Art is Titian’s Cain and Abel, original is approximately 10′ by 9 1/2′, and in Santa Maria della Salute, Venice. Painted 1542-44.
Alright, let’s have some religion chatter!
Genesis 4 contains… the 4th story of the bible/Torah. There are 2 creation stories (Chapters 1 and 2) and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden… all three of which have been hashed to death by this crowd.
Genesis 4 is the story of the first generation of born humans (Cain and Abel). I think it’s fair to say that this falls in the category of “Biblical mythology” when discussing it… a third of the characters are killed, and Cain’s descendents don’t get past the great flood… only God survives the tale.
So, for me, this is one of those campfire stories, a myth, which is saying something about the nature of humanity and the nature of God.
To review, at this point in our tale:
- There has been no great flood;
- There has been no giving of law (God has cursed men and women and serpents though)
So, I want to focus in on one particular verse: Genesis 4:9
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
This is the first question any person asks of God in scripture. God doesn’t actually answer it directly in his response to Cain.
I think this question actually sets up one of the great themes of Christian philosophy: are we our brother’s keepers? Do we have an obligation to look out for each other? To keep each other alive?
It’s also my opinion that God’s answer to this question (for Christians, anyway) is Luke 10:25-37. So, thousands of years later… God finally has an answer for Cain.
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Cain failed Abel, because he did not show him mercy. Cain was expected to be his brother’s keeper.
Anyway, that’s my thoughts… what are yours?
And, some prompting questions if you’d like.
- Do you think “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is one of the big framing questions of Christian mythology?
- There’s a frequent critique of Christians in our culture not acting as good neighbours, or good keepers of their brothers. Do you think that’s a reasonable critique? How do you see it illustrated day-to-day?
- How do you think the God-character’s role in this story speaks to the quality of God being omniscient? The God-character knows the answer to the question he asks Cain… but he also warned Cain about the nature of sin prior to the murder.
- The reason for the murder is “God’s favour”. Do you believe the God character should be considered responsible for the murder? Does he own responsibility for the envy and jealousy that led to killing?
- This myth features an animal herder, Abel (a hunter-gatherer?) and a farmer, Cain (settled agriculture?). Do you think that is an important detail of the story?
And… if you’re interested in reading another take: here’s some Jewish commentary on the story: