A Patchwork Understanding

When God created the heavens and the Earth, the seas and moon, the creation stared back, blinking in its newness, at once a fresh, fantastic whole, “a vast array” (Gen. 2:1), while simultaneously divided into separate worlds, bound together by invisible rules that humans, quite alone in their intellectual capacity, rose and began attempts to piece apart.

Today, the scientific community continues the legacy of the ancients to stitch together the multifarious secrets nature both hides and lays bare.  It is the drive to make sense of the universe, and interrogate each new phenomena to ensure our theories of it match those already tested.  The scripture splendidly portrays mankind’s propensity for combining, for structuring the apparent broken world in symbolic and practical ways.  As the early characters of the Bible sought to understand their place and context, they left us stories we can relate to as seekers and students.

The first people, Adam and Eve and their offspring, on discovering their nakedness, went about as best they could to find appropriate clothing.  They sewed together fig leaves (Gen. 3:7), but it wasn’t enough.  God made them garments of skin (Gen. 3:21).  With the occupation of shepherding not only wooly, but all types of animal, teaching them the beginnings of the way to understanding their surroundings and predicament, the creator showed them the start of the kindness that is forgiveness.

The first family grew steadily in knowledge, learning how to toil, to make furrows in soil, sow seed, and reap,  tend flocks, gather the output, and tease out products.  Because their lot now included pain and death, their time was limited.  They were what we now call the prototype Puritans exercising what we now call the Protestant Work Ethic: industry, frugality, and contentment with what one has.  No easy lessons for novices.

God counseled Cain, unsuccessfully, to take these things to heart, to become a fully realized individual, to avoid making errors, much less the same mistakes twice.  The creator used the term ‘master’, and today some of us strive to achieve a higher education that results in such recognition of competency.  However, mastery doesn’t require a certificate.  Still, should we not approach our studies with the same goal of mastery?  Why aim for less?

Yet, we put together a patchwork understanding trying to assemble a meaningful picture, a view from space.  Astronauts call it the Overview Effect, which is nothing short of an out of body experience, the body being our planet, all its inhabitants, and all of their cares and woes.  Mastery is elusive, of our awareness, emotions, over judgment.  Lack of it dogs us, or possession of it serves us, until each of us draws our last breath.

However we wish to characterize the early lives of humankind, that is, from a creationist or evolutionary standpoint, we can certainly agree that technology plays a civilizing part.  Tool use once defined what it means to be human, before Jane Goodall and other researchers observed that other creatures besides human beings fit this definition as well.  The sophistication of human tools, however, bears emphasis.  Genesis reveals the formidable technology already in use by its fourth chapter, where textile fabrications, musical instrument manufacture, and metalworking hint at what early people knew of complex materials and processes, the tanning of hides, weaving on looms, or of reeds into mats.  Weaving fabric is one thing; quite another is making tents sturdy enough to withstand wind and rain, large enough to house families, portable enough for nomadic life.  Imagine design after failed design before a yurt stretched over a suitable frame came to Jabal’s mind and translated to his hand.  Envision the successful design repeated for others to build, of detailed plans and measurements, the communication of tools and methods, of setting up and breaking down, of folding for stowage, of ropes and poles cut to exactly the right lengths, diameters, and other unknown specifications.  This certainly did not occur overnight, or even perhaps in one generation.  It is the profession the apostle Paul took up.

Consider the supporting understanding needed to make harps and hammers.  It seems the ancients relied on trial and error, experimentation (the application of theory to see whether a predicted outcome happens), or on the persistence of every-day miracles.  That animal sinew could be stretched between a U-shaped lyre and strummed must have seemed so.  That a ram’s horn or conch shell could be blown into to create a much louder and more resonant sound than the human voice seems so as well.  To imitate those attributes by artificial means must have been a leap, and must have made their builders seem ingenious to some, like magicians to others.  Put the instruments together and a new kind of community results.  Like spoken stories, those entrusted with verbal histories found them easier to recall when put to poetry, and from poetry to lyrics set to music.  The lyricists of Psalms and the orchestral directors encapsulated history and prophesy in their timeless word rhythms.  Not incidentally, the procedures for making stringed instruments closely match those for crafting weapons, particularly the recurve bow.  The Turkish perfected archery’s distinct compound design of horn and wood laminated with animal gut glued together in a strong, compact, portable form for shooting while riding horseback.  Nimrod, the mighty hunter (Gen. 10:8) must have known many types of bow and other weaponry used in the hunt, like javelins often launched from throwing devices to increase range, slings, and hidden tripwire traps with the flexibility and high tensile strength to snare and hold big game.  Nor is it a far cry from the metal work needed to make ringing horns and symbols to that of forged blades and shields for attack and defense.  Iron in particular required a heat substantially greater than that for the smelting of copper and tin into bronze.  Lacking a measure of temperature, the expert fire-maker found that different fuels and furnace designs facilitated flames that, by color, indicated the heat needed to smelt iron ore.  An open blaze couldn’t reach this stage.  Clay brick vessels were built to withstand and retain high temperatures for the long period of ore transformation.  But thoughts of taut ropes, bright tent flaps and clothing, the glint of crafted wood and metal must dim.  Our ancestor discovered soon enough the edict in Gen. 4:17 and on that all of a person’s sweat to create led to naught.

In the end, not only do we turn to dust, but our works as well disintegrate.  The heights we build topple.  As the Scottish poet Robert Burns put it, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley (often go awry)”.  Much more than that.  Wool felt wears and frays.  Ropes of hemp left out in the rain attract mold and rot.  Unkempt bronze turns green as it oxidizes, while iron left out unused rusts and flakes.

So, people learned to repair their precious goods.  They learned to patch.  They patched tears, bound snapped poles, restrung instruments, banged out dents and sharpened dull or chipped edges.  They made glues for various cracks.  Perhaps this is how mankind stumbled across medicines.  The first person to suture a wound probably took a cue from mending fabric, which the skin resembles.  They took advantage of the body’s gift to heal on its own, given the chance for closure.  Physical ills, it is said, inform us of the normal physiology, whatever normal means.  Dysfunction highlights the body’s proper function, but very specifically, down to the system and organ.  Disease, like that inflicted on Pharaoh and his household (Gen 12:17) sets people to search for the cause and the cure.  In ancient times, the cause was not easy to attribute to some factor, internal or external, as is the case even now.  It isn’t that we lack the tools.  We live in a world pocked with troubles, pains, and suffering.  Then as now we visit doctors who diagnose, prescribe regimens and therapies, who mend us back to wholeness.  Just so, in times of less acute crises, we try to figure out what’s gone wrong with us, what path to follow, which needle to pick up.  Often, what narrow decision to make turns on a problem vexing us.  In early Bible times (identified scientifically by the Bronze Age and early Iron Age), problems seems to escalate to conflict and war (Gen. 14:1-3).

Adam learned that his and his descendants’ times on Earth were short, and that, seed time and harvest would never end as long as the Earth did last.  Which is to say, it won’t.  With this in mind, the search for understanding takes on urgency.  Today, the generally long average human lifespan gives each of us an opportunity to come to wisdom, to mastery.  Some say the child who will live to 150 years will be born among us today.  Given that the first 20 are spent attaining maturity and the last in attempts to prolong it, we have many hours to stumble and perfect our values, attitudes, and behaviors.  We have been given the whole truth, whether we view it from scripture or from nature is indifferent.  Search to do better, to improve: that’s the job we’ve got.  Instead of conflict and harm, instead of resisting, we should, like our forbears, reach for our tools and combine what we can toward a better understanding of our lot on this planet.

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