Cain and Abel (ii) My Brother’s Keeper

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In the previous post, we saw how Yahweh’s rejection of Cain’s offering was the trigger for red-hot anger. This bottled-up anger was suddenly and catastrophically poured out on his brother Abel. The Greek Septuagint version of this story adds a detail missing from the Hebrew Bible’s account – that Cain said to his brother, “Let’s go out to the field“, and that’s where he suddenly attacked and killed him. To underline the appalling nature of this crime, the writer/editor repeats the word “brother” 6 times in the space of 4 verses.

Once again, Yahweh asks a question to which he already knows the answer, “Where is your brother?” This time Cain replies, and adds downright lying to his greater culpability. “I don’t know“, he says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In his heart of hearts, he undoubtedly knows that he ought to have been. The word “keeper” is from שָׁמַר (shamar) to keep, in the sense of to watch over and protect. It’s to be in a position of trust, like a shepherd tending a flock, and preserving it from all harm. That inviolable, brotherly trust has been utterly betrayed by Cain.

We say that humans are one great family – that all men and women are brothers and sisters, irrespective of creed, colour, language, dress, wealth, poverty, or any other distinguishing characteristic, and that we are each other’s “keepers”, with a corresponding obligation of care. Our great spiritual teachers have taught us this, and our foremost religions claim to embody their teachings. Sadly, throughout history, they have too often split the human family into ‘them and us’, denouncing those with different beliefs, actively persecuting, and even slaughtering them. If our beliefs do not lead us to live in a way that clearly shows that we do consider all men and women to be our brothers and sisters, irrespective of creed, colour, language, dress, wealth, poverty, or any other distinguishing characteristic, then our beliefs are not worth tuppence and our religion, however ancient and imposing, is a sham.

The writer/editor of this story employs a graphic, if not shocking, image to express the tragic horror of what Cain has done. The ground has “opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood“, and that blood has a “voice” which is “crying out” through that blood stained “mouth“. It’s the chief witness for the prosecution, presenting irrefutably persuasive evidence that can lead to only one verdict.    

Yahweh decides that just as Cain rejected the brother for whom he had a duty of care, so the blood-stained ground which Cain had farmed will reject him. Instead of a settled farmer, he’ll be a homeless wanderer. Cain gives no indication of remorse, but only of concern for himself because of the vulnerability of the homeless. Yahweh doesn’t appear to have foreseen this consequence of his sentence, “But Yahweh” took the point and “said to him, All right then” and “put a special mark on Cain so that no one who found him would strike him down.” This being a story, there’s no need to ask what that ‘special mark’ was. If we could find out, every law breaker in the land would want one in order to get its protection. 

So what else can we take from this story? The idea of ‘original sin’ inherited from Adam and Eve by all of us belongs, of course, to the realm of myth. Myth, however, does not mean untruth. Myth gives us truth which though not literal, is far deeper. As human beings, we have conscious minds that float on the surface of a far greater unconscious, which has an influence on us that, by definition, we’re not aware of. We also experience emotions that can sometimes overwhelm us, and are later regretted. We have great intelligence and technological abilities, and yet we can also be greatly, and sometimes dangerously, flawed.

We need to be honest to, and about, ourselves. The story of Cain and Abel tells us that we need to be not only our brothers’ and sisters’ “keepers“, but our own “keepers” as well. “Wrong doing is crouching at the door. It wants to gain control over you, so you must subdue it“, is a good and helpful lesson to take away with us.

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