I am notorious for setting conversational traps to end arguments with those who disagree with me. Here’s a classic: “If you are doing what things as you describe them, then things will certainly work out fine.” The person I am talking with will think that I am agreeing with them and the argument will come to a stop, because surely my interlocutor is doing everything as described. Why else would s/he describe things that way? In truth, we are still completely at odds. I believe that this person is NOT doing things in the described fashion, and the proof is there in the fact that things have not been working out fine. My soon-to-be-wife Amy has always had a keen ability to see through these traps I lay, and she hates when I try. That’s one of the many reasons I’m marrying her – she’s my equal (or my better, really) at the war of words, the Gilgamesh to my Enkidu.
I think it is a common human error to relate always with that which is good in a story, be it the protagonist, a good message, or anything else. In the gospels, there are several conversational traps meant to root out hypocrisy not only within the narratives but within the hearts of those reading the narratives. For example, most people reading of Jesus’s crucifixion relate with Jesus, the persecuted, when their own actions are often much more similar to those of Pontius Pilate, the dutiful Roman officers, Judas Iscariot, or even the many Jews who quickly turned on the “King of the Jews.” There are many who enjoy when Jesus takes the Socrates route and makes the Pharisees look like legalistic fools who don’t understand that “the law” was conceived in love and meant to serve humankind, only to make the same mistakes in our own interpretation. We relate with Jesus in these situations because we couldn’t imagine that we might be so incorrect, unaware, and capable of propagating violence, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Then we come to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4.
Cain and Abel are a pair of brothers, the children of Adam and Eve, and at this point in the scriptural narrative, the only children who have ever lived. Cain farms crops from the earth and Abel tends to a flock of sheep. The two brothers both bring an offering of the best fruits of their labor to God. God holds Abel’s offering in high regard, but the best that Cain has to offer is simply not good enough for God. Jealous, Cain kills his brother Abel, but is unable to hide his crime because both the blood of Abel and the earth itself, two natural mechanisms of justice in Genesis, cry out against Cain. As a result, God punishes God by cursing him to walk the earth forever and ever with no relief, not even in death, for the one who kills Cain will be “avenged sevenfold.”
If we are to place ourselves anywhere in this story, we place ourselves naturally in Abel’s place. We can imagine doing our very best, and we imagine that we will be the ones who are rewarded. When there seems to be no rhyme or reason for the choice of Abel’s gift over Cain’s we are all-too-happy to provide a justification of God breaking the number one of parenting – NEVER CHOOSE A FAVORITE!. Abel must be more faithful than Cain. He must have given his best and Cain must have given his leftovers. God must have known that Cain had murder in his heart from the beginning. We add to this story because we want to defend the victim, this Abel fellow, who we feel so akin to. But, for the most part, none of us share anything in common with Abel. We are, honestly and truly, meant to relate with Cain.
Even if you are more faithful than the average bear, it should be clear that Cain is the son who is more obedient to both his God and his parents. He is the one who tills the earth. As part of the lease agreement for inhabiting the garden of Eden, Adam, for the sake of all humans and all the animals he held dominion over, promised to eat the fruits and vegetables of the garden, never tearing the flesh of an animal or destroying a plant in such a way that it can no longer be fruitful itself. Even when Adam eats of the one fruit in the garden that is not given freely to him, his curse is to labor long and hard, sweating while tilling the earth for sustenance. Cain obeys these, the only rules that appear to exist at this point in the narrative, a covenant and a punishment that both hold sway before even the ordinance against murder is put into place. Abel, by contrast, must look like some sort of aberrant Nazi mad scientist or torturer. He is the first carnivore in a world where without an established tradition of eating flesh. By any measure, Abel’s gift should be the one that is rejected, but the events of Genesis 4 stand in direct opposition to the nonviolent message of Genesis 1-3, depicting a capricious God with an inscrutable mind.
It is a hard change of perspective to think that readers of Genesis 4 are supposed to see themselves in the actions of Cain. I wonder if it is easier when we think of where we are in life when we first hear this story. Think back to that imaginary set of parents I keep referencing who are telling these origin stories while walking through the desert after having escaped slavery in Egypt. Do these people who have never known a home feel more like the first humans living in a paradise given by God? Or do they relate more to the rejected Cain, forever a stranger, dispossessed of land and title, forever a wanderer. (Cain is banished to live among the people in the land of Nod, but Nod means “wandering,” so this land seems to be no land at all, the lack of land, in fact.) The second audience I imagine for this story is a group of Jews who have gathered together after the fall of Jerusalem. They do not live among like-minded individuals, but have been married off to people of different nationalities, who speak different languages and worship different gods in their homes. Again, I wonder if they believe themselves akin to the purebred first children of God, delighting in creation in eternal providence, or if they feel scattered about in dangerous territory, sharing the lot of the first murderer.
These are my own imaginary perspectives from Jews thousands of years ago in what is now called the Middle East, but most of this blog’s readership is composed of Christians in the US. What could Christians possibly have in common with Cain? Well, most Christians believe that humans were burn under the curse of original sin. Just like with Cain, the inscrutable mind of God has decided to punish us for some unknown reason because of something done by our most distant human ancestors. We may follow the covenant, the law, or the gospel to the word, but we are still rejected. Most Christians also believe that God sent Jesus to absolve the mark of this first sin, to bridge the gap between God and the people of God. But our post-salvation experience of existence does not feel like a bridge. We are not all singing happy songs in the garden of Eden together. We are eternally East of Eden. When God gives the lesson of this story – “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” [Gen 4:6-7 NRSV] – it is meant to be received by Cain’s ears, but also by our own eyes.
I remember I attended a church service once that ended with the minister challenging the audience to “abandon yourself and take up your cross.” I was immediately hit by the gravity of this statement. Who could ever be so strong as to leave all remnants of ego behind? Certainly not me. I had tried and failed to do exactly that many times in my life. It seemed impossible that I could defeat my own ego, and I was terrified to my core of the sacrifices it would take to do so. To the same statement, many others were smiling, self-satisfied, saying “Amen,” and “yes,” as if they’d had time between hot yoga and dinner at Louis Benton Steakhouse to drop off their ego at the pool and pick up a fashionable cross at Macy’s. I had to remind myself that I was nowhere nearer this lofty goal than any of these people, but I was irritated by the presumption that they were already at the finish line after doing nothing more than coming to church that very morning.
The point of seeing ourselves as Cain is that if we keep seeing ourselves as the persecuted and not the persecutors, the faithful as opposed to the screw-ups, as God’s only son rather than the plethora of people Jesus encountered who could not, for the life of them, understand his teachings, if we keep making these mistakes we are bound to do more harm than good in this world. You can keep posting pictures on Facebook of all of the Christians killed in the world, but you might be a better human being if you recognize that Christianity is also an unimaginably formidable power in the world responsible for the deaths of many non-Christians. Perhaps during thousands of years of wandering Cain has taken responsibility for his actions and committed himself to making the world a better place, or perhaps all he’s done is concoct an elaborate story in his head about how he is the victim. But who are we to judge when most of us claim to do the former while engaging in the latter?