The Genesis of Economic, Cultural, and Social Change

Bereishit ("Genesis") is the first of the five books of the Torah. These books are read and reread every year, divided into weekly sections, in a cycle that begins anew every fall. In Bereishit, the cosmos is born; the first man is fashioned by God; and the first human to have a brother, murders his brother. This first murder is the prologue to future sins, which will lead to the Great Flood where humanity, aside from a single family, is destroyed, and the Tower of Babel, where God disrupts the human unity that technology enables. God's rage at the creatures of his creation is also a story of our rage at the creatures of our creation—economic, technological, and social change.

This story of change begins with Cain's unloved sacrifice followed by his murder of his brother, Abel.

After a period of time, Cain brought an offering to God of the fruit of the ground, and as for Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and from their choicest. God turned to Abel and his offering. But to Cain and his offering God did not turn. This annoyed Cain exceedingly and his countenance fell. . . . And it happened when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him (Gen. 4:3-8).

Rashi and other traditional commentators discuss why Cain's offering was not accepted. In the text they see a disparity between the ways the two offerings are described. The text simply says that Cain brings his offering from the land, but when describing Abel's offering, the text further elaborates to mention that he brought the "firstlings" and the "choicest." To traditional commentators, the absence of a description of Cain's offering speaks to its inferiority.

However, there is another important difference between the two brothers and their offerings. Cain is a farmer and Abel is a shepherd. Abraham, Moses, and King David were all shepherds. Agriculture implies a settling of the land, a building of permanent homes—a game-changer from the nomadic life of animal herder. The Torah's selection of professions for its heroes speaks to a romantic fascination with the nomadic animal herder. Imagine the ancients sitting around lamenting the past, when life was simple, possessions were few, and property ownership was in its infancy . . . the good old days of nomadic herding.

Cain's poetic punishment confirms the text's discomfort with the farmer. Cain is sentenced to a hard life:

When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a vagrant and a wander on earth (Gen. 4:12).

Cain is fired from his trade. He is condemned to a life in which he is forced to become a nomadic wanderer. Yet, this punishment to wander only affects Cain himself. Cain's son, Enoch, is known as the "city-builder." The cultural landscape continues to change with the advent of cities. A dozen generations later, God will punish the building of cities, particularly the Tower of Babel, by destroying the builders' ability to communicate with each other (Gen. 10:11).

The Torah closely ties technological and social change to Cain's line. The descendants of Cain's city-builder son are the first to "dwell in tents and breed cattle," "handle the harp and the flute," and "sharp[en] all cutting implements of copper and iron." This list encompasses changes that span economy, art, and politics (particularly war). The troubled origin of innovation in the Torah speaks of a deep ambivalence toward our creations, where the harp sits beside the sword. Must invention be the child of Cain, we ask?

Have we taken responsibility for our creations? Or are we like Cain, who confronted by responds, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen. 4:9)

Then God says, "What have you done?" Is the text also saying "what have we done?" Discomfort and ambiguity toward economic, social, and technological change is, perhaps, as old as change itself. It is the archetype story beneath the archetypal stories of Genesis.

10/18/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Anna Batler
    About Anna Batler
    Anna Batler is a writer and an attorney based out of Washington, D.C. She writes about faith, feminism, spirituality, and religious identity at She also writes a weekly feminist Bible commentary at