Cain and Abel in Colorado

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Cain and Abel in Colorado

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *

The first news reports of the Littleton Massacre did not arrive by radio or television; they can be found in the Bible, in Chapter 4 of Genesis. Cain kills Abel: the archetypal story of one child murdering another.

The war between Cain and Abel is the first event outside Eden, the first event of "normal" human history. Why? Why do humans turn to killing when they leave the Garden of Delight?

Abel, the second-born child whose name means "Puff of Breath," and Cain, the first-born whose name means "Possessive," bring offerings to God the fruit of their labor in field and pasture. Abel's offering is accepted, Cain's is rejected.

Cain is angry: what else would you expect? But he says nothing.

God speaks the first word: "Why are you glowering?"

God waits. There is no answer. Instead Cain tries to turn his flaming face away, lest it betray his anger.

God tries again: "Why has your face fallen? If you intend good, lift it up!"

If we think of Cain and Abel as our own children, we might imagine ourselves as parents asking them these questions: " Look at me! Talk to me! Answer me!"

Cain still gives no answer. Hearing none, God continues, "If you do not intend good, sin crouches at the door. Its urge is toward you, but you can rule over it." Cain gives no answer to God.

Instead he speaks to Abel, to his brother.

Kills him.

Wait. Cain seems to speak to Abel, but the text is very strange: "Cain said to his brother Abel . . ." What? What did Cain say? In most such biblical passages, what follows these words is a quotation: a saying. Just above, the same words about God "saying" to Cain are followed by what God said.

But here there are no words, there is no quotation. Some contemporary translations leave an empty space, three dots, a silence. No more can Cain speak to Abel than to God.

So the story continues, wordless, "So it was through their being in the fields that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him."

Again with our own children vividly before our eyes, we could see the story in a new way. We could see them refusing to face our own parental challenge, failing to encounter us and taking out their anger on each other, on someone weaker than an awesome parent.

But why is the Parent so terrifying? Why did God reject Cain's sacrifice in the first place? And once Cain got angry, would there have been no better, gentler way for God to invite Cain into an encounter? Surely we can share Cain's initial anger at his Parent’s favoritism. And even though we are filled with horror at Cain's twisting of his anger against God into violence against Abel, we can still empathize with the fear that made him do that twisting.

Perhaps by this point in the story, God the Parent “Reality Itself” looked grim and awesome. God had told Eve and Adam to choose a life of unknowing blissful childhood, and they had refused. They had chosen instead to grow up, leave childhood, shape their own futures, even at the risk of death.

Their choice of independence hurtles them into a world of scarcity, where food comes hard, through sweaty toil. And what their children learn in this sudden "Depression economy" is that nurturing comes hard too: There is a dearth not only of material support, but of love and acceptance. God can respond fully to just one brother.

Which brother? The easy choice would be the older one. The one who in every family already is bigger, stronger, when the younger sib arrives. The one who gives his parents their first assurance of a biological future. The one who in many social systems, including the Israelite law of inheritance, wins more wealth and deference than his younger sibs.

But God responds not to the older Cain but to his younger brother, Abel. In a world of scarcity, God reverses the "natural" order.

Amidst these narrowed choices, God calls Cain to what is a redemptive choice: If you want to grow up, grow up all the way: Face God fully. Argue. Put your anger into words. This encounter is what God invites Cain into.

But Cain rejects adulthood. Perhaps he is afraid. Or perhaps he hears his parents' wistfulness for Eden; so instead of growing up into a new relationship with God, he tries to regress to a still older one. Nostalgically, he tries to remain a child. But there is now no bliss in childishness. To be childish now means to be sullen and resentful. To be sullen now means death.

So Cain bequeaths to human history the long, long struggle to grow beyond the sullen rage at life that tricks us into murder of each other.

"Grow up!" says God. Challenge Me, answer Me, wrestle Me. That is adulthood.

If we fail to wrestle God, we will murder a brother; just as it is only when Jacob learns to wrestle God that it becomes possible for him to make friends with his brother.

If we refuse to speak truth to power, says the story, we will end up speaking lies or silence to the powerless and doing murder. If we refuse to see clearly, truthfully, the world our parents have bequeathed us, says the story, then we will be unable to make the world we want to make.

The Littleton murderers were angry. But like Cain, they said nothing to anyone who could change their lives. Only a face flushed with anger gave a hint and in the story, God has no more clue to what that meant than did the teachers and parents of Littleton.

What would it take to help Cain speak his anger? What would it take for God to hear the silence?

Or is the better question, how might our Parent have forestalled that rage in the first place?

Favoritism. How do we prevent the Authorities of our schools and families from treating one kid’s offering as inferior to another’s? Can we honor those who are fascinated by videogames as we honor those who are fascinated by basketball? All those who have said someone should have noticed when the videogame fascination became murderous are turning their eyes from the reports that this particular teen-age preoccupation was treated as not respectable. Not like obsessively shooting baskets in the back yard. Of course no one noticed. Where were the school "coach" for videogames, the parents’ cheering section, the teachers with good advice, who would have noticed? No such roles.

Much of the commentary on Litleton has said that high school is a time of feeling demeaned and denigrated. "That’s life. Get used to it."

But does it need to be "life," since in fact it leads to death? What would it take to create high schools small enough to be communities in which the Doom set feel as much part of school life as the jocks? Schools of two hundred, rather than two thousand? Schools where Cain would feel his offerings accepted, his angers listened to?

Listening: God asks Cain the right questions, and then does not wait for an answer. And does not notice when there is no answer. Responds only with a sermon: Behave, and all will be well.

Is this "nobody listens" just a statement of inevitable reality? No. The Bible teaches that even God, or especially God, can learn from mistakes. Later in the remarkable series of brother-battles that pervade the Book of Genesis, God warns in advance that elder-brother Ishmael will be displaced to wander in the desert, and instantly adds a commitment to bless Ishmael with prosperity and posterity. Isaac's offerings will receive special attention as he in effect becomes the first-born, but Ishmael's offerings will also be well and uniquely blessed.

Still later, in still another pair of brothers, Esau shrieks in pain when he learns his younger brother Jacob has stolen the father's blessing to which he was entitled. "Have you no blessing left for me as well?" he wails. And although at first Isaac says he has used up all his blessing-power, he realizes how crucial it is to dig yet deeper, and he comes through, with a blessing that leaves Esau still angry - but no murderer. Indeed, Esau feels himself blessed enough to create a full life and meet Jacob peacefully when he returns from exile.

So we learn that the story of such conflicts does not need to end in murder. The way to move beyond Cain, beyond Littleton? From each, an offering according to his ability; to each, a blessing according to his needs; with each, a listening according to his heart.


* Rabbi Waskow is director of The Shalom Center (Website and author of Godwrestling - Round 2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths, among many other works of spiritual renewal.