take. With the plow came the beginnings of social inequality, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

Cities became the ideal breeding ground for disease. Small clans living off the land would have nobody to spread germs to, but once there were hundreds or thousands of people living side by side, cholera, typhus and a host of other microbes could run rampant. The bacteria and viruses would be carried by the soldiers from one city to another and quickly infect almost everyone.

It was not only the people who were at risk of disease. Once the farmers became dependent on one or two grains to provide their food, a single year where the crops failed, because of the weather or blight or because another army came and stole the food, would spell death and disaster for all.

Furthermore, Homo sapiens was not designed to eat only a few foods. Yuval Harari (in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind) points out that the diet of the hunter-gatherer was far more varied and healthier than the food the farmers ate.

He writes that one could argue that it was not humans who domesticated wheat, but wheat that domesticated humans. The farmer would spend his whole life dedicated to ensuring the grain was protected, free from disease and that any intruder plants were removed. The same is true for the livestock. The dairy farmer had to go several times a day to milk the cows. The shepherd would spend all day (and sometimes all night) protecting his flocks. Chickens had people to care for them and worry about them every day of the year.

The relationship between humans and animals changed from the respect given to an equal creature living off the land, to protector of species who soon evolved to be unable to care for themselves.

In terms of ensuring genetic continuity, which species is more successful? The Helmeted Hornbill that flies free in Thailand but is on the critically endangered list, or the almost 26 billion chickens in the world?

Harari also states that hunter-gatherers would only need a few hours a day to find or hunt the food they needed. The farmer would need to perform back-breaking work from dawn until dusk to get the earth to yield its bounty. And the human bones, muscles and joints which were designed to forage for berries and chase after prey began to ache and fall apart after hours and days pushing a plow and planting a field. All our modern aches and pains can be traced back to the switch from the roaming, nomadic lifestyle to the sedentary city life the plow made possible.

Tim Harford (in Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy) writes:

As societies switched from foraging to agriculture… the average height of both men and women shrank by about six inches (15 cm), and there’s ample evidence of parasites, disease and childhood malnutrition.

He also points out that plowing involved heavy labor, so it became men’s work. But the grains they grew needed intensive work to turn them into food, so the grinding, kneading and baking became women’s work. And women spent more time pregnant or caring for children. Although foragers would have had different roles for men and women, the differences between genders would have been smaller, and neither sex was more powerful than the other. Now, men produced the food and guarded the fields, so they gained power and authority over their wives.

Once a man owns a field, he has something to bequeath to his children. So, the ancient plowman would have wanted to ensure that his children were really his own. Harford suggests that the plow may have led to the sexual politics of today. Men may have introduced strict rules to ensure their wives were actually grinding grain and staying at home while the men were out in the fields.

So why did they stick with this new system, if most people were becoming poorer and working harder and dying of diseases? Because once the families and communities had grown to a certain size, they were too numerous to return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. There was no way of turning back the clock.

Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs and Steel called the switch to farming “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”

James Burke told us how to restart civilization. But he didn’t ask us whether it would be a wise thing to do.

We do not know the name of the person who invented the plow, but this week’s Torah portion, Noah, describes the man who had to restart civilization. According to Rashi, he was also the inventor of the plow.

The verse states (Bereishit 5:29), “He called his name Noah saying, ‘This will give us rest from our work and from the struggle of our hands from the ground, which God cursed.’”

Rashi explains:

Until Noah they did not have the plow and he invented it for them. Until then, when planting wheat, the ground would produce thorns and thistles, from the curse of Adam. In the time of Noah this stopped.

We see that soon after Noah invented the plow, the people were able to cultivate wheat. The wild plants they had gathered were no longer their main source of food. And fairly soon, there was a population explosion, and the world was filled with social and sexual inequality.

Genesis 6:1-2 states:

And when people began to multiply over the face of the earth and daughters were born to them. The sons of the nobles saw the daughters of the men for they were good, and they took for themselves wives from any that they chose.

As a result of the evil deeds of mankind, God decided to destroy the earth. Noah and his family were to be the only survivors. But the new world would be a world after the Agricultural Revolution. No longer would humans and animals roam the earth for food. Rather, humans would take a few of the animals and domesticate them, and in so doing spend their lives taking care of those animals.

Aside from the plain meaning of the flood and the ark, perhaps we can understand Noah bringing all the animals into his boat and caring for them constantly as a metaphor for this new, post-plow life. Noah was entrusted with the care of the animals, which would serve him once he left the ark. But caring for them was a full-time task. Rashi writes (Genesis 7:23):

Noah was groaning and spitting blood from the toil of the animals and the creatures.

After Noah and his family left the ark (Genesis 9:1-3):

God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear and awe of you shall be upon all the animals of the alnd and all the birds of the heavens and everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the see, I have given them into your hands. Everything living thing that crawls shall be food for you, like the plants I have given them all to you.’

Noah is master of the plants and the animals. He can now work the land, and the first thing he does when leaving the ark is to plant a vineyard. “Noah, the man of the earth, began and planted a vineyard,” (Genesis 9:20).

Now that Noah owned the land, acquired through the use of his plow, he had an inheritance that could be passed onto his children. The Torah portion contains the first blessing given by a father to his children.

And fairly soon, nations appeared, along with the inheritance and ownership of land, each with their own territory. “These are the families of the sons of Noah according to their generations in their nations, and from these the nations of the earth were separated after the flood,” (Genesis 10:32).

Noah’s very name means “rest.” Due to him and the plow, people were able to rest from roaming and foraging for food; but at the same time, they became enslaved to the animals, the plants and the land that allowed them to rest.

Like most technology, the plow was both good and bad.

Noah, the man of the earth, inventor of the plow, created a world of nations and cities, armies and wars. Because of the plow we now have the technology of the modern world. But because of the nations and inequality the plow created, we live in a world where a large percentage of people live subjugated to poverty while others live in luxury and comfort.

Unlike Noah, we are not faced with the opportunity to begin civilization again. We live in a world shaped by the plow. So let us give thanks to the original inventor of the plow who gave us our modern world. And work to right the wrongs that the Agricultural Age bequeathed us.


Beginning on October 12th, I will give a seven online classes at WebYeshiva about rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud (and one class on Chanukah). You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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