Monday, February 22, 2010

Lenten Meditation on Cain and Abel

Aaron Taylor, a gradute student in Moral Theology, has written a fine Lenten meditation on Cain and Abel. He writes:

Last night I read the story of Cain and Abel to my children from a Bible reader (a sort of simplified paraphrase of the text). I think the first murder is a fitting thing to recall as we move more deeply into our Lenten struggle. We are weeping for our sins, for our exile from Paradise. But unlike our First Parents, we were born into exile, and the already fallen world is the theatre in which our own sin takes place. As St Macarius the Great writes in his Fifth Homily, ‘The word spoken to Cain by the Creator, that sentence pronounced upon him with an outward meaning, Groaning and trembling and tossed shalt thou be upon the earth (Gen. iv. 12), is a type and likeness of what all sinners undergo in secret.’ [1]

Patristic interpretations of God’s rejection of Cain’s sacrifice focus on the wickedness of Cain’s heart or his carelessness in choosing his sacrifices. In the ‘Great Letter’, St Macarius writes:

I always remember that it was Abel who offered a sacrifice to God of the fat and firstlings of his flock, while Cain offered gifts of the fruits of the earth, but not of the firstfruits. It is said: ‘And God looked with favor on Abel’s sacrifices, but did not regard the gifts of Cain’ (Gn 4:4). This teaches us that everything that is done in fear and in faith is pleasing to God, not that which is done for display and without love. [2]

But there is another perspective we might take. The Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas, has a second interpretation of Cain’s sacrifices....

Read it all here.


Justin and Aimee said...

The study of Cain and Abel and their offerings is a fascinating one. The post you linked to was great as well, provided much food for thought. One interesting possible translation of the original Hebrew in Gen. 4:10 would read "the voice of your brother's blood is crying against Me (instead of to Me) from the ground." This changes the perspective of course, as if Abel were saying "God, why didn't you stop Cain from killing me?" Then it becomes a hard lesson about free will. I do not take this approach but do have several theories about why Cain's offering was rejected, which I have written about here, and would like your feedback:

Eldro said...

It seems to me the whole parable of the Fall relates to the development of agriculture and civilization in the Near East. Cain can be seen as the prototypical farmer eradicating the nomadic lifestyle of the herder and previously the wild hunter, symbolized in Abel who, like Adam and Eve in their original condition, is living by what God provided rather the produce of man, which is seen as a wretched form of subsistence to which Adam and Eve are condemned for receiving the Knowledge of Good and Evil or, from a certain perspective, the invention of codes of law necessitated by urban development and ownership of God's land.

-Just one interpretation but one that has been gnawing at me for several years

Alice C. Linsley said...

The Fall takes place in Genesis 3. Kain's line of descent begins in Genesis 4, and Seth's line of descent is in Genesis 5. These are the first historical persons in Genesis and they were rulers. It isn't possible to read Genesis as a chronological history. Most people try, but that distorts the meaning of the various sections. Genesis makes more sense (anthropologically speaking) when we read the sections as cycles.

The oldest know moral code is that of Te-hut. It originates in the Upper Nile. Likely Kain and Seth were familiar with a code very like this one.

With your interest in Anthropology, you'd probably appreciate this:

Best wishes,

Eldro said...

I did find the post interesting. I would like to know more about the moral code, its dictums and evidence of its antiquity. Hammurapi's is the first legal code I know of, but being civil I would certainly expect that an older, spiritual morality predated it. Freud's work on aboriginal taboo systems is also very interesting in the context of moral evolution.
I was particularly interested in the lilly as symbol of life and creation, growing from the first mound. I am a believer in the supremacy of entheogens in religious origins. Surely you know the lilly is a psychoactive drug, very high in the estimation of the Egyptians. I had always though of mountains, however, as referring to Amanita Muscaria in the Mediterranean and Near East, as a higher elevation is generally found in more Southernly climes to host the mushroom. Moses seeing God on the mountain, etc. have always seemed highly mythometaphorical.

I would be curious to learn more about Te-Hut. I still feel that Genesis fixates on a rejection of the developments of Mesopotamian civilization in favor of a more nomadic life where God provides for his children.

Happy Holidays!

Gaudete, Gaudete
Christus est Natus

Alice C. Linsley said...

Eldro, What do you mean by moral evolution?

Claude Levi-Strauss did far more profound work on taboos in primitive societies.

Read more about Te-hut here:

May your Nativity Feast be blessed!

BibleGeorge said...

Hi Alice,

I would love to get your interpretation of why God rejected Cain's sacrifice but accepted Abel's. Is it the common belief that Abel provides blood atonement and Cain does not? Or is it more complex?

Alice Linsley said...

The answer may be related to who was permitted to offer sacrifices. We know from the story of Saul, that some men were not permitted to function in the role of priest. Saul's offering sacrifice as if her were a priest was regarded as a very bad thing, and he was condemned for it.

Remember that Kain is the archetype of King throughout the Bible. Jude's epistle (c. 68 AD) depicts Cain was as the archetype of an earthly ruler. Jude warns those who might abandon Christ because of their suffering and false teachers that God punishes those who rebel against Him. He uses three men as examples: Cain the ruler, Balaam the prophet, and Korah the priest. This suggests that Kain did not have the right to offer any sacrifice. That pertained to the priest caste alone.

Plutarch and others have noted that the sacrifices to Horus' father involved the offering of wheat (Isis and Osiris, 69) and that the festival on the 17th of Athyr (Nov. 13) commemorated the death of the god, which was also the same day that wheat grain was planted in the ground. "The death of the grain and the death of the god were one and the same: the cereal was identified with the god who came from heaven; he was the bread by which man lives. The resurrection of the god symbolized the rebirth of the grain." There is no blood involved in this way to resurrection. It appears therefore from our Christian perspective to be a way around the Cross, and we know there is no salvation except through the Cross.