Cain, Abel, obligation, and right.

Author:Inbinder, Gary

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood As a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then Face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even As also I am known. 1 Corinthians 13:11-12 I. The Right to Life

Many things are not fully intelligible to us unless understood within the context of culture. The story of Cain and Abel, if read in the traditional Judeo-Christian cultural context, teaches us much about the historical conflict in human nature between an irascible demand for autonomous right, or license, and an instinctive and sensible submission to ordered liberty under a rule of law.

As originally conceived the story had five dramatis personae; the Lord who commands, and his fallen creatures Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel who "ought" to obey. The creatures' freedom of action is circumscribed by their pre-existing duties to their Lord, and their "rights" could only be conceived as correlative to obligations for the stewardship and beneficial use of the Lord's properties, which included the creatures themselves. A violation of those obligations by the prohibited action of one creature against another--in this case the violation of an implicit commandment not to murder that was later made explicit at Sinai and re-stated in the Sermon on the Mount--would result in a claim to the Lord signified by the blood of the transgressor's victim.

But what of our understanding in a post-Judeo-Christian anthropocentric culture, where the principal among the dramatis personae, the Lord, has been erased from the text? Modernism and postmodernism have rendered God irrelevant or declared Him dead. Covenant has been replaced by social contract, the action of God's will upon the conscience of the individual replaced by a "General Will" as an expression of state power, original sin by a myth of "natural goodness," and the absolutes of Divine command and correlative rights by the relativism of political expedience. Special interest groups make claims on society by asserting purportedly "natural" or unabashedly abstract and reified group "rights" that only correlate to the political will of a faction, and derive from neither God nor nature, but are legal fabrications to support demands for entitlements as an expression of raw political power.

We live in a postmodern spiritual wasteland created by an impenetrable wall of separation between the City of God and the City of Man. How will a generation whose understanding is blocked by that wall, and circumscribed by the secular culture and "public language" of the City of Man, understand pre-modern truth claims made in the language of the City of God?

Only when we liberate ourselves from our modern and postmodern anthropocentric cultural illusions can we view the human drama of this story not as "through a glass darkly," but rather clearly within the pre-modern cultural and spiritual context under which it was originally conceived, and from which the universal and eternal truths recorded in a far distant time and place are disclosed to us directly from the text.

The critical reader has a moral obligation to past, present, and future generations to recover, as if by process of anamnesis, the historical memory of culture embedded within the text and to unlock its secrets with the keys of tradition. The reader must then consider the authorial intent disclosed in the text in the light of the experience of subsequent generations, including the reader's own experience, and the experience of the present generation. The critical reader's moral imagination will thus, by an act of restoration and critical examination, render the story meaningful and intelligible to his or her generation.

  1. The Story of Brotherhood

    Cain was the elder of two brothers, the first-born son of Adam and Eve following their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. His name, the Hebrew Kayin, comes from the root Kanah, to acquire, and his mother Eve's joyful declaration upon seeing her first born, the Hebrew kanithi ish eth Adonai is typically translated "I have gotten (or acquired) a man with the help of the Lord."

    I will adhere to a traditional understanding of Eve's declaration in the context of the story, because the distinction must be made between God, who creates ex nihilo, and humans who procreate, fabricate, and cultivate what was given to us. Further, Eve rejoiced in the fact that while, because of her sin, she was cursed by God to bring forth her children in sorrow, her joy at the birth of her first born may be taken as a sign of her reconciliation with both God and Adam.

    Regarding Cain's younger brother, while the root of the name Abel is more obscure then Cain's, at least one source references the Assyrian Ablu, or son, and states that the Hebrew signifies a "breath," as evidenced in the brevity of Abel's life. (1) Also significant is the fact that the younger son, Abel, is a shepherd which reminds us of his father's pre-lapsarian role as a faithful and innocent steward of God's creation, while the older son, Cain, must till the soil and bring forth its produce with hard labor, "the sweat of his brow" according to the curse placed upon his father as the consequence of his sin. Thus we see Cain as a paradigm of sinful humanity struggling to master nature and the elements in a Darwinian fight for survival, whereas his brother Abel reminds us of pre-lapsarian innocence and harmony with God and nature.

    Cain's offering of the fruit of the ground is, like a tithe, symbolic of the primitive religious instinct. Abel follows Cain with a sacrifice of the most prized among Abel's flock. God accepts Abel's sacrifice but rejects Cain's, which leads us to the question, "why?" Many interpretations have been advanced but I think the best and most consistent within the context of the story is to view Cain's offering as both grudging and rendered on Cain's terms, as if to say to God, "I labor under your curse and will acknowledge you so long as you are instrumental to me, e.g., provide me with a good harvest." Abel, on the other hand, intuitively renders unto God what is His due, the selfless sacrifice of the first and fat portions of his flock, out of gratitude and love, which is an attempt to expiate the taint of sin inherited from his parents.

    Abel is a child of light and the first victim of the dark heart of humankind. Abel's light can be identified with synderesis, which term was first used by St. Jerome in his explanation of the four living creatures of Ezekiel 1:4-15. St. Jerome understood the man, lion, and ox to represent the rational, irascible, and appetitive parts of the soul, and suggested that the fourth creature, the eagle, was the "spark of conscience" which remained within Adam after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. (2) Abel who seems to be simple, natural, and filled with the light and love of God, as opposed to...

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