East of Nowhere

EastOfEdenThere was a time when you could assume a lot about your readers. Although it was only a little more than a half century ago, John Steinbeck could assume a biblically literate readership. East of Eden is so thoroughly pervaded with, one might say interlarded with, the Bible that the key scene could have three men sitting up half the night discussing 16 verses of Genesis, and not one of them being a priest or preacher. The earnestness of their conversation is haunting in its intensity. You know the boys will be named Cain and Abel and that only one of them will come out of this alive. Okay, so they decide on Caleb and Aron, but you get the picture. Of course their father is Adam. Even the title of the book is drawn from the last words of the 16th verse.

Ironically, this biblically literate author is one of the most frequently banned from high schools. Some censors can’t get beyond thinking that being good is the same thing as being a realist. In East of Eden, characters are flawed, and they tramp out the course laid in the Bible with an unwitting solemnity. The entire book hinges on the ability to change one’s fate, and yet, the characters dutifully enact their parts. Those who watch over the morals of youth are bothered by an occasional word with four letters, which, I must say, Steinbeck uses with moderation. They mistake the packaging for the message.

But why should we care? Hasn’t the world moved on inexorably these past sixty years? It is the wisdom of Lee, the Chinese servant, who answers this. “Any writing that has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important.” This does not refer to the Bible alone—although at this juncture in the story it does—but it is a message that many who simply dismiss the Bible as just silly myths would do well to remember. Lee is a literate character who turns to Marcus Aurelius for comfort as well as other classics. Sometimes the Bible is regarded as so holy that we forget it too is a classic. Classics become what they are through the impact they have on innumerable people. East of Eden is considered a classic although the author walked this earth just half a century ago. And those who reject Steinbeck for their children would do well to read the Bible they would put back into schools in his place, if only to consider the irony.


Razzing Cain

Generations of literalists who’ve had their eyes opened by reading what the Bible actually says have stumbled over Cain. His murder of Abel is fine—predictable even. The problem is what happens after that. Since he has murdered his brother, the only other human born so far, Cain seems prematurely concerned about “every one that findeth” him killing him. Seems unlikely that Eve, or even Adam, would like to kill the only surviving child they have. Yet God puts a mark on Cain. Presumably his parents would recognize him, so why is Cain literally a marked man? Rather than Omega Man survival techniques, Cain focuses his attention on kick-starting his love life.

Cain’s wife immediately raises the issue of where the girl comes from. Those who like to call themselves literalists have to back-peddle a little and suggest that since, according to Genesis 5 Adam and Eve had other children, this must be where she derives. Of course, she would in such a scenario, be his sister. Extraordinary circumstances call for extreme measures, but even so, literally, there are no other people yet. Cain is old enough to kill his brother and the next child born, according to the narrative, is Seth. Seth is explicitly a replacement for Abel, and really he doesn’t do Cain any favors in finding a wife. The story here simply slips out of character and gives us a world already partially populated.

As I was tweeting Genesis 4, it occurred to me that immediately after marrying, Cain builds a city. Cities only sprang into existence to allow for mutual protection with the diversification of labor, following on from the agricultural revolution. One of the main characteristics of cities is population. Genesis 4 has only Adam, Eve, Cain, his wife, and Enoch. It may be the smallest city in history since the entire human race could have easily fit into one modest house.

The stories of Genesis are etiologies—tales of origins that have no ties to historical incidents. Cain represents the urbanites, the city dwellers who will always somehow find ways of irritating God. In our urban culture where most people are born in towns or cities, we have lost touch with the life of the nomadic pastoralist. We are, however, merely following the literal path that the Bible lays out for us. As we shall shortly see, the children of Cain and Seth are the same.

Cain just can't figure it out


Cain’s Dilemma

As I tweet the Bible into cyberspace, Cain strikes me as a most misunderstood character. Mercilessly portrayed as an ungrateful boor, the first vegetable farmer in folklore is demonized as the father of all sinners. Genesis, however, is impossibly vague on Cain’s crime. A close reading of Genesis 4 indicates that Cain was the first human being to offer a sacrifice to a higher power. Being a tiller of the soil, that sacrifice was of the fibrous kind, bereft of any fat or blood. The divine nose (metaphorically) is turned up at this attempt at pacification. In steps Abel with his bloody slaughter of animals and God is well pleased. Traditionally, Christian readers have attributed Cain’s evil intent toward Abel as jealousy. Genesis doesn’t seem to bear this out. “But unto Cain and to his offering he [the Lord] had not respect.” Cain was not jealous, but “wroth.”

Much later in time Paul of Tarsus will tell fledgling Christians that God is “no respecter of persons.” Still, in that first moment of divine favoritism, prior to any explicit instruction being given, we catch a glimpse of the future of this nascent religious movement. Even today, the literalists tell us, God expects something from us. What, exactly, differs from interpreter to interpreter. Cain’s crime was simply being human. Even more poignant in this case is the fact that the divine allowance for consuming meat has not yet been made. Abel raises animals for God’s appetite while Cain raises vegetables for human consumption. No sentient being is harmed in Cain’s offering. Abel, one might say, is the first killer in human history.

We all know the story. Cain will rise up against his brother and slay him. He will then receive a prototype of the mark of the beast and scamper off to rustle up a wife somehow. All this before the third natural born human being, Seth, is even conceived. Beowulf will reflect Cain’s dilemma centuries later, as Grendel is the spawn of the first murderer. The descendents of Cain are routinely demonized while the children of Seth repeat the cycle of divine favoritism over again. Here is Cain’s problem: God will like whom God will like. The rest cannot earn divine favor. The bloody consequences of this reading of history continue to play themselves out even today. Those who need divine approbation will go to any lengths to feel special, while all of us, the true heirs of Cain, have to work it out as best we can under silent skies.


Eve’s Orchard

One of the innocent pleasures of autumn is apple picking. Not living in the country, many of us rely on the local orchards that open their trees and furrows to the public during the fall so we can feel once again in touch with nature. It may be only temporary, but this farm life is authentic and revitalizing – especially under a cerulean blue October sky. So it was that we joined our anonymous friends to pluck fruit and feel a part of the organic world away from laptops, palms, and cells. Picking apples always brings Eden to mind. In fact, no matter how secular the class I teach, if I ask students what picking fruit from a tree – usually I have to throw in the snake as well – represents, invariably most guess Adam and Eve. Of course, in the patriarchal world of the Bible, Eve gets the rap for taking the first bite, but a more sensitive reading reveals maybe this was what God intended all along.

Tasty fruit of knowledge

Within a generation of the origins of Christianity, a negative spin had been placed on that fateful fruit. This was the willful disobedience of sin rearing its ugly head in Eden. Of course, Genesis does not refer to the act as a “sin” – the word first occurs in the story of Cain and Abel. The human striving for knowledge, for the prerogative of the divine, the sadder but more informed life, was now a matter of blame. In the Greco-Roman cultural milieu where men set the standards, woman became the harbinger of sin and decay. Adam stood chastely by, happily clueless until Eve insisted he try this brand of iniquity. Pure fiction. And yet it is this version that has retained cultural currency in the western world. Blame it on Eve.

The patriarchal version


So much of our reading of the Bible is based on prior expectations. Even Bible translators know that they can’t go too far a field from the standard that the KJV set. When western Bible readers first cut their teeth on English prose, it was the dulcet tones of Elizabethan English that captured their attention. And the mores of Shakespearean England combined with the harsh repressions of a simmering Calvinism led to a Bible choked with sin to the point that a little fruit enraged the creator as much as fratricide just a chapter later. The fruit had rotted on the tree, and women were to blame. Perhaps it is time that we recognize the filters before our eyes when we approach the Bible. If we can understand that the patriarchalism is not the point, but merely the cultural shading of the time, we can release the message that the fruit is good. The temptation was not to become evil, but simply to become human.