(This document in in the process of evolving. Last Edit: 09.23.11)
This essay explores a fundamental paradigm within human social and personal cognition through the metaphoric lens of one of the early biblical stories.
Cain and Abel
The creation is unfurled and the new dimensions of physical existence arise. The many beings spring forth from the progenerative activity of the unityBeing, and from Adam’s rib Eve (Chavah = Life) is born.
Two trees are unique in Eden, and one of them becomes the setting for a tragic catastrophe where crucial birthrights are lost. Then, two male children are born. The brief story of their lives comes to us in a few short paragraphs, almost an afterthought. Yet within this story lies a a surprisingly intricate map of our cognitive and spiritual evolution, and the unique features and challenges of the bipolar circumstances we are born into intimacy with. Metaphorically, it is possible to use these stories as a lens through which some curious features of our cognitive nature are illuminated. Additionally, they may comprise a cautionary tale which emerged from some of the earliest human relations with what we today refer to as ‘knowledge’ — the formalized remembrances we conserve and live by.
The standard perspectives on the biblical story of Genesis leave much to be desired. We must contend with poor translations (which is no mystery, since it is nearly impossible to adeptly translate a multiordinal language like Hebrew into a flat language such as English), and (particularly in the beginning) we find that only the most basic outlines of circumstances and events have been preserved by the text. Because the common interpretive approaches to these texts are extremely sectarian and dogmatic they yield little that would lead us onward to a deep and perhaps poetic understanding.Yet there is a great deal of rather amazing and functionally useful information available in the shape of these stories, particularly to those who are committed to a deeper exploration of their themes and revelations.
I have been considering the beginning of Genesis since my youth, and remain specifically fascinated by some of the obvious riddles it contains. ‘How do you get a woman from a man’s rib?’, ‘what happened at the Tree of Knowledge?’ and ‘what is the story of Cain and Abel actually about?’ The two former questions I will deal with elsewhere, however, I believe that the incredibly brief story of Cain and Abel contains hidden treasure which I hope we shall be able to explore together.
It seems likely to me that the early portions of Genesis constitute the only available outline of a ‘lost book’; and that at sometime in history the stories from which they were drawn painted these events in a vaster and more complete tapestry, within which some of the riddles passed down to us in the first 4 chapters were much more broadly discussed. It is also possible that these are re-tellings of stories adopted by the people who wrote them. What we have inherited in Genesis represents a tiny portion of what I believe existed previously — a tragically foreshortened sketch — that in many cases fills us with questions about what more there is to know. At the same time, the key elements present in these first short chapters are a bit like the cryptograms sometimes left by the geniuses of antiquity — they challenge us to surpass our common understandings and discover the revelations which are carefully if briefly encoded there (I find it interesting that encoding information in this way is actually a way of highlighting importance — essentially we are signaled that what’s encoded is peculiarly valuable or dangerous).
The story of Cain and Abel can be seen to evolve (and transform) in other stories throughout the Bible, and in many other mythological and theological settings. To my eye it comprises a map which represents to us a set of ironically intertwined mysteries that lie at the basis of our own cognitive, spiritual and neurological natures. It is, from one perspective, a parable about the nature of polarities; in this case, we might call them ‘is-ness’ and ‘not-is-ness’ (perhaps analogous to subject and context). Properly revealed, the story invites us to enter into a personal exploration of the complex relationship with two of the most important concepts we can learn about as human beings: unity and division. As this brief story proceeds, it delivers subtle hints about the relationship between these ‘two brothers’, and within the features of that relationship is hidden a set of keys powerful enough to totally transform human consciousness, history and activity — if we are willing to put ut forth the actual effort required to retrieve them.
As Above, So Below: Dividing (withIn) Unifying
My concern here regards a comparatively brief episode from the book of Genesis; Genesis 4, chapters 1-9, or the story of ‘Cain and Abel’. Before I get involved in the story proper, I must pause to speak of something I was shown, which is very difficult to discuss directly, since it relates to a dimension that we, as humans, have little direct experience of. We also lack both words and concepts that will allow us to adequately proceed with explanations. Nonetheless it is my perspective that the early events of Genesis are recapitulations of analogous events in ‘heaven’ — the nonphysical dimension which the physical dimension is a ‘strange reflection’ of. We can speculate that something analogous to the first 4 chapters of Genesis happened in heaven, with results that were reflected in the stories relating the experiences of Adam and Eve. This quality of the biblical stories, to at once echo and enlarge previous histories, while at the same time granting us an account of something similar going on in ‘the place of source(s)’ (i.e: ‘heaven’) is a profound and uncommon method of writing. It produces a visionary quality, which acts as a veil for the information availably contained within the stories. A bit like buried treasure, this hidden content is mysterious, highly charged, and almost alien in character.
Taking the story of Cain and Abel as a guide to previous events in ‘heaven, we might consider a model where ‘the first angel’ or the firstborn of the unityBeing was ‘a divider of matter’, and, after ‘acquiring a new way of seeing’, departed from heaven to practice this power in the material universe. This story is analogously recapitulated first in the story of Adam and Eve in Eden, who eat of the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ (which God has warned them is ‘death’) and are then banished — and later in their first child, Cain who was banished ‘from the presence of the Lord’ as well as ‘the face of the Earth’ after murdering his brother. The likeness between Cain and our theoretical ‘first angel’ has to do with their vocations as ‘imposers of division’ — Cain, a ‘tiller of Earth’ is also a ‘divider of matter’ — both physical and ideological. A ‘serpent’ is analogous in that its movement ‘creates wavy lines of division’ on the ground. Cain possesses and is possessed by a highly verbal and evaluative awareness — an almost lawyerly species of cunning used by the serpent to seduce Eve into eating of the apple.
With this perspective, we can speculatively understand that the earlier events, including the catastrophe at the Tree likely have heavenly equivalents whose meanings and scope differ from (and often expand upon) their terrestrial counterparts. It is plausible (and I suggest that it is useful to consider) that this ‘first angel’ is, in fact, the ‘serpent’ at the Tree, and is responsible for enticing the young humans to play with a toy of perception which, once encountered, cannot be escaped. However, as we will see, there are perspectives available on this event which are rarely if ever explored.
I admit that seeing how these events are reflections of events in heaven can be difficult. Part of the reason the discussion is problematical is in that heaven exists outside of time, and thus, while ‘events’ may ‘occur’ in heaven, they do not occur in a linear fashion. It is almost impossible for humans to imagine any other way for them to occur, barring divine revelation. From outside of time, what we call time is an accessible position in something analogous to space.
Another aspect of the difficulty is the difference in scope and meaning between heavenly events and terrestrial events. Additionally, it is not clear what sort of being an ‘angel’ actually is, and I fear it would tax the capabilities of the English language to attempt to explain such a matter, particularly here, in this short introduction.
What I hope to make available to us, however, is the perspective that the histories written in Genesis are terrestrial ‘reflections’ of superordinal circumstances which occurred (or ‘existed’) in heaven. As in any reflection, some elements are ‘reversed’, such that sometimes what is big down here is small up there, and vice-versa. What comes first in one story, comes last in another; for example, while Cain is firstborn to Adam and Eve, the intelligence of Abel is firstborn in the mind of the human child. Later, Esau is the firstborn of Rebekah — but ‘the older shall serve the younger’.
Genesis 25:23: And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in they womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.
When we examine biblical literature with an approach that watches closely for repetitions and re-instancings of previous events, what we find is something like a ‘flowering story’ — present events are unique instances of past events, and past events prefigure those in the future. This is not merely a linear progression, however; it is a form of evolution which is fundamentally recursive, and exhibits unexpected elaborations which commonly reference previous forms or circumstances in their character, emergence, activities, &c.
Fundamentally, the story of Cain and Abel is a unique form of parable which presents a map of the relationship between two aspects of Creation, and these aspects take on a profound and important character in the human brain, our mind and our cultures. Stated simply, Cain represents the cause we might describe as ‘divide and conquer’ — Abel, on the other hand, represents the cause we associate with saints, superheroes, and messiahs: ‘to unify and serve’. Our understanding of and willingness to explore this relationship forms a puzzle where the choices we make will have vast consequences in our ability to explore and embody the miraculous potentials we arrive with and enact in our lives and cultures.
Be for(e) the Children
The story of Cain and Abel begins immediately following what I refer to as ‘the Tree Incident’, and the subsequent banishment of Adam and Eve from Eden. What happened at the Tree is one of the most striking mysteries of the Bible, and it seems apparent that what was received there was ‘a new way of knowing’; most likely a way which was extremely divisive and explosively self-propagating. It was, I believe, ‘a way of dividing’ one thing or being from another which rapidly gained momentum and cognitive dominion once they were exposed to it. A spiritual and perceptual process took hold in Adam and Eve which would set the course for the future of the entire human species.
Whereas, prior to this incident Adam and Eve were innocent and experientially connected with the divine, after it they perceive themselves as separate and as ‘qualities’— an abstraction heretofore impossible. Adam hides from God due to his awareness that he ‘is naked’. This is a way of dividing himself into qualities, those which might be judged as laudable, and those which are not. This division ignores the whole, and denies that he is ‘made in the image of the unityBeing’ — in both form and function (we should note, however that his physical form is an analogous (or metaphoric) likeness rather than a replica).
He says (in the English translations) that he is afraid, ‘because’ he was naked. This is the third instance of the English term ‘because’ in the Bible, but the first instance of it being spoken by a human being — and I believe this to be significant. In common usage, the word ‘because’ is an often spurious way of referring to causes — and is probably the only word in the English language to possess the dubious distinction of most often preceding lies, rationalizations, and excuses. Yet Adam is not merely frightened ‘because he was naked’ — he is frightened by the incredible and irreversible changes in his relational experience and perspective, and, perhaps, by his awareness of guilt for disregarding the unityBeing’s prior admonitions against contact with the Tree of Knowledge. He seems to be expecting repercussions.
I believe that t he terrible affliction Adam and Eve acquired at the Tree must be later reflected in the birth of their sons, which follows directly on the heels of the Tree Incident and their subsequent ejection from Eden. This ‘new way of knowing’ destroyed their ability to see and experience divine unity, inwardly breaking them into ever smaller and more distinct ‘qualities and definitions’ — a circumstance which may have been sufficient to effect their ‘banishment’ from Eden. The parental generosity of the unityBeing in assuming the responsibility for their banishment from Eden is easily overlooked. By taking the responsibility for their banishment, God provides them with a comfort they otherwise may not have known, and relives them (to some degree) of the onus of self-inflicted confusion and terror they were experiencing as the result of what they acquired at the Tree. Here, the word terror itself is telling: ‘t(ree)-error’, at once recalling the error of the Tree, and the explosive emotional feedback (many branchings (divisions) occurring with great speed) which humans experience as fear.
By framing this as ‘punishment’ or retribution, the unityBeing is actually assisting them in resolving their own (possibly hyperbolic) feelings of guilt and loss. We too easily neglect to notice that the unityBeing is dealing with his own children, who are (to the divine perspective) like infants — not ‘adults’. Their errors and successes are not cause for damnation, but in fact the natural process of their learning themselves in a new dimension; that of material existence. From God’s perspective, it is extremely unlikely that the term ‘adult’ means anything other than a strange way of lying about children. To the unityBeing there is no such thing as an adult — all beings are children, and regardless of the changes in their physiology, they remain children throughout their lifetimes. God is not looking for a reason to punish or exile his own children; fundamentally, akin to most parents, he adores them. He is ‘all for the children’ — every possible form of child — and in order to understand these matters more clearly we must be willing to adopt this perspective ourselves.
Before we proceed, I wish to briefly examine some elements of ‘The Tree Incident’ which are rarely pursued. There is a riddle here which is often revisited as an accusation against God. Namely, why, if the unityBeing is at once perfect and benevolent, was this situation allowed? Why did God ‘put’ the Tree of Knowledge in Eden? One easily overlooked answer is this: He didn’t ‘put’ it there, per se — the Creation was still very fresh, and the Tree (and the serpent) were an ‘umbilical remnant’ of the separation between Heaven and Earth!
In time, they would be hidden, but were extremely dangerous until this had come to pass. From this rather radical perspective, creation ‘wasn’t quite finished’. God’s advice to Adam and Eve recalls something humans commonly tell children: ‘Do not play with your belly button — it will make you sick’. In Genesis 2:9 God causes to sprout every tree lovely to look at and good for food, ‘including’ the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge ‘in the midst’ of the Garden (just as our own belly-buttons are ‘in our midst’). The word in this text that is translated as ‘also in the midst’ is beith tahv vahv kaph-sophit; a term with a variety of similar meanings (amongst, in the middle of, etc.) depending on context, but which comes from an unused Hebrew root (tahvehk?) (tahv vahv kaph-sophit) meaning ‘to separate’ or to part. The Tree of Knowledge is referred to as existing ‘in the midst’ of the Garden again in Genesis 3:3 where Eve is speaking to the Serpent regarding God’s admonition against eating of the Tree.
An interesting and perhaps useful analogy comes to mind here. I was once privileged to visit an art-glass studio where ‘marbles’ are crafted. These are apricot-sized glass spheres with fascinating patterns of color inside them. The process of crafting them is difficult and requires a great deal of practice to master. A long glass rod is inserted into a white-hot kiln, within which there is a metal bowl containing molten glass. A blob of this glass adheres to the rod, which is then removed and rolled in colored glass fragments. This is re-inserted into the kiln to acquire a second layer of molten glass over the first two. When it is hot enough, the rod is removed, and the lump of molten glass at the end is shaped into a sphere by turning the rod with its glass-covered end in a wooden cup which has a handle. One part of this cup is shaped to allow the formation of a ‘tail’, and after the sphere is well-shaped and nearly complete, the ball at the end of the rod is snipped off. The glass cools very quickly, and this process is much more difficult than it appears, but the finishing touch requires that this ‘tail’ — where the ball was separated from the rod — be quickly ‘hidden’ (made to disappear) or smoothed into the surface of the finished marble. While I am not suggesting that Earth had a physical tail, I believe that the Tree of Knowledge represents something akin to a spiritual tail with a physical aspect — the place where Earth was ‘separated from its heavenly sources’.
The existence of the Tree of Knowledge may have nothing to do with ‘evil’ and may instead be a natural and expected remnant of the Creation. Similarly, Adam and Eve’s ‘fall’ need not a be understood as a matter of evil, but may be seen as the relatively innocent mistake of children fascinated with their Father’s tools, work and activities. Nor was the serpent necessarily ‘evil’; I suggest that it was instead a trusted (if somewhat problematically charismatic) servant of God who had participated in some aspect of Creation, and was now resting near its handiwork. One can imagine this as the first meeting of two unique forms of children: angelic and human. We know from our own experience that children invariably love to ‘show off’ their toys; and thus I suggest that this angel, perhaps excited by and proud of its role in the Creation, merely wanted to share the ‘toys of making’ with the human children, by whom it was probably quite intrigued. It is therefore possible that the actions of the serpent at the tree were more akin to ‘let’s play with my toys’ than ‘come, let me seduce you away from the side of God’. This angel’s toys were cognitive, they were ways of visualizing distinctions. They were ways of seeing, which were ways of knowing, which were ways of travel.
Ironically, contact with this Tree and its strange inhabitant would cause a wide variety of severances to ensue; Adam and Eve are severed from a prior state of grace, common contact with God (something that I do not believe it is easy for us to imagine having or losing) is lost, they are severed from paradise... and this is just the beginning of the effects. Without straining much at all, the whole Bible can be seen as a series of expansions of this event and its repercussions into new dimensions. From Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob... Egypt and the Jews, Christ and humanity. If we were to trace out all the relationships carefully, we might even find, at the end, that we had a strange sort of tree image.
The Names of Two Brothers
Having at least briefly attended these matters of context, we may now begin to explore the subject at hand; the brief yet revealing story of the ‘first two children of Adam’ — Cain and Abel. Immediately following their ejection from Eden, Adam ‘knew’ Eve, and she conceived, exclaiming that she has ‘gotten a man from/with the LORD’. This child she names Cain, or qayin — a name playing on the Hebrew verb ‘to get’ qanah — which may also mean ‘to acquire’ or perhaps even ‘to make’. A common interpretation of Cain’s name is ‘possession’ as in ‘a thing one has acquired’. Some interpretations ascribe Cain’s name to a pun on ‘stalk’ — qaneh, claiming that, as soon as he was born he ran off and returned with a stalk of wheat in hand.
This latter interpretation opens the door for a more figurative image: that of a child with a rod in his hand — the ‘ruler’. As he would later ‘divide the Earth’ (with a rod-like implement) as a ‘tiller’, there appears to be some metaphoric validity to this perspective. There is further justification for this in the sense that Cain would divide Abel himself from life and from all future progeny, depriving the world of his children forever — and he may well have accomplished this feat with a rod or club. The name qayin is also known to be synonymous with ‘smith’, as in ‘one who makes implements of metal’. However the term ‘ruler’ does not merely denote sovereignty, it also indicates the art of ‘right measuring’ or evaluation.
‘And she bore as well his brother, Abel’. Robert Alter, in The Five Books of Moses says that the Hebrew name is Hevel which may be associated with ‘vapor’ or ‘a puff of wind’. In Hebrew, the letter beit takes on the ‘v’ sound when there is no dot within the letter, as is the case in the biblical text. This matter is relatively important, since hevel hevelim in the beginning of Ecclesiastes is translated as ‘vanity of vanities’, or ‘futility of futilities’ — referring primarily to emptiness.
Alternately, the word hebel is understood to refer to ‘breath’, ‘emptiness’ or ‘fleeting’ (an intimation of the brevity of Abel’s lifespan). In the Septuagint translation, hebhel is written as ‘Abel’, which, transcribed into Hebrew (a seemingly bizarre conflation of events, I admit), becomes abhel or ebhel: ‘mourning’ or ‘sorrow’. It is my sense, however, that there is a reason why we have mistranslated the Hebrew name Hevel as Abel.
Where Angels Fear to Tread
It is my experience that there is an important and sacred force (or, possibly, a being) which often guides mistranslations such as the one that produces Abel from Hevel. What puzzles me is how so many scholarly resources are convinced that the term is hebel. Something is vastly amiss here, because it is either hevel or hebel, and it seems fairly obvious which case prevails. From my experience I strongly suspect that there is an underlying foundation to human relations with language that is sacred, mysterious and almost alienly systematic, even in mistranslations. Some aspect of the elemental intelligence that is guiding our understanding of language is also involved in our understanding in general. Once melded, these two are rarely parted again.
We cannot make language without touching the living sources of language, and those sources are divine. While what I am pointing at here is not a ‘rule’, but my experience and understanding are that it is rather common that real wisdom leaks into human culture through errors, rather than through the expected channels of scholarly correctness. English is a very strange language, and its actual origins are not as clear to us as we pretend. In fact, were we to get a clear glimpse of the sources of human languaging I believe that it would shock even the most imaginative of our scholars and authors into either silence or madness. I am suggesting that the English name ‘Abel’ is actually a meaningful misnomer, which has a homonymous purpose — to indicate ‘ability’ — as in able.
While we are taught to understand that certain words and phrases have been adopted from other languages, few of us would agree that there is an underlying and unifying foundation to human linguistic invention (and mistranslation) that owes its often invisible features of order to nonhuman sources. Yet this is at once my experience, and my belief. While each language reflects this source uniquely, even extremely different languages such as English and Swahili embody a subtle set of logics that unify them in a dimension which lies beyond the places we are trained to look, and will thus escape the notice of linguists. Though it is not currently possible to create a systematic exposé of these relations that would supply us with the necessities of decoding the hidden language within our languages, it is possible to point out places where clues to the character and function of this metalanguage are clearly accessible.
In many cases, this is a matter of punning, synonymy and homonymy. ‘Human languages are like the baby-talk of angels’, and I have experienced many instances of this phenomenon as it exists in English, including circumstances where celestial wisdom was communicated into the formation of English terms by adoption and by error. I believe this to be significant in the story we are examining, particularly as it relates to the common English pronunciation of the names of the two brothers. The names we have come to know them by have meaning in English, and their meaning is not entirely arbitrary or merely the result of misinterpretation.
A Matter of Vocation
Cain is born first. Then Eve bears Abel. The text does not clarify the question of whether or not the brothers are born at the same time (as with twins) or on separate occasions. We then learn that Abel became a ‘herder of sheep’ while Cain became ‘a tiller of the soil’. It is here that we begin to see the hints of a deeper story held within the seemingly ordinary narrative. Interestingly, in reporting their vocations, Abel is mentioned first, though he is born second. I doubt this is an accident of the text; my sense is that there is something intrinsically important about Abel’s vocation. As a general rule, ‘firstness’ is a highly regarded characteristic in Judaic spirituality; whether it be the firstborn, or, as in this case, the one first mentioned. This choice may be seen as a prefiguration of the favor that God will later show toward Abel’s offering.
While we have heard many stories about these brothers (and most of them actually favor Cain as being ‘the chosen’ of them), there is something simple that we overlook: the unique features of their vocations. Cain was (as previously mentioned) ‘a tiller of Earth’, which we may extend metaphorically to mean ‘one who divides matter(s)’. It also can be interpreted as ‘farmer’, meaning one who has become intimate with a specific plot of land. There is another meaning of this ‘mastery of division’, which is ‘to measure’ — for measuring is a process involving divisions and comparisons — from this we obtain the concept of ‘ruling’, for one who ‘rules’ is one who is divinely ordained to ‘measure properly’.
It is interesting to note the similarity between the words ‘matter’ and ‘mother’ (latin: mater) — and that we refer to Earth as ‘mother Earth’. A ‘divider of mothers’ is at once someone who sets mothers at odds with themselves (as Cain certainly does) and also one who will ‘fertilize’ many mothers — for the masculine aspect of coitus is an act of dividing and penetration (or envelopment and reception in the case of the female). We might see this as a necessary function of creation: ‘dividing’ is amongst the first actions ascribed to God in Genesis I, where he divides light from darkness, and imposes ‘the firmament’ to divide ‘the waters’ from ‘the waters’ (which can be understood as a division between the celestial and terrestrial ‘waters’, or, alternately between the waters of the atmosphere and those of the land).
Cain’s mind is cunning (he plots a murder) and sophisticated (he lies and excuses his lie nearly in the same breath). This implies that he is capable of ‘many complexly relational inward divisions’. He is, at least to himself, an evaluator — an arbiter, and a judge. He is also the only of the brothers to have any of his speech recorded: we have no record of even a single word spoken by Abel.
We may note that ‘the serpent’ at the tree was a ‘strange divider’ and I consider it likely that this being was a servant whose peculiar skills and powers may have been employed during the creation. This may lend marginal credence to the apocryphal stories which imply that Cain was not actually Adam’s child, but the child of the serpent, who cunningly impregnated Eve at some point prior to Adam’s carnal knowing of her — perhaps during the Tree Incident. Consider here that one of the metaphorically important qualities of a serpent is that, as it moves, it ‘divides the Earth’ on either side of it — it is ‘a living line of division’. However, it is not my desire to agree with or contest such stories here. What I wish to establish is that ‘dividing’ is crucially important in all universal and human activities. It would be impossible to have language, math, or even religion without the ability to impose separations. It is a precursor which allows something quite miraculous to follow: unification.
Abel becomes a shepherd — one who unifies that which has been previously divided, and who tends the resultant unities. He thus absorbs many of the understandings which arise in the witnessing of the many as the one. His abilities revolve around the powers of unification, and of understanding the ‘changing shapes’ of wholes — such as his flocks. It is difficult to speak at length of the Abel with any degree of certainty, because we have only 6 fragments of biblical information about him — to wit: his name, that he was born second, that he became a shepherd, that he made his offering either at the same time as or after Cain, that his offering was regarded, and that Cain killed him.
In the next passage we learn that Cain brought an offering of the fruits of the Earth, (Cain is here mentioned first) and Abel brings an offering of the ‘best’ firstlings of his flock ‘and the fat thereof’ (which may be a mistranslation of the Hebrew). Here ‘fat’ may be interpreted as ‘extra abundance’. Cain becomes the first person in the bible to ‘offer a sacrifice’, but goes unacknowledged.
Genesis 4:3: And in process of time it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.
Genesis 4:4: And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock, and the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and his offering:
Genesis 4:5: But unto Cain and his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.
Now we come to a mystery. The brothers make an offering to God — the first such offering in the Bible. We do not learn how this practice arises, or why (although later in the Bible it is clear that offerings comprise acts of contrition for wrongdoing or sin). God acknowledges Abel’s offering, but disregards Cain’s. There are many apocryphal stories enlarging on this matter, yet few of them offer anything of clear spiritual importance. Theories range from reflections upon the attitudes of the brothers to their choice of offering material.
Although it is not stated, one thing that comes to mind is that Cain’s offering does not involve the killing of animals, and is thus of lesser value; Abel must kill some of his own flock, which to him may be emotionally akin to killing some of his ‘children’ (i.e.: the small ones he adores). There is an echo of this sort of sacrifice in many places in biblical text, but particularly in the story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his son. While I suggest this only as a possibility, we can certainly see the difference between offering fruit and vegetables and offering an animal we have cared for. We are not likely to anthropomorphize radishes and apples, but sheep, goats, or cattle have personality — they are ‘like us in miniature’ — and thus it is relatively easy to feel devotion or adoration towards them. Cain’s offering of ‘the fruits of the Earth’ is (comparatively) a material offering (the fruits of matter) — while Abel’s is an offering of living beings — or spirit.
Yet there is something subtle here which calls for our attention: I suggest that Abel was having a conversation with God prior to and during this offering. Let us suppose that he was offering himself as a sacrifice — one that would effect what otherwise might have been impossible — the unification of him and his brother. Perhaps this was the reason God approved of his offering, an offering so grand that none could exceed it. Whether or not Abel intended this, as we shall later see, the outcome was successful in this sense. By killing Abel, Cain unintentionally drew his brother into himself — forever. This form of sacrifice is expanded and echoed in the sacrifice of Christ, who is offered for the sake of all human beings.
Cain is disturbed by the outcome of the offering, and his ‘countenance’ falls, by which we may understand that he is angry or pouting. It would be fascinating and useful to learn two things here: one being how this pleasure in Abel’s offering was made clear to the brothers, and the other being what it was that resulted in His apparent displeasure toward Cain’s. However the text does not actually talk about God being pleased or displeased. The hebrew term indicates something akin to ‘to look upon ’. The Bible speaks instead of noticing, saying (in effect) that God noticed Abel’s offering, and did not notice Cain’s.
I am surprised that the first instance of ‘an offering’ made to God in the bible is given to us in such an abbreviated way. One of my friends suggested that this was because it was so common as to not need introduction — like eating, for example. There may be some validity in this perspective. However, considering the great importance which will later be ascribed to offerings, particularly offerings of self (such as the strict adherence to codes and commandments) this incredibly brief introduction poses a variety of puzzles, some of which I mentioned previously. I believe that this brevity supplies the spiritual seeker with a challenge: to attend this riddle closely and to develop long intimacy with it.
Here are some of the questions that arise:
A: Does God desire this offering?
B: How does the idea of making an offering arise?
C: What means does God use to show his regard and disregard of the offerings of the brothers?
D: Why is Cain’s offering disregarded?
E: Why does Cain eschew the advice of God?
The text itself answers none of these questions, but I believe that we can posit a situation that speculatively resolves many of them. In order to illustrate this, allow me to present a fictional conversation which takes place prior to the offering, between the two brothers:
Cain: “This fascination with God is folly. With or without God, I can make the Earth yield up its fruit by the application of my intelligence, my strength, and the tools which I craft. Why do you spend so much time fawning over that which is invisible, when that which is tangible is clearly more real, and more useful? Do you think that the air will fill your belly when you hunger?”
Abel: “You must not speak like that. God will hear you and be angered at your insolence. You are insulting the Holy One.”
Cain: “I see no evidence of this God. But if he exists, he would surely favor me, for I am the firstborn, and the more intelligent of us. Like him, I make tools and divide the Earth. Like him, my work brings forth the fruits of the Earth. You merely watch over the animals, who hardly require your labors to prosper. Your work is but little, and mine is great. I say to you that God would favor me.”
Abel: “Only the Holy One knows what and who he favors; no man can speak for him, neither I nor thou. You may indeed be correct, but I cannot decide for God, nor would I ever attempt to. I merely wish to serve Him in whatever capacity is pleasing to Him. It matters little to me whether he favors you or I; perhaps he likes both of us equally...”
Cain: “I doubt that. For I cannot imagine that he could regard your work favorably when compared to my own. But let us compose a test to see if God will decide between us, and who he favors. Here is my proposal: We shall make an offering to God. I will choose the fruit of my work, as I see fit, and you shall choose the fruit of yours. We will bring the offerings before God, and see who he prefers. Then we shall know which of us is the better, and whether this God you all speak of is real or not.”
Abel: “I do not think this is a good idea. It may offend the Lord.”
Cain: “Your intelligence is so slight that your judgment is as vague as your name. You need not worry about offending God. You said that you wish to please Him, and I say that by bringing Him a gift, you will do just that. In any case, I will take the responsibility for whatever may arise, since the idea was mine in the first place. Bring your offering to the place where our parents speak to God tomorrow, at dusk, and I shall bring mine. We will kindle a fire beneath them, so that their essence will rise up toward him. Then we shall behold his answer, if he answers at all.”
Abel: “If it will please you, my brother, I shall do as you request, but I ask in my heart that it may please God as well.”
Cain: “Tomorrow, then, we shall know two things: whether or not this God exists, and if he does, which of us he favors.”
In this admittedly speculative model, we begin to see a variety of things which were not clear before. It generally agrees with what little we learn of Cain, and provides a background for a variety of features of Cain’s character which would give clear answer to most of the questions we stated above. After all, it was Cain’s idea to bring the gifts in the first place! If anyone should be rewarded, it must be him! Cain’s perspective, while sophisticated in a few dimensions, is catastrophically myopic in others which actually matter. His cunning has so overwhelmed his sensibility that he has attempted to set up a ‘no win’ situation for his ‘unintelligent’ brother — and for God! In so doing he has unwittingly written his own spiritual epitaph. This model also sheds light on God’s discussion with Cain following the offering. It explains how this situation got set up, why God favored Abel’s offering, and why Cain was angry.
I suggest that Cain’s actions imply a vastly inflated sense of entitlement, and that he is quick to attack those who in any way threaten this. He is not interested in ‘learning’; his primary interest is the instant gratification of his inflated sense of self-importance, thus God’s advice falls upon ears which were already deaf to advice in general. It is no surprise then, when this advice is not only ignored, but directly contradicted in his future action, for he has already set and frozen his perspectives. Changing them at this point would require him to question everything he had been and believed during his life in order to change his course. This is a problem faced by all of us — our certainty of correctness becomes a habit which we cannot alter even in the face of obvious evidence that we have been wrong for some time.
Cain’s disregard of God’s advice and the subsequent murder of his brother are simply the extrapolations of character and motives already present at the time of the offering. The question left unanswered by this perspective is how God indicated his regard and disregard. I have little to offer towards its resolution, however the image of the sacrifice at the top of the next page (by Durer) presents an interesting possibility.
After the Offering
The brothers are born and grow into their vocations. Cain and Abel make their offerings, Cain becomes ‘incensed’ at God’s apparent displeasure with his offering, and then God speaks to Cain regarding this, and says something which is not as clear as it appears on the surface, due to the possibility of differing translations:
King James: Genesis 6-7: “And the Lord said unto Cain, Why are thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.”
This translation seems to be an admonition against what we may interpret as Cain’s error in judgment which is resulting in his anger and dismay; namely that he has been wronged by God. God appears to be warning him both that this sort of error leads to sin, and that sin, like a predator, is lying in wait for him ‘at the door’. This door may be interpreted as the portal between wisdom and folly, or righteousness and sin. God seems to be advising Cain to accept correction, and promises him that he will rule over sin (spiritual calamity). There is the sense that God is attempting to educate Cain regarding a crucial matter of spiritual import.
A more sophisticated and perhaps useful translation comes from Robert Alter, in his new translation of the pentateuch: The Five Books of Moses:
“Why are you incensed,
and why is your face fallen?
For whether you offer well,
or whether you do not,
at the tent flap sin crouches
and for you is its longing
but you will rule over it.”
This translation differs dramatically from the King James, however it should be noted that Alter (in a footnote) mentions the difficulty of translating this passage, particularly the first clause of section that begins ‘For whether you offer well, or whether you do not,’ which Alter says is at best an educated guess due to the elliptic character of the Hebrew.
In this translation, Cain is cautioned that whether or not his offering is well-regarded, the predator of sin is constantly waiting ‘at the tent flap’ for an opportunity to consume or imperil him. Again Cain is reassured that he will ‘rule over it’. This phrase ‘to rule over’ may be understood as to ‘stand above’ and also ‘to measure’ — the English homonyms ‘rule’ (as in ‘He was a wise ruler over his peoples’) and ‘rule’ (as in to apply a measuring stick or rule to) are more related than we commonly admit. To ‘know the means of measuring wisely’ is the very source and function of rulership, and judgment. And this ‘stick’ is also ‘a rod’ or staff, which relates to both to the toy often held by human sovereigns and to Cain’s name. My sense is that there is a subtle and mystical purpose underlying the fact that Cain and Cane are homophones.
In recent discussion, a friend of mine suggested that there is more than meets the eye to the part of this deific monologue which uses the phrase ‘at the tent flap’. He sees in this text a metaphor for inside and outside the ‘tent’ which is the ‘house’ of the Jewish people. God is perhaps suggesting that Cain be cautious to remain ‘inside the tent’, for if he should leave, he and his progeny will become wanderers (thus severely compromising their ability to take sustenance as farmers). My friend sees in this a prefiguration of the future of both Cain and the Jewish people. He also pointed out that there is an echo (a bit later in this story) of what happened to Adam and Eve (ejected from the Garden of Eden, now having to struggle for the comforts that were previously ubiquitous) and what will happen to Cain as a result of his later actions. This too, perhaps, prefigures the future of the Jewish peoples. Moreover, it appears that God (like any doting parent) is continually advising his children to ‘stay on the property’ — i.e.: to remain close to his side, and thus within his most powerful protections.
Both translations have unique merits, but the context is clear: Cain is reacting strongly and angrily to a situation from which he might instead take instruction. Though I am admittedly not qualified to translate this text, I will suggest a possible alternative which I have composed primarily to expose another perspective on the meaning of this passage, rather than in an effort to directly translate the Hebrew text into English:
Why does your spirit sink to rage, my child — and why do you contort your visage? (Be soothed, my child). Can you not see that, regardless of whether an outcome pleases you or angers you that it is an opportunity to learn, and thus enhance your vision of truth? Know this: that whether you are pleased or angered by circumstances, a deadly beast is hunting you; it waits at the line between your reactions and your potentials. If you will see this, and take it as an opportunity to grow (toward Me, in wisdom), you will be lifted above this beast. (If not, it will surely devour you and make more of itself).
Again, the problematical phrase is: “Can you not see that, regardless of whether an outcome pleases you or angers you that it is an opportunity to learn, and thus enhance your vision of truth?” It may well mean something closer to the King James translation, i.e.: “If you have done well, there will be celebration, and if not, there will be correction — either case is a cause for joy, because without correction what compass would guide you toward wisdom and truth?”
Cain and Abel — Titian
Cain Kills Abel; His Lie, and Exile
We are not privy to Cain’s responses to God, and what follows next is entirely matter of fact. Cain invites Abel to go ‘out to the fields’ with him, and murders him. Some apocryphal stories imply that Abel was the stronger, and gained advantage in the battle; but could not bring himself to seriously hurt Cain, who then slew him.
This event has a variety of important results. Cain becomes the first person to know death from the side of the living; Abel becomes the first to cross over into the ‘underworld’, or the realm of ‘spirit’. Cain’s experience cannot help but dramatically change him. He has the experience of killing his brother, but also of regarding death. Now he knows that he is mortal, for he sees the mortality of his brother. He also receives a variety of memories (both visual and emotional) which must, for him, become extremely charged.
What follows is the translated text of Genesis 4: 9-16.
And the LORD said unto Cain, Where [is] Abel thy brother?
And he said, I know not: [Am] I my brother's keeper?
And He said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now [art] thou cursed from the earth, 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 vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.
And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment [is] greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast 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 vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, [that] every one that findeth me shall slay me. 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 kill him. And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.
This is a particularly telling portion of the story. Cain, who has just murdered his brother — probably either out of wrath over God’s preference for his offering, or to assure his continued primacy (which, as a result of the offering incident appears threatened) — now proceeds to lie about it.
It appears that Cain is operating under the belief that it is possible to hide the truth from God; further evidence that he either does not believe in God, or has a very limited idea of God’s nature. However, it is the shape of his lie that interests me: when God asks him where his brother is, he first lies, and then immediately proceeds to justify his confabulation. He pretends that because he might not be ‘his brother’s keeper’, he must not be. And because of this, he ‘cannot know’ his whereabouts whether or not he actually does.
This form of falsification is familiar to those who study patients with certain cognitive disorders such as schizophrenia. In some cases people become unable to distinguish between the possible, the probable, and the true. For these people, anything that happens to arise in the arena of their awareness must be a fact. They are unable to evaluate thoughts and situations in any way which enables them to understand that an idea or sense that is extremely improbable is likely to be erroneous. Cain pretends that he should not be expected to know his brother’s whereabouts because he is not his guardian. And since he should not be expected to know — he doesn’t know. It is as if he is willing to exchange the vast majority of the truth for the very smallest portion of some contradictory possibility. While it may be ostensibly true that ‘he is not his brother’s guardian’, he is certainly aware of his brother’s disposition, having personally imposed it upon him. Later we shall explore this matter a bit more deeply when we discuss the story of Cain and Abel as a model of the character and function of the two brain hemispheres.
In killing Abel, Cain become ‘the first’ to know (at least) three experiences: the death of a family member, murder, and the haunting memories of the act and its consequences. Only he knew the last moments of his brother’s life, and the images and memories of those last moments were certainly amongst the most highly charged emotional images in Cain’s experience. They would haunt him from the nether recesses of his consciousness for the rest of his days. By this act he brought his departed brother within himself, and (ironically) became ‘his keeper’.
Cain was the first to see a dead ‘person’, and this person was his own brother, who he himself caused ‘to cease changing and being’. Can you imagine what he must have experienced? Like his parents at the Tree in Eden, had done the unthinkable. He who was once his companion and sibling was now a lump of lifeless flesh. The act could not be undone. Prior to this, he had known his brother as a living mirror in which he might see himself reflected. Now, the mirror was silent — perhaps even accusatory in its stillness. He would never see his living brother again, but he would see the terrifying image of his death replayed ceaselessly before his mind’s eye.
Cain acquired the power to end the changing shape that was his brother, to ‘freeze’ it in a final position, a last gesture, a shape upon the ground. And that image of his brother lying lifelessly before him changed him dramatically: he became in that moment the ‘first man’ to witness such cessation, but he did not merely witness — he caused. And here we see his power and his skill; Cain can freeze what was before moving and changing. He can focus, by which we mean to divide one thing, being, perception or circumstance from all others.
Cain must now be terrified of death. Where before, he considered himself immortal; he now has direct experience of mortality. And again he has usurped God’s place as the arbiter and master of the Many in the One — he has chosen when his brother will perish, and where — he has discovered another way to seek a position of equality or precedence with God. Master of Life and Death, he is now cursed and empowered. His curse is the direct knowledge of Death. His power is the preservation of a frozen shape, inherited from his experience of his murdered brother’s body. Like a photograph that could never fade, the image Abel’s corpse became indelibly etched into his consciousness. Cain was the first one to conserve such an image, and he became a conservator of the frozen, the lifeless, the departed. A collector of shells whose skillful eye for detail and profound ability to defend his collection made him into the image of that collection.
God’s pronouncements and Cain’s protestations in this text can be also be understood as a prefiguration of the trials that were to later beset the Jewish people; however we should note that the common opinion is that the children of Cain perished in the flood, and thus he is not considered to be amongst their direct ancestry. Noah is a child of Seth. Yet there is a strange echoing of the names of the children of Cain and the children of Seth: Cain begets Enoch, who begets Irad, who begets Mehujael, who begets Methsuael (the -el suffix can here be understood to mean ‘of God’), who begets Lamech. Seth begets Enos, who begets Cainan, who begets Mahalaleel, who begets Jared, who begets Enoch, who begets Methuselah who begets Lamech — who begets Noah. In Cain’s line, Methusael begets a child named Lamech. In Seth’s it is Methuselah who begets the child of the same name, who is destined to father Noah. Also note the correspondence between Enoch and Enos. One is left to wonder if we might be seeing two sides of a single story. There is certainly something hidden here, and it may include the numerism of the strangely long ‘ages’ of each father in the lines, coupled with their ages at the time their recorded children are born.
We are also beginning to see a clear set of concentric echoes of significant events: this is the second ‘great error’ involving death, the second ‘exile’, and the second time that previously available benefits have been lost as a result of error. I consider it noteworthy that Robert Alter mentions that ‘Nod’ — the name of the land Cain comes to inhabit — is cognate with ‘wanderer’ in Hebrew. Additionally, we are beginning to get a glimpse of a way of relating the story of Cain and Abel to our own cognitive biology — the biology of the human brain.
One Source — Two ways of knowing
I suggest that the story of Cain and Abel is asking us to realize that two forms of intelligence are emergent within us as human beings. One of these forms is highly specific, is adept at the use of language, and is cunning at dividing and evaluating the divisions which it has itself imposed. It is a conservator of tokens, and ways of comparing them. The other form, which I believe to be at once anciently evolved and sacred in aspect, is a unifier. Its skills have more to do with truth (as a living and changing experience) and little to do with model-making (freezing something in order to conserve, explain or transmit it). This latter intelligence is formulated to deal adeptly with constant change, with music, and with the rhythms of cycles — and with recursion. It is particularly adept at learning, and contains the former; it is the context required for any division to take place or have meaning.
The paradox in the story of Cain and Abel is that somehow, the order of precedence has been reversed — the one which arrives in material reality second is actually the older and wiser. This one collects into unity what has been previously divided — to grand effect. Without this unification, meaning itself cannot be assembled, for meaning is apparent only through linkage. This aspect of our cognition is not so interested in language as it is in meaning, and its gift has little to do with specifics — it is the awareness and enaction of a mode of intelligence that is fundamentally general.
Unfortunately for us, these two minds are at war — but one of them won’t show up for combat of any sort, and thus remains largely in the background. While Cain was exiled ‘to wander’, Abel was exiled from existence itself when Cain murdered him. And here lies the rub. Whereas Cain was exiled ‘from the presence of God’, Abel was exiled to ‘the underworld’ — or ‘the great night’. Abel is thus ‘intangible’ (a spirit), and his character and function are not amenable to the overwrought human games of proving.
Cain was born first, and I would suggest that this has a significance we are not well-equipped to understand, which has something to do with Genesis, and also with siblings. The human womb, contained in the wom(b)an, is an organ of unimaginable sophistication. It is not merely the bag within which pregnancy takes place, and from which each of us has our physical source — it is also an organ of sensing, a fact vastly ignored by male thinkers and authors alike. But it is more even than this: the womb is a microscale replica of what we might generally refer to as ‘the place of formation prior to birth’. By ‘place’ I do not mean ‘a physical location’, but rather something akin to a dimension. The human womb is a replica of something at the celestial scale, or universal scale, for which we as yet have no useful term.
“Suppose that Cain refers to a rod — Polaris, ‘the pole star’ and Abel or Hevel to Kochab (the star) which was ‘displaced’ as Polaris assumed its previously regal place according to the progress of the precession. In this case, this story is (at least in part) a record of the end of a star-age, as directly witnessed by our distant ancestors. Polaris is the tail of the Bear (a rod). Kochab was its heart (a whirlpool). This of course, was preceded by Thuban; the snake.”
— the translator 12.14.2010
The Master and His Emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world.