Saturday, October 15, 2016

Know Your Bible: Cain and Abel - the Archetypal Fratricide

According to Genesis 4:1-2, the first two humans, Adam and Eve, had a son Cain, who was a tiller of the soil, and a son Abel, who was a keeper of flocks.

The trouble starts when Cain and Abel brought offerings from their efforts to the LORD (Gen 4:3-4). 

When the Lord looked with favor on Abel's offering--but not on Cain's--Cain was (somewhat understandably) discouraged. 

The LORD addresses Cain's resentfulness with an enigmatic statement (Gen 4:7):

If you do well, will not your head be lifted up? But if you don't, sin crouches at the door. It's desire is for you. You must master it.
הלוא אם־תיטיב שאת ואם לא תיטיב לפתח חטאת רבץ ואליך תשוקתו ואתה תמשל־בו׃

There is clearly background information original readers of this text knew that made this statement understandable. Without this knowledge, any interpretation of this verse is unconvincing speculation.

Peter Paul Rubens - Cain Kills Abel
But the rest of the story is pretty straightforward. Cain invites his brother out into the field (Gen 4:8). And he kills him.

The LORD immediately addresses Cain and asks him (Gen 4:9):

Where is your brother Abel?

Cain replies with the famous line:

Am I my brother's keeper?

The Hebrew original is a sing-songy rhyme:

השמר אחי אנכי
ha-shomer aHi anokhi?

Is Cain's response just an elusive dodge, or is it potentially a challenge to God himself? 

In Psalm 121:4, God is described as "Israel's Keeper" (shomer-Yisraelשומר ישראל).

In other words, is Cain implying that God was Abel's keeper? And so, since Cain could kill Abel, why did God allow this?

As a result, the first sin described in the Bible already asks the question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

Cultural and Historical Connections

The immediate point of comparison is with Romulus and Remus. According to the Roman historian Livy, Romulus killed his twin brother after Remus jumped mockingly over the nascent walls of the city Romulus was building (History of Rome 1.7.2). 

The half-sisters Elizabeth and Mary lived out their lives in mortal combat, the Catholic and Protestant religions serving almost as a pretense for a conflict actually based on their mothers' marriages to Henry VIII. By a delicious irony, the two are entombed side by side in Westminster Abbey.

To end on a positive note, Catullus' brother died while serving in Bithynia. This is not a fratricide. This is a touching tribute to a dead sibling. Catullus traveled to perform the rituals necessary to allow his brother passage to the afterlife. And he penned a poem on the matter, in which he bids his brother farewell.

He writes (Carmina 101.10):

And into eternity, brother, hail and farewell
atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale

And the elisions themselves speak a voice broken in grief:

atque'n perpetuum frater ave'tque vale

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