February 29, 2012 by J. Madson
The story of Cain and Abel is foundational. By foundational I mean the basis or the underlying support, the body or ground upon which something is overlaid or built. The story of Cain and Abel teaches us what constitutes the basis or underlying support of human civilization – the city and state. Unlike other foundational myths, this story does not perpetuate the myth by covering up truth, but instead “recounts the bloody foundation of the beginnings of culture and the consequences of this foundation.”[i]In this sense, the Bible interprets all founding myths. The first death in the Bible is a murder and the Bible’s first murderer is the founder of civilization.
The story of Cain and Abel also represents a story of two paths: the “way of the world” or the Kingdom of God; Cain’s city of Enoch or the translated city of Enoch; the Hypocritical Nation or the Mountain of the Lord’s House; Babylon or Zion. These two paths run throughout the Biblical narrative and are manifested in the political and religious body of Israel. It is in the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that the path of Abel is chosen definitively and the Kingdom of God is revealed.
The Curse, Murder, and the State
As mentioned in part one, the typical focus on race in the story of Cain and Abel has hindered us from understanding the foundational lessons in the text about humanity, the nature of God, and civilization’s ties to violence and retribution. Let’s remember that the text tells us that Cain and Abel both offer sacrifice but Abel’s is accepted while Cain’s is not. This led to a mimetic rivalry between the two brothers. Cain is angry and this rivalry ends with Cain luring his brother out into the field where he kills his younger brother Abel. Cain in turn is cursed. But what of the curse?
“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.[ii]
As shown in part one, the mark is not the curse. Cain is cursed from tilling the earth and to become a wanderer/nomad. Cain must give up the plowshare as he has now taken up the sword. This is the curse that Cain receives: the loss of the gift of agriculture and consequently to become a fugitive on earth. John Howard Yoder remarks on this loss:
“[t]o develop a fruitful field demands years of cooperation between the farmer and his land, his learning how to nurture it, how to adjust the crops to the soils and the calendar. Cain cannot be a farmer if he cannot be trusted with his brother’s life. If we must constantly be taking refuge in the walls of the cities, we cannot be out working in the fields.”[iii]
Cain lives on to have spouses, children, and found civilization. Cain founds the first city mentioned in the Bible:
“And Cain went out from the presence of Jehovah, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.”[iv]
Just as the bodies of sacrificial victims were placed at or under the foundations or walls of cities in buildings in Canaanite tradition, the foundation of the first city is linked to the murder of Abel.[v]Cain’s city is comprised of wanderers and those disconnected from the land. The story of Cain is not only about him, but is a collective story about civilization. As Rene Girard explains, “the human race is not limited at that time to Cain and his two parents.” Cain says “Now that I killed my brother everybody will kill me.” This “everybody” explains Cain’s fear that many will want revenge on him for killing Abel. Cain has set the precedent, he himself will likely fall violently by the hand of another. “[T]he name ‘Cain’ designates the first community gathered around the first founding murder.”[vi]The Cain and Abel story is seminal in teaching that our cities, our governments, the state do not give us peace but only a fragile stability built upon a foundation of murder. They reject the call to be our brother’s keeper.
“What is destroying nature and destroying the possibility of social peace is not anarchy, but government gone beyond bounds, What is killing us is not savagery, but civilization. The saga of genesis describes that fact. That is the way it is: the reciprocal interlocking of genocide and ecocide. The voice of our brothers; blood cries out to God, and we cannot live with our brother in the land.”[vii]
Seventy times Seven
When the mark is placed upon Cain it is accompanied with a prohibition against retaliating or killing Cain in revenge. The mark establishes that both murder and retribution are unacceptable. The murder of Abel is condemned and Cain is given a mark that will “protect him from the very process of rivalry that has made him defenseless.”[viii] Even though some might feel he deserves to be killed, it is forbidden.
“And the LORD said to him, “Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him.[ix]
The Quran goes even farther in having God answer in response to Abel’s slaying that,
“If anyone slew a person – be it for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people; and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.[x]”
Within the space of a few short verses, the founding violence and prohibition of vengeance escalates with Lamech. He reasons that if Cain is to be avenged sevenfold than how much more will he be avenged, even seventy times seven. Lamech, like many of us, has missed the point of God’s merciful treatment of Cain. God was not establishing a principle of retributive justice but was rather trying to limit the shedding of blood, something Lamech wanted to multiply instead. We learn the inevitable result of any civilization, city, or state founded on murder and the principles of retribution. The successors of Cain become more and more violent, demand more and more victims and ultimately it collapses in the great flood because “[T]he earth was ruined in the sight of God; the earth was filled with violence.”[xi]
The phrase “seventy times seven” occurs in the Septuagint as: hebdomekontakis hepta. This phrase is rare and only occurs in a few locations in all of the scriptures. When asked by Peter how often he should forgive others, Jesus answered with this exact term (its only usage in the New Testament).
“Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.”[xii]
It seems probable that this is a direct repudiation of the logic of Lamech and Cain entailing revenge. Jesus explains to Peter that he should not only forgive sevenfold, the number used in reference to Cain, but even seventy times seven in direct contrast to Lamech’s assertions. We find this same rejection of retribution and demand for forgiveness in D&C 98 where this same term is again used.
“And again, verily I say unto you, if after thine enemy has come upon thee the first time, he repent and come unto thee praying thy forgiveness, thou shalt forgive him, and shalt hold it no more as a testimony against thine enemy— And so on unto the second and third time; and as oft as thine enemy repenteth of the trespass wherewith he has trespassed against thee, thou shalt forgive him, until seventy times seven.[xiii]
In the usage of the term seventy times seven we find two paths clearly delineated. On one hand we find retribution, revenge, and the myth of redemptive violence. The other path involves forgiveness of our trespassers, of our enemies, individually and collectively, not once, twice, or a third time but until seventy times seven.
Your Brother’s Keeper
When Jesus stated that he who was without sin should cast the first stone, he understood that each stone subsequent to the first stone is an extension or outgrowth of that first act of violence. The mob simply mimics the first stone cast. In that same regard, when a nation or individual takes up arms after being attacked it is in mimesis of that first stone. When we retaliate, we mimic that stone. What Jesus asked the crowd to see that every act of retaliation is, in fact, the same as if we cast the first stone. In the Quran, the story of Cain and Abel adds the following details
“Said [Cain], I will surely kill you. Said [Abel], ‘Indeed, God only accepts from those who are righteous [who fear Him]. If you should raise your hand against me to kill me – I shall not raise my hand against you to kill you. Indeed, I fear God, Lord of the worlds.”[xiv]
The Islamic scholar, Jawdat Said suggests that the story of Cain and Abel clearly illustrates God’s preference for nonviolence. Said suggests this story is
“a shift in authority, once based on violence and coercion, to a new authority based on comprehension. It signifies a voluntary choice between good and evil, and humankind’s evolution from the law of the jungle to the law of understanding… There is no hesitation or doubt in Abel’s position. He is determined and willing to face the consequences. His newly conferred responsibility is laid bare, and he uses well his newly acquired authority. Abel’s response is not heretical any more than was Galileo’s, though the world and the church came to believe him only after four hundred years had passed. It rather marked the evolved attitude of humanity’s new life…..
The prophets wanted to found and establish a new way, the way of Adam’s son, the one whose position can be summarized as follows: “I know good and evil and have left the law of the jungle. You could kill me but you can not turn me into a killer.” It is as if Abel is saying to his brother: “Yes you can kill me. I will die anyway even if you did not kill me. But I will not make my death validate killing. I will deny you the benefit of killing. I will do so by declining to enter the battle of bodies with you, because if I defend myself you will believe in the effectiveness of killing. I will abrogate and cancel the benefit of killing and make it vile even in your eyes.” And Abel succeeded when “Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is heavier than I can bear.”[xv]
Ironically, Said suggests that resisting violence passively is more economical in that fewer are killed unlike war wherein many die on both sides. By refusing to react in violence, the awe is removed, the myth uncovered and the criminal and immoral nature of killing is revealed. Abel is a model for righteous discipleship. A few days before Jesus shared the fate of Abel, Jesus purposefully linked Abel and other victims of violence to his own mission, death, and resurrection.
“Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.”[xvi]
These words were spoken to those who built “tombs for the prophets” and “decorated the graves of the righteous,” and yet they were accused of shedding the blood of the prophets.[xvii]And once again, when a true prophet was in their midst, they killed him just as Abel was killed at the foundation of the world. God’s question to Cain was “where is your brother?”[xviii]This is the same question that all of the prophets ask us. Perhaps it is time that we recognize that we are our brother’s keeper. That we cannot be saved as a people without doing good unto the least of our brethren and refusing to cast the stones in mimesis of those we label enemy.
Cain abandoned the plowshare for the sword. The land and community are rejected for the city and state founded upon murder. The scriptures speak of Babylon, apocalypse, death, and destruction. They also speak of Zion. This is where those who refuse the sword find refuge, for “every man that will not take his sword against his neighbor must needs flee unto Zion for safety and there shall be gathered unto it out of every nation under heaven: And it shall be the only people that shall not be at war one with another.” It is the mountain of the Lord’s house. It is what Isaiah foresaw when people from all nations come to Zion and abandon the state, abandon the sword and reverse the sin of Cain. The day when they will beat their swords back into plowshares and abandon the form of civilization founded by Cain. It is a day when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”[xix]
The Cain and Abel story teaches us that we are our brother’s keeper, that any society founded on violence is destined to end in violence, that all acts of violence are akin to casting the first stone, and that we cannot claim as those in Jesus time, that “if we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have participated with them in shedding the blood of the prophets,” all the while we continue to kill the innocent Abels in the world. It is they who die in foreign lands and in our own nations from too much civilization and the violence of the state. We must forgive seventy times seven, we must refuse to participate in the system of violence, and beat our swords back into plowshares and reject the kingdoms of this world. In speaking of Cain and Abel, John argued that “we should love one another” and “not be like Cain.” He believed that the only way to overcome death and the sins of this world was to follow the model of the first martyr Abel and follow Jesus, even to a cross if needs be:
“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”[xx]
[i] Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, (New York: Orbis Books, 2001), 83; In Rome, the killing of Remus by his brother Romulus was considered justified and Romulus became the founder of Rome.
[ii] Genesis 4:11-12
[iii] John Howard Yoder, He Came Preaching Peace, (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985), 62.
[iv] Genesis 4:16-17
[v] Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, (New York: Crossroads, 1995), 169. See also, 1 Kings 16:34.
[vi] Girard, I See Satan, 84.
[vii] Yoder, He Came Preaching Peace, 62.
[viii] James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, (Harper San Francisco, 1991), 26.
[ix] Genesis 4:15
[x] Quran 5:32
[xi] Genesis 6:11 NET
[xii] Matthew 18:21-22 KJV
[xiii] D&C 98:39-40
[xiv] Quran, 5:27-31
[xvi] Matthew 23:34–35 KJV
[xvii] Matthew 23:29-31
[xviii] Genesis 4:9
[xix] Isaiah 2:2
[xx] 1 John 3:11–16 ESV