The story of Cain and Abel is one most who preach avoid. It has a difficult god. It has an evasive lesson. Why is Abel favoured because he farms animals, and Cain unfavoured because he farms crops? Does not this god of favourites bear some responsibility for the violence that ensued? And why, oh why, is this story included in the Bible?
Scholars think this is a very old community fable, originating from the time (1200 BCE) when Israelite people founded hilltop villages in central Palestine. The conditions for farming were difficult – with a thin layer of soil that could easily be washed away in the rainy season, and a baking hot sun when the rains weren’t in season. To survive these villagers created terraces to hold the soil, cisterns to hold the water, and diversified their economy (wheat, barley, grapes, dates, figs, sheep, and goats).
Abel and Cain represent the economy of the village. In the fable there is no indication that Cain was not offering his best produce to the deity, or that Cain was a lazy or incompetent farmer. Rather Cain’s not doing well is just a roll of the agricultural dice. This year the crops didn’t do as well as the livestock. Next year it might be the other way around. That’s why you have a diversified economy. That’s why the Cains and Abels need each other. That’s why they are brothers.
Unfortunately, the god character in the fable is very unattractive. ‘He’ seems to choose favourites, allocate blame, and dish out punishments. And unfortunately, too, this god of favourites is later picked up by interpreters who want a partisan god, that punishes others, and allocates blame.
So, this text and its god may have been used to justify the slaughter of the agrarian Canaanites by the nomadic (and pastoralist) descendants of Abraham in the post-Egypt times. (Yes, the Sunday School stories of Joshua and his Jerichos are stories of genocide).
This text was certainly used in the 19th century in America as part of the rationale for slavery – African Americans were said to have the mark of Cain.
And the god of favourites continues to pop up throughout history when one people, group, or leader want a divine mandate to hate or destroy another people, group, or leader.
I think we always need to wary, particularly in times of tension and conflict, particularly in days like today when we remember soldiers and their families, when god is introduced to favour what we have done and are doing, and what our opposition hasn’t and isn’t.
But the Cain and Abel fable is not being told to show up this god’s deficiencies, but to convey an important truth about community - namely that competition and envy can destroy community, and everyone loses when there is violence.
In the story Cain doesn’t accept that his poor productivity that year was the due to the roll of the agricultural dice. No, he smarted from the lack of recognition. He seethed because his brother got the praise. His countenance fell because he wasn’t being appreciated.
This is a dangerous attitude for someone in a hilltop farming village to have, because in that kind of community the unflagging and whole-hearted effort of every labourer is crucial. Attitude can breed envy, envy can breed violence, and violence can cripple community.
When Cain kills Abel, presumably out of jealousy (with the god of favourites complicit), Cain not only removes Abel’s energy and skill from the village work force, but also – because no small community can tolerate a murderer – his own. To remove two young men from the labour force of a tiny hill community in which every hand is crucial is to significantly reduce that community’s chances of survival.
This is not dissimilar to the New Testament parable about two brothers, which we know of as ‘The Prodigal Son’. The ‘crime’ of the prodigal was taking resources (‘his inheritance’) out of a community farming unit, and thus threatening that unit’s viability. And the ‘crime’ of the father in that story was to let him.
So, the thesis recent scholarship[i] is suggesting is that the Cain and Abel fable was told and re-told, and ended up in the Torah, because the ‘sin’ of Cain was to endanger his community. It’s a warning tale. Envy that leads to murder is not just a crime against an individual, it is more importantly a crime against the community – threatening its survival.
There is one other piece to this fable that we need to note, and that is authorship. As you may know the book of Genesis was formed by braiding together three originally independent narratives, each with a different author. Scholars refer to these authors as P, J, and E.
P was the compiler/author of the first creation story in Genesis 1 where humans are told by the deity to be ‘fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it’. The Hebrew word here rendered ‘subdue’ means forceful subjection; a word used elsewhere in Scripture to describe enslavement and rape.[ii]
J was the compiler/author of the second creation story in Genesis 2ff. According to J the purpose of humans was to till the soil and keep it (v.15). The Hebrew word rendered ‘till’ connotes serving, and the word rendered ‘keep’ connotes guarding and protecting. The task of the human is to cooperate with the soil and care for it.
And it is J who brought us the Cain and Abel saga.
J’s context is cooperating with each other and the earth in an ecologically fragile environment. Cain’s ‘sin’ is the self-centredness of competition and envy when the precarious context of the community needs a strong ethic of cooperation. The lesson of the fable therefore speaks to the fragility of life on this planet today, and the need to pull together, as the people in the hilltop villages once did, remembering our dependence on the earth, its plants and animals, and each other.
Today is ANZAC day. A day some of us frankly approach with ambivalence. We want to honour our dead, victims of war - both military and civilian, and both those who died and those who carried on living with the physical and/or mental scars. We want to honour courage, both of the soldiers, those who stayed home, and those who conscientiously objected. We also want to honour survival and survivors. And we want to pledge our support for a de-militarised world, where solutions are found without killing each other.
Gallipoli is an apt backdrop for our remembrance. A battle(s) that was poorly led, a military disaster, and where we were the invaders of another’s homeland. Our soldiers, boys really, were victims and survivors of a political and strategic mess – a mess inspired and aided by politicians and the majority of the populace who supported them.
My ANZAC ambivalence is about both the use of religious language that seems to suggest that death is redemptive (the ‘sacrifice’ word needs deletion), and the quandary of how to honour our war dead without encouraging current and future wars and the death they bring.
The Cain and Abel fable placed alongside ANZAC also brings perspective. We can’t afford to kill each other anymore. Planetary life is too precarious. The economic and ecological effects of warfare are huge. Our planet can’t afford the competition and envy that leads to murder. We need to cooperate, not just within a nation, but transnationally, globally. We need to pull together as a species to survive. We are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers, and they are ours. We need to serve, guard, and protect our planet and all the life it sustains. Everyone loses when there is violence. There are no longer – if there ever were – winners in war.
[i] I refer particularly to the recent work of Richard Trudeau writing in The Fourth R, 34-2, Mar-Apl 2021.
[ii] The word is ‘kavash’. In 2 Chr 28:10 and Jer 34:11, 16 it means enslavement. In Neh 5:5 and Est 7:8 it means rape.