Exegesis by Padre Guido Bertagna

Father Guido Bertagna at the presentation of the Annual Report on the death penalty worldwide, July 2014, at the Radical Party headquarter , in Rome

12 January 2017 :

by Father Guido Bertagna SJ

CAIN AND ABEL. Chanced Paths to a Weak Fraternity*

1Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” 8Cain said to Abel his brother, [“Let us go out to the field.”] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD appointed a sign for Cain, lest any finding him should smite him. 16Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Gen 4: 1-16 (RSV Catholic Edition)

1. Cain becomes a brother when Abel is born. An elder brother.
We do not hear his parents’ reaction to his birth. Only silence. Yet we hear the exultation of Eve, a cry of victory and fulfillment with the birth of Cain, an exultation which names as cause God Himself: I have gotten a man with [the help of] the LORD (Gen 4:1). It is an annunciation of accomplishment and of, yet it is belied by the events that transpire. An annunciation which will give way to bitterness and resentment, allowing them to take root in the fractures wrought by the frustration of these premises (and promises). Abel – hebel, the breath, the exhalation, the evanescence (the meaning of his name) – has a great power. The power of being weak, a power that derives from his very existence: the power to place the other in a situation radically different to that which was before, changing him into a brother. An elder brother – now the first, but no longer the only one. [The sons of Adam] are but a breath […] in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath, says Psalm 62. Abel carries this breath written into his name, this fragility, as an inheritance: the fragility of men, the fragility of their being, together, brothers. Brotherhood is born fragile. It is a breath, to be safeguarded. To build. While, in fact, the male-female pair are called to become ‘‘one’’, it is the diversity of the two brothers on which is emphasised. A difference in time period and generation: Cain is born first, Abel second. In heritage: Abel is a pastor, Cain a farmer. In cult: Cain offers fruit, Abel offers the first fruits of the flock. In success: Abel is regarded, Cain is not regarded.

2. These are different outcomes in how the respective offerings were accepted. This ruptures the fragile relationship between the two brothers. It also appears to split apart the image of a good and just God, a split which disturbs and unnerves us. One may glean this delving within the layers of the text, seeking to find a reassuring explanation. Seeking corroboration in a citation from Prov. 15:8 The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is his delight, some see an (arbitrary) moral judgment of Cain strongly condemnatory of him and of his offering: he offers fruits of the earth but does not offer his heart. Moreover, he offers bad fruit, the worst of the harvest. According to Flavius Josephus, Cain was a miser. Deep down, according to other sources, he was simply looking for his own advantage (citing a verse of the prophet Jeremiah: But you have eyes and heart only for your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, Jer 22:17). The Targum Jonathan bears witness to a profound theological discussion between the two brothers out in the countryside, where Cain’s incredulity, his complete distrust of God and of the goodness of the world and of life are revealed. According to Rav Eliezar, there is a serious problem from the very outset: Eve bore Cain from her relationship with the serpent, while Abel was born of Adam. Klaus Westermann, among modern scholars, most explicitly reverses the two roles: the fault lies solely with God, Cain is absolved. Cain is but an honest farmer who reacts with violence and desperation before an injustice which he cannot understand.

3. Perhaps it is more helpful to read regarded/did not regard as terms of preference, of comparison, expressed through negation and affirmation. Perhaps it expresses a preference of God for the small one, for the disadvantaged, as with other great protagonists of the biblical narratives, all confronted by their respective brothers: Jacob, Joseph and David, to cite but some examples. It’s God’s style; in it we can recognize the work of his hands. It is God’s great liberty which is here recognizable, that liberty which forges fraternity and a healthy variety between persons, which expresses itself in the multiplicity and variety of destinies. Certainly, God gazing upon Abel gives foundation and depth to his life. God offers Abel the stability which his name does not possess, first and foremost in the eyes of Cain. In other words, Abel arises and is confirmed in his right to existence.

4. Cain cannot tolerate this difference. It’s unbearable. He walks away with “countenance fallen”, dejected, as though he can only perceive his own defeat. Around him there is a void. Is he also offended to be the firstborn? Perhaps. It is as though this state of affairs has become a reflection of the darker side of life, made up of contradictions, shadows, disharmonies and sets of accounts which stubbornly refuse to balance out and will never do so. Cain appears to be completely absorbed in his frustrated desire, a yearning that has invaded all the empty space within him, leading him to crave the annihilation of the difference represented by the other.
God thoughtfully invites Cain to return to himself. He showers upon him all the attentions of a father. In God’s preoccupations and thoughts, Cain is truly the firstborn. It seems that one may hear “in anticipation” so many verses from Proverbs which begin with the invitation Hear, my son… (for example, Prov. 23:19,22,25). Here God is a father anxious to save the life and future of his children. This is a reminder of the pressing demand for clarity, for a distancing from one’s own affective world, from the prison of one’s own desires rendered as absolutes. God acts as he will with the prophet Jonah, who is also filled with anger and bitterness: Do you do well to be angry? God asks Jonah this question in the attempt to find a breach in the fortress of his anger (Jon 4:4,9).
If you do well, will you not be accepted? Will you not raise up your face again? You may return peacefully, regaining the appearance of man. Otherwise, you will look to the earth, just as the animals.
Sin is, in fact, identified as a ferocious and aggressive animal. Just like the mythical animals at the doors of the Assyrian temples, famished, rampant and threatening. One can dominate this evil, run away from it and set it to flight: Flee from sin as from a snake; for if you approach sin, it will bite you. Its teeth are lion’s teeth, and destroy the souls of men, says Sirach (Sir 21:2). The wild beast is at the door, in the fragile passageway between the internal and the external, between the reality of the world and of one’s own lived experience, between perception and reaction: the critical point and vital intersection of the human person. Sin makes the person yearn, it seeks to conquer. To underline this strength and determination of sin, in Gen 3:16, with the same word the author defines the sexual desire of the woman for the man, her yearning to possess him, identify with him. God’s rebuke of Cain presupposes the possibility of being master of one’s own sentiments, of knowing how to recognize the voices which act therein, distinguishing them, giving a name to one’s own interior “parliament” (borrowing the expression of the rich study by A. Ceretti, L. Natali, Cosmologie violente. Percorsi di vite criminali, Milan, 2009). Conversely, there exists solely the lordship of a violence which seeds itself in the heart, generates death and, destroying the life of the victim, destroys also that of his assassin: Behold, the wicked man conceives evil, and is pregnant with mischief, and brings forth lies. [He] conceive[s] mischief and bring[s] forth evil and [his] heart prepares deceit, as biblical wisdom clearly tells us (Psalm 7:14; Job 15:35).

5. But Cain no longer listens. He does not accept God’s invitation, “[his heart prepares deceit]”.
Let us go out to the field, is written in the translation of the text (echoing the Vulgate and the translation of the LXX). A conjectural reconstruction of the dialogue. This phrase is absent in the Hebrew text. Following Cain said to Abel his brother, there’s an empty space. Not even ellipsis is present. There is but a silent abyss before which one can only hold one’s breath. That void is filled with blood. The violence of the crime appears then as this symbolic substitution of dialogue which has become impossible. Cain is unable to talk to Abel, just as the brothers are unable to talk with Joseph (Gen 37:4). Turning to speak to the other may, conceivably, have opened up the route of humanity, giving a name to those experiences which Cain bore within, suffering them in torment. Abel is murdered in “the field”. There are no witnesses. The evil is hidden from the eyes of others. “Field”: perhaps better translated as “barren, arid land”. St Ambrose comments “When Cain said: ‘Let us go forth into the field’, his words had meaning. He did not say: ‘Let us go forth into the Garden where fruit grows plentifully, into a cultivated and productive place.’ As a matter of fact, we know that [fratricides] cannot obtain for themselves the fruit of their crimes … they shun places that have been blessed by nature’s [goodness] … The highwayman shuns daylight, a witness of his crime. The adulterer blushes to see the light of day discover him. In the like manner the [fratricide] avoids land that is fertile.” (St Ambrose, De Cain et Abel, Chap. 8 par. 26).
Every homicide, in the end, is fratricide. And every violence – even that of the “beginning” – has its own history: profound, deep down, played out in an intimate internal dialogue. It is but a matter of time until the final violence becomes the tragic substitute of a dialogue and a relationship which have become impossible, unsustainable. Evil “even when exercised in the form of violence, does not follow the model of the mechanical gesture that imposes itself from on high downwards towards the edges of symbolism: it occurs, on the other hand, in a manner influenced by the interior conversation […] In this sense, ‘doing evil’ assumes […] a relational dimension.” (A. Ceretti, L. Natali, cit., 381). The drama at the “beginning” of the biblical journey is the failure of dialogue. One must await Abraham to meet a man who seeks and maintains a dialogue with God. Dialogue at Creation having failed (Adam hides himself as soon as he hears the footsteps of the Creator), dialogue also fails between the couple (the two do not speak: Adam talks about Eve but not to Eve. The brief harmony between them is broken following their sin, when they place the blame on one another). Also shipwrecked is the dialogue between brothers which heralds, on the horizon, the failure of dialogue among the community of man (expressed in the project of supremacy/control of the Tower of Babel, Gen. 11).

6. Before the crime, God acts with Cain as a father; following the crime, he has to enter into the story robed as a judge. Yet he cannot remove the undergarments of a father: ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ is the echo of the ‘where are you?’ asked of Adam in the Garden: it is the question which sustains the awakening of conscience and of responsibility. At the same time, God does not want to leave man to answer this difficult question on his own. He wants man to raise up his face. Cain differs from Adam with respect to his presence in the garden. He does not run away from God’s glance. He replies with a lie – I do not know – and with a renunciation – am I my brother’s keeper? – his formal renunciation to being his brother’s guardian, to his duty to take care of him. Indirectly, it is also an angry, desperate counter-accusation: You should have thought about it, shouldn’t you? Aren’t you the one who made us? And where were you when things went south? Why didn’t you stop me?
God’s second question – what have you done? – draws Cain back to the pressing necessity of awareness: listening takes precedence over vision as the undisputable proof. It is the voice of blood which makes the cry heard. Or, to be more precise: the voice of bloods: in the plural. It is not only the one murdered, but it is also all the generations of those who will not be, the broken relationships, the lives suspended: Abel’s lineage is interrupted subsequent to him. To a certain extent, the condemnation mitigates the consequences of the homicide, commuting to exile the death sentence which the lex talionis prescribes. Whoever sheds the blood of man/by man shall his blood be shed/for God made man in his own image (Gen 9:6). If God were to act only as a judge, he would have to apply the prescribed sanction, but as one may appreciate from his repeated efforts to speak to Cain, God would like to save him, as a father saves a son. God accompanies Cain in the awakening of his consciousness to the inevitable repercussions of his acts, without leaving him alone at the abyss of his mistake.
Rather than a condemnation, God’s words in fact reveal the sad coming to awareness of what has happened. In a tragic domino effect, all of Creation is involved in the movement of evil: it is as though Cain, the farmer, had planted the seeds of a curse in the ’adama, in the earth: it shall no longer yield to you its strength, its sustenance: to you who have taken away the life of your brother, the strength which nourished you, which sustained your life, has now been taken away. The land is subjected to and, at the same time, takes on an active role in the consequences and in the condemnation of Cain’s act, withholding its own life-giving strength. He who sows injustice will reap calamity, as concluded by the wisdom of Israel (Prov. 22:8). It is the end of all fecundity.
Cain will be a nomad, a vagabond. First and foremost he will be lost to himself. Having killed the nomadic shepherd, the farmer is himself condemned to be a nomad. His condition of internal uncertainty is expressed as an incessant movement and lack of peace, in a perennial distancing from his own land. As him who vacillates and wanders, in the powerful translation of Erri De Luca, as a swaying drunkard.

7. Cain understands his culpability and his fault (expressed in the noun ’awon, meaning ‘fault’ or ‘punishment’, and in the verb nasa’, meaning ‘to bear’ or ‘to pardon’). In this context different translations are again possible:
- my fault is too heavy to be bear
- my fault is too serious to be pardoned
- my culpability crushes me (= it is an unbearable weight)
- my punishment is too heavy to bear
- my rebellion is so serious that I cannot bear it, but you have the power to pardon it.

Apart from the fact that Cain articulates his incapacity to bear such a great weight, or that he may even have lost hope in God’s pardon, there remains in him an awareness of a serious culpability which exposes him to anyone’s and everyone’s vengeance: must he hide himself away from others and, perhaps, even from God (knowing that in this case it is impossible, as it is in the shared experience of Israel: Am 9:3; Job 13:20; Psalm 139:7-12)? It appears to be an execution but cruelly deferred, bearing down ceaselessly on his conscience: The wicked flee when no one pursues (Prov. 28:1).
As to God: Cain, perhaps just like every one of us, must learn that God’s glance, God’s presence, neither persecutes nor punishes. It is a special, attentive care, it is a wounded but steadfast love.
As to everyone else: If anyone slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold: killing anyone, even a homicide like Cain, releases the spiral of violence. God reserves the custodianship of life to himself. Of all life, starting with Cain. Nobody, for any reason whatsoever, may dispose of the life of another. And the LORD appointed a sign for Cain, lest any finding him should smite him: the “mark”, the sign, an enigma which must be understood. As from this moment, the threat of vengeance is, perhaps, inscribed forever in the life and in the body of Cain. Violence generates violence with an unstoppable “mimetic” dynamism. The lives of men are subdued by the fear which makes us live together yet at arm’s length from one another: the life in our cities, of which Cain was the first founder. One lives glancing continually over the shoulder, preparing for war if one wants to live in peace.
Yet the “mark” is also a reminder, a reminder of belonging. A reminder that man is created in the image and likeness of God, and that God never withdraws this image. Rather, He invites man to be faithful to that image and likeness which is indelibly impressed upon him (Gen 1:26) and, because of this, to have lordship over the beasts (the image of violence) which threaten him (Gen 1:27-28).
Away…in the land of Nod: that is, in the land of “vagrancy”: the farmer is left rootless, bereft of foundation, bearing with him the mark of his crime. Far away from God he carries the mark of God.

8. God intervenes as the spokesman for Abel’s bloods and fully identifies with the life of the victim that has been stolen away, as the only voice of the weak one who has been eliminated. Yet God also fully identifies himself with the care of Cain, with the necessary custodianship of his life, a life which must yet regain its humanity. In a continuous and ever deeper processing of its fault, it is a life which may no longer remain free of an awareness of the crime. We find it difficult to imagine (yet alone to live) this capacity to stay at one and the same time close to both sides: we remain either on the one side or on the other. God acts in paradox (only a strong and coherent love can sustain paradoxes such as these): to listen fully to the voice of Abel he also interrogates Cain, and, to grant absolute justice to the bloods of Abel, he takes it upon himself to care for Cain and for his descendents. Turning his gaze once again to God, Cain has the capacity to encounter Abel’s face, listening to that silent voice, without failing again in his responsibility. Yet, the encounter with that face, stripped bare by the pain it has suffered, will allow him to unveil it in a new way: a face finally become similar to his, which will not nail him to the deeds of the past, but, in a reciprocal recognition which is unconditional, will open up an afterwards for him to live.

These notes owe a great debt to the exegetical work of Biblicists such as L. Alonso Schokel, Dov’è tuo fratello? Brescia, 1987; A. Wenin, Giuseppe o l’invenzione della fratellanza. Lettura narrativa e antropologica della Genesi, Bologna, 2007; P. Bovati, Ristabilire la giustizia. Procedure, vocabolario, orientamenti (Analecta Biblica 110), PIB, Rome, 1986; E. Bianchi, Adamo, dove sei? Magnano, 1994; G. Ravasi, Il libro della Genesi (1-11), Rome, 1990.

* Translation by Fr Andrew Camilleri SJ, Fr Pierre Grech Marguerat SJ and Fr Brian McCuarta SJ