Cain and Abel (i) The Crouching Beast

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I’m glad to have studied Biblical Hebrew, though it’s rustier with the passing years. It helps me see things in a different way. At the beginning of Genesis 4, Adam’s wife Eve, having given birth to a son, says something that’s translatable in different ways. The literal reading of the Hebrew is, “I’ve acquired/created (canah) a man with Yahweh“. She’s either saying, “I’ve acquired a man with (the help of) Yahweh”, or “I’ve created a man (in common) with Yahweh”. In other words, what Yahweh can do, I can do too – wowee! Perhaps she’s remembering the serpent’s words in Genesis 3, “you will be like God“. Both possibilities exist. I leave the choice to you.

These writers/editors liked to play with words. The name of Eve’s first son, Cain, sounds like canah (as mentioned above), he being ‘acquired’ with Yahweh’s help. Her second son’s name, Abel, perhaps in anticipation of the approaching tragedy, sounds like hevel, meaning breath. Abel’s breath will shortly be snuffed out. These two, then, were not actual people. The intention of the writers/editors wasn’t historical, and they clearly enjoyed being playful in their story telling.

Cain became a farmer, who brought Yahweh “an offering of the fruit of the ground“. Abel became a herder, who brought an offering “of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions“. Yahweh accepted Abel’s offering, but rejected Cain’s, a certain recipe for sibling disharmony. So what was Yahweh playing at? It’s been suggested that Abel brought ‘best quality’ produce, whereas Cain didn’t. There’s nothing in the text, however, to suggest that Cain’s “fruit of the ground” was discoloured, misshapen, mouldy or otherwise sub-standard. 

Throughout Genesis, Yahweh repeatedly makes such choices, (often of younger over older children), without the behaviour of the chosen being clearly worthy of such choice. Among others, Jacob, the deceitful trickster, comes to mind. There’s no consistent picture of God in the Bible. He’s sometimes capricious, thin skinned, unpredictable and autocratic, lacking in good judgement of character, and turning a blind eye to questionable behaviour that happens to suit his purposes. It intrigues me when people say, quite literally, that they ‘believe in the God of the Bible’. I wonder how many have given serious thought to how much, in the way of credible explanations, many of his choices, demands and actions cry out for?

The Hebrew indicates that Cain “burned with red-hot anger“, which showed in his face. God asks him why this is, although the answer is entirely obvious. The trigger was God’s own behaviour, for which he offered no explanation. Cain just has to accept the situation, and get on with it. But if he isn’t told what he’s done wrong in the present, how can he reasonably be expected to “do what is right” in the future?  

What happened, we’ll see in my next post, but in the meantime, there’s a serious point being made here. Anger, whether unjustly triggered or not, needs to be dealt with. It has to be acknowledged and allowed to be felt. Feelings, however strong, are not morally wrong, but entirely natural, and are outside our conscious control. We need to feel, and to acknowledge what we’re feeling. We need to try to understand it by talking about it (preferably after counting to ten at the very least) to ourselves, as well as to trusted, sensible and reliable others. 

Denial and suppression are futile and potentially destructive. What’s pushed in, will find its own way out again, too often in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people, and with undesirable consequences. The Hebrew suggests an image of anger as a wild beast, crouching and looking for its opportunity to attack. Only if it’s brought out into the open, is there any possibility that it might be tamed, and put to better and constructive use. But, in this story, that’s not what happens …..

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