Cain & Abel
The two brothers, Cain and Abel, are the first two sons of Adam and Eve. It’s an episode which appears very early on in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. In Genesis chapter 1 we have the first creation account, in chapter 2 the second creation account, in chapter 3 the whole ‘eating of the forbidden fruit’ incident, the first sin, and the couple’s subsequent expulsion from the garden of Eden. And then in chapter 4 is the story of Cain and Abel. The story goes like this: Once Adam and Eve had been expelled and were living outside of the garden of Eden, Eve bore Cain, and then she bore Abel. As far as the mythological account is concerned, Cain and Abel are therefore the first two people to be born of natural means. We’re told that Abel grew up to become a keeper of sheep, and Cain grew up to become a tiller of the ground. But for reasons we’ll get into, their relationship went sour. They became adversarial, and ultimately Cain murdered Abel.
As far as I’m concerned, this is not an historical account, it’s not a record of events - it’s a story, a myth, but that actually makes it more important, not less. Let me explain why. If someone was to write a short story or article today, they could immediately publish it online. Whether anyone would actually read it would depend on where online it was published, how easy it was for random people to stumble across it. If it was just on a personal blog, it would depend upon how much regular readership that blog had amassed, if it was a blog worth returning to or not. Today, there are more words published online, every hour, than a single person could ever possibly hope to read in an entire lifetime. And the amount of content produced each hour is becoming larger and larger with each passing year. In the 20th century, Charlie Chaplin coined that famous expression, “Words are cheap.” And the truth is that today, words are cheaper than ever. Out of that vast array of hourly content, how much of it would actually be worth anyone's attention? 1%? 0.1%? Probably a lot less than that. Consequently, anything worth our attention, worth reading, has become more difficult to find, especially if you’re a good non-conformist and therefore departing from traditional sources.
Once upon a time, if something appeared before our eyes in typeface, it had an inherent authority about it, an inherent believability. Those days are long gone. Imagine if we were to go back to Victorian times. Unlike today, the masses did not have a voice, they could not be heard even if they wanted to be. To have anything published at all required you to get your work past the most scrupulous of publishers, publishers who of course (with few exceptions) only countenanced proposals from the most upright of white British men. If we go back even further, into medieval times, the role of monastic orders was invaluable in preserving written works. There’s obviously no internet indefinitely preserving information, and there are not even publishing houses. The longevity of texts relied upon a monk taking a special interest in a particular work. And this is where things get interesting. Texts were written with a quill on vellum (on calfskin), or, as we move towards the Middle East, on papyrus, which was not unlike thick paper. As such, texts literally had a shelf life; they would eventually just break down and disintegrate. Now, how long this would take varied a great deal, depending upon the particular climate conditions within the given monastery’s scroll depository. There are some rare examples of texts lasting a couple of millennia, where the conditions were just perfect, but for the most part, we’re in the ball-park of two or three centuries at best. So, for texts to endure even longer than this, they had to be painstakingly, over the course of months, or even years, copied out word for word.
My guess would be that most of you in this room, unlike myself, probably have physical photo albums at home, perhaps of parents or grandparents, and I’m guessing some or many of those photographs, with time, have faded, yellowed, and cracked. And so for you, this idea of information held in some physical medium, decaying with time, is probably closer to home. In the light of this decay, a choice has to be made for preservation. Today that is as easy as scanning an image into a computer (indeed most books today have been scanned by Google), for the monks though, preserving a text was a huge undertaking, and as such many texts didn’t make it. The interest to preserve them just wasn’t there, for whatever reason, and so they decayed, and were lost to time. Now, this text copying tradition stretches back basically as far as written language (which is very old indeed, around five and a half thousand years old), and when written language did appear on the scene, it did not replace other means of conveying long form narrative overnight. A widespread oral tradition ran concurrently with the written word for many centuries.
Now, what is interesting about the oral tradition, in contrast with the written tradition, is, unlike the written tradition which just requires that one diligent person to pop up every now and again, for a narrative to endure, a narrative conveyed by oral means alone must have an unbroken line. It requires each subsequent generation to remember and tell that story, which is an incredibly high bar. Because as you might have noticed, from one generation to the next, what is deemed important tends to change. Many of the stories we find in the Torah (which is the first five books of the Bible) were actually committed to paper, or papyrus, around the fifth century BCE, but the lineage of those stories stretches back way further. For centuries they were told from one generation to the next, which means the stories, such as the story of Cain and Abel, must convey something profoundly significant. It's almost like Darwin’s theory of Natural selection - the fittest of the species survives - but in this case it’s not a species in question, it is stories. Stories which hold and convey something of almost universal significance, for they speak right to the human condition. The story of Cain and Abel is short, only a few hundred words, and yet it contains a lot. This is another consequence of that oral tradition lineage: if a story needs to be remembered, excess baggage naturally gets stripped away; people don’t want to remember any more than they have to.
As I’ve said then, the story is about two brothers, and their relationship which turns adversarial. They begin to compete with one another. We’re told in the story that they both bring offerings to God. Abel, the keeper of sheep, offers up the firstborn of his flock, and Cain, being the farmer that he is, the tiller of the ground, offers up some of his crops. And we’re told that God did not look upon Cain’s offering with favour, which makes Cain angry. Now, why God does not look upon Cain’s offering with favour is not immediately clear, we’re not told explicitly what the problem is, and it may even seem arbitrary. We’re left wondering, is it Cain himself causing God’s displeasure, something about his attitude perhaps? Is it bad luck, is it chance, is it fate? And we’ve probably found ourselves asking similar questions in the past. It’s a common question, ‘why me?’ Why am I suffering? And the follow up observation is ‘why me? As opposed to that chap, who’s clearly more unpleasant than I am.’
The Judaic tradition tends towards this idea that the question itself is not only pointless, it is actually destructive. Anyone who gets stuck in the ‘why me?’ loop often meets, in one way or another, a bad end. Now, I am not suggesting by that that we should be uncharitable towards the individual stuck in the ‘why me?’ loop. We’re obviously going to encounter people in the throws of that particular hell, and I think the appropriate response is to grieve with them, and to hope with them, that they can surpass that particular thought pattern. Because it is without a doubt a nightmare, and I would imagine that we’ve all been there at some point. And so, we must overcome this external, ‘why me?’ fixation by attending to the self. When we don’t take responsibility for our own being in this world, things seem to become a lot worse. And that is difficult to accept, especially if we’re someone that seems to be facing a new set of crap every week, and without a doubt some do seem to have it harder, for apparently no reason whatsoever. And so, we come to terms, and accept our own suffering, and we attend to the self, to our way of being in the world. Not by focusing on those arbitrary externals, especially negative externals, but by examining the possibility that there might be a better way of being in this world.
And so, how does one go about that? How does one examine and implement new ways of being in this world? Well, it is done at some cost. If it’s not costly to us in some sense, then it’s probably not bringing about new ways of being. And this is where the idea of sacrifice comes into play. A couple of years ago, the Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, who I have a not uncritical appreciation of, did a series of Bible lectures. And in one of these he discussed some of the psychological principles we can extrapolate out from the Cain and Abel story, namely that sacrifice now, whether that’s doing or enduring what we don’t want now, often has a long term pay off. The example that is often given to illustrate this is education. It doesn’t quite work for me, because I’m enthralled by education, but ignoring that, the illustration is that we endure education, the tedium, the hard work, in order that we might secure a more rewarding job, which is more satisfying or pays better at a later point. Or you may have heard of the marshmallow test: sit a child in a room, put a marshmallow in front of them. If they can resist that marshmallow for a few minutes, then they will be rewarded with a second, and this supposedly gives an indication as to a child’s later success. But this test has actually come under quite a lot of scrutiny in recent years. In truth, a single test is rarely if ever indicative of later success.
So, in the case of Cain, he reaches a crossroads in his life. His offerings to God are unsatisfactory, and so he could either take the difficult path, the path of self-examination, sacrifice, and engage in that long process of discovering new ways of being, because something is o
bviously going wrong, or he can take the path of resentment and anger, which is what he does do. And then God comes and speaks to Cain and says, “Cain, Why are you angry? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door.” So, this is interesting, because not only is Cain at this crossroads in his life, with a good way that leads to paradise, and a bad way that leads to destruction, but God himself even comes to warn him, to tell him that this is the case. And again, I think a lot of people have this experience, not from an audible voice emanating out from a cloud, but they intuitively sense it, that a particular course will lead to destruction, to interior darkness, to Desolation Row; and another way, the path of diligence, of sacrifice, will ultimately lead to paradise, to interior peace. But despite Cain knowing this, despite knowing that a better path was available to him, he carries on down the road of destruction regardless. And this ultimately leads Cain to commit murder.
So, here are two people, Cain and Abel. Abel was the better man, he took the better path. He took the path of self-sacrifice, he learned what the best way to be in the world was. And Cain - Cain failed horribly, he gave way to his jealousy, laziness, and anger. And yet it was Cain, the lesser man, who destroyed the greater. And this highlights a sad reality in this world, that it is very often the lesser man who destroys the greater. It is very often the poison of the wicked that brings down the righteous. It is a pattern which always seems to be playing out somewhere. And that observation could represent its own path of bitterness. As we are dazed and overwhelmed by the horror playing out, that horror which is seemingly baked into the human condition, we could give way entirely to our despair. It could consume us like it consumed Cain. But we must instead resist this impulse, we must attend to the self, and discover new ways of being in the world. Cultivating good virtue. And also, championing that which is good, pleasing, and edifying, whenever we do encounter it in this world, because you never know, as soon as you are not standing shoulder to shoulder with the virtuous, they may find themselves alone in a field, with Cain coming for them, rock in hand.
(Philippians 4:8) …”whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things.” Allow such things to dwell within you, for this way, such things will become who we are.