Once human beings became conscious of the world, we did very little for 180,000 years. We were hunter-gatherers who worked for about three hours a week and used only about a tenth of the food resources that were available to us. What did we do with the rest of our time? Sang, perhaps. Made cave paintings. Lived harmoniously with the natural world that surrounded us. We fell in love, had children, and died. We mourned, and, if we were anything like contemporary hunter-gatherer societies such as the Pygmy of the Ituri Rainforest, we believed that our habitats mourned with us, and we would console the earth and the trees, the animals and insects, with feasts that honored our dead. Anthropologist Felicitas Goodman writes that
It was such a harmonious existence, such a successful adaptation, that it did not materially alter for many thousands of years. This view is not romanticizing matters. Those hunter-gatherer societies that have survived into the present still pursue the same lifestyle, and we are quite familiar with it from contemporary anthropological observation.-Felicitas Goodman, Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality
About ten thousand years ago, things changed. They changed very rapidly, all over the world, all within the same short span of time. There are many theories for why this happened, but Mark Nathan Cohen’s is one of the most convincing. Simply put, there got to be too many of us. 180,000 years of reproduction had gradually filled the earth with human beings, and the natural resources that had sustained us so well were being stretched thin. so we developed new technologies, and moved from being hunter-gatherers to, first, horticulturalists, and then agriculturalists.
There are many reasons to believe that this was a traumatic development. During those 180,000 years, the main thing we did, in addition to food gathering and procreating, was worship. These forebears of ours might have conceived of the divine in ways that are very different from our own, but when we began to articulate our own understanding of the divine, we did so in a way that was deeply nostalgic for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. We told a story about God walking in a garden. We walked in that garden, too, and were naked, and fed, and lived in harmony with the living things around us. Then we gained new knowledge, and as a result we were exiled from that garden, and had to plough the earth and sweat from our toil.
This is the creation story in the second and third chapters of Genesis, and it’s hard to read it without hearing a deep sense of loss. Maybe we had to leave our hunter-gatherer ways behind. Maybe we had to cultivate the earth and learn to dominate plants and domesticate animals. But we didn’t do so without acknowledging the pain that this divorce from the past caused us. And we understood that this change had brought about a rupture between us and the divine. We had lost our easy intimacy with God, who walked in the Garden. That intimacy could be reclaimed, but only sporadically, and we would have to intentionally pursue the sense of the divine that had once been the central aspect of our lives.
All of this suggests that covenant is the natural state of the universe. For 180,000 years we lived in covenant, and it was easy. It was a song we sang, an image we daubed on cave walls. It was the way in which we related to the world around us, and we expected the earth, the sky, the trees, and all other living things to covenant with us and give joy to our existence. Most of all, we communed constantly with the divine. We walked in the Garden with God. We can get back there by reasserting our covenant, not only with God, but with all of creation, including our harmonious selves.