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The Story of Cain and Abel and the Problem of Divine Inequality

 A good friend who was unable to attend our recent Genesis seminar suggested that I post a summary of what I had presented. It seemed like a good idea, at first. But then the challenge: How does one compress 28 pages of lecture material into a blog post, of a size anyone cares to read? A future article perhaps, but not something I wish to attempt here. So I limit my comment to one of the contemporary anxieties in relation to the Bible and especially in relation to our focus on the Cain and Abel narrative. I refer to the view intoned in our society with increasing virulence that belief in one God is a bad thing since, as the charge goes, it leads people into brutality toward others. It’s the view that religion, as the late Christopher Hitchens insisted in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is the “main source of hatred in the world,” that monotheism entails violence and is the root of homophobia, abuse of women and children, and most of the other social evils.

University of Chicago professor Regina Schwartz is equally shrill in The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, where she blames practically everything on the way the Bible has been put to the service of “violent identity formation,” with the result that people find ways on biblical grounds to demonize or Canaanize whomever they wish to loathe (Blacks, Jews, gays, women, pagans, the poor). “But why the violence?” asks Schwartz. “Why is claiming a distinctive collective identity important enough to spawn violence?” Schwartz finds her answer in what she calls “a principle of scarcity,” by which she means that since everything is in short supply (land, prosperity, power, favor), everything is competed for and someone always inherits at another’s expense. Here’s where Genesis 4 comes in. For Schwartz the miseries of the world do not trace ultimately to the original sin of disobedience in the Garden, but to the “foundational myth” involving the first sibling rivalry, the story of Cain and Abel, where “the violence that rends our world” had its start in the fact that both brothers offered a sacrifice, but for whatever reason only one was accepted. Here’s Schwartz in her own words:

        Why did God condemn Cain’s sacrifice? What would have happened if he had accepted both Cain’s and Abel’s offerings instead of choosing one, and had thereby promoted cooperation between the sower and the shepherd instead of their competition and violence? What kind of God is this who chooses one sacrifice over the other? This God who excludes some and prefers others, who casts some out, is a monotheistic God–monotheistic not only because he demands allegiance to himself alone but because he confers his favor on one alone. . . . Cain kills in the rage of his exclusion. And the circle is vicious: because Cain is outcast, Abel is murdered and Cain is cast out. We are the descendants of Cain because we too live in a world where some are cast out, a world in which whatever law of scarcity made that ancient story describe only one sacrifice as acceptable . . . still prevails to dictate the terms of a ferocious and fatal competition. Some lose.
        When Cain’s tale is retold in the Bible with another set of brothers, that uncomfortable rule of scarcity appears again. There is not enough divine favor, not enough blessing, for both Jacob and Esau. One can prosper only at the other’s expense. When Jacob steals his brother’s blessing, there are no blessings left for Esau: “Esau pleaded with his father, ‘Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!’” (Gen 27:38). The terrible cost of this scarcity of blessing is another Outcast: “your home shall be far from the earth’s riches.” And again the Outcast becomes murderous: “Esau harbored a grudge against his brother Jacob on account of the blessing that his father had given him. And Esau said to himself, “As soon as the time to mourn my father is at hand, I will kill my brother Jacob” (Gen 27:41). In the Bible, these brothers are the eponymous ancestors of peoples: peoples whose enmity grows and is nurtured for centuries, peoples who define themselves and their prosperity in that close atmosphere of scarcity, peoples who conceive of the Other as cursed and murderous outcasts.

Does she have a point? Does scarcity sometimes lead to exclusion, and exclusion to competition, and competition to violence? Who can doubt. This is one reading, but is it the reading invited by the biblical text on its own wavelength, in its own idiom? Is it a sympathetic, charitable, and hospitable reading, or, applying Schwartz’s own terms to the hermeneutical question, is it a reading that might be more aptly characterized as hostile and violent? For myself, as I tried to show in a detailed study of Genesis 4:1-16, I think Schwartz’ reading represents a profound and tragic counter-reading of the actual biblical narrative and a sharp contrast indeed from Cyril of Jerusalem, who, in his 4th-century instructions to catechumens, cited the story of Cain and Abel as a premier example of the loving kindness of God!

Here is a story of grace upon grace, an illustration–as apt and rich as any in Scripture–of the Pauline theme “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20). It is true, of course, that the story begins on a note of near equality (two brothers, each with his means of subsistence, recognize the same Giver in their gifts of worship) and moves abruptly to inequality: YHWH looks favorably on Abel and his offering but rejects Cain and his. Despite all attempts to rationalize, ancient and modern, this inequality remains inexplicable. Acting neither capriciously nor arbitrarily (at least the story itself gives no hint of these), YHWH does act mysteriously, according to an expectation built into the nature of living in the Creator’s world, where creatures are not owed an audience as his counselor. And that is the point. This is not finally a story about offerings and offerers, but about human response to the way God chooses to do things. And so, YHWH addresses Cain’s indignation, without so much as a hint of any defect in his offering or any deficiency in his manner of bringing it. In this light, the so-called “curse on Cain” did not follow on from God’s rejecting his offering, but from Cain’s negative reaction to the blessing of another and to God’s manner of distributing his intended blessing, namely, through the chosen agent whom Cain eliminates through fratricide.

To put this differently, this story is all about acknowledging that (a) the Creator is a God of decisions, of elective choices, which are his prerogative to make without input from us; and (b) participation in the Creator’s blessing-plan requires seeing/doing things God’s way. Here is a reminder that God’s blessing is a matter of sovereign, inscrutable grace; it is not as humans think. Specifically, in this story God chooses to regard the younger and his offering rather than the older and his, introducing a theme which will run through Genesis and beyond: Divine decisions do not always follow the rule of primogeniture (i.e., the right of the firstborn; so Isaac rather than Ishmael, Jacob rather than Esau, Ephraim rather than Manasseh, eventually David rather than his older brothers). Moreover, God’s blessing is for those who don’t get confused about who is God. They aren’t! In fact, as will become a prominent theme in ch. 12 onward, “the attitude of those who stand initially outside the blessing will determine, in part, whether they themselves will eventually participate in the blessing or not” (Mann). But to do so they must submit to God’s divine decision on the medium of that blessing. Cain, although not the chosen line of blessing (vv. 4-5), will shortly be given an opportunity to respond submissively to God and in that way to get in on the blessing (vv. 6-7). Obviously God’s acceptance of Abel and his offering and not Cain and his is not finally a matter of Schwartz’ “principle of scarcity” at all, for God extends to Cain the very possibility of acceptance and blessing.

It is precisely in the missing of this point that our world takes offense at the gospel, a message of salvation offered in terms the world, by its criteria, considers unequal or unfair. The biblical gospel is particularized to elected Israel and Israel’s Messiah and universalized to the world through elected Israel and Israel’s Messiah and through no other. These things are not ours to control or to comprehend, but to accept in submissive faith. Refusal to do so represents a posture of protest against God’s way of doing things and, accordingly, a forfeiture of what God extends in grace since it is not on our terms. What it does not represent is an alternative better way. Cain and his offering are not subsequently accepted by God now that Abel has been disposed of and is out of the way. “Cain’s elimination of God’s elect does not leave him occupying that role. Instead it results in Cain’s being alienated from God and from the soil from which he earned his livelihood (vv. 11-12)” (Kaminsky). This story, in other words, is another chapter in the story of the Fall itself, which centers not on God’s unfair restriction–indeed, God’s freedoms are many and his restrictions few (cf. the disproportionate trees in the Garden!)–but on the first humans’ determination that they rather than God would define the way to blessing, which of course, results in their forfeiting the blessing that could be theirs. Divine inequality or unfairness provides an occasion for the exposing of human rebellion, it is not the cause of human rebellion (contra Schwartz).

But back to the many ways in which this story highlights the grace of God. It is not just that YHWH offers Cain the possibility of acceptance and blessing, it is that YHWH speaks to him in the first place, that YHWH converses with him! (vv. 6-7). This is the first display of grace, anticipating the second: YHWH gives the non-elected brother the opportunity to get in on the blessing of acceptance (this will have to be factored into any doctrine of election for it to be considered properly biblical)–clear indication that God’s mysterious and unpredictable acts of choosing are neither arbitrary, whimsical, nor compromising of his justice. Third, as with Cain’s parents in the previous story, YHWH comes looking for repentance by way of rhetorical interrogation (vv. 9-10). Fourth, Cain’s murderous act results in the judgment of banishment, as it did for his parents; but he receives exile instead of death, including the divine provision of a sign of protection (vv. 11-16). Alas, the apparent “arbitrariness of God has its positive side,” and “divine inequality” ends up working in Cain’s favor, as “the symmetry of ‘life for life’ yields to the gracious asymmetry of exile as the penalty for murder.” Cain, it turns out, “survives, despite the atrocity he has committed. . . . [H]e survives by the grace of God–ironically, the very principle that evoked his murderous impulse in the first place” Indeed, “The irony is pungent: The man who could not tolerate God’s inscrutable grace now benefits from it” (Levenson). “In such a simple way, the narrative articulates the two-sidedness of human life, in jeopardy for disobedience and yet safe. The acknowledgment of guilt and the reality of grace come together in this presentation” (Brueggemann).

Returning once more to Schwartz and her protest, should we lay the blame for the first murder (and all subsequent ones) on the Lord and his “favoritism”? Is this a story about scarcity, or about particularity in the interest of universality? (See on this theme especially Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World.) Is it the case that God has only one blessing, so to speak, or is it that God has only one path or agency through which he chooses to dispense his blessing generously to all those who receive it in submission to his way of doing things? In short, is this a story about divine shortage or about divine sovereignty, about my world in which God comes to live or God’s world in which I am invited to live? Related, did Cain actually kill in the rage of his exclusion, or did he kill in the rejection of YHWH’s grace, generously available to him through faith and submission? Even if YHWH’s choice of Abel explains the occasion for Cain’s anger and his drooping countenance, does it explain his violence? Must scarcity lead to exclusion and exclusion to competition and competition to violence? Perhaps in a world minus God, but hardly in a world of God’s own making, where submission to God’s way of doing things defines existence. To my reading, the stories of Cain and Abel and of Jacob and Esau do not express “a conception of identity as something won in a competition, at someone else’s loss, an identity born in the rivalry and violence that unravel from scarcity” (Schwartz), but something else entirely, namely, the possibility of a conception of identity anchored to God’s sovereign election and inscrutable grace.

And as for the matter of divine inequality, is it not the case that God’s blessings flow in and through the world in mysterious ways? R. W. L. Moberly captures it this way:

        [M]uch of what happens in life happens unpredictably and apparently randomly. One person enjoys robust good health, another gets cancer or multiple sclerosis. One person, born in prosperity and/or a time of peace, lives long; another, born in poverty and/or time of war, dies young. One falls in love, and the love is reciprocated; another suffers unrequited love. Deadly accidents, from drunken driver to earthquake, can strike out of the blue. And so on. It is hardly necessary to recount the endless ways in which . . . some are less favored in life than others, for reasons irrespective of their merits.
        In situations of being “unfavored,” people often display an instinctive tendency to try to rationalize: “Why me?” “What have I/we/you done to deserve it?” Yet such backward-looking questions are incapable of receiving a good answer, for it is intrinsic to the situation that what has happened to them has not been because they deserved it. The only questions that can be fruitful are questions that look forward rather than back: What is to be made of the situation? What can I/we/you yet hope for [cf. Jn 9:2-3!]. . . . [T]his is precisely the focus of YHWH’s all-important admonition to Cain (Gen 4:6-7).

Let’s face it, so much of what Schwartz and others find problematic is simply and mysteriously intrinsic to life in the world. I have long been puzzled by those who reason that getting rid of the Bible and talk of God will somehow solve these problems or lessen the pain of coping with their reality. Perhaps it is the case that, as “children of Cain” (or of Jonah), people project an image of God in whose world distributive justice is the highest principle, a world in which mysterious and inequitable acts of divine choosing are not permissible. Of course, that would be a world in which grace would not then be extended generously to Cain, or to us; and neither he nor we would want that either. In the end, Moberly’s counsel seems best–to ask questions “that look forward rather than back: What is to be made of the situation? What can I/we/you yet hope for. . . ?” and to be grateful that in God’s grace these are ours, as they were Cain’s, to ask.

This little discussion touches on about one-seventh of just one of our seminar sessions, not to mention an entire second session on “The Problem of Patriarchal Polygamy in Genesis and Its Effects in Salvation History” led by guest presenter Dr. Sebastian Carnazzo.


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