Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Thought about Cain

"Hmmm. That's odd."

Yes, that's a reference to a recent article I wrote, but really, it's what I said. It was funny.

All right. I was sitting there reading the Bible (actually The Tanakh, the Jewish order of the Book), and I ran across the story of Cain and Abel. You remember, guy kills brother and tried to hide it. Pretty basic, right? That's what I thought.

Until I read it again.

You see, I am of the opinion that there is absolutely nothing in sacred Text that is an accident. I believe that it is all there for a very particular reason. Well, usually multiple reasons, but there for at least one reason. And so I was reading the story of Cain and Abel again.

After a period of time, Cain brought an offering to Hashem of the fruit of the ground; and as for Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and from their choicest. Hashem turned to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering he did not turn. This annoyed Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell.
And Hashem said to Cain, 'Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it.'
Cain spoke with his brother Abel. And it happened when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.
Hashem said to Cain, 'Where is Abel your brother?'
And he said, 'I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?'
The He said, 'What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground! Therefore, you are cursed more than the ground...'

Now this seems fairly straightforward, but there is something that I noticed that I began to wonder about. It occurred to me that God did not seem to get upset upon the murder itself. Nor did He appear to get upset over the deliberate misdirection. Oh, I say misdirection, for it is possible that Cain did not know where Abel went. After all, do any of us truly know where someone goes when they die?

Anyways, it seems to me that God really got upset when Cain added the additional comment, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

I mean, let's face it. God knew what happened. There's no question of that. And the traditional supposition is that He gave Cain the opportunity to confess.

But if that's really the case, then why that momentary delay in God's response? Doesn't it make more sense for Cain to say, "I don't know", and then God to immediately reply, "What have you done?" And yet He doesn't. He waits, just for a moment, perhaps, but He waits.

I've been thinking about this for a while now, especially in relation to community development, and this is what I've come up with. While I am sure that God is not happy about Abel's murder, I think it is this last statement that actually changes things. Prior to this moment it seems that we all worked as a community. We all looked after each other. And while there might have been some disagreements, perhaps even leading to violence, we still all saw ourselves as part of community. You had the shepherds, as exemplified by Abel, and you had farmers, as shown by Cain, but they were all family, all part of the same organic whole. Of course you probably had the typical disagreements between the two groups, as to who had the right to which piece of land, whether for grazing or farming, but they were still together.

Oh, and you also had those who gave willingly to God and to the community, with radiant acquiescence, as seen by the longer and more detailed description of Abel's offering, and those who may have given only grudgingly, perhaps seen by the lack of detail of Cain's offering.

But even then, they were part of the community, and everyone looked after each other.

Now, however, something has changed. With that singular statement, easily the most famous in Genesis 4, something changed. When Cain asks, "Am I my brother's keeper", he is in effect saying that he does not feel that he is responsible for anyone but himself. He is no longer part of community. He is now thinking of himself before the community. And that is the beginning of a very long and tortuous road in history.

"What", God says, likely with infinite sadness, seeing this path before us, "have you done?"

So long as we think of ourselves, and our own needs, first before those of the community, we truly will be "cursed more than the ground".

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