“Before and After”: Cain, Abel, and Archetypes

1 Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” 8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14 Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch.

Genesis 4

Note: This post is part of an ongoing series tracing “The Book of J” strand of Genesis. A link to previous entries in this sermon can be found at the bottom of each post.

For many people, including myself, a metaphorical and mythological reading of the Bible’s earliest chapters is much more exciting and compelling than more literal approaches. As we saw last week with the Garden of Eden story, this traditional tale explodes with meaning when read through the lens of archetypes. I invited you to consider that Genesis 3 is a deeply true universal story that continues to hold important lessons about the human condition, even though this precise series of events never happened historically. Among the many possible meanings, it’s a story about growing up, becoming aware of good and evil, and learning that our actions have consequences. It’s a tale about that instant when the veil of childhood innocence drops away for the first time and we realize our mortality; it’s about that moment when we realize that we too are someday going to die.

And there are clear signs throughout the text that this scripture is more myth than history. To take only one example, Genesis 3:8-9 says that Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” This scene, if taken literally, makes God seems like the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, looking for the boy, who stole the magic beans. Seeing this and other early Bible stories as myths not only makes more sense in light of twenty-first century knowledge, but also avoids questions such as, “Did Adam have a belly button? Or for this week’s scripture, “Where did Mrs. Cain come from?”

But it is important to emphasize that, like the best fictional films, books, and short stories, myths can be true in a way that sometimes even the best, most evenhanded historical journalism cannot. One of my favorite examples of this dynamic is the 2003 Tim Burton film Big Fish. (If you haven’t seen this movie I highly recommend it.) It’s about a journalist struggling to separate fact from fiction in the stories his father has told him his whole life. Indeed, the son became a fact-seeking journalist as an adolescent reaction against the seeming fabrications his father had told him his whole childhood. As indicated by the movie’s title, the father’s stories are what some call “big fish tales” — stories like those that originate on fishing trips about the big one that got away. If you had a camera and a ruler, that fish might measure approximately 15 inches, but take away the evidence, mix in a few years of retelling the story, and you get, “I swear that fish was 5 feet long if it was an inch!” The son has become obsessed with finding that original picture, so to speak, to “prove” how big that fish really was.

In one scene from the movie, the father on his death bed is regaling his son and his son’s wife with a story about African parrots. He claims, “in their native home of the Congo, they speak only French…. You’re lucky to get four words out of them in English, but if you were to walk through the jungle, you’d hear them speaking the most elaborate French. Those parrots talk about everything. Politics, movies, fashion.” His son, thinking he has finally caught his charismatic father in a lie, says that his wife “actually went to the Congo last year.” His father, without skipping a beat, turns to his her and says, “Oh, so you know?!”

In another similar scene, as the father is weaving another tale of his elaborate past, his son’s wife asks, “Oh, so this is a tall tale?”  He responds: “Well, it’s not a short one!” Without spoiling the ending, it eventually becomes clear that the father’s wildly imaginative “big fish stories” may be mythological in many ways, but they are also deeply, profoundly, and universally true in a way that the son’s obsession with an investigative “Just the facts, ma’am” approach could never be. And at the moment of his father’s death, as well as at his father’s funeral, the son’s way of seeing the world is beautifully transformed when he begins to glimpse the deep meaning at the heart of his father’s “fictional” tales.

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Importantly, most of the Bible’s earliest authors and interpreters did not understand scripture in one wooden, literal way. One major shift came with the Scientific Revolution in the 16th century. The scientific emphasis on testing and evidence changed how both liberals and conservatives read the Bible. The wide-range of pre-modern ways of reading the Bible — literal, historical, analogical, allegorical, symbolic, mystical, moral, inspirational — became increasingly eclipsed by arguments of whether the plain, literal reading of the text was historically true or not. To oversimplify, conservatives looked for scientific evidence (archeological, geological, biological, etc.) to “prove” that literal readings were true. And liberals looked at scientific evidence from figures like Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and others to show why literal biblical readings didn’t make sense in modernity. But in the debate over the Bible’s historicity, other popular pre-modern ways of reading the Bible were often lost. In our postmodern times, there is much to be regained in reclaiming some of those premodern reading strategies: allowing ourselves, for examples to say both “Yes, many of these story are more mythological than historical” and “Yes, many of these stories still have significant meaning on the level of myth and metaphor, allegory and archetype, symbol and sacrament.

What, then, would it look like to read the story of Cain and Abel through the lens of mythology? Just as Adam and Eve are the archetypal first human beings, who experience the adolescent growing pains of becoming aware of sexuality, experimenting with breaking rules, and the consequences of adult decisions, Cain and Abel represent an archetypal sibling rivalry. And their story is meaningful even on the symbolic level as a cautionary tale of how an explosive mix of jealousy and anger can lead to fratricide. It can also be read as a calling to move from competition to cooperation and from selfishness to interdependence. Indeed: we are called to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper, and to love our neighbor as ourself.

But a detective investigating this first murder — think “CSI: Mesopotamia” — might ask, what about God’s role in setting some of the groundwork that gave Cain his motive for rising up against his brother. Is there some divine culpability? The text tells us that Abel was a shepherd and Cain a farmer. Both brought God the first fruits of their labor: a lamb from Abel and food from Cain. They both, in good faith, brought their best to God, but God, according to the story, “had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering had no regard.” The most compelling explanation I have heard the dynamic underlying this seemingly arbitrary divine favoritism is that the story of Cain and Abel is also about the painful transition from the semi-nomadic lifestyle that favored the skill set of sheep herders like Abel to a more settled existence that favored the skill set of farmers like Cain. From this angle, the story of Cain and Abel becomes the universally true story of the farmer “killing” the lifestyle of the semi-nomadic herder and moving to the city: “Then Cain…settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch.”

God’s rejection of the fruit of Cain’s farm and Cain being cast out from the plains east to Eden into the city reveals that the authors and promoters of this biblical myth had an anti-city bias and were far from convinced that the move toward urbanization was “progress.” They saw many dangers in city life, and we were see a similar anti-urban bias in future texts, especially regarding the Towel of Babel.

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Carrie Newcomer has a beautiful song called, “Before and After.” She writes about this song that,

There are experiences by which we mark our lives. Some of these experiences are large events — the birth of a child, the loss of a parent, a wedding or divorce. Some of these experiences are small moments that we did not realize at the time would effect us so profoundly. There is always another a before and after and because of that, our lives grow deeper.

Some of the lyrics that are most germane to our focal scripture are:

God said Cain where is your brother,

And who will tell his grieving mother?

…We live our lives from then until now,

By the mercy received and the marks on our brow.

To my heart I’ll collect what the four winds will scatter.

And frame my life into before and after….

Then forgave myself for what I didn’t know….

And forgave myself for what didn’t matter….

To listen to Newcomer’s song, visit

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7uGty_vb6WY

Cain’s life was never the same after he killed Abel. There was before and there was after, when his brother’s blood cried out to him from the ground. When the Hebrew people transitioned from a semi-nomadic existence to urban life, there was before and after —and there were real changes and consequences to this new style and pace of life in the city.

As we move into a time of contemplative silence, I invite you to reflect on the “befores” and “afters” in your life. On the far side of these turning points, what mercies can you now see that you received, what marks have been left on your brow, and have you forgiven yourself for what you didn’t know and for what didn’t matter? What emerges for you as you reflect on the before and after?

 

Previous Sermons in this Series

“The Book of J”: Are There Hidden Books in the Bible? (Genesis 2). Description: Many scholars think that there are “hidden” books in the Bible: the books used as source material to compile the final version of the biblical books with which we are familiar. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/04/preaching-%E2%80%9Cthe-book-of-j%E2%80%9D-are-there-hidden-books-in-the-bible/

“Paradise Lost or Outgrown? Genesis 3, Original Blessing, and Original Responsibility” (Genesis 3). Description: Genesis 3 is a deeply true universal story about the human condition, even though this precise series of events never happened historically. It’s a story about growing up, becoming aware of good and evil, and learning that our actions have consequences. It’s a tale about that instant when the veil of childhood innocence drops away for the first time and we realize our mortality; it’s about that moment in time when we realize that we too are someday going to die. This metaphorical, mythological, and archetypal way of reading the Bible’s earliest chapters is so much more exciting and compelling than more literal approaches. It also makes much more sense than asking question like, “Did Adam have a belly button? or “Where did Mrs. Cain come from?” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/04/paradise-lost-or-outgrown-genesis-3-original-blessing-and-original-responsibility

 

Notes

1 For more on “The Book of J,” see the first sermon in this series, “Preaching “The Book of J”: Are There Hidden Books in the Bible?” Available at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/04/preaching-%E2%80%9Cthe-book-of-j%E2%80%9D-are-there-hidden-books-in-the-bible/.

2 For more on premodern interpretative strategies, see my sermon, “Keep Your Eye on the Ancient Interpreters, available at http://broadviewchurch.net/2011/10/sermon-keep-your-eye-on-the-ancient-interpreters-matthew-18/. See also James Kugel’s excellent book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.

3 For more on “the universally true story of the farmer ‘killing’ the lifestyle of the semi-nomadic herder and moving to the city”, see Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies:

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a brilliant work answering the question of why the peoples of certain continents succeeded in invading other continents and conquering or displacing their peoples. Until around 11,000 BCE, all peoples were still Stone Age hunter/gatherers. At that point, a great divide occurred in the rates that human societies evolved. In Eurasia, parts of the Americas, and Africa, farming became the prevailing mode of existence when indigenous wild plants and animals were domesticated by prehistoric planters and herders. As Jared Diamond vividly reveals, the very people who gained a head start in producing food would collide with preliterate cultures, shaping the modern world through conquest, displacement, and genocide. The paths that lead from scattered centers of food to broad bands of settlement had a great deal to do with climate and geography. But how did differences in societies arise? Why weren’t native Australians, Americans, or Africans the ones to colonize Europe? Diamond dismantles pernicious racial theories tracing societal differences to biological differences. He assembles convincing evidence linking germs to domestication of animals, germs that Eurasians then spread in epidemic proportions in their voyages of discovery. In its sweep, Guns, Germs and Steel encompasses the rise of agriculture, technology, writing, government, and religion, providing a unifying theory of human history as intriguing as the histories of dinosaurs and glaciers.

4 For a twenty-first-century example with resonances of the biblical “anti-urban bias” and “the real changes and consequences to this new style and pace of life in the city,” see Wendell Berry’s 2012 Jefferson Lectures, available at http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/wendell-e-berry-lecture.

The Rev. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. candidate at San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook(facebook.com/carlgregg)and Twitter (@carlgregg).

About Carl Gregg
  • Tim Zebo

    Fascinating post – thanks.
    When I read, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”, it suggested an alternate framing after Buddha’s: ”There is suffering and the cause of suffering is desire.”
    My puzzle: How can we motivate our politicians to master the ability to make decisions based on “right actions” instead of their desire to be accepted?

    • Carl Gregg

      Thanks, Tim. I’d be all for teaching a “secularized Buddhism” (all the stuff we can empirically demonstrate promotes less stress and more mindfulness and happiness) such as Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in public schools, and to adults too for that matter. As for politicians, for what it’s worth, my wife is enjoying the themes (if not necessary the prose style) of “A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit” (http://amzn.to/KNwFhb) by Tim Ryan, the Democratic U.S. Representative for Ohio’s 17th congressional district, serving since 2003. So perhaps there’s hope!


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