The following is an excerpt from Eden and Afterward: A Mockingbird Guide to Genesis, available on Mockingbird and Amazon. The chapter below focuses on the story of Cain and Abel.

41nCj+Kp79LHere we follow the second generation of humanity, and we continue to see the effects of the Fall radiating outward. The first result of the Fall, in human relationships, was covering up and the second blame-shifting; the third will be murder. Cain’s competition with Abel follows so closely upon the Fall, and his crime is so closely linked with earning God’s favor, that a vital connection point with the later stories also emerges, namely, the link between violence/discord and human self-justification. The act of building up one’s pride and ignoring one’s faults is always, to some degree, spiritual at root.

Adam and Eve saw the tie between them and God unravel, break, snap, crimp, or whatever image you want to use. Their children, Cain and Abel, are the first to be born under the new regime of fallen humanity. So they cannot deny that the vertical relationship has been broken; instead they must seek to tie back themselves to God, to re-link themselves to God’s original vision for humanity, to repair their link to God himself. Thus we see the beginning of “re-ligion” (root meaning “tying-back”); its beginnings are as violent as any moment in its subsequent history.

In fact, one helpful definition of “religion” might be the full set of our tyings-back to God, in whatever form they take. In pre-modern times, sacrifice was a default way of pleasing the gods, soothing their anger, and infusing the universe with new life (through death). Much as we might like to do some theological razzle-dazzle and find a way to make sense of sacrifice in a Jewish/Christian context, I’m not sure we can. But perhaps we might understand the practice a little better by approaching it as an ancient ritual, that is, by hazarding some guesses as to what its original practitioners might have had in mind:

a. New life: the thing sacrificed would somehow infuse nature with the force of the life it had yielded. The demand for first-fruits, or the best of every harvest or flock, can be understood as “seeding” nature back with the best, thus giving the next harvest or future animal births an ideal starting-point.

b. Feudal payment: to say “feudal” here may be anachronistic, but this aspect of sacrifice is not unlike acknowledging a landowner, superior, family head, occupying kingdom, etc., by giving a portion of your crops/flock away. In this case, it is God who has given them the land, and they work it under his allowance. They work under Nature’s dominion; all they have is borrowed from Nature and its God, and they pay homage to this—or pay their respects—with sacrifice.

c. Closely connected with this would be death: the death of our possessions comes to symbolize and enact our powerlessness before God, our lack of self-sufficiency. In the Jewish religion, this focus on death will become elaborated and deepened in Abraham’s covenant ritual with God, the Jewish Passover, and the Law of Leviticus.

Michael Adams

Michael Adams

But back to the story: both brothers sacrifice, yet God is pleased with one and displeased with the other. This almost arbitrary pleasure/displeasure is the crux of the narrative, especially since God does not, at first, have any reason for preferring one over the other.

Again, in the Genesis account, Cain and Abel are the first two people born after the Fall. They are the first characters in the story who have not experienced anything but the sin and self-justification of life outside of original fellowship with God. Thus they are everyman; their actions and reactions will demonstrate the effects of the Fall, as well as the reality of life after the Fall, in their most stark forms.

In terms of plot, the Fall and expulsion from Eden provide the catalyst for the two brothers’ need to sacrifice and “tie-back.” God’s preference of Abel over Cain will likewise drive the remainder of the story. Neither Abel nor Cain are described much apart from one being a farmer and the other a shepherd, so again, we can safely assume that their actions represent those of the typical human being after the Fall. Cain cannot help his murderous rage, and we’ll need to look a little more at their internal motivations to understand why.

Fr¸hst¸ckspause in 70 m Hˆhe! Ger¸stbauer bei einer Fr¸hst¸ckspause in 70 m Hˆhe auf ihrem luftigen Sitz. Tief unten die Stadt Potsdam, im Hintergrund das Stadtschloss

After God makes his preference of Abel’s sacrifice known, Abel becomes a walking judgment on Cain, a living reproach to him. The dynamic we see played out between them is indicative of how inwardly-directed human beings become after the Fall. Abiding in a static sort of peace with one another and with God in Eden, they were not conscious of self. Think of a kid playing tennis for the first time, hitting the ball around with a friend, and enjoying a (mostly) uncompetitive time learning something together. The child grows up, continues getting better and better, and soon has some promising offers from Division I collegiate programs. At some point, however, the possibility of failure sets in—or the pressure to maintain success—and the relationship with tennis assumes a darker, more obsessive character. Now, each match reflects a possible value-judgment upon the person who’s playing, because her identity has become so wrapped up in the possibilities of success or failure.

After the Fall, as we saw, a sense of shame and failure sets in, and with that shame comes a new consciousness of the self in relation to God. There is no longer a simple and unconscious “love of the game”; the game itself becomes a spectrum of good performance versus bad performance, success versus failure, obedience versus disobedience, righteousness versus unrighteousness. Just like professional sports (or education or a career in finance, etc.), the existence of a spectrum between total religious success, on the one hand, and total failure, on the other, implies that we as humans should work ourselves toward Total Success. In Judeo-Christian terms, this is called the “Law,” and an analogy exists in nearly every arena of performance in human life. With the need to self-justify by clawing one’s way toward Total Success (or Righteousness), the spectrum quickly becomes a ladder, the ladder meant to tie us back.

Self-consciousness, in the negative sense, is simply a preoccupation with your place on the ladder combined with the desire, and thus pressure, to ascend it. Psychologically, if Abel is the only other man on Earth (as the story is told here), then it would seem as if Cain can be rid of his unrighteousness simply by killing him. That is, if Andre Agassi and I are the only two tennis players alive, and tennis is the crux of both our identities, then he is a constant reminder of my failure at the game, my distance from the ideal. But if I break his leg… well, there’s a part of me that would find that tempting.

cain-and-abel

God is more pleased with Abel than Cain, and it is difficult to discern why. In the idea of paying homage to God through sacrifice, there is a spectrum. On one end, there is self-renunciation, the death of pride. On the other end, there is sacrifice as a pro-active means to control the world around you, a form of leverage over the divine will. The tension between sacrifice as a grateful gift to God and sacrifice as a means of controlling God’s favor abides throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the tension between control and humility.

The human heart has an inherited desire to control God’s favor and secure its own righteousness, that is, spiritual value. In the biblical history, self-justifying human hearts are always erring on the side of using sacrifice as a means to control God. Although God commands sacrifices from Genesis on, He continually criticizes sacrifice as a means of control. These criticisms exist in the following passages, among others:

“The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but the prayer of the upright is his delight.” (Prov 15:8)

“The sacrifice of the wicked is abomination; how much more when brought with evil intent.” (Prov 21:27)

So it would appear that sacrifices in themselves are not as important as the character and mentality of the person who brings them; God cannot be bought off. After King David, the “man after God’s own heart,” slept with a married woman (Bathsheba) and engineered her husband’s death, the guilty king wrote a heartfelt critique of sacrifice:

“For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps 51:16-17)

For David, his wrongdoing is so great that he cannot just throw sacrifices at it. Imagine you were Bathsheba’s child by her first husband, and David offered you $10,000 for what he’d done to your family. More insulting than consoling, right? Because he would be trying to gloss over the horrible thing he did and somehow make it right. And it cannot be made right; a heartfelt and tearful apology still probably wouldn’t help your feelings toward him much—but it would certainly be a better start than trying to pay you off.

Of course, we don’t want to draw too many analogies between the way we work and the way God works, but it does help to explain how some people use sacrifice as a means of controlling God, and why God continually reminds Israel that their sacrifices cannot control him. The one thing we can do nothing to engineer—a broken and contrite heart—is the only thing that can direct us toward God. But it must happen to us. David did not realize his wrongdoing until one of his friends and advisers, by telling him a story and brutally forcing him to identify with its villain, finally brought him to a place of genuine brokenness and regret.

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N011_1542_003Before we turn back to the Cain and Abel story to see how later Jewish ruminations on sacrifice may shed some light, it is too tempting not to bring a quick element of Christianity into this. The strand of Hebrew religious thought we have been surveying—the critique of sacrifices as instruments of controlling God—was occasionally taken to extremes. One of these extremes came with the brilliant—though arguably deranged—prophet Ezekiel. His critique of human control went so far as to suggest that given man’s tendency toward self-justification and mis-use of religion as a means of controlling God’s favor toward us, our ultimate hope would lie in God making sacrifice to us—a very backwards idea:

“And, thou son of man, thus saith the Lord GOD: Speak unto every feathered fowl, and to every beast of the field, ‘Assemble yourselves, and come; gather yourselves on every side to my sacrifice that I do sacrifice for you, even a great sacrifice upon the mountains of Israel, that ye may eat flesh, and drink blood.’” (Eze 39:17)

Christians, as you might imagine, have had a lot to say about this one.

Unfortunately, we’ve already lost sight of the story itself. Theology is not what the story of Cain and Abel is primarily about. And yet the passages above do shed some light on the tendency to use sacrifice as a way of dictating our standing before God. With that in mind, the trees in this story come a bit more into focus: God’s reason for preferring Abel’s sacrifice can be seen, but only in retrospect. That is, once Cain kills his brother, he reveals himself to be a ladder-climber. The fact that he was so upset by God’s preference of Abel’s sacrifice over his own suggests that he was thinking of the sacrifice in terms of tying himself back to God, clawing his way up the religious ladder. Such sacrifices, as the passages above imply, have little value—in fact, they may backfire, as they do here.

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Often I’m tempted, as a reader, to identify myself with Abel and grieve over his mistreatment, his near-martyrdom. Unfortunately, the story does not really allow us to do so. We have no idea what was going on in Abel’s mind, and he is dead. Moreover, our desire to think of ourselves as people like Abel—the righteous victim—is the same desire of Adam when he claimed to be a victim at the hands of Eve. The need to distance ourselves from Cain in fact proves us to be exactly like he was. Thus the ethical component of the story is not “thou shall not kill,” nor is it some form of “try to think of sacrifice and good works as honoring God rather than earning his favor.” That would be avoidance of our identity as sinners and would only prove that, like Adam and Cain, we are sinners. The only “application” of this passage would be, “see yourself in Cain, recognize his self-justifying image in you.”

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1b6bc93197a0662b54d11589bbf2bb52Before we close, there are a couple of more strands to wrap up. First, Cain receives the same curse as Adam as a result of this murder. The strong parallel between Adam’s curse and Cain’s implies that it is impossible for us to avoid the sin of Adam, and like Adam, we incur guilt primarily by pursuing our own righteousness. This is a way of describing “Original Sin,” or inherited sin, through narrative.

Second, Cain is terrified that people will kill him for what he has done. Here we see a new inflection of human self-justifying: killing someone out of a concern for justice. We want to be judges of the sins of others. God protects Cain by marking him with what’s basically a “do not kill—divinely protected” sign, which seems a very strange move for God to make on behalf someone who has twice displeased him. The easiest surface-level explanation here would be that God’s love and favor are never completely gone, and even Cain is part of his chosen people. That seems true and works theologically, but God’s counterintuitive protection of Cain provides another, final clue to the movements of the story, and perhaps another signpost toward its meaning.

If anyone kills Cain, God promises him, “vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (4:14). Why would people want to kill Cain as punishment for his murder of Abel? Given the sketch of human instincts and psychology, post-Fall, that we have seen so far, one answer above all suggests itself. Cain is a reminder of our self-justifying instincts, our ability as humans to commit murder out of a need to think well of ourselves. On the surface, anyone who murders Cain is placing himself above Cain, denying the equal amount of sin in himself. Again, our perception of each other is colored by our own self-justification projects, and so we are tempted to label Cain as an uncommon sinner. A sinner he is, but not an uncommon one.

d1b83c471fcd3385f0a823640e5b6969Human justice often functions on the assumption that the human race can remain functional and moral as long as we sequester, punish, or kill the “bad people” out there. This assumes that they are the problem, and we are not. Such dualisms are tempting to buy into, because believing in categories of conservatives and liberals, saints and sinners, white and black, Jew and Gentile, educated and uneducated, allows us to be on the “correct” side of such divides. While justice, in terms of punishment, imprisonment, etc., is necessary in many cases, that necessity does not somehow cancel the self-justifying component of human justice. It is irrepressible.

The irony of human justice, in Cain’s case, is that killing him would be an act of self-righteousness and moral pretension—an attempt to assure ourselves that we occupy a higher place on the righteousness spectrum. Thus anyone who kills Cain would be guilty of the exact same sin, and for many of the same reasons. Human justice, in a fallen world, cannot help but repeat sin in the attempt to get beyond it. As we’ve seen, the attempt to get beyond sin, or the thought that we can rise above it, is sin itself.

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In some way, the opposite of murder is empathy. Murder—and along with it, blame-shifting, self-justification, etc.—arises from the need to distance ourselves from our identity as sinners. The opposite is admitting this identity, “hugging the cactus,” in the language of Alcoholics Anonymous. While the stories in Genesis aim to communicate varying emotional truths, they almost always invite us to identify with the figure of the sinner. Distancing ourselves from sinfulness only repeats the sins of Adam and Cain. Or as Jesus later put it, “with the judgment you make you will be judged” (Mt 7:2). As dark as this may sound at first, the strand of Judaism he founded ultimately taught that identifying with sin is the one way humanity might overcome it (2 Cor 5:21).

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