Cain and Abel: A Parable for Our Times

December 5, 2019 Updated: December 7, 2019

William Blake, in his poem “Auguries of Innocence,” wrote:

Some are born to sweet delight
And some are born to endless night

And there you have it, the inscrutable mystery that has perplexed humanity since its inception: Why is it that some are saved and some are damned? How can that be fair? And to be clear, this is not a specifically Christian issue. All orthodox religions (though some cults try to evade it) past and present advocate the idea that at the point of death, a judgment and then a separation occurs which has everlasting consequences. The ancient Egyptians believed it, and even modern Buddhists do in the sense that reincarnation occurs. What is reincarnation but a source of pain and, therefore, of punishment? But in our modern era, if one believes in an afterlife at all—and the immortality of the soul—what especially rankles is the “unfairness” of this situation: God couldn’t possibly—and how could we believe in a god who—condemns people to hell.

There is a profound sense in this of binary opposition—a positive life versus a negative life. But what does a positive or a negative life mean or look like? Well, we have clues in the archetypal story about this polarity of good boy and bad boy in the Bible’s account of Cain and Abel.

Cain is the first born child of Adam and Eve, the first human pair. He is the first murderer in human history, and he also has the dubious distinction of being the third human being to fall directly under God’s curse as a result of his actions (following in the footsteps of his parents, therefore). Cain also has the distinction of being the first human being who was born, as opposed to being created directly by God, and of course his brother, Abel, by contrast, was the first human to die.

The First Funeral

There is a wonderful sculpture by Louis-Ernest Barrias called “The First Funeral,” which captures the full pity and tragedy of this story: Adam carries the dead body of Abel in his arms, while Eve, his mother, bends over in grief and attempts fruitlessly to stroke the young man’s hair.

he First Funeral_Louis-Ernest_Barrias-1878
Adam and Eve hold their dead son Abel. “The First Funeral,” 1878, by Louis-Ernest Barrias. Plaster. Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon. (Public Domain)

Here is the first real consequence of the story that started in Eden with the eating of the forbidden fruit. And this leads us to the deeper problem, namely, the problem of evil itself and why a so-called good God could allow evil to occur in the first place.

To answer this question—what is technically called theodicy—is outside the scope of this short article, except to say, of course, that this issue is what the whole Bible (Old and New Testaments) investigates from start to finish; the issue, in fact, never goes away. Not then, not now. Abraham asks, “Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” and Job asks, “Why do the wicked still live?” and even Pontius Pilate unwittingly testifies to the question by asking, “What is truth?”

Evil, then, is a problem—a mystery even—that requires explanation, and nowhere more so than at the first murder that occurs in human history: Why does Cain murder his brother? Can we ever be sure of what his motive was? And if we can’t, we have a situation analogous to that in Shakespeare’s “Othello” where Iago commits dreadful crimes apparently without motive, and this is perhaps the worst evil of all: its purposelessness and single-minded malignancy.

However, while evil is in one profound sense inexplicable, I think the Cain and Abel story does provide us with some significant clues. The first of these is what happens when Adam and Eve first fall. They become aware that they are naked; that is to say, unprotected, uncovered, wholly vulnerable. And it is important to realize that this nakedness is not merely physical but also spiritual. They have become exposed physically (they will now die) and also spiritually, because they are self-consciously guilty of a heinous crime that has broken the divine order. They have been cast out of Eden.

Then, following the sentence of doom, the Lord God “made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” It’s all very sudden, as these epic, ancient texts tend to be, but we can ask: Where do these “garments of skin” come from? Well, we could imagine that God is some magic conjurer: Hey, presto, here are garments of skin. But perhaps in this lithe narrative compression is the idea that death now occurs in Eden: Dead animals provide garments of skin.

But what, therefore, Adam and Eve understood from this experience was the sure sign from God that evil had to be “covered” in some way; this covering, while physical, also symbolically represents a covering of their spiritual crime. But since they have forfeited physical life, the death of a living creature in covering them acts as a kind of substitute or payment. And note that it has to be a living creature, not a covering with a fig leaf or other kind of vegetation, for that would not be like for like.

If, now, we fast-forward to the beginning of the drama of Cain and Abel, we find that Cain offers God “of the fruit of the ground,” whereas Abel offers “the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions.” Abel’s offering is accepted but Cain’s is not.

Irrespective of whether Cain’s fruit offering was of his best or not (for the Jewish Midrash holds that Abel offered the best of his flock but Cain did not present the best of his harvest), the fact remains that Cain’s sacrifice had to fail, since it failed to heed what God had made plain in Eden: namely, that the substitution to cover their crime cannot come from vegetation but must involve the sacrifice of a living animal. Indeed, in virtually all early cultures, we find animal sacrifice as the key mechanism for appeasing the gods.

Sin Is Crouching        

Cain’s offering was a willful rejection of the revelation already made. And that Cain was and is without excuse is made plain by the fact that God tells him, after God rejects his offering (Genesis 4:7), that if he does the right thing, his “countenance will be lifted up,” but if he doesn’t, “sin is crouching at the door.” Despite this overt and direct warning, Cain still goes on to murder his brother and to compound the evil further by denying it: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” So he commits three straight sins, in fact: the willfully wrong offering, the actual murder, and the callous denial.

“The Death of Abel,” (Gen. 4:8-9) 1865, by Gustave Doré. Illustration for the Bible. (Public Domain)

This perhaps all seems remote and arcane, but as with so much in sacred texts, it speaks to us now. How? It speaks to us in the sense that Cain had gone his own way. That a sacrifice to God was necessary was not in doubt; he knew that and he responded to it, but responded to it in his own terms. He, in other words, decided to fashion his religion according to his own desires. The animal sacrifice was the right way, but he knew something better.

Truly, Cain was a son of Adam and Eve in that they, too, knew better than God. They wanted to be wise and so ignored the warning and ate the fruit. Cain was wise—in his own eyes—and when that wisdom was directly exposed as pride by God, he became insensate with a homicidal rage against his own brother. In one sense, killing Abel was an act of envy, and in another it was spite: If Abel was God’s favorite, then Abel’s death would soon put a stop to that!

And so we see, as well, a profound impiety at work. For the idea that Abel could be separated from God by an act of murder showed that Cain believed neither in the immortal soul nor in the power of God to raise the dead, or more simply, as Jesus says in Luke’s gospel, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” That in eternity—beyond the veil of flesh, the garment of skin—one cannot be lost and God is there.

cain and abel Giovanni Domenico Ferretti
After God rejects Cain’s offering, God warns Cain against unrighteousness; Cain does not heed God. “Cain and Abel,” 1740, by Giovanni Domenico Ferretti. (Public Domain)

Freedom and Consequences

And here is the final and really revealing insight into the story. Sadly, not everyone finds God either in this life or in the next, for not all religions or beliefs automatically lead to the same destination. The Cain and Abel story shows us the profound way in which freedom of the will is built into our DNA, as it were, and if that were not itself an ultimate paradox: Doesn’t DNA constrain us? Nevertheless, Cain had a choice to make and he made it.

God is perfectly free. We were created perfectly free, though we fell away from that perfection of freedom; but it all means that our actions have consequences, real consequences. We can, in fact, damn ourselves— as the ancient Egyptians and Greeks and all the other ancients knew. There is a place called hell, unpopular as that concept is now, and we can send ourselves there. And we do it by being wise in our own eyes, and believing that we know better than the sacred revelations of the divine in scriptures throughout the world, by being our own lawgivers, as if we knew.

In the world we now see all around us, the political movements are engaging in the drama of Cain: They know better than what previously was revealed about wisdom, morality, and spirituality. Each man and woman is able to build his or her own, and their collective, utopia. Communism, for example, is a particularly virulent form of “Cain-ism,” and where it is practiced we find not one Abel who is murdered, but millions.

But the opposite of this “knowing,” which we are called on to practice instead, is very simple: It is called “faith.” And interestingly, in the New Testament this is recognized in the Epistle to the Hebrews where it says, “By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain …” In other words, he understood and accepted what had been revealed in the garden to his parents.

We need more spiritual “faith” today so that we stop trying to be wise like gods, and so come to recognize who we truly are. If that were to happen, then we might be much freer from the demonic grip that murder has on our societies, individually and politically.

All quotes are from the New American Standard version of the Bible.

James Sale is an English businessman whose company, Motivational Maps Ltd., operates in 14 countries. He is the author of over 40 books on management and education from major international publishers including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge. As a poet, he won first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition and recently spoke at the group’s first symposium held at New York’s Princeton Club.