Cain and Abel: Brother's war/Brother's peace

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Genesis: Brothers' War, Brothers' Peace
by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Suddenly the room we were in and the story we had read joined into the same moment of time. Here we were, cast out of Eden, down from the peaks of our morning ecstasy, back from the fruitful farm to wrestle with each other. And there across the room were David and Shoshana, brother and sister, two of the children who had been playing with and near us. I remembered Irene's question, How did it feel to them-or us? I said, "How would it feel for us to have to write that David had killed Shoshana?"
There was a blink. Somebody answered, lethargic, not really hearing, puzzled: "It's only about a death. It's true it was the first death, but we all have to get used to death."
"No," I said; "it's not just death; it's murder. And brothers, too. What if David killed Shoshana? How could we bear to write it? How could we understand it and explain it?"
Reluctantly-but who wouldn't be reluctant to face that story?-we turn our attention to Cain and Abel. Here it is: a war of brothers is the first event outside Eden; the first event of normal human history is a war of brothers. And the Book of Genesis is almost woven of such stories. Just as the human race begins with a war of brothers, so does the Jewish people: Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers. Indeed, Genesis is unable to come to an end until there is a peaceful pair of brothers: Ephraim and Manasseh. Only then can the Bible turn to other problems.
But why the murder in the first place? Why must humans turn to killing when they leave the Garden?
Abel and Cain 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!"
Most of us have always thought these were rhetorical questions, and have located the real puzzle of the story in what Cain had done to make his sacrifice unworthy in the first place. But now, thinking of Cain and Abel as David and Shoshana, suddenly we can imagine ourselves as parents asking them these questions-not merely as a line of rhetoric but for real: "Why are you angry? Why have you turned your face away from me? Look at me! Talk to me! Answer me!"
God becomes a Parent. We ask ourselves, what if God's questions were no mere formal introduction, but a real question, awaiting -- hoping -- demanding -- a real answer? Demanding that Cain face God directly and spit out his anger?
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."
Again, most of us have read this as a recollection of the past-remembering something Cain has already done for evil. But what if God is still addressing the future? Warning Cain once more to answer, face to face? Warning that to turn away will open the door to crouching evil? . . .
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 Torah text is very strange: "Cain said to his brother Abel ..." What? What did Cain say? In most such passages of Torah, 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. 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, looked grim and awesome. The choice Adarn and Eve made in the Garden has created a new reality . . . a reality of awe, terror, grimness. God has told Eve and Adarn to choose a life of unknowing blissful childhood, and they have refused. They have chosen instead to leave childhood, even at the risk of death. For them and for their children, the Garden of Delight has disappeared. What remains is a life of toil, of domination, of alienation. Divorce from the blissful flow of Life, a chasm between them and God.
And this choice by the parents has entered into the lives of their children-not only entered but bitten cruelly deep. Eve and Adarn have abolished blissful, unknowing childhood. Now there is scarcity. Not only material scarcity, but a dearth of love and acceptance. Even God's fullness is damaged: even God can only fully respond 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 wealth and deference.
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 now the most redemptive choice left: responsible adulthood, being ready to face God fully, being ready to acknowledge God's limits on the world- Necessity. And then to challenge and encounter God, to turn necessity into a free choice of love. This encounter is what God invites Cain into. It is the grim and awesome God of Outside­Eden, who has no gentler choice.
But Cain rejects adulthood. Perhaps he hears his parents' wistfulness; so he tries to choose what they gave up. 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.
Eve and Adam had chosen to leave childhood at the risk of death. The risk trembled in the balance: would their children be able to move forward to adulthood and to life? Not yet: the risk they took is visited upon their children. The first death comes: not, to be sure, upon their own bodies, but upon the body of their son.
So Cain bequeaths to human history the long, long struggle to grow beyond the murder of each other. We have left the House of Eden; we still live in the House of Cain.
We left the House of Eden-we leave it again every day-when we decide that to be human means to know, to choose, to grow. But then we should grow all the way, says God: There is no halfway house. We should be ready to challenge God, to answer God, to wrestle God. 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. For we should not ignore what the story is teaching about relationships among human beings, as well as between humans and God.
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.
Neither sullen nor nostalgic, says the story-for sullenness and nostalgia are the degenerate shapes of anger and of love. Better clear anger and clear love, with all their risks.
The story of Cain, Abel, and God-like the rest of the saga from Adam to Noah-is a story of total risk. God demands everything and risks everything. God demands that Cain take the risk of fully encountering God. Not his brother, not his parents, not another human being made in God's image-but God's Own Self, unmediated, undiluted. When Cain turns away, the result is Abel's death. This is no matter of an exile, or a life­long enmity; it is a matter of life and death. Demand all, risk all, lose all. And so it runs throughout the saga of the fathers and mothers of the human race: from Eden to the Flood and even to Babel, God's Own unmediated Self stands facing the whole of humankind.
It is as if this saga stands first in the Bible to teach the root truth, the "radical" truth of what is at stake in the world: Everything is at stake.
But the Bible then moves on to teach us that these ultimate issues enter human life-and God's life too-somewhat blurred. From the saga of the mothers and fathers of the human race, the Bible moves to a smaller arena, the saga of the mothers and fathers of the Jewish people.
Here again we hear the motif of the brothers' war. But here only a single people is at stake, not the whole human race-and this seems to open up new possibilities. Here there are successive generations, so that the motif of the brothers' war can go through a series of variations. There is even a story of two sisters' struggle, as if to say: "Does it make a difference if the siblings are not men but women?"
So here in the stories of the Clan of Abraham, the risks are profound but not total. The conflicts are warlike, but not fatal. In each generation, the outcome is a reconciliation, until the brothers' war itself can be extinguished.
It is almost as if God learns from the mistakes and failures of the earlier saga and starts over to work things out another way. It is almost as if God says, "In order to redeem the world I have tried putting My Whole Self into this encounter with the whole human race, and the result has been not redemption but disaster after disaster. Now let me try working with a single people and let My Presence take a subtler form."
The hinge is Babel, where the unified human race suffers one last unified disaster: it breaks up into a complex of peoples. Now it is possible for God to explore a number of different possibilities. So may run the sense of experiment and failure and new experiment, the sense of learning, in the mind of God. On the human side, there is after Babel the chance that a small people, unlike the whole human race, might pull itself together to respond to God coherently. It might become a small model, and from such a model others could learn the process.
So now we enter the saga of the children of Abraham. Generation after generation in the saga, there rises the issue of "firstbornness." It is settled differently from its settlement in the story of Cain and Abel. There God chooses the younger, but the older rejects that settlement. So the conflict becomes irreconcilable, and the first­born "wins": he destroys his younger brother.
In the Abrahamic saga, generation after generation, God again -- as with Abel -- chooses the later-borns. But in this saga, the firstborns agree to lose. They lose in power and in blessing, both as a channel of material prosperity and as a channel of redemption. And unlike Cain, they step aside.
By doing this, by stepping back, they make it possible for the conflicts to be reconciled. Generation after generation, the stories end not with death but with a fragile peace in which the younger brother holds the limelight:

  • The Bible focuses on Isaac rather than his older brother Ishmael; but Ishmael is blessed as forefather of a people, and even achieves the twelve sons who symbolize successful peoplehood one generation before the line of Isaac does. What is more, the two brothers meet in love when their father dies.
  • The Bible focuses on Jacob rather than his older brother Esau, but Esau survives with many flocks and followers to establish his own people in Edom; and here too the two brothers meet lovingly after decades of separation.
  • In the next generation, the Bible focuses on Joseph, second youngest of twelve brothers. He rises above them all and, after a story of fury, hatred, and separation, is reconciled with them.

And in that generation of the story the pattern begins to be broken, perhaps because the emergence of twelve brothers not only signals the existence of a people but also relaxes the tension of two brothers struggling head to head against each other. Among twelve there can be allies, neutrals, peacemakers, change.
After the pattern opens up, Joseph's two sons test out the final resolution of the issue.
What happens with these two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh? Jacob, their grandfather, insists on blessing them. Jacob, who had fooled his father into giving him the first­born's blessing, reaches forward, leaps across a generation to end the collision over firstbornness. Jacob, who has learned how to stop wrestling with his brother and wrestle with God instead, shows Manasseh and Ephraim how not to wrestle with each other.
Jacob recognizes and affirms his own victory over his first­born brother by reversing the hands with which the blessings should be given. The right hand-the first­born's hand-he reaches out to Ephraim, the second­born. The left hand-the second­born's hand-he reaches out to bless Manasseh, the first­born.
But in the same moment he dissolves the tension, for he blesses them simultaneously, with a single blessing. Lest they miss the point, he literally crosses his arms to bless them "backwards" and explicitly rejects Joseph's objection that he has it wrong. And he blesses them both in the same breath, saying "By you"-a singular you, each of them singularly at the same instant-"shall Israel bless, saying, God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh."
And indeed Jewish tradition teaches to this day that children be blessed that they be as Ephraim and as Manasseh.
Why these two? Why not as Joseph the ruler over Egypt, or as Jacob who wrestled God, or as Abraham who went on the trackless journey? Because here at last are two brothers who share the same blessing, who do not have to suffer exile or separation or despair or death for each other's sake.
Now that you are at last twelve brothers, now that you are at last a people, says Jacob, your blessing as a people is to be like these two: blessed in your loving friendship, in your ability to go beyond the brothers' war. 
Why all this concern over the war between the first and second brother? Why should it permeate the Book of Genesis? Because with it the Bible accomplishes a marvel of two­level teaching.
First it teaches that the first­born is not to dominate-almost certainly a teaching intended to reverse and resist a previous social politics in which the first­born won wealth, power, and blessing simply by virtue of birth. And then it teaches that the second­born is not supposed to rule, either. What is supposed to happen is reconciliation, and finally the dissolution of the conflict itself.
But even the dissolution of the conflict must keep its memory alive, or else the tugs of blood, fondness, charisma, power may revive and people may regress to letting the first­born rule again. 
What a subtle teaching of how to end domination!
To a modern hearing, the brothers' war seems real enough -- ask almost any brother, almost any sister -- but seems not the sharpest struggle of our public lives. Perhaps the substitution of women for the second­borns in these stories and men for the first­borns would carry something like the same trumpet blast of liberation. Try it: the women who have for centuries been powerless win, time after time . . . but each time there is a reconciliation.
Indeed, we might read this saga of the early brothers as precisely a tale about not only brothers-it still is that-but also the poor and rich, the Black and white, the female and male, the Jew and gentile, the gay and straight, the crippled and the healthy, the speechless trees and the talkative human race. All the powerless of our own society, in their relation with the powerful.
Read this way, the saga loses none of its power for talking about the uses of power in that smallest of societies, the family. It loses none of its energy for laying bare the agonies of those who literally are brothers, sisters -still, today, at war and struggling to make peace. But the saga gains power and energy if we hear it speak to every collision of the powerful and powerless in which we act and live.
It gains power and energy for change if we can identify ourselves with Isaac, Jacob, Joseph struggling to win free of the power their older brothers are born to-and then can identify ourselves with Ishmael, Esau, Judah struggling to win free of the humiliation and the weakness their younger brothers have put upon them. So just as Cain's murder of Abel is the first consequence of exile from Eden, the teaching of Ephraim and Manasseh is to be the key to reopen Eden. It is the Cain­and­Abel story that must be overcome if the gates to reenter Eden are to open. So the threads of Genesis lead us to this new beginning, beyond the brothers' war. The new people acting on its new knowledge is to be one model of how the human race as a whole might redeem the world. 
One model. The model that can end in reconciliation. It is not the only model of conflict in the Torah: there is Exodus as well. In Exodus, God makes Israel, the newest and poorest of the peoples, into God's own "honorary first-born." But the Older Brother, like Cain, refuses to step back. But this time a God Who has grown in experience through the generations of Abraham will not permit the older, stronger, to annihilate the younger, weaker brother.
So in Exodus, liberation cannot be achieved until the powerful have been shattered and the oppressed have departed, once and for all. There is no reconciliation with Pharaoh. And not only with Pharaoh. The model of Exodus is one of the recurrent themes of the Torah. For this and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, even the words the Torah uses are so much the same as to signal us to listen:
In Exodus: "The children of Israel sighed from the serfdom, and cried out so that their wailing rose to God from serfdom. And God heard their groaning, and remembered his covenant with Abraharn, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them.... And YHWH said, 'Seeing, I have seen the oppression of my people who are in Egypt and I have heard their moaning from the face of their taskmasters. So I know their pains, and I will go down to deliver them.'"
 In Genesis: "The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is very great, and their sin is extremely heavy. I will go down now, and I will see whether they are acting as it seems from the moans that come to me. If not, I will take cognizance."
Outcry, moans, seeing, hearing, "going down," "taking cognizance." (That last one is the verb, "yodaya," which Hebrew uses for knowing a fact, making love, and cherishing God. Robert Heinlein's coinage from the Martian, "grok," comes closer to its meaning than any modern English word.)
Six identical words, pointing to a similarity that otherwise we might not notice. But once we notice, look-the society has turned corrupt and dreadful. Only a fraction are acting decently. In Egypt, it is the Israelites and a "mixed multitude" of others who leave the house of slavery and trudge the path to Sinai. In Sodom, it is Lot and his family- interestingly enough, cousins to Abraham but not of the inner family. And once we recognize this pattern, we realize it goes back to the Flood-the whole world corrupt except for Noah's family-and forward to the Prophetic vision of the Land of Israel. For there even the Israelites themselves become corrupt. They are destroyed, and only a saving remnant who depart can return to redeem themselves and history and the Land.
This pattern, the pattern of Exodus, has impressed itself with great power on the minds of every people that has learned the Torah or has learned its secularized analogues, like Marxism. It is the model for modern revolutions, national and social, where the saving remnant hopes to wipe out oppression and corruption, depart physically or politically from the oppressors and corruptors, and remake their country. The pattern has been so powerful that we have paid little attention to the alternative that emerges from Genesis: the war and peace of brothers.
Today we need the model of the brothers. For there are some struggles where we do not want to destroy the oppressor or separate into a new society. Instead we need liberation­with­reconciliation. Not the gruesome grin of the powerless commanded to love their taskmasters, nor the gracious smile of the powerful who are glad to love their serfs. But the free laughter of wrestlers, where the grapple of liberation and the clasp of love are intertwined.
How many of us, women or men, want women to be freed from men by smashing men and leaving them? How many of us, Black or white, want Blacks to be freed by smashing America or leaving it?
Exodus may be the last resort in every struggle. If we must, we must. If the stronger refuse to step aside, then like Pharaoh they may end on the ocean floor. But we should know that the door out is not the door in. Exodus is not the path to Eden.

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