Saturday, January 19, 2013

Revisiting Biblical stories you think you know: Cain and Abel

Cain and Abel is another one of those foundational stories of Genesis, the root of the phrase "Am I my brother's keeper?" and the archetypal tale of sibling rivalry, where God is in the role of the parent.  It goes like this:
Abel kept flocks and Cain worked the soil.  Cain brought God an offering from the fruits of the soil, and Abel brought God an offering of fat portions from the firstborn of his flock.  God looked with favor on Abel's offering, but not on Cain's.  So Cain was angry.  God says "Why are you angry?  Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?  But if you do not do what is right, evil is crouching at your door; it desires to have you but you must master it."
Then Cain takes his brother out into the field and kills him.  When God asks where his brother is, Cain says "I don't know.  Am I my brother's keeper?"  God curses him and says "You will be a restless wanderer upon the earth."  Cain is afraid he will be killed by whoever finds him, so God protects him with a mark.
This story is, in its way, as problematic as any.  After all, Cain does his level best.  He works the soil.  So he brings the fruits of his labors, just like his brother does.  And God turns his nose up at it.  (God, in this story, is obviously not a vegetarian.)  Then, when Cain's feelings are hurt by this, God says, basically, "Get over it."

It's always bothered me that God turns his nose up at Cain's offering.  Why does he do this?  It seems so unfair.  Perhaps that's the point.  There will be times when we will ask, "God, why did you let this happen?  This seems so unfair."  And those are the times when evil crouches at the door and we must master it.

I find myself coming back again and again not to the phrase "Am I my brother's keeper?" or the sibling rivalry in this story but to that phrase about evil crouching at the door.  Some translations say "sin" instead of "evil."  I think "evil" as a word casts a wider net and gives that phrase more resonance.  It's not just the evil that we ourselves may do.  It's the evil that humanity may do.  Evil is always crouching at our door and we "must master it."  What does it mean to master the evil in our world?

Obedience seems to be an important biblical value, at least in the Old Testament.  Case in point, the story of Adam and Eve.  Likewise, Abraham and Isaac (a story I'll write more about in a later post).  And yet, time and again in our lives, we see that to act in a moral way, to master evil, we sometimes must demonstrate disobedience.  Nazi Germany is one powerful example of this.  The Vietnam War is another.  The Civil Rights Movement.  Women's Suffrage.  Over and over again, we learn that sometimes we must disobey a figure in authority because we believe their commands to be morally wrong.  It is not acceptable to claim that we were "just obeying orders."  We are morally aware creatures, and therefore we bear the onus of moral responsibility.  

Of course, there are many disagreements about what is right or wrong in given circumstances.  That's the price of the more complex world that comes with moral awareness, with the knowledge of good and evil.  Evil crouches at our door and we must master it.  We must be able to recognize it and overcome it.  Not a simple task.

I sometimes think "mastering evil" means something more than just stopping it, preventing it.  Mastering evil may also mean finding hope, strength, faith and belief in good even when we are faced with the presence of an evil that has occured, that could not be prevented.  This understanding of the phrase occurred to me as I struggled with the murder of children in Newtown, Connecticut, and I asked "Why?"  We are surrounded by such examples of evil in our world.  Some of them are too great for any one individual to overcome.  How do we make our peace with that? Perhaps mastering evil means believing in the power of good in such situations, believing that striving for good is still a worthy goal.

Evil crouches at your door.  You must master it.

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