GENESIS: Cain and Abel, But Mostly Cain by John R. Coats

Cain and Abel, but Mostly Cain by John R. Coats

From Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis

The First Birth is a Co-Creation, So Is The First Murder – Then Again, Maybe Not

Have you ever offered an idea that you thought worthy of consideration, only to have it dismissed out of hand?  Or given a gift that was snubbed?  Or have your accomplishments been ignored when the kudos were given out?  A yes to any of these opens a portal between Cain’s story and your own, even if you didn’t kill anybody.

The account of Cain and his brother, Abel, is J’s recasting of a widespread culture-founding story of rivalry between herdsmen and farmers into a pattern that will dominate Genesis – the displacement of the firstborn by the younger son.  But in this, the first occurrence of the pattern, the focus is on the older son, whose story begins with his conception, which, in the JPS translation, reads, “Now the man knew [had intercourse with] his wife, Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gained a male child with the help of the Lord.’”  However, some read “man,” not “man child.”  As in the account of the creation of Eve, lost in the translation from Hebrew to English is the mischief J stirs up simply by way of the particular word he uses to describe exactly what Eve and Yahweh had created.  James Kugel writes, “The [Hebrew] word ‘man,’ does not simply mean ‘male person,’ [or] male child’ – there are other words for that.  Man means man, a grown-up male.”  It’s no surprise, then, that the ancient interpreters asked themselves, Why that word?  Opinions were varied, some arguing that, due to Yahweh’s direct intervention, Cain must have been born with special abilities, while others, in view of the wicked turn that his life was to take thought Cain might have been evil from birth, in fact, an offspring of the devil or some wicked angel.  Still others, these to be joined by some of the early Christians, speculated that Adam did not know his wife in the biblical sense, he knew something about her.  Tertullian, the same second-century Christian apologist who coined the term “original sin,” wrote, “Having been made pregnant by the seed of the devil she brought forth a son.”  In other words, Eve – Inferior-Guilty Eve – had done the horizontal boogie with Satan, which is why Cain was weird at birth, and the reason he was such a dastardly fellow.  What the story itself tells us is that Cain (Qayin, meaning “smith,” as in blacksmith) is the first human in the Genesis narrative to be born.  He is the first child, the first human with a belly button, the first big brother.  And he will be the first murderer.

Here’s how the story develops: Eve gives birth to another son, Abel (Hevel, meaning “impermanent,” “fleeting,” “vaporous”), and the next thing we know of them is that “Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil.”  Then, for reasons not given, “In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock.”  Right away Yahweh acknowledges Abel’s offering, but ignores Cain’s.  Why?  The text doesn’t say, so the interpreters once again went spelunking.

One theory was that Yahweh had a preference for the shepherd’s offering over the farmer’s that may really have reflected something of the differences involved in the two professions.  Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, and primarily a Platonist, in Questions and Answers in Genesis wrote, “One of them labors and takes care of living beings which is preparatory to rulership and kingship.  But the other occupies himself with earthly and inanimate things.”  Likewise, Ambrose, fourth-century bishop of Milan, wrote in Cain and Abel that “plowing the earth is inferior to pasturing sheep.”  This statement reflects the high regard for shepherds and the pastoral life manifest, for example, in the early life of national heroes such as Joseph, Moses, and David.  The simplest answer, then, to why Abel’s offering was preferred is that J’s audience held shepherds in greater esteem than farmers.  Indeed, Ambrose and his Christian contemporaries might have pointed out that it was a band of shepherds, not farmers, to whom the angel had announced the birth of the Christ child (Luke 2:8) and that Jesus had said of himself that “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11), not the good farmer.

Also, the interpreters noticed that Abel’s offering was of the choicest of the newborn lambs while the text offered no such superlative for the fruit offered by Cain.  Was this a subtle hint that Cain’s offering had not been the best from his harvest?  One interpreter, Ephraim, in his Commentary on Genesis, wrote, “Abel chose and brought for sacrifice from the firstborn and the fattest, but Cain brought [merely] the fruits he found at the time.”  Another speculated that Cain’s offering had been from the leftovers.  Still another wrote that the fruit of the ground implied ordinary fruit rather than the first fruits reserved for God.  Philo, in The Sacrifices of Cain and Abel, suggested an additional problem with Cain’s offering: “There are here two indictments of this self-lover [Cain].  One is that he made an offering to God ‘after some days’ and not right away; the other that it was ‘of the fruit’” – though he seems to have missed the irony in the first part of his indictment, that, since the brothers made their offerings at the same time, by condemning Cain for tardiness he condemned Abel as well.  A few interpreters even assumed a past, not recorded in Genesis, in which Cain had proved himself unworthy, and in which Abel had proved himself to be worthy.  The problem with that approach, Kugel tells us, is that “in Genesis, Abel is neither good nor bad – in fact, we really know nothing about him.  He seems to be little more than a prop, the victim of his brother’s rage.  As for Cain, if he ends up being bad, he certainly did not start out that way; it was only the incident of the sacrifices that drove him to murder.”  Because of explanations such as these, the whole character of the story was altered by ancient interpreters who subtly turned the story into an elemental conflict between good and bad.

Swimming in Abel’s Pond

When I was growing up, my family was Southern Baptist, so as much through osmosis as anyone telling me, I learned early on that “Bible” meant the King James Bible (1611) and that every jot and tittle of “The Word” (an informal moniker) and of Baptist doctrine was to be regarded as “Truth” straight from God’s lips to our right-believing ears.  Beyond that, there was little else worth knowing, not really – certainly nothing else to know about the Bible.  Our Sunday school teachers had little idea that the Bible had been translated from ancient Hebrew and Greek texts, or that the doctrine they taught followed the lead of Israelite interpreters.  The angle they pushed in class, just as if it had been God’s intention, was that Abel was the good boy whose behavior we should want to emulate.

But we didn’t like him.  Right away we shoved Abel into a paradigm we understood, imagining him to be like those goody-goody kids who never chewed gum in school, threw spitballs, passed notes, or cussed, the sort who would rat us out for no more than a nod and a smile from a teacher, and who actually liked Sunday school and even vacation Bible school, that grinding banality that wasted the first two weeks of every summer vacation.  His would be the name at the top of the chart in the Sunday school classroom and from it would flow a constellation of golden stars earned through recitations of Bible verses and from memorizing the names of the books of the Bible, Genesis through Revelation.  Soon or later one of the tough kids would beat him up, even if, like the Abel of the story, he’d not actually done anything one could point to.

Cain, our teachers said, was the bad boy, like those “licentious juvenile delinquents” who combed their long hair into ducktails, smoked cigarettes, drank whiskey, carried switchblade knives, and got themselves expelled from school.  But even we were beginning to notice the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, and the new sort of bad boy showing up in films like Rebel Without a Cause.  Now, more than a half century later, it’s clear that these were signals of a culture in transition, whose shadow was beginning to boil up through the cracks, superheated by years of that strangest of couplings, the postwar, shotgun marriage of naïve innocence with blacklist suppression.  The Earth may have trembled with wars and rumors of war, with the threat of nuclear annihilation, but Americans seemed sure in those days that if anyone was allowed to say the f- or s- word on television or in the movies, the world as we knew it would end.  Such things were, indeed, a symptom of the end of their world, but to most of us kids the rock ‘n’ rollers and the new character types in the movies and even on television were a lot more interesting than the Mouseketeers and the Beav.

Taken as metaphor, the Cain and Abel we’d received through the interpreters were flip sides of the same coin, expressions of duality – Abel, the good boy who stands in and for the light, and Cain, his shadow, the bad boy who stands in and for the darkness – each representing part of ourselves.  Abel’s long rule was waning.  Now it was Cain’s turn.

Ironically, Cain’s Rule Does Bring a Touch of Clarity

When the culture at large began its rightward shift in the 1970s, the subcurrents already deconstructing the old authority structures hardly missed a beat.  Beneath the conservative political and religious surfaces of the eighties, nineties, and the early years of the new century, the old, steady, patriarchal imagery of Father Knows Best was completely upended within the world of pop culture.  In the minidramas of television advertising, the image of the man of entitlement who’d said, “My wife – I think I’ll keep her,” gave way to the hapless, emasculated dope.  Likewise, the father who’d known best in television sitcoms gave way to the boy-men of Seinfeld and Friends, to Everybody Loves Raymond, where, reminiscent of Prometheus, whose liver was torn out each day only to grow back each night, the eponymous Raymond would lose his testicles, these torn out not by an eagle but by the women in his life.  In TV dramas such as Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, the mother who’d been stuck at home, who did housework with a smile, and wearing her pearls, is modernized to become the harried modern working woman, living in a world of professionally competent but otherwise clueless men.  The mother’s role is to be understanding and tolerant of her demanding children, for whom she does not have enough time and who regard both her and their father with little, if any, respect (though, on occasion, one of these children will show uncommon maturity and wisdom).  In other words, the adults have lost their grip: the kids, with their unformed, undisciplined energies, needs, and wants, rule the house.

It is empowering and, to a point, necessary for a child to see the godlike adults in his life fold like tacos beneath the weight of defiance.  Later we’ll see that Cain, having taken a defiant attitude, will leave Yahweh helpless, unable to reach him – even the Creator of the Universe could not force the lad to change his attitude.  It’s a manipulation used by children to feel powerful in the world, but without necessarily bearing responsibility for the result.  However, J’s text seems to hint that self-inflation and power without responsibility can, in time, become a narcotic.  We can see this in the “extended adolescence” that began in the postwar years, the postponing of maturity in order to remain indefinitely in a self-centered, inflated stage of development.

Gerhard von Rad, in his commentary on Genesis, would seem to suggest that J was well aware that even those who finally escape adolescence return to its self-importance and narcissism.  “The narrative,” he writes, “sees man’s fall occurring again and again in this area, in what we call Titanism, man’s hubris.”  As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, Titanism is “revolt against the order of the universe.”  Hubris, of course, is false pride, arrogance, the human conceit that in Greek tragedy was the bringer of Nemesis, the goddess who served as the agent of one’s downfall.  In Cain’s story, Yahweh played the role of agent, but it was Cain’s own actions that set his downfall in motion.

So there it is – hubris, or if you like, Titanism, a primal, first sin that, according to J, comes from within our humanity.  We can’t entirely escape this consequence of being human though we can, for the most part, teach it how to grow up.

Back in junior high, however, I was a Titan.  I may even have saved the universe.

With the Universe as My Cause, I Lead a Quiet, Very Small Insurrection

(Pasadena, Texas, late 1950s)

We had a Saturday night ritual in those years.  Following a light supper, usually sandwiches and a bowl of canned soup, we’d gather in the living room around our television, one of those cabinet-style sets with its twelve-inch black-and-white screen.  First was The Lawrence Welk Show from seven-thirty to eight-thirty.  No one but our mother enjoyed it, but we’d sit with her because she wanted company and because she’d bribe us with large bowls of Neapolitan mellorine (an inexpensive low-fat ice cream) and chocolate sauce.

From the first, I thought the show boring, but palatable.  In time, though, I felt a growing dislike that was, in part, the necessary rebellion against parental tastes.  But the larger part was what I’d begun to think of as the show’s air of Sunday school, an hour each Saturday night of trying to breathe in the same thin, desiccating atmospheres of goodness and virtue that I’d be facing the next morning.  It gave me the creeps.  In spite of good, clean American values on parade, the life portrayed was juiceless, uninteresting.  There was something insidious there, I was sure of it.  I couldn’t identify exactly what I was afraid of, but I trusted by gut feeling that I was being drowned in cloying virtue.  So I began my secret resistance.

Each week, during one of the Welk show’s commercial breaks, I’d dash off to my room, close the door, and, in a sort of hiss-shout, say every dirty word I could think of.  I regarded the utterance as a verbal force field, a dam against the flood of bland goodness pouring through the television screen.  I thought of these weekly harangues not only as acts of resistance, but as deliberate offerings – as sacrifice – needed to restore balance to the universe.  That may explain why Have Gun, Will Travel, the Arthurian-like western that followed the Welk show, was my favorite half hour of the week.  Paladin, the protagonist, was a mythic hero whose virtue was anchored in the harmonious balance of light and darkness.  Knight and gunfighter, gentleman and thug, scholar and killer, he was dangerous but never cruel, compassionate but never bland, moral but not moralistic.  On a line between Cain-the-brother-killer and Abel-the-prig, his was a textured, flawed, gloriously human presence that, after the previous hour, seemed downright transcendent.

The Playwright Takes a Shot

All we know of the story of Cain and Abel is how it begins and how it ends.  Absent is anything that might provide insight into either of them, leaving present-day interpreters, like those of the postexilic period, to imagine how their story could have come to such an end.  In his play The Creation of the World and Other Business, Arthur Miller portrays Abel as a thoroughly nonoffensive lad who does not lord his better place over his brother, and who, ironically, is killed at the very moment he is attempting to include his brother in a family event.  Miller’s Cain lives along the edges of his family, put there through the unconscious, dissonant subtleties of family dynamics that make it seem that he has excluded himself.  When, through Cain’s narrowing field of vision, God appears also to have put him at a distance, he seems to be left with no other avenue than to regard himself as unwanted, an exile.  The irony, of course, is that fueled by that belief he behaves in a manner that will in time bring about that very consequence.

It’s rather easy for the tragedy-loving adolescent mind to arrive at such a conclusion and, once there, to find real or imagined evidence to support it, putting into motion a cycle that, feeding on itself, maintains a misery-loving separation.  One might even observe that, in Miller’s play, the payoff Cain derives from clinging to that idea is that he is free to go on with his rants about the unfairness of things, which, though tiresome, is not all that unusual in adolescent behavior.  With Cain, however, his resentment becomes obsessive and in the end grants him permission to do murder.

Cain’s All-Too-Familiar Behavior. Yahweh as Therapist, a Chance Not Taken. Sin as a Thing With It’s Own Existence

It’s a fair guess that Cain’s strong reaction to Yahweh’s disregard for his offering was part of a pattern, that this was not the first time the lad had experienced alienation, real or imagined, followed by anger.  Imagine Cain standing there, watching, listening, his mood shifting, darkening, familiar, a silent scream building, wanting release, to shout What is this?  Am I invisible  I was here first!  And yet, what could he do about it?  Take a swing at Yahweh?  Probably not.  But Abel, his little brother – now, he was another matter.

We’ve all done it.  With too much frustration at work, at school, too much traffic, too much heat, we give a taste of our darker side to whoever’s down the food chain and handy – subordinates, the kids, younger siblings, the dog, the cat.

Finally, Yahweh turns to Cain and, as if he didn’t know the answer already, asks,

Why are you distressed,
And why is your face fallen?

I’d have gone in with something confrontive like Look, you and I both know you can do better than this.  If you’re going to bring an offering to me, make it a valuable one.  If not, why bother?  Yahweh, however, despite the short fuse he will demonstrate time and again, is gentle, compassionate, creating an opening through which he can say,

Surely, if you do right,
There is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin crouches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be his master.
(Genesis 4.6b-7)

Subtle, life-altering advice – or it would be if Cain were open to it.  But Cain does not want enlightenment – he wants Yahweh to acknowledge his offering with the same regard he’d give to Abel’s.

I’m always a little embarrassed when someone gives me a gift; I feel awkward, clumsy, never quite convinced I’m worthy.  I’ll go grasping about for something to say that might express my gratitude; thank you has such a flat ring coming from my mouth.  And when the gift is especially tender and thoughtful, I might get teary and wordless.  On the other hand, when a gift appears to be the product of the giver’s afterthought, his obligation – something “half-assed,” as my father would have said – whatever the price tag, I don’t count it as worth much.  According to the rabbis, this was precisely Yahweh’s issue with Cain’s offering.  If so, his response to Cain was the best he had, the very thing Cain needed to hear.  But Cain was not willing to hear it.

It’s not unusual for someone with an anger problem to deny it exists.  One method for helping him overcome the denial, in a therapeutic environment, is to do something that brings the anger to the surface.  It’s tricky, but in the hands of a skilled practitioner it can work, and when it does the client has an insight into himself, a foothold, a place to begin addressing his problem.  When it doesn’t work he may become sullen, silent, and begin to stonewall all attempts at interaction.  Or, like Cain, he may blow his top and, with blustery self-pity, walk out.  In fact, I’d bet the bank that the family’s home movies would have shown little Cain, lower lip puckered, demonstrating the same tactics when he didn’t get his way.

Let’s return to the moment of confrontation: Yahweh asks Cain, essentially, Why are you so worked up?  This is a chance to clean up your act.  Why not take it?  Then during a heavy silence Cain looks at the ground, the sky, at his offering, at Abel’s, anywhere but into Yahweh’s steady gaze.  Finally, Yahweh says in a soft voice,” Sin crouches at the door, and its desire is for you, yet you can be its master.”

This is a powerful image.  To see it clearly, let go of the idea od “sin” as the invention of priggish, humorless, puritanical types determined to put an end to everything that gives pleasure.  Here “sin” is personified.  It is a thing with its own existence, an internal beast from the darkest corners of human nature.  With infinite patience it waits, and its “desire is for you.”

Therapeutically speaking, what Yahweh delivers here is a fight-ending knockout punch.  But in an ironic twist on the metaphor, the one who decides whether the punch will land at all is the one at whom it is aimed – in this case Cain.  Now we see the conundrum in which Cain finds himself even before the murder.  If he avoids the punch he walks away, but the jealousy, the anger, the wounded pride – the beast – gnaws away at his belly until it consumes him.  If he allows it to land squarely, however, the risk is not that he will go unconscious – both psychologically and spiritually, he is already unconscious – but that he will wake up to the truth about his life, the mind-sets that dominate it, the behavior that flows from them, and the all-too-familiar consequences of that behavior.  This latter prospect can be so frightening that, time and again, I (and everyone I’ve known well) have walked away to the rhythms of some aphoristic twaddle like “the enemy you know is better than the one you don’t know.”

But wait! you might way.  This story isn’t about what might happen in therapy.  It’s about a human encounter with the divine!  The punch thrown at Cain was a divine punch!  Well, so was Yahweh’s admonition about the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  What is happening?  First of all, free will is part and parcel of creation, which means that we humans get to choose between stupidity and wisdom – even Yahweh doesn’t get to decide what we will or won’t do.  “I had no choice,” one of the more hackneyed phrases in television and in the movies, is usually said by a character who’d just made a choice to do this rather than that – for instance, a choice to shoot the other guy rather than choosing to be shot.  Already we’ve seen that Eve and Adam could have chosen not to eat the fruit.  Indeed they could have wanted it, craved it, needed it more than they needed sex, and still walked away.  Likewise Cain could have chosen to say no to his tantrum and listen to Yahweh instead.

Second, keep in mind that we’re only in the fourth chapter of Genesis.  Yahweh was still new at all this.  J’s iteration of the deity is anthropomorphic, earthly; if he walks, talks, eats, and so forth, then surely he learns.  So maybe he made a mistake?  Pushed the lad too far?  In the moment just before Cain attacked Abel was there a cosmic oops?

But even that would not change the fact that it was Cain who walked away, Cain who indulged his own rage, and Cain who did the killing.  Did he think no one would notice?  Did he think at all?  How could he do such a thing?

The Beast and I come Near to Touching, or, How One Can Do Such a Thing

(Houston, Texas, Summer 1996)

Though we are quite close now, the relationship between my daughter, Jenny, and I was breaking apart when she was in her middle teens.  She was sixteen, and during the previous three years, as she’d passed through an increasingly nightmarish adolescence, I’d passed through understanding, to frustration, to anger, to rage, to bitterness.  A week or so before the day in question, her mother – we’d divorced ten years earlier – had called to say that the bill for the cell phone she’d given Jenny, which was to be used only in emergencies (these were the days before unlimited minutes), was some six hundred dollars for the previous month.  That afternoon, as I drove Jenny to her summer job, I told her that not only would the phone bill be paid out of the money set aside for her first car, but that we wouldn’t be replenishing those funds until we saw a great deal more willingness to be responsible.  Her comeback was particularly nasty.  Already angry, now I was shaking.  Minutes later, as we drove into the parking lot, I reminded her that I would pick her up at that same spot after work.  She said she might not be there, that she might go and stay with her boyfriend.  I told her that was unacceptable.  She said she didn’t care whether I liked it or not.  I said that she’d better care, because she was sixteen and he was eighteen, and if she went there to spend the night, I’d have him arrested.  Saying nothing, she opened the car door and was about to step out when I grabbed her forearm and said, “Tell me what you are going to do.”  She said – shouted, really, for the benefit of fellow workers waiting for the shift to start – that I was hurting her.  I told her I wanted an answer.  She yelled, “Let me go,” and tried to pull away.  Just then, I heard a male voice shout, “Hey!”  I looked up to see several young men, looking rather menacing, now walking toward the car.  She saw them too, smiled, and said I’d better let go before they got there.  I reached under my seat, took out a two-foot length of hickory, and in a voice I remember as surprisingly even, said, “I’ll let go when you tell me what you’re gonna do.  And if one of ‘em so much as touches you, or me, somebody’s gonna be going to the hospital, and somebody’s going to jail.  And I don’t really give a damn who goes where.”

I know, I know – strictly B-movie, both plot and dialogue, especially that last bit.  But I said it just like that, and I meant it (though I want to buffer that by saying he meant it, that version of myself who was running the show).  To be sure, I’d been blazing angry in the minutes leading up to that moment.  Then, quite suddenly, the heat was gone, and in its place was a cold and vacant calm – a place without outcomes, consequences, or anything identifiably human.  Mind you, this was no Zen-like serenity – I know the difference.  Then she relented, agreed that I would pick her up after work, and the moment passed.

Another Sort of Death

Cain lured his brother into a field and killed him.  In the end, whatever motivations or mitigating circumstances we might dream up, the fact remains that Cain did it.  But was it premeditated murder?  It seems doubtful, given that premeditation requires the ability to form intent, which, in part, requires a reasonable understanding of the consequences of one’s actions.  Within the boundaries of the story, Cain’s tiny universe had no experience of human death, until now.  They were not strangers to death – Abel had just sacrificed one of his flock.  But the death of a human being was wholly outside their experience.  Yahweh had introduced Adam to the idea of human death, but regardless of what was meant by “on the day you eat the fruit of that, you’ll die,” given that both Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit and were still alive, it was certainly not that spooky draining away of life force they’d witnessed when a plant withered or, later, when Abel had slit the throat of a lamb.  It was another sort of death, and it had to do with separation, a matter Adam and Eve had come to know intimately.  Now it was Cain’s turn.


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