Saturday, February 12, 2011

Cain and Abel: The Pain of Rejection

   One of the most perplexing stories in the Bible is the account of the death of Abel by his brother, Cain. (Gen. 4: 1-16)  This sixteen verse story has baffled countless people for generations because the basic premise of the story seems to make so little sense. 
                                             Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore
                                             Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.
                                             Next she bore his brother Abel.  Now Abel was a keeper of
                                             sheep and Cain is a tiller of the ground. In the course of time
                                             Cain brought the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and
                                             Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of the flock, their fat
                                             portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but
                                             for Cain and his offering he had no regards.  So Cain was very
                                             angry and his countenance fell.  The Lord said to Cain, “Why are
                                             you angry and why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well,
                                             will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking
                                             at the door, its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  (4:1-7)

    There is no mention of why God chose Abel’s offering, but rejected Cain’s.
Cain never asks God for an explanation; however, after being rejected by God Himself he is asked, “Why has your countenance fallen?”  Whose countenance would not have fallen after his or her offering was rejected by God for no apparent reason?  
    Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), a Swiss psychiatrist, wrote and lectured extensively on the concept of types and archetypes.  One of the archetypes he made famous was “the Shadow”. The Shadow is the easiest of the archetypes for most persons to experience. We tend to see it in "others." That is to say, we project our dark side onto others and thus interpret them as "enemies" or as "exotic" presences that fascinate. We see the Shadow everywhere in popular culture. He is Batman. She is Spider Woman. It is the Ninja Turtles. We see it in popular prejudice as well. We "imagine" that the Black Man is our enemy; that Communists are devils. We incline towards Hawaii as the "land of paradise." We accept people uncritically if we perceive them as "fair haired." Of course, Satan is the great Shadow image of popular religion (Consider: the word only occurs 54 times in the entire Bible.) 1
    In this story Abel serves as Cain’s “shadow”.  Each time he is introduced in the narrative all we are told about him is that he is “Cain’s brother”.  When Abel is born we learn that “Eve then bore his brother Abel.”  Even as we hear of Abel’s name, we learn of their relationship.   
   In addition, since there is no mention of a second conception, it is likely that Cain and Abel are twins.  As two halves of one embryo, that Abel is defined solely in relationship to his “other side” is not surprising. His only identity is through his tie to Cain.  In fact, Abel’s very name in Hebrew, Hevel, indicates a lack of a persona.  Unlike Cain, the meaning of Abel’s name is never explained. Hevel itself actually means “shadow”, “wisp”, or “vanity”, in essence, nothingness!  Abel is just a shadow of his brother. Abel remains silent throughout the narrative and his appearance on the Biblical stage is very brief. We never hear his voice; he never utters a word.
   The fact that Abel is only a shadow of Cain is evident in the very different reactions to the two births by Eve.  When Cain was born, Eve gave voice to the miracle of childbirth and the power of the moment of her as a parent: “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.”  In contrast, when Abel, the second child appears, there is no fanfare, no self-reflection, and no powerful moment of naming. The second birth is already quite commonplace. Abel appears almost as an afterthought; significant moments associated with him, like most second children, pale into insignificance.  Parents today similarly have fewer pictures, memorabilia, and even recollections of the birth of younger children.  Perhaps Abel, too, suffered as a second child, needing more attention and stroking from his parents.
   We, as readers, already can anticipate that the different needs of the two brothers could engender conflict and struggle not uncommon even in our own families! 2  In the case of my own family, my sister is a little over three years younger than me and my parents have much fewer pictures of her, much less memorabilia, and speak of fewer significant moment associated with the birth of my sister. I know that this has been a point of contention for her which she more than once directed at me instead of addressing it with our parents.
   Cain appears to have done the same thing in regard to the directing of his anger.  He never asks God why his offering was rejected while Abel’s was accepted.  Instead of being consoled by God following the rejection of his offering, God asks him, “Why has your countenance fallen?”  Whose countenance would not have fallen after having their offering rejected by God?. It has been stated numerous times that Abel offered the best of his herd, but Cain offered the lowest quality fruits of the field.  While the narrative does say that Abel offered God “the fat portions” of his flock, there is no mention of the quality of Cain’s offering, other than the fact that it was rejected.
   We cannot help thinking that to contrast the two brothers in this manner is grossly unfair.  After all, remember what our text actually says, “In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the food of the ground; and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions.” If we put ourselves in Cain’s place, we can imagine our reactions to God’s response to the offerings.  Listen to his voice, “I cannot believe what’s happened!  I was the one who brought an offering to God. I acted voluntarily and was the first to bring a sacrifice.  My father had never been asked to set aside an offering in the Garden of Eden.  Only outside the Garden, caught up in the struggle to survive, I was the one who felt moved to bring a gift in order to recognize God’s presence in the world and my relationship with the Divine.”
    Cain is right!  What indeed is most interesting about all of this is that the sacrifices seem to be Cain’s idea. The text simply says, “And Abel also brought”—Ve-Hevel hayvi gam hu. The words gam hu (he also) indicate the Cain initiated the offerings.  Abel learned what was expected and imitated his brother. This only added fuel to Cain’s response to God’s recognition of Abel’s offering. Further venting, this time to his brother, Cain angrily says to Abel: “You had no intention of bringing anything at all until you found out what I was going to offer. You were jealous and so you went out and got all these animals together to make sure that you would not be outdone.”  The point to be stressed here is that even when they are most distinguished and contrasted, the brothers seem to act in a similar manner.  They mirror and compete with one another, as children in a family often do. 3
    Perhaps in fact the rejection is only the result of Cain’s perception or feelings; the reaction of an older sibling who is jealous when a parent pays attention to a brother or a sister for the first time.  Do we realIy think the value of the offerings mattered that much to God?  God might simply have responded to the two individuals and their needs, as the text indicates by mentioning the brothers’ names first and then their offerings:  “The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed.”  Like any parent with more than one child, God may have decided that Abel affirmation given his position vis a vis his brother.  After all, Abel was born after Cain’s appearance and little fuss was made of him.   All of us, parents and children, know this moment. Many have experienced it from both sides: The pain of rejection as children, though perhaps never intended by our parents, and the uneasiness of trying to respond to the needs of all their own children. This is especially poignant for those who live in blended families and struggle every day to provide their different children with what they so desperately need.  Will such responses to an individual child ever be totally appreciated or even understood? 4
    What were Adam and Eve’s responses to all of these events?  There is none. There is no indication in the text that Cain ever voiced his feelings to either of his parents and after Abel is killed by Cain the dialogue which ensued was between God and Cain.  We want to believe that both Adam and Eve were in shock and grief stricken over the death of their younger son by their firstborn; however, the text is conspicuously silent with regard to how they were coping with this horribly tragic event.
   Another issue is how do we respond to Cain?  As mentioned earlier, the only response he receives is God asking him, “Why has your countenance fallen?” God also says, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well sin in lurking at the door, its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  There is no indication that Cain committed any sin as a result of his offering.  Other than the fact that his offering was rejected, for some unknown reason, there is no real indication that he did not do well.  There is really nothing we can actually say to Cain which will offer him any real consolation.  The fact of the matter is that many times our best efforts are not rewarded. Each of us is asked to live with adversity, pain, and misfortune.  The clear challenge is how we live with adversity.
   The only thing we can ask of Cain at this point, and by extension ourselves, is whether he (or we) can handle the seeming rejection and move beyond it.  Does he have the strength to reconcile himself to the consequences of what he had done?  Can he overcome the distance between himself and his brother, between himself and God and move to a greater sense of wholeness and unity?  This is the essence of his test.  5
   What did Cain actually say to Abel when they were in the field?  The narrative tells us, Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.”  When they were in the field, Cain rose up and slew his brother. (Gen. 4:8)   Assuming that Cain and Abel are twins, perhaps Cain went to Abel for support and consolation and received nothing in return.   Cain and Abel are two halves of one whole.  The older brother, whose offering was rejected by God, reaches out to his younger brother for some comfort and is rebuffed.  Perhaps he went to talk to Abel about the fact that Abel had “stolen Cain’s thunder” (to use a colloquial phrase) and he wanted to let Abel know how he felt, but Abel was not interested.  After having his offering rejected by God and then being dismissed by his brother, Cain’s anger overcame him and he killed Abel. 
   This was the first case of fratricide and Cain must have been in shock that after he hit Abel that Abel was no longer moving.  Just then God appears and asks, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain says, “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?”  In modern terms we can read this as, “How would I know?  It’s not my turn to watch him!”  Cain has not only killed his brother, but he has killed a part of himself.  The bonds which twins share are unlike the bonds with other siblings.  Up to a certain age twins have been shown to be able to finish one another’s sentences and there are even cases where they have felt one another’s pain.  This is certainly not the case here.  Rather than feeling Abel’s pain, Cain disavows any knowledge of Abel and acts in a rather cold and callous manner.
   When God asked Cain why he was so distressed, Cain either chose not to or simply could not respond.  Instead of expressing his hurt and anger to God, the proverbial parent and appropriate object of his feelings, he kept them inside. 6 It is not clear how long Cain’s feelings of rejection festered within. 7
   Even though Abel never said a word throughout the entire narrative, his blood, his very life source, spoke for him.  God says to Cain, “What have you done? Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.” (Gen. 4:10) the very ground which has received Abel’s blood has now been cursed for Cain so when he plants in the future nothing will grow.
   How does Cain respond to God, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face.  I shall be a fugitive and wander on the earth, anyone who meets me shall kill me.”  Here we see that Cain is expecting that God will treat him the same way that he treated Abel.  Now God has become the “shadow” for Cain.  Cain projects his own attitude on to God.  However, God says, “Not so!  Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.”
   Are we any different than Cain in this regard?  Do we not often project our own attitudes and beliefs on to others or God and expect that they will respond the same way which we did, only to be completely caught off guard to find out that they response in a way which we never expected or perhaps we feel we did not deserve.  We hurt someone and expect that they will hurt us in return, only to find that they are extremely understanding and forgiving.
   In killing his brother, he became his brother; Cain, the sedentary farmer, killed Abel, the wandering shepherd, and he himself becomes a wanderer! Cain had internalized the other side of himself; he was relegated to carrying it with him for the rest of his life.  According to a legend which circulated among the people, the dog which had been Abel’s constant companion and which helped Abel to tend his flock now was seen guarding and protecting Cain. 
   Some even say that Cain, in becoming Abel, shared his brother’s fate.  He, too, was murdered by a blood relative.  Although there is no mention of Cain’s death in the Bible and he simply fades from the Biblical drama after settling down and raising a family; the rabbis imagine that Cain was killed by Lamech, who lived five generations later. 8 In fact, Cain is described as killing his brother Abel by striking him with a stone, and in turn was killed himself when Lamech struck him with a stone.
   Seemingly the upshot of fratricide is clear: The killing of Abel meant the death of Cain as well.  The brothers suffer the same end, which is to be expected given their bonding. Cain and Abel could be compared to two trees standing next to each other.  When a strong wind came and uprooted one; it fell upon the other and uprooted it.  In a figurative sense, both Cain and Abel died that fateful day in the field.
   While Cain did not sin when he made an offering to God, the sin he did commit was he took no personal responsibility for his actions.  Could Cain ever come to repent of his wrongdoing?  Does he have the ability or the capacity to be able to acknowledge what he had done and ask for forgiveness? 
   The narrative does not state that Cain ever apologized for his actions.  After being banished from the ground, God places a mark on Cain, so that no one who comes upon him would kill him, and then sends him away.  Cain eventually settles in the land of Nod.  The only indication we have that Cain had been forgiven is a statement which his son, Lamech, makes to his own wives.
   Lamech says, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.  If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech is avenged seventy-sevenfold.” (Gen. 4:23-24)  We have no record of who the man was that Lamech killed; however, he does mention Cain being avenged sevenfold.  
   Asking for forgiveness can be very challenging for many people.  It requires a certain amount of humility to be able to approach someone and ask them to forgive you for hurting them or to approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation and ask God for forgiveness. How often our pride gets in the way of such humility and prevents us from reaching out to those we have hurt.
   In our common parlance, we use the words “shame” and “guilt” interchangeably; however, they are actually two different things.  Guilt stems from a feeling or belief that I have done something wrong while shame stems from a feeling or belief that I am bad.  A feeling of guilt can be assuaged by repenting; however, a shameful belief that one is an inherently bad person cannot be. There is no indication that Cain was a bad person.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  He wanted to show his love and devotion to God by offering Him a sacrifice. 
   In this story of rejection, violence, and change, Cain challenges us to recognize who we are and what we can become.  It is the tension between Cain and Abel, and the human and divine in each of us, which must be reconciled if we are to move back to or forward from the Garden of Eden.  The conflict between Cain and Abel was irreconcilable—Cain killed his younger brother. Yet Cain did grow and mature, and though he had carried the burden of his action his entire life, he also bore the sign of the covenant, of his relationship with God.  At the end of the saga, there is an affirmation of potential goodness in the world and in each of us, and our ability to achieve wholeness.  
   That affirmation is seen not only in Cain’s repentance and later success, but also in Adam and Eve’s response to the tragic loss of their son, Abel: “Adam knew his wife again, and she bore him a son and named him Seth, meaning God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel, for Cain had killed him.” Their first act in the face of death was to conceive another child.  Seth’s birth signifies that life can be good and relationships meaningful, even if fraught with pain and sorrow.  Seth took Abel’s place. Though Abel, Cain’s twin and other half, had died, it was as if he was still alive. The line of descent from Adam and Eve would follow the younger son.  However, the fact that Seth stood in Abel’s stead also insured that the struggle between the two sides was transmitted to another generation. 
   We, like Cain, may have taken smaller steps toward a sense of our higher selves by admitting our frailty and recognizing who we are, yet the inner struggle continues.  The Eden of our dreams seems like a lifetime away. 9
   While the Bible is certainly not the only worldview which we can adopt, it does speak to the human experience provided that we keep in mind that the men and women in its stories were actual people.  We have a tendency to believe that people mentioned in history books were actual people, but the people mentioned in the Bible were “larger than life” and that it is almost blasphemous to look at them as people just like ourselves.  This is not accurate.  The narrative account of Cain and Abel, like so many stories in the Bible, speaks to us of genuine human emotions and responses and can serve as a guide for helping us to navigate our way through a world which is often fraught with contradiction and confusion.
    Each of us has faced the struggles which Cain and Abel faced.  While we may not have responded the same way that Cain did, this classic narrative can offer us guidance and direction for assisting the next generation as they struggle with similar feelings as well.

                                                                 End Notes

1)    “Jung’sArchetypes” (accessed 2/9/11)
2)Norman J. Cohen Self, Struggle and Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives (VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006) p. 42
3)Cohen, p. 46
4)Cohen, p. 48
5)Cohen, p. 49
6)Elie Wiesel Messengers of God (NY: Random House, 1976) p. 63
7)Cohen, p. 50
8)Wiesel, p. 43
9)Cohen, p. 62


Norman J. Cohen Self, Struggle and Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis  and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives (VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006)

Elie Wiesel Messengers of God (NY: Random House, 1976)

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