The Importance of Discourse Analysis: Step 3 Cain and Abel

The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis (4: 1-16) has bewildered people for a long time.  Cain and Abel were, of course, Adam and Eve’s sons (Adam and Eve had a lot more children later).  God asked the boys to makes sacrifices to Him (THIS after He had thrown their parents out of the Garden of Eden!).  So Cain brought some fresh produce from his farm as an offering.  Abel brought some of the fat of his (recently deceased) lambs.  God liked and accepted Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s.  Cain got very angry (not at God, but at Abel, a rather typical human move) and murdered him.  And here, according to Genesis we have history’s first religious sacrifice and its first murder, one right after the other.

Now, people have long wondered how poor Cain could possibly have known God liked fat more than fruits and vegetables.  Genesis is silent on the issue, but scholars have long argued that God must have told the boys what to sacrifice, otherwise the whole thing would have been unfair.  But, if that is true (though it is rather odd that Genesis does not mention it), why, for heavens’ sake, would Cain have shown up with the wrong stuff if he knew what he was supposed to do and knew, too, after his parents’ Garden debacle, what was in store for people who did not closely obey God’s orders?

In any case, I would argue that what we see here is this: When God used the word “sacrifice” He assumed He shared a set of exemplars (and how to use them) with Cain and Abel.  Cain thought fresh fruits and vegetables were sufficiently like the things in God’s exemplars for “sacrifice” and Abel thought that lamb fat was.  Turns out Cain was right and Abel was wrong.  Lots of bad things followed from this mistake. 

And, by the way, who now knows what was wrong with the fruits and veggies and why they were not sufficiently like what God had in mind when he said “sacrifice”?  Maybe Cain should have cooked them (but should they be burnt or boiled?); maybe he should have used only greens; maybe he should have cleaned them up better.  Who knows?  Similarity judgments can be hard, especially when you do not know exactly what exemplars are in the mind of the Divine entity telling you what to do, nor how to extrapolate from those exemplars to new cases like, say, green peppers.

This whole Cain and Abel episode is where the famous question, “Am I my brothers’ keeper?” comes from.  After the murder, God asked Cain where his brother was and Cain said: “I don’t know.  Am I my brother's keeper?” (THIS—talking back—didn’t go well either).

It is interesting to note—in light of the principle of sufficient reason—that both in Genesis and throughout later history, people have wondered whether living or dead humans are sufficiently like God’s exemplars for “sacrifice” to count as a good sacrifice.  Does sacrificing people—and if so, what sort of people—get you a Cain response or an Abel response?  Historically the jury is still out on this one, though the whole matter is controversial.

We can’t leave this matter without dealing with the infamous “Mark of Cain.”  When God finally found out that Abel had gone permanently missing because Cain had killed him, He told Cain that his career as a farmer was over (because God would personally see to it that his crops would never grow again) and he would end up having to wander all over the earth. 

For some reason, Cain thought that if he wandered all over the world someone out there would kill him (Genesis is silent on who this might be, since right at the time there were only three people on earth, Eve, Adam, and Cain).  Nonetheless, even today there is a problem with people being afraid of, and sometimes killing, strangers.

So, God told Cain He would not let anyone kill him.  If they did, they would get divine vengeance seven times over.  In order to be absolutely clear—especially after the problems with being clear about what “sacrifice” meant—God put a mark on Cain so that people would know EXACTLY whom HE meant they were not supposed to kill. 

No more problems with exemplars and sufficient likeness here.  The Mark of Cain—which is only and uniquely on Cain (yes, I know some people think all of Cain’s progeny had the mark, but they just don’t read well)—is not really a word, symbol, or signifier.  It’s a brand.  God is trying to get back to just pointing at one and only one thing so everything will be crystal clear.  He is letting his fingerprint, so to speak, mark Cain so when he wanders away people will still know he got pointed at by God. 

But this can’t work.  If the mark is not a symbol, it has no meaning.  It is just a meaningless mark as far as anyone who sees Cain can know.  They have no idea what to make of the mark, so they might well kill Cain and engender God’s wrath without knowing it (much like Cain might have done already with his farm to table sacrifice).  There is no substitute for trying to be clear in what we mean and it is often a vexed matter to accomplish.

[to be continued …]

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