The Sweat of Adam's Brow

by Stephen Caesar

In Gen. 3:19, God punished Adam for his transgression with the following words: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread." Thus, Adam would be forced to wrest grain from the earth through hard physical labor. Before the commission of the first sin, Adam and Eve were simply able to eat whatever fruits and vegetables they could harvest by hand (Gen. 1:29-30).

According to the February, 2000, issue of Scientific American, the research of agronomist and crop geneticist Jack R. Harlan, professor of plant genetics at the University of Illinois for 30 years, has greatly expanded our knowledge of the first domestication of plants. His discoveries have shown that the Genesis scenario of a transition from a simple, hand-to-mouth harvesting of wild fruits and vegetables to the difficulty of domesticated agriculture paints an accurate picture of early human civilization.

In effort to re-enact humanity's first steps toward cereal domestication, Prof. Harlan explored southeastern Turkey, where grain, in the form of wild einkorn, the forerunner of modern wheat, is thought to have been first domesticated. Using a reconstructed ancient sickle (the genuine versions of which are found at excavations all over the Near East), Harlan harvested more than 2 pounds of clean, ripe grain in a single hour. Astonishingly, Harland found that the measured protein content of his harvest was higher than that of modern-day premium wheat (Morrison 2000:105).

Harlan also found that his wild harvest could be boiled or steamed as porridge. He wrote: "A family groupworking slowly upslope as the season progressed, could easily harvest wild cereal over a three-week span, and without working very hard could gather more grain than a family could possibly consume in a year."

What this means from a biblical perspective is that Adam and Eve's hand-to-mouth gathering of wild foodstuffs before their ejection from Eden did not entail physical hardship, but was easy and bountiful. It was not until the Fall, and the subsequent curse on the ground (Gen. 3:17) that the deliberate harvesting of domesticated plant species became physically demanding.

Scientific American comments on this very subject: "Nearly all myths worldwide suggest that agriculture came as a civilizing blessing, a gift of superior knowledge denied to our untamed and brutish forebears. Only Genesis differs: In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread.' Modern students of remaining hunter-gatherers rather concur with Scripture. In the harsh Kalihari Desert [of southern Africa] the foragers worked only some 15 hours a week to win their bread. Of course, the !Kung [Bushmen] did not have actual bread nor indeed the need for it: Why should we plant,' one forager asked, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?'" (ibid.).

This provides observable evidence that the transition from hand-to-mouth gathering of wild-growing fruits, nuts, and vegetables to agricultural labor was not a step up from primitive hunger and misery to comfortable civilization, as universal ancient mythology suggests, but a transition from relative ease and plenty to backbreaking, arduous labor, as Genesis portrays.


Morrison, P. & P. 2000. "Time Travelers in the Field." Scientific American, vol. 282, no. 2.

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