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

Honor Thy Mother

Earth Day should be an international holiday. Perhaps the most disturbing attribute of some varieties of Evangelicalism is their tendency to read the “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” of Genesis 1 to be a mandate not tempered by a literal reading of Genesis 4. As I noticed when tweeting the text yesterday, Genesis 4.11 has God say to Cain, literally, “And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand.” Her mouth? What is this if not a biblical affirmation of Gaia? The earth, according to Genesis 2, is literally the mother of Adam. Yahweh is the male element, the fingers molding the dirt (those who have ears, let them hear), while the womb of this bizarre conception is the earth itself. She has a mouth to receive the blood of Abel. The planet beneath our feet, according to the Bible, has not only a mouth, but also hands (Psalm 89, for those who doubt). It is our duty to grasp these hands and save our mother from ourselves.

In the spirit of the day, I decided to fix that pesky leak in the bathroom sink yesterday. We rent, of course, and our landlord—the nicest I’ve ever known—can be a bit slow when it comes to non-emergencies. I fixed the kitchen sink a year or two back, so I stuck my head under the cast-iron monster, baptized by the drips that continued to appear above my head from pipes far older than Methuselah, to see what I could do. After trips to every hardware store in the area, watching bemused DIY experts scratch their heads at photos on my phone of the Byzantine arrangement under my sink, I finally had to admit defeat and reassemble the old faucets again. The drips that fall are Gaia’s tears.

When I was in college I learned of Pascal’s wager. A philosopher who liked to hedge his bets, Pascal deduced that if God exists then our eternal fate relies on our obeying him (always him). If God does not exist, we have lost nothing by behaving ourselves, Pascal concluded. While many Evangelicals find that reasoning attractive, they do not apply it to their mother planet. If God is not coming back any day now, we’d better take care of the planet that sustains us. If God does show up, against all odds, what have we lost? Watching the plants burst back into life after a gray and dank winter, who can help but wonder at it all? Literal or not, the earth is so maternal that we should all pay her the reverence she is owed. Even if it means being a literalist for a day.

NASA's picture of our mother.

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.