Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Cain as the First "Other"


1 Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, "I have gotten a manchild with the help of the Lord." 2 Again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.  3 So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground.  4 Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; 5 but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell.  6 Then the Lord said to Cain, "Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?  7 "If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it."

8 Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" And he said, "I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?"  10 He said, "What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.  11 "Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 "When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth." 13 Cain said to the Lord, "My punishment is too great to bear! 14 "Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me."  15 So the Lord said to him, "Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold." And the Lord appointed a sign for Cain, so that no one finding him would slay him. (Genesis 4:1-15 NASB)

If you don’t read the Bible (Old and New Testaments), it is easy to forget that some of the famous, often quoted stories are really only a few paragraphs or even sentences in the entire book. The story of Cain and Abel is one of the most famous myths in the Western world with great theological implications. The fact that it really just amounts to two paragraphs is kind of amazing. In the BBC series The Atheism Tapes, the American Playwright Arthur Miller made a comment about Genesis establishing Cain as an "outsider." This struck me as a brilliant observation. It is illustrative of the Abrahamic religions and their xenophobic tendencies. This establishes and reinforces the good vs. evil, us vs. them, mentality of the three “Great” religions. This makes Cain the first "other.”

It is interesting that Cain is the first human to be born. Adam and Eve were created by God’s hands. The human born Cain, as their first child after the expulsion from the Garden (Genesis 4:1), is the personification and extension of Adam and Eve's punishment.* He is Original Sin embodied. Abel was the good son. The one favored by God. When reading Genesis 4:1-15, I have always found it odd that God should favor Abel over Cain. It seems that God is simply playing favorites for no apparent reason. I want to dissect this because I find so much interesting about this story, especially since it is so early on and establishes a lot within the Abrahamic worldviews.  

…Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. Genesis 4:2 (emphasis added)

The use of the contraction “but” denotes a contrast or exception. I should note that not all Bible translations/versions use this contraction. Some use “and;” however many of the most popular Bibles including American Standard (ASV), New American Standard (NASB), King James (KJV), New King James (NKJV), use the contrasting language. My point is that they are immediately set up as different and contrasting characters. In the case of the versions that use the contraction “but” it is clearly setting Cain up with a negative connotation. Abel is this, but Cain is not that. He is “other.” Even in the versions that use the “and” contraction, this dichotomy holds to an extent:  Abel is this, and Cain is that. Cain is still other. Why list Abel first? Cain is the elder brother. Because then it would not establish Cain as “the other” in the story.

3 So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground.  4 Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; 5 but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell.  Genesis 4:3-5

Now why does God favor Abel and not Cain? Abel is a shepherd. Cain is a farmer. The ancient Jews were shepherds. Their neighbors and all the major regional powers at the time were agriculturalists (that’s how you become a regional power, by the way). To me, this is just indicative that Genesis was written by people that included the prejudices and distrusts of others in the context of their stories.  Abel represents the Jewish people. Cain represents everyone else.  Abel is the chosen one and Cain is not. Why would the animal sacrifice be better than the harvest? Did Cain not work hard to reap the harvest? No, he is simply set up as the evil one since he represents outsiders. Also, we could bring up Cain’s lack of a blood sacrifice that God is apparently obsessed with, but that that is another discussion. In any event, God rejected Cain’s sacrifice and Cain got angry. I can’t imagine why?

6 Then the Lord said to Cain, "Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?  7 "If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it." Genesis 4:6-7  8 Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.  Genesis 4:8.

Cain’s murder of his brother is the first murder “in history” which makes Cain the first murderer. It represents the idea that the outsider will surely be jealous of the righteous person’s relationship with God and they will rise up and strike the innocent down.

9 Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" And he said, "I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?"

Since the outsider is separate from God,  they will not care about his followers. The outsider, unknown by the Grace of God; is without morals, without love, and without law. Does this sound familiar?

10 He said, "What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.  11 "Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 "When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth." 13 Cain said to the Lord, "My punishment is too great to bear! 14 "Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me."  15 So the Lord said to him, "Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold." And the Lord appointed a sign for Cain, so that no one finding him would slay him. Genesis 4:10-15

All those that disobey and are hidden from God are marked forever. Cursed.

If the Adam and Eve story was meant to explain the origin of Original Sin, then the Cain and Abel story is meant to explain Original Sin in action. It is also the first story in the Bible that establishes a template for individuals and out groups to be painted as evil. With this visceral, emotional, personified label firmly ingrained in all three of the Abrahamic religions, they can subconsciously justify distrust, fear and hatred of those unlike them as part of the order of the universe and sanctioned by their God.

*Interesting side note: Jewish and Islamic traditions even allude to Cain being the offspring of the serpent further establishing the misogynistic view of Eve in the patriarchal Abrahamic religions.


3 comments:

Unknown said...

Excellent dissection. Instructive.

Skywise said...

Why does it say I'm unknown? I'm known? Oh well.

M.E. Anders said...

You and Skywise should be best buds - lots of interesting satirical topics in common. :)