Once one gets right down to it, the difference between liberals and conservatives traces home to a disagreement about the basic source of human troubles.
Liberals are inclined to blame external causes—for example, poverty, prejudice, poor rearing, or just plain misfortune—against which they take up arms in order progressively to enable man’s natural goodness and felicity to emerge out from under; for liberals, it is the scientists, inventors, and caregivers who are the truest benefactors of the race, helping to overcome necessity and to extend human dominion over an inhospitable world.
Conservatives are inclined to blame human misery rather on causes lurking naturally within the souls of men—pride, vanity, jealousy, greed, and insatiable or unruly desires. Accordingly, conservatives are skeptical about human perfectibility and suspicious of utopian projects, not least because they would have to be conducted by imperfect fellow human beings, always dangerously unfit to remake the world; for conservatives, it is the priests, prophets, and lawgivers who are the truest benefactors of the race, helping to restrain vice and to encourage human self-command in the ceaseless struggle raging in the human soul between our better and worse natures.
Curiously, liberals and conservatives both find intellectual and moral support in the same traditional sources. For example, the prophetic and messianic strands of biblical religion inspire many a liberal activist to build a world in which men will turn swords into plowshares; and the early intellectual founders of modernity—like Bacon and Locke—took God’s primary exhortation in Genesis, “to have dominion,” as a religious warrant for the technological project to master nature. Yet neighboring passages of Genesis are said by conservatives to show man’s radical sinfulness, and the weight of Scripture is usually regarded as falling on the side of lawgivers and priests, not scientists and inventors. The truth that the Bible says shall make us free is surely not the knowledge of the laws of Newton.
What does the Bible actually teach about the source of human troubles? What is its author’s view of civilization and the arts, or of the prospects for overcoming hostility and misery among men? Though the Bible’s first word cannot be its last word, one would do well to begin near the beginning, in the book of Genesis. The first exploration of this subject comes with the story of Cain and Abel.
The story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) is, in fact, not a separate tale but, rather, a continuation and conclusion of the story of the Garden of Eden. It completes the story of Adam and Eve (begun in Genesis 2:4), of whom we shall not hear again. More important, by presenting an account of primordial life outside the Garden—the life of human beings born of woman, living without imposed law but instead under the newly obtained “natural” knowledge of good and bad”it shows us what natural or unregulated human life might be like.
This final episode of the primordial story features fundamental elements of human existence, psychic and social: (a) the first household and family, that is, the first human institution, and therewith the first element of society; (b) the first attempts, through sacrifices, at a relationship between man and God; (c) distinctive human passions, preeminently wounded pride, anger, jealousy, and fear; (d) violent death, crime and punishment, and the rudiments of (natural) justice; and (e) the emergence of agriculture and settlements, the arts and the city. As a result, this tale manages to introduce, in a mere twenty-six verses, many of the essential elements of a “natural” anthropology, showing us to ourselves in a mirror and making vivid how humankind would live on its own without moral instruction. More anthropological than historical—these are paradigmatic more than they are “real” people—the story helps us see clearly some of the reasons why the “natural” or uninstructed way does not work, and, therefore, why the giving of God’s law might be both necessary and welcome.
Everyone knows that Cain committed fratricide. But few people remember that he is also the first farmer, the initiator of sacrifices, and the founder of the first city, as well as the progenitor of a line of men that invented the arts—including music and metallurgy. Why does the first family issue in fratricide? And what has fratricide to do with the city or with all these other—and usually celebrated—features of civilized life? Is there, perhaps, something questionable, even destructive, at the heart of civilization? The text that prompts these questions does not simply answer them. To pursue them we must submit to the careful work of exegesis and interpretation—setting aside, as much as we are able, our preexisting prejudices.
And the man knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten [or “created”: kanithi] a man [ish] with the Lord.” And she again bore his brother Abel.
The first word about life outside the Garden is not as harsh as we had been led to believe. On the contrary, it celebrates the birth of a son, without report of (the predicted) pain or trouble to the woman, received joyously by his mother. Adam, having known his wife, recedes into the background; Eve, in her generational fullness, occupies center stage, to her great delight. Boasting of her own creative powers, Eve compares herself as creator to God: though the conventional translation of kanithi ish eth adonai, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord,” makes Eve seem grateful and even pious, “with the help of” is an interpretive interpolation. In my view, the context clearly favors “I have gotten [or “created”] a man [equally] with God”—or, in plain speech, “God created a man, and now so have I.”
Who could blame Eve for such an attitude? Absent some divine revelation about God’s role in generation, all the evidence naturally supports Eve’s view: she conceived, she labored, and she bore; and the child grew and emerged out of her own substance. Having been named Eve (Chavah) by her husband because she was to be the mother of all living (chai), she now exults in her special creative powers. She takes special delight in her firstborn.
Cain, the pride of his mother’s bearing, bears the name of his mother’s pride: Cain (Kayin), related to kanithi, from a root kanah, meaning to possess; also perhaps related to koneh, meaning to form or shape or make or create. Cain, a formed being, a being created and possessed by his mother, will become a proud farmer, the sort of man who lays possessive claim to the earth and who is proud of his ability to bring forth—to create—fruit from the ground. Cain, the firstborn, is sitting pretty.
In contrast, the birth of Abel, the younger, is uncelebrated by his mother. Though no explanation is given for his name (unlike for Cain’s), he is, prophetically, given a name that means “breath-that-vanishes.” Abel, introduced only as “his brother Abel,” seems to be an afterthought. There is no described relation to his mother; instead he is important only or mainly as Cain’s brother.
Were we to know nothing more of the two brothers, we would still have enough with which to think about their relationship. Even apart from differences in inborn nature or those resulting from parental favoritism or neglect, birth order alone sets the stage. Younger siblings face difficulties because they come on the scene with their older brothers (or sisters) firmly established—in size, in ability, and in their parents’ affections. The younger, regarded as underdog, elicits our sympathy. But the eldest, too, faces serious and more subtle difficulties. The object of parental pride, he feels that more is expected of him—and, more often than not, it is. More than his younger siblings, he bears the burden of a need to please; his failures he knows will disappoint.
Moreover, the birth of his siblings makes a radical change in the world as he has known it. Previously the sole apple of each parent’s eye, now he has competition—especially for his mother’s attention. Why, he must silently ask himself, did they have another one, unless there were something wrong with me, something they are keeping hidden? Because anger at his parents for his displacement is dangerous and counterproductive, the firstborn lodges all his resentment with the innocent newcomer. (As one firstborn nakedly put it when baby sibling was but a few days old: “Mom, why don’t we flush her down the toilet before she gets too big?”) The more beloved and favored and happy the firstborn, the more difficult it may be for him to accept the second, and the more important it will be for him to prove himself superior. These rivalries can be further accentuated by differences in habits and ways of life, as, indeed, they are in our present story.
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain was a tiller of the ground.
The two occupations of the brothers echo two earlier remarks about human work. Herding sheep reminds us of having dominion—ruling—over the animals, the work announced in Genesis 1:26, 28, the majestic story in which man is godlike, the world harmonious, and all is seen to be very good. Tilling the earth is the way anticipated and forecast in the so-called second creation story (Genesis 2:5, 3:23), the story that shows how badness and hardship enter and complicate human existence. Cain, the new man and heir of the second account, appears to be following the life God foretold for man outside the Garden (like many a firstborn, he takes over “the family business”); in this sense, one might think Cain “obedient.” But, as Robert Sacks observes,
The only disturbing thing is his name. It implies that, for Cain, to be a farmer means to put up fences and to establish a private tract of land which one can call one’s own, rather than fulfilling one’s duty to the fruitfulness of the earth. Abel’s way of life leaves the world open. Shepherds need no fences and roam through the whole.
But the difference is greater still.
Farming requires intellectual sophistication and psychic discipline: wit is necessary to foresee the possibility of bread from grain, to develop tools, to protect crops; self-control—indeed, a massive change in the psychodynamics of need and satisfaction—is needed before anyone will work today so that he might eat months later. Agriculture goes with possession of land and settled habitation; it represents a giant step toward human self-sufficiency, yet it is also precarious and very dependent on rain. Because he mixes his labor with the earth, the farmer claims possession not only of the crops but also of the land itself. For the same reason, he is even inclined to regard himself as responsible—creatively as maker—for the produce itself. The farmer is an audacious and self-assertive character.
The shepherd, in contrast, lives a simple and by and large artless life. His work is mild and gentle; his rule requires no violence. The sheep graze as they roam and produce wool and milk out of their own substance, the shepherd contributing nothing but also harming nothing. Though he wanders the earth as he pleases, the shepherd has no illusions of self-sufficiency; indeed, he is likely to feel acutely the dependence of his entire life on power not under his control and processes not of his own creation.
In sum, Cain’s way of life, like the man himself, is more complex: possessive, artful, potentially harmful, and dangerous, but with the prospect of the higher achievements (and risks) of civilization. Abel’s way, like the man, is simple: open and permissive, harmless, and certainly vulnerable (especially before craft, cunning, and technique) and, besides, incapable of accomplishing much of anything. Abel’s way is fragile, not to say impossible; Cain’s way is problematic, not to say indecent—unless it can be educated and restrained. Everything depends on whether the possession and the use of the land are just and whether Cain’s pride can be tamed by remembering that not he but God—a power beyond—is the source of his farmerly success. The immediate sequel faces this question frontally.
In the course of time [ miketz yamim : literally, “at the end of days”] it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord, and Abel, too, brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof.
Sacrifice is of human origins. God neither commands nor requests it; we have no reason to believe that He even welcomes it. On the contrary, we have reason to suspect—and will soon give ample evidence to defend this suspicion—that the human impulse to sacrifice is, to say the least, highly problematic, especially from God’s point of view. To be sure, God will eventually command sacrifices, though then only under the strictest rules. As in so many other matters, the problematic is permitted but only if regulated. Because He will not, or cannot, extirpate the dangerous impulses in men, God makes concessions to them, while, at the same time, containing them under explicit and precise commandments. The present story, which begins the reader’s education regarding the questionable nature of sacrifices, should arouse our suspicion because it is Cain who is their inventor and founder.
Competing yet deep-seated passions lie beneath the human impulse to give a share or to pay tribute to the divine, to offer gifts and oblations to God or gods. To begin with, there are fear and gratitude—fear that, unless appeased with presents, the powers that be will thwart or ignore our hopes and wreck our plans; gratitude for experienced good results and good fortune, interpreted as divine favor directed at us. Less “rational” are “the ecstatic passions,” associated with bloody and orgiastic sacrifice (in Greece, the province of Dionysus); these appear to play no part in the present offering, but they will figure in Noah’s sacrifice after the flood and in many later and equally questionable biblical sacrifices.
The impulse to sacrifice need not be at all impulsive. It is frequently a matter of rational calculation, not to say cunning manipulation. Man may seek to put the gods in his debt, or, more markedly, to bribe them into delivering benefits and withholding harms. Any human being, conscious of being at the mercy of powers not under his command, will attempt to do something to improve, or avoid, his fate. For primitive man, in the wide open spaces—and especially for farmers, eager for rain—the powers of concern were the powers aloft, including the sun and the moon, the wind and the rain. It is perfectly fitting that the primordial farmer be the first to think of sacrifice”even before he knows anything at all about who the gods really are.
Indeed, ignorance of the divine—and the wish to dispel that ignorance—is itself another powerful motive for bringing sacrifice. Men intuit the presence of higher powers, perhaps first through the experience of awe and wonder before the spectacles and phenomena of nature: sunrise and sunset, new and full moons, thunder and lightning, and the fall of water out of the sky. Natural piety gives rise to the desire to close the gap between the human and the divine, to mediate the distance, to establish ties, to gain a close and firm connection to the whole and its ruling forces. This, too, is an appropriate enough desire for the first truly human earthlings.
But it is no simple matter to act on this desire. For how can and ought one communicate with what is so remote, unknown, or inscrutable? Unless man knows who God is and what (if anything) He wants, communicating will be strictly a shot in the dark. Curiously, however, human beings do not behave as though God were mysterious and inscrutable. On the contrary, both the fact of offering sacrifice and the particular gift offered bespeak certain clear—and clearly presumptuous—assumptions about the divine: (1) God is (gods are) the kind of being(s) Who does (do) or could care for me; (2) He (or they) would be more likely to care for me—do me good and not evil”if I could please Him (them); (3) No doubt I could please Him (them) with gifts, for am I not pleased by gifts? (Note the unspoken premise: the gods are just like me.) (4) He (they) must like what I like (assuming the same premise of similitude).
The deep ambiguity at the heart of the human impulse to sacrifice now stands revealed: all the underlying assumptions—even in the best case, a sacrifice from pure gratitude are in fact expressions of human pride and presumption, masquerading as true submission. Any deity worthy of the name must, no doubt, see this for what it is worth.
Cain, the initiator, addresses the divine as eater. He brings before the (to him unknown) god or gods “of the fruit of the ground,” his produce, but produce—he must be aware—that depends on the gods’ sending rain. In what spirit Cain brings his gift we cannot be sure. But the text hints at possible halfheartedness: he waited until “the end of days” to offer; and, unlike his brother Abel, who (though merely a follower) brought the best portions (the fat) of the first lings of the flock, Cain’s gift was indifferent or worse. But, as we have shown, the sacrifice itself is ambiguous enough—especially when not commanded, especially when coming from a farmer like Cain.
And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering; but unto Cain and to his offering He had not respect. And Cain was very wroth and his countenance fell.
The economy of the text leaves big questions unanswered. Hidden are God’s reasons for respecting Abel’s offer and not Cain’s. Did He discern a difference in intent and disposition, along the lines hinted at above? Does God simply prefer Abel’s way of life to that of Cain, a difference that might be reflected in different attitudes toward the world and the divine? We do not know. We are, it seems, meant to focus on the outer fact alone.
Looking only at what we do know, we must avoid a common misperception. As Robert Sacks has pointed out, “Cain’s sacrifice was not rejected but merely not yet accepted . . . . From Cain’s reaction it appears as though he understood God’s disregarding his sacrifice as a simple rejection, but this is not necessarily the case.” The sequel will bear this out. But we must first face Cain’s anger—the first human display of this crucially human and ever-dangerous passion—and also his shame (“his countenance fell”).
Both the shame and the anger have their roots in pride, wounded pride. Cain, the firstborn, the proud farmer proud of his own produce, first also in his relation to God as the “inventor” of sacrifices, desires to be first and best and to be so recognized. His younger brother, a lazy shepherd, a mere follower in gift—giving, has surpassed him in God’s respect. Cain feels the sting of shame, as the world does not affirm his lofty self-image. But, still proud, he takes the loss as a slight or insult; he not only hangs his head in disgrace, he fills his heart with rage, for he believes that he has been not only harmed but injured. Though it is not pretty, Cain’s anger carries the world’s first (outraged) sense of (in)justice.
The intrinsic connection between anger and justice has been noted since antiquity. Aristotle calls anger “an impulse . . . to revenge . . . caused by an obvious unjustified slight,” and calls slight “an active display of opinion about something one takes to be worthless.” A man feels especially slighted—unjustly—by “those to whom he looks for good treatment: persons, that is, who are indebted to him for benefits, past or present, which they have received from him.” Cain’s display of anger reveals retroactively his state of soul in making the sacrifice. Because he had sought to place God in his debt by means of his gift, Cain feels slighted by what he takes to be God’s unjustified rejection of his offering. If indeed part of Cain’s anger is directed at the divine, it shows how presumptuous and hubristic were his expectations.
More likely, however, Cain’s anger is directed mainly at his brother. God, after all, is invisible and (up to this point) silent; for all Cain truly knows of divinity, there may not even be a being capable of bestowing slights and favors. And, be this as it may, it is surely safer to displace (not necessarily by a conscious process) his anger at God onto his human rival, in whose absence God would not have found him to be merely second best. The bitterness of not having his own gift respected is nothing compared with that of seeing the greater success of his lesser brother. Cain treats Abel’s success in sacrifice as if Abel had been trying to outdo him.
Rousseau has captured this essentially human (all too human) phenomenon, showing the evils that lurk in the otherwise reasonable and fruitful concern for self-esteem:
Everyone began to look at everyone else and to wish to be looked at himself, and public esteem acquired a value. The one who sang or danced the best, the handsomest, the strongest, the most skillful, or the most eloquent came to be the most highly regarded, and this was the first step at once toward inequality and vice: from these first preferences arose vanity and contempt on the one hand, shame and envy on the other; and the fermentation caused by these new leavens eventually produced compounds fatal to happiness and innocence.
As soon as men had begun to appreciate one another, and the idea of regard had taken shape in their mind, everyone claimed a right to it, and one could no longer with impunity fail to show it toward anyone. From this arose the first duties of civility even among savages, and from it any intentional wrong became an affront because, together with the harms resulting from the injury, the offended party saw in it contempt for his own person, often more unbearable than the harm itself. Thus everyone punishing the contempt shown him in a manner proportionate to the stock he set by himself, vengeance became terrible, and men bloodthirsty and cruel.
Cain, not treated as he thought he deserved, smoldered with resentment at Abel, who was treated better than Cain thought he deserved, who had in fact usurped “de facto” his pride of place. No wonder he was angry.
God enters the picture in an attempt to assuage Cain’s fury; indeed, He expresses (feigned?) surprise that Cain should be angry at all:
And the Lord said unto Cain: “Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shall there not be a lifting? But if you do not do well, sin shall be couching at your door; its desire shall be for you, but you shall rule over it.”
Trying to comfort and encourage Cain, God makes clear that his sacrifice has not been rejected. Rather, acceptance will come provided Cain “does well.” We must now try to put ourselves in Cain’s place.
No doubt Cain ought to be pleased by God’s attention and interest in him. (Though He respected Abel’s offering, God speaks only to Cain; Cain seems to hold more interest, being both more promising and more problematic.) The promise of a lifting—of his sacrifice, of his countenance, and of his fallen dignity and standing—ought to be encouraging. Yet God’s counsel is surely puzzling, not to say Delphic. Indeed, this part of God’s speech is regarded as one of the most difficult passages in the entire Bible. One must not assume that Cain found it less obscure than we.
God’s counsel, whatever it finally means, seems to assume that notions of “doing well” and “not doing well” are present and clear to human beings, without further instruction; for human beings do indeed have some kind of knowledge of good and bad. True, there has been no given law; there are as yet no well-defined crimes or punishments. Still, human beings act, moved by their own perceptions of better and worse. “Do well,” exhorted the Lord; and even if you do not do well, and thus even if sin is in your way, ready to pounce like a wild animal, you will be able to rule over it. If God intended to warn Cain of the dangers lurking in his own heart, he might have found a clearer way to do so; and, clear or not, the overall message—“Do well; you can master the obstacles”—was not, on balance, a teaching of self-restraint. Cain, still angry, now put his mind to “doing well.”
Those who wonder why God might not have produced a more powerful and successful antidote to Cain’s anger might wish to consider God’s speech as though it were the voice of reason and goodness—such as these might exist in “natural man”—manifesting itself (as if coming “from the outside”) against a soul filled with rage. (Compare, for example, the sudden appearance of prudent Athena who prevents Achilles from drawing his sword on Agamemnon in Book I of the Iliad.) “Be reasonable,” says the voice, “bide your time, you’ll get your position back. Do well.” The voice of reason is, first of all, concerned with our own good; otherwise, we will not listen. Absent specific instructions and delineations, rationality is experienced not as counseling the other fellow’s good, but as promising my own—not now, but later, that is, if I “do well” and “overcome sin,” which threatens to get in my way and drag me down. The sequel shows how little availing are such vague instructions in the face of vengeful passions. They might even be understood to counsel revenge”only not impulsively, but with due calculation and premeditation. Primordial human knowledge of good and bad may be used self-righteously, but it is a far cry from righteousness. This we readers quickly learn from the ensuing events.
And Cain appointed a place where to meet Abel his brother [literally, “And said (vayomer) Cain to (el) Abel his brother”], and it happened when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against [el] Abel his brother, and killed him.
Cain uses his reason to help take his revenge. He plans the event, employs speech to arrange Abel’s presence, and picks a place out in the fields where no one will see and where no one can come to Abel’s rescue. But if reason is the instrument, jealousy remains the likely motive: the hated rival is removed. But gain might also have been on Cain’s mind; with Abel out of the way, his flocks would belong to Cain, who might then be able to offer a respectable sacrifice (or who might now flourish, despite the bad harvest). And, to stretch the point perhaps beyond what is reasonable, Cain may even have thought this is precisely what was meant by “doing well.” For how was he to know that murder is bad, it not having been forbidden? Because the deed was committed not in heat but with premeditation, we must assume Cain believed that he was doing good—at least for himself.
Whatever he may have thought beforehand, he soon learns, painfully, the wrongness of his deed—and so do we.
And the Lord said unto Cain: “Where is Abel thy brother?” And he said: “I know not [lo yodati]; am I my brother’s keeper [hashomer achi onokhi]?” And He said: “What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood cries unto me from the ground.”
God does not begin with an accusation or an assertion, but, like both a good teacher and a good investigator, with a question, and one that requires Cain to confront himself in his brotherliness. Your brother Abel, your young playmate, out of the same womb: Why is he not at your side? Where is he?
Cain denies knowledge of Abel’s whereabouts. Though an analytic philosopher might try to argue that Cain’s speech is true—for where indeed is the soul of Abel now?—Cain, to protect himself, lies to God (or, if you prefer, to his newly aroused conscience), but not to himself. Indeed, to keep the inquisitive voice from forcing him to confront fully the meaning of his deed, he answers the question with a question, no doubt tinged with indignation and even mocking: Why are you asking me? Am I supposed to be his guardian? You, you who liked his sacrifice, you who made him prosper—aren’t you his keeper? Why don’t you know where he is? And (implicitly), what kind of a guardian are you?
God (or “conscience”) is not deceived. Taking Cain’s counteroffensive to be a tacit admission of guilt, He puts the well-timed question to Cain: What have you done? Of course I know where Abel is. I have heard your brother’s spilled blood crying out unto Me from the earth. How could you have done such a thing to your brother?
The enormity of his deed is now borne in on Cain, thanks to the awesome intervention of the transcendent voice. The image of the screaming blood of his brother awakens Cain’s horror; a “protoreligious” dread accompanies this picture of violent death. Very likely, guilt wells up in response to the accusation implied by the screams, as does pity for his fallen brother. Even the murderer cannot but be moved. Not just the will of Abel, but the cosmos itself has been violated; the crime is a crime against “blood”—against both life and kin: the whole earth, polluted and stained with bloodshed, cries in anguish and for retribution. We anticipate precisely God’s next remarks.
“And now cursed art thou from the ground, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand. When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a wanderer shalt thou be in the earth.”
The earth that supports life, now defiled by life’s wanton destruction—watered not by rain (wished and sacrificed for) but by blood, shed by the farmer’s hand—becomes an alien place for the murderer. The world is arranged so that murder will not go unnoticed; it will also not go unanswered. The earth shall resist the murderer’s plow; nowhere on earth shall he find a comfortable place to settle, both because no one else will welcome him and because his conscience and his fears will give him no rest. A man who has once shed blood knows in his marrow that his own life hangs by a thread, that he lives, as it were, by the grace of God. Despite the fact that God does not exact the fitting specific (capital) punishment for his murder—as there is yet no law against it, there can be no exact punishment—Cain is nonetheless thrown into despair.
And Cain said unto the Lord, “My punishment [or “my sin”: avoni] is greater than I can bear. Behold, Thou has driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from Thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth; and it shall come to pass that everyone that findeth me shall slay me.”
Cain’s fears lead him to exaggerate the “punishment.” He understands—mistakenly—that he is banished from the whole earth, and that, in wandering, he will be out of sight of (a merely local god’s?) divine protection, exposed to predators not unlike himself, men who will kill him for gain or for sport. Cain, the farmer, the man who sought security in settlement and possession of a portion of the earth, feels utterly bereft at the prospect of wandering—of living an open life such as that of his brother Abel. Believing that God defends only those who are settled and established—after all, God was apparently not able to protect Abel out in the fields”Cain fears for his life once he is forced to roam about among uncivilized men.
God addresses Cain’s fear of violent death:
And the Lord said unto him, “Therefore, whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should slay him.
The mark of Cain—wrongly regarded as the sign of murderous guilt—is, in fact, meant to protect Cain’s life in the wilderness, and to obviate the need for settled defense. Reassured but only temporarily, Cain sets out on his travels.
And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.
Heading backward toward the Garden, longing perhaps for its safety and comfort, Cain comes to the land of Nod—literally, the land of “wandering”—and settles there. Though he is in the place of wanderers, Cain refuses to wander. He lacks trust—in nature, in God, and in his fellow human beings. He would rather rely on his wits and his own flesh and blood to sustain and defend him. These he trusts because these he knows.
And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived, and bore Enoch; and he builded a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son Enoch.
Having broken his ties to his origins, now alone, vulnerable, and without refuge, Cain deals with his predicament by looking to the future. Aware of the prospect of violent death, he takes out insurance. Knowing his wife, Cain fathers a son, whom he names Enoch, meaning “to initiate or discipline, to dedicate or train up.” Cain initiates a family to which he will dedicate himself, and which he will discipline and train up in the ways of dedication. Unlike the later (and precociously modern) builders of the city of Babel, who seek a name for themselves here and now, the city Cain builds is dedicated to the name of his son. The city is almost certainly founded on the fear of death and with a view to safety.
The Hebrew word for city, iyr, comes from a root meaning “to watch” and “to wake.” In the first instance, a city is a place guarded by a wakeful watch; it is not the market or the shrine but the watchtower or outpost that first makes a city a city. Though Cain retains his pride (in his son), his confidence has been tempered by fear. But civilization as it comes into being starting from his founding act is tainted: the city is founded in fear of violent death, but first, in fratricide. This taint, one must believe, is, from the Bible’s point of view, inherent in civilization as such. We follow its emergence in the hope of learning why and how it may be defective.
And unto Enoch was born Irad [“fugitive”];and Irad begot Mehujael [“smitten of God” or “seer of God”]; and Mehujael begot Methushael [“man who is of God”]; and Methushael begot Lamech [of obscure meaning]. And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of one was Adah [“ornament”], and the name of the other Zillah [“shadow” or “defense”]. And Adah bore Jabal [from a root meaning, “to flow,” “to lead,” or “to bring forth”]: he was the father of such as dwell in tents and of such as have cattle. And his brother’s name was Jubal [from same root as for Jabal]: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and pipe. And Zillah, she also bore Tubal-Cain [perhaps “Tubal the smith”], the instructor of every artificer in brass and iron; and the sister of Tubal-Cain was Naamah [“pleasantness”].
Our attention focuses on Lamech, the seventh—the completed or fulfilled—generation of the line (through Cain) begun by Adam. It is in this generation that civilization flowers. With one wife an ornament, the other a shadowy protector, Lamech has children who teach men how to protect and adorn themselves: they introduce tents (fixed habitations against the elements and for protection of privacy), cattle (a new form of wealth), music (the arts of memory and song), and metallurgy (the transformative art of forging tools and also weapons). Human beings, now externally well equipped, undergo coincident changes in their souls. In particular, vanity—the desire to be well-regarded by those around”grows to dangerous proportions.
And Lamech said unto his wives: “Adah and Zillah, Hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech; For I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my bruising. If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.”
Lamech combines poetry and prowess in his own person; he sings (the Hebrew is in high poetic style) of his own exploits in fighting, and boasts of his great superiority, ten times greater than Cain’s, greater even than God in vengeance. Lamech, a combination Achilles-and-Homer, belongs to the heroic age, made possible by the arts, especially music and metallurgy; he seeks nothing less than immortal fame, not to say apotheosis itself, by being master of life and death.
We are now in a position to pull together some threads, connecting the deeds of Cain and the civilization that rests upon them. Concerned with his position as number one, eager to establish himself as lord and master of his domain, Cain (like Romulus, the mythic founder of Rome) commits the paradigmatic crime of the political founder: fratricide. For the aspiration to rule entails necessarily the denial and destruction of radical human equality, epitomized in the relationship of brotherhood. To wish to rule, to dominate, to be in command, means—by its very nature—the wish not only to remove all rivals, but also to destroy the brotherly relation with those under one’s dominion. And, personal ambitions aside, civil order in the city once founded needs authority and hierarchy (perhaps even divinely sanctioned); not simple equality but rule is required. The ruler, as ruler, has no brothers.
The more that rude and ambitious men have to do with one another, the more they both have to fear and seek to outdo one another. For both reasons—safety and pride—they cultivate prowess in fighting. And the city begun in fear often proudly begets one of heroic ambition. Because all human cities—that is, all political communities—necessarily distinguish between insiders and outsiders, even an unambitious city must be willing to kill its human brothers, in defense of its own citizens. There is a direct line from the plowshare to the sword.
But the context here is not simply political. Cain was jealous over a matter of divine favor. Cain was the first to be interested in bridging the gap—in his case, by gifts—between the human and the divine, an impulse we have shown to be largely hubristic. This prototypical human being begets a line leading to civilization, the arts, and the heroes—all manifestations of an impulse that culminates in a desire to jump the gap entirely, in a wish to become a god. Lamech, the hero, acts as if he has succeeded; but we, readers prepared by what has come before, know that he is self-deceived.
The present story—of Cain and Abel, and of the line of Cain to Lamech—does not explicitly give the reasons for rejecting paganism; but it surely paints a vivid picture of the bloody indecency connected with the way of Cain and the pursuit of self-sufficiency and heroism. The elements of the human soul that lead in this direction are shown to be, to say the least, problematic. So too our much vaunted “knowledge” of good and bad. Seeing something of himself in the mirror of this story, the reader is stimulated to hope that there is an alternative to the human—all-too-human—way of Cain.
The menacing outcome of the line of Cain—the line of pride, presumption, violence, the arts of death, and the desire for apotheosis—begs for another way. We are not disappointed. The story ends as it began, with a new birth.
And Adam knew his wife again; and she bore a son, and called his name Seth: “for God hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel; for Cain slew him.” And to Seth, to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enosh; then began men to call upon the name of the Lord.
Though the description echoes closely the birth of Cain, there are crucial differences. No longer boastful, Eve is, instead, subdued. The death of Abel hangs heavily upon her, as does the fact that it was Cain, her pride and joy (but now also lost to her), who slew him. Chastened regarding also her own pride in Cain’s birth, she feels only gratitude in the birth of Seth. She feels the beneficence of powers beyond her, here manifested in the birth of a much-wanted replacement. Seth, unlike Cain, is received as a gift—from beyond, precious, unmerited. Seth, unlike Cain, will be less likely to suffer from excessive parental expectations. Tragedy has humbled parental pride; woman and man no longer stand as creators and claimants upon the world, but as grateful recipients of the blessings of new life.
To Seth also is born a son, whom he names Enosh, a name that means “man, understood as mortal”—a meaning less dignified than that of adam (“man,” understood as “from the earth,” adamah). Enosh, mortal man, in the line of Seth, corresponds to Enoch, disciplined dedication, in the line of Cain: the greater modesty of the new beginnings is evident in the names. No longer disciplined in trying to jump the gap between man and god, the line of Seth is marked near its start by the memory of Abel’s death and by the recognition of the difference between mortal man and immortal God.
In keeping with this new recognition, “men began to call upon the name of the Lord.” How they called or what they said the text keeps inaudible—in sharp contrast to the loud vauntings of Lamech, or even to the explicit report of the goods brought in sacrifice by Cain and Abel. True, there remains a more than residual presumption in calling upon God—as if He should care for me—and, even more, in the familiarity of calling Him by name. But at the same time we have what seems like a spontaneous calling out—springing from the heart without calculation—probably out of need and fear, perhaps also out of love or respect. Recognizing the gap between man and God, Seth, Enosh, and their kin call out across it, hoping someone will listen. Of God’s response, we know nothing. But we cannot help but think that some progress has been made: the new approach to the divine proceeds through speech and hearing, not through gifts of food that we hope God might fancy. Someone seems to have divined that it is not through material means—or through pride of place or acquisition—that man can hope to stand in fitting relation to God. Someone seems to have divined that—more than the arts and sciences, power, and prosperity—decent human life and human relations require just such a reverent and attentive orientation to the divine.
Even a civilized and sophisticated reader, late in the twentieth century, cannot help but agree. Chastened by this profound tale that mirrors the dark recesses of our own souls and that exposes the shady and violent origins of the human city, we are ready to read on and to receive further instruction.
Leon R. Kass is the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the College and the Committee on Social Thought, The University of Chicago. An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Neoconservative Imagination: Essays in Honor of Irving Kristol, edited by Christopher DeMuth and William Kristol (AEI Press).