(This blog was first posted on September 26, 2010.)
And God said to Cain: Why did you heat up, and why did your face fall? Isn’t it true that if you do good, there is uplifting? And if you do not do good, sin is lying like a beast at the door, and its hunger is for you. But you, you can rule over it. (Genesis/Bereishit 4:6-7)
chatat = sin, moral violation, missing the mark, going off track, fault, guilt
Yes, God gives Cain a warning, and he kills his brother anyway.
The first time I read the story of Cain and Abel in Hebrew, I saw it in a new light. Cain’s name in Hebrew is kayin, which means “spear”, and may or may not be related to the word kanah, “acquire”. But Abel’s name in Hebrew is hevel—the same word that is translated as “vanity” in the King James version of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet. A hevel is a puff of air, a vapor, something transitory and insignificant; it can also be translated as “emptiness” or “futility”.
Somebody named Abel might well be a virtuous shepherd who brings a superior sacrifice to God. But somebody named Futility? Or Puff? I don’t think so.
Puff’s insubstantiality is underscored by the description of the births of Adam and Eve’s first two sons. First the Torah says: She conceived and she gave birth to Cain, and she said: I have created a man with God. Then it says: And she added to the birthing his brother, Puff. Clearly Cain is the important character. Puff is merely a foil for Cain’s drama.
Cain is the one who gets the idea of bringing an offering to God, and since he works the soil like his father Adam, he brings a sacrifice from the fruit of the ground. Puff then imitates Cain, and brings a sacrifice from the firstborns of his flock and from their fat.
God pays attention to Puff’s offering, and ignores Cain’s. (The Torah does not say how God demonstrated this attention, but somehow Cain could tell. Medieval commentary said that fire from heaven devoured Puff’s animals, but left Cain’s fruits and vegetables untouched.)
Then Cain gets upset; in the metaphor of the Torah, he becomes hot, and his face falls. I remember how upset my own son used to get when he was small and something unfair happened.
Is God’s action unfair? Traditional commentary argues that Puff’s sacrifice is superior to Cain’s, so he deserves God’s favor. But I don’t buy it. It’s true that later in the Torah, firstborn animals and fat are especially appropriate for sacrifices, so Puff gave God the best he had. But the text says nothing about the quality of Cain’s gifts; he might have offered the best he had, too. And given that at this point God still expects humans to be vegetarians, it seems odd that God would prefer the sacrifice of animals.
I think God’s action is deliberately unfair, and its purpose is to give Cain a test or challenge. God then gives Cain a strong hint with the warning translated above. Never mind whether life is fair, God implies. The important thing is to do good yourself, regardless. If you do, you’ll be uplifted. But if you succumb to the animal impulse to do evil, you’ll be eaten up by it. Believe me, you have the ability to overrule that impulse. So here’s your chance to prove yourself.
Alas, Cain fails the test and kills his brother.
Traditional commentary claims this is the second time a human fails one of God’s tests, the first time being in the garden of Eden. But I think that when God creates the adam (which means “human” or “humankind”) out of dirt and the divine breath, this new creature is incomplete, not entirely human yet. God transfers the proto-human into an otherworldly place in which all the animals subsist on fruit. Judging by God’s “curses” on man, woman, and serpent, the garden of Eden has no weeds, thorns, pain, birth, or death; it’s not part of the real world we know.
The whole point of Eden seems to be to expose the adam to the Tree of Knowledge. God points out the tree to the creature by saying: From all the trees of the garden you may certainly eat; but from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you may not eat, because once you eat from it you will certainly die.
When the adam doesn’t do anything about this prohibition, God divides it into two beings, male and female counterparts. This does the trick; the female human accepts the challenge, and both of them eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Now they are truly human: they exercise free will, they have a moral sense that other animals lack, and they are mortal. Now God can take them out of Eden and return them to the real world to get the history of humanity going.
But apparently humanity needs another nudge from God. The knowledge of good and bad that Adam and Eve acquired in Eden is still nascent and primitive. A real test is needed to show humanity what free will and good and evil really mean. So God sets it up, with Puff as the foil for Cain. Cain has a good impulse, wanting to show his gratitude for the produce of the earth, and gives some to God. God responds with unfairness, injustice. Cain has a primitive intuition of good and evil, and gets upset when life isn’t fair. And God tells Cain to get over it, and use his free will, his ability to override his impulses and make deliberate choices, his ability to act according to a higher morality. This is the first real test of a human being.
Cain flunks the test. And to this day, human beings keep on flunking the test. We lash out at unfairness, we take revenge, and we murder our brothers, our fellow human beings.
But some of us grow up. Some of us hear an echo of God’s message to Cain, and override our angry impulses, and choose to behave with more virtue. It’s not easy at first, but gradually we can develop a habit of choosing good over evil, of keeping the hungry beast at the door at bay. We can make the beast lie outside, instead of letting it come in and take over.
Is humanity making any progress on this hard path? Examples of atrocities are still all too easy to find. But I believe that more and more people are recognizing them as atrocious. The world is still full of Cains. But maybe, in some future century, if humanity lasts long enough, we will all finally be able to hear God’s warning to Cain, and rule over our emotional reactions to unfairness, and dedicate ourselves to choosing good, no matter what.
May it happen soon.