Friday, January 20, 2006

Cain and Abel

Genesis 4:1-24

After the two creation stories, there is the story of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-24). This story is much shorter than I expected it to be. Given Alice M.'s comment to yesterday's posting, it strikes me as significant that the brother who tends crops kills the brother who is a herder. It seems to foretell how those who settled land ended up (mostly) wiping out more nomadic kinds of societies.

But I find part of the story, as told in the Bible, troubling. Why was the Lord happier with one kind of offering than another? Upon reading this, you can kind of understand why Cain was disappointed and jealous. After working so hard on the land, Cain was upset that the Lord "had no regard" for his offering (Gen 4:5). Still, the wisdom the Lord offers is good advice for us all: work hard, do well, and if others don't fully appreciate what you’ve done, master your disappointment (a rather free paraphrase of Gen 4:7). Also, this passage is now the first mention of "sin" in the Bible: "Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it" (Gen 4:7).

Instead, we all know, Cain gives into it and kills his brother. Sigh.

He is then banished from the land, and now the interpretive notes in my edition of the Bible (the Access Bible, New Revised Standard Version) point out that he goes on to become founder of cities and of culture (Gen 4:17-22). But also, violence continues (Gen 4:23-24).

So, even though the story, as told, is rather brief, it can be interpreted on many levels. Maybe it is better not to read it as a story about individuals, but a story about the complexities of human society as it shifts and changes: how settling the land, and then settling into cities, became the new norm for human society; how we may have lost something beautiful in the process (societies that wandered freely and more peacefully upon the earth without jealously claiming ownership of the land); how we then gained something new (arts, crafts, culture), but how this gain comes at a cost (this more settled life has a dark side: it breeds human violence).

It may also be read as a story of how hard it is for us to handle our difficult emotions well. We long so much for approval and acceptance, but, ironically, it is exactly when we most fear losing them that we are most inclined to behave in the ways that guarantee their loss.


  1. You make the bible so interesting and accessible and fun, in fact.

    Your version you say has the passage rendered as:

    "Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you".

    Wow! I have stopped and thought that through for a while. It's so evocative, so powerful. Sin wants us! Sin desires us! It's not that we want to sin. Sin wants to enter us and possess us. That is its nature. And we have only to lose faith in God for sin to enter "the door". If God is not looking our way (is not "regarding" us) we have the task of "master" the situation by keeping faith with God.

    So, it's ok either way because either you are in the presence of God, or if you feel jealousy, anger, disappointment, temptation to cheat or harm people, etc., you have the opportunity to strengthen your character by not opening up when "sin" comes knocking at the door wanting us.

    For your interest here are two other renditions of the same verse:

    King James Version
    "Is there not, if thou dost well, acceptance? and if thou dost not well, at the opening a sin-offering is crouching, and unto thee its desire, and thou rulest over it."

    Young's Literal Translation
    "If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him"

    I wonder what you think about the yogic teaching on work and the rewards of work.

    "The yogi believes that it is his privilege to do his duty and that he has no right to the fruits of his actions"

    If we look at the Cain & Abel story in the light of this yogic teaching then we could say that Cain was disheartened because he felt he had a right to expect a reward for his work. But - just like life - sometimes you do all the right things; work really hard and there doesn't seem to be any reward. And that's when disappointment and disillusionment strike and we lose sight of the path. And it's all because we're attached to the fruit rather than the work.

    We might compress this by saying that, "work is a blessing not a burden". Because whilst we can't guarantee that we will get the rewards we might expect - we sure can bet the house that there's always going to be work!
    - Have fun -

  2. The similarity of these two lines fascinates me:

    "... yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" [Genesis 3:16]

    "... [sin's] desire is for you, but you must master it." [Genesis 4:7]

  3. Yes, very interesting. The imagery of sin wanting us, wanting to possess and master us, is striking.

    In Plato's Republic, Socrates emphasizes the importance of letting the correct part of our souls rule us, not the incorrect parts. We should be ruled by wisdom, not by fear or other emotions, and not by our desires. We need to hold all of the parts of our soul in proper balance. Each part should do its own work so that we take proper care of ourselves and assert ourselves in the world in meaningful ways. But it is with wisdom that we should rule ourselves. If this gets out of balance, the person becomes unjust.

    What you say about work is interesting too. Yes, we must do what we must do, not for hope of the rewards it may offer, but just because that is the right thing to do.

    The parallel of the other two lines you quote is kind of disturbing actually, because of the association of sin with female nature, and ruling and mastery with male nature. Of course these kinds of association are not only repeated in the Bible, but are present in other traditions as well.

    Sometimes it gets reversed in interesting ways, though. Back to Plato: in his elevation of wisdom (sophia) over courage in his hierarchy of virtues, he relegates the paradigmatically male virtue of courage to second-place. It is only later that wisdom gets stripped down to a more narrow and now masculinized "rationality." But at the time, what Plato was suggesting was very radical and quite challenging to the prevailing views of masculinity.

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  5. Your ideas about Plato are interesting, I don't know much about the Greeks.

    I have commented on the idea of the feminine being stripped out iof Wisdom here: