City of Cain

City of Cain October 17, 2007

Girard says that “the Bible unveils the victim mechanism that lies behind polytheism and mythology, but not only behind polytheism and mythology, for its full expression underlies everything we know as human culture. The Bible recognizes this in the story of Cain and Abel. Because Cain murders his brother, God bans him from the soil, making him a wanderer on the earth, and God puts a mark on him, a sign to protect him from suffering what he made Abel suffer. Then Cain builds the first city, and so civilization begins. The story of Genesis 4 tells us, in effect, that the sign of Cain is the sign of civilization.”


Cain’s city is a city of wanderers, those who have been disconnected from the soil. Modern cities are proverbially full of rootless wanderers, but this is not only the modern city. The city as such is a city of wanderers, people cut off from the soil. The city is the city of fear. Cain is afraid that “whoever finds me will kill me,” and though the Lord assures Him of protection, he immediately goes and builds a city, walling himself in from the dangers outside, creating the sacred protective space of the city.

The city is founded on the oppression of the innocent victim, on the founding murder. Girard again: “The name ‘Cain’ designates the first community gathered around the first founding murder. This is why there are many potential murderers, and there must be something to keep them from killing.” The thing that keeps them from killing is the establishment of sevenfold revenge (4:15), which replaces the cycle of primitive vengeance wit a ritualized sacrificial repetition of the original murder. This is the beginning of human culture for Girard.

Leon Kass in his intriguing study of Genesis, makes similar points about the condemnation of civilization in the story of Cain and Abel. “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 supremacy and 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 to destroy the brotherly relation with those under one’s dominion. The ruler, as ruler, has no brothers.”

Out of both safety and pride, ambitious men “cultivate prowess in fighting. They build city walls to protect them from their enemies; but the existence of walls creates new enmities and invites attack. The city begun in fear proudly begs one of heroic ambition. There is a direct line from the plowshare to the sword.”

Thus, the Bible takes sides “in an ancient quarrel about the origin and goodness of the city and civilization”: “According to the more optimistic view, the city is rooted in need and comes to be by a process of natural growth, beginning with the household, then the tribe, then the village, then the merging of several villages to form the city. According to Aristotle, the city is the first truly self-sufficient community; it comes into being for the sake of life, but it exists for the sake of living well. According to the most pessimistic view, shared by the Bible, the city is rooted in fear, greed, pride, violence, and the desire for domination. These questionable beginnings continue to infect civilization as such.”

Cain’s city is founded on violence, the violence of Cain’s assault on his brother, and it is maintained by violence, the violence of revenge and threatened revenge. It is a city of justice, but it is a city of violent justice, peace established by means of violence countered against violence.

This is, of course, only one side of the biblical portrait of the city. In addition to this city, there is daughter Zion, the city whose builder and maker is God.


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