Anger, Privilege, and Invisible Injustice: What Cain and Abel Have to Do With Ferguson

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As we go to press, a group of clergy-protesters, including Dr. Cornel West, are in lockup in Ferguson: this morsel of biblical scholarship, dealing as it does with power, injustice, and the legacy of religious tradition, seems all the more timely. –the Eds.

Journalist Wesley Lowery, who recently tweeted his own arrest in Ferguson, Missouri, commented this week that Americans do not have a “good track record when it comes to recognizing systemic disadvantages from which they benefit.” The NY Times‘ Nicholas Kristof has referred, in the same context, to “smug white delusion” about race, and racism, in this country.

How much is our view of justice determined by how we ourselves have been treated?

This question is as old as the Bible, it turns out.

In Genesis, the story of Cain and Abel is not only the first account of human violence. It is also the first story that forces us to face the problem of unfair treatment, of outcomes not directly related to a person’s own choices. Here, it is not a question of unjust social structures, but inexplicable divine choice. In the biblical story, both brothers make an offering to God, but only one is accepted:

“In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” (Genesis 4:3-5)

This is the first of many moments in the Bible where God plays favorites. We are never told why God rejects Cain’s offering, just as we are never told why the younger brother Jacob—not his older twin Esau—is chosen to become the father of a nation. Indeed, the Bible does not clearly explain why Israel itself is God’s chosen people. None of these moments of favor or rejection seem to be deserved, or related to the deeds or character of the chosen or unchosen.

This is hard to swallow. Since antiquity, readers of the Bible have struggled to explain these troubling accounts—to discern some coherent, morally explicable reason for apparently arbitrary differences in fortune, and to redraw the world as a fair place after all.

In one account, the Talmud relates that God offered the Torah to all the nations, but only the Jews accepted it. This reversal has two effects: it keeps God unimpeachably even-handed, and it returns agency to the people—that is, it suggests it was the Jews who chose God, not the other way around.

As for Jacob and Esau, later interpretations embellish their characters to make sense of Jacob’s seemingly unmerited divine election: Esau becomes a bloodthirsty, violent savage, while Jacob becomes a morally upright and studious young man, worthy of both his father’s and God’s blessings.

Likewise, in many ancient retellings, God rejects Cain’s offering not because of divine caprice, but because of Cain’s reprehensible character—the first century Jewish historian Josephus, for example, adds that Abel was a lover of righteousness, while Cain was altogether wicked and greedy.

Some contemporary Christian preachers, for their part, have explained that God preferred Abel’s offering because it was better: surely the firstlings of a flock are a more impressive offering than mere plants! Cain had no right to be upset when Abel gave a superior gift.

These readings fulfill a deep need to believe that it is people’s characters and choices, their hard work, that determines their way in the world. If meritocracy is a myth people want to believe about American society, how important it is to see it confirmed in the Bible! But to retell the Cain and Abel story to fit this scheme is a tough sell. As with many biblical texts, easy moralizing does violence to the story, which presents us with a series of bewildering problems it does not solve.

One such problem is a gap in the Hebrew text—an unfinished sentence that probably resulted from a scribal error. After God inexplicably rejects Cain, the brothers go into a field, and we read, “Then Cain said to Abel.” But nothing follows. Instead, we read next that Cain rose up against his brother and killed him—a sudden display of violence, disproportionate and unprovoked.

Ancient translations into Greek, Syriac, and Latin include Cain’s speech, but only up to: “Let us go into the field.” We still don’t know why, in the next breath, we suddenly face the world’s first murder. Didn’t there have to be more to the story? As it stands, the act is shocking and extreme, and, it seems, premeditated.

Was Cain rejected by God because he was by nature a cold-blooded killer? That interpretation is difficult to support with the text. And here is the next problem with the story—God does not punish Cain the way we might expect. To be sure, Abel’s killing is squarely condemned: his blood “cries out from the ground,” and Cain is sentenced to a lifetime of exile. But when he protests that this punishment is too great to bear, and that he is afraid he will be killed when others find out what he did, God listens. Cain will be protected from harm. If anyone kills him, God says, he shall be avenged sevenfold.

Here again, a strange imbalance between deeds and divine response: typical ancient law demanded a life for a life, but the life of the first murderer would demand seven. God places a mark on Cain—we are not told any more about it—and he goes on his way to found cities and beget children.

Arbitrary divine choice, a sudden murder, a killer under God’s protection, a strange mark—all of this comes together into a bewildering sixteen verses. Attempts to tease a sanctimonious moral lesson out of the story fly in the face of its inexplicable twists and the things it leaves unsaid. Some ancient readers have tried to tie up some loose ends, not only painting Cain and Abel as righteous and wicked from the start, but also giving Cain the kind of ignoble death they felt the world’s first killer deserved: an early Jewish tradition claims his house fell on him and killed him, and a rabbinic midrash has him mistaken for an animal and killed in a hunting accident.

But other ancient interpretations amplify the story’s darker, more troubling notes, refusing to grant the reader an easy resolution.

One such tradition is the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew text that dates from late antiquity or the early middle ages, but includes much earlier material.*

The first thing to notice about the way the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan retells the story begins with Cain’s conception: here he is not the son of Adam and Eve, but the result of a union between Eve and the fallen angel Sammael. From the beginning, then, Cain is half-demonic, which goes a long way to explaining some of the baffling aspects of the biblical story. (This may be a very old interpretive motif that the creator of this Targum has woven into his composition.)

But the motif is quickly dropped, and does not play a part in the rest of the story. The translator is not satisfied with dehumanizing Cain. In fact, the Targum presents us with a very human character, and actually deepens the story’s themes of injustice and violent anger. In fact, while the story has often been read as a warning against anger—condemning Cain’s anger, of course—the translator has added something remarkable: he has included Abel’s anger as well.

Why would Abel be angry? In this text, Abel’s anger flares when Cain suggests the divine favor he has experienced is unmerited.

At Genesis 4:8—“And Cain said to his brother”—the translator adds a long section of new material, an entire debate between the brothers:

And Cain said to his brother Abel: “Come! Let us go into the field!”

So they went into the field and Cain again said to Abel:
“I see that the world was created in love;
but it is not ordered by the effect of good deeds.
For there is partiality in judgment,
because your offering was accepted with favor.”
Abel answered and said: “The world was indeed created in love
and it is ordered by the effect of good deeds
and there is not partiality in judgment!
My offering was accepted with favor before yours
because the effect of my deeds was better than yours!”

In this first part of the conversation, Cain speaks for his own experience: he recognizes the goodness of creation, but observes that the world is not ordered according to good and bad deeds. “There is partiality in judgment,” he argues; God’s choice of Abel does not seem to be based on merit. But Abel rejects the idea that he has benefited from partiality. Outraged, he insists it is not so: the world is just, without bias. One’s lot in life is based on character and good deeds; Abel’s offering was chosen because it was better. Cain has no right to be upset.

At this point, the rhetoric escalates. Cain, whose complaint of injustice had at first recognized that “the world was created in love,” now responds with more radical claims:

Cain answered and said to Abel:

“There is no judgment and no Judge and no world to come!
No reward will be given to the righteous
nor any account given of the wicked!”
Abel answered and said:
“There is indeed a judgment and a Judge and a world to come!
The righteous will be given a good reward
and the wicked will be called to account!”
And because of these words, they fell to quarreling in the open field.

And Cain rose up against his brother Abel 
and drove a stone into his head, killing him.

Cain and Abel’s remarkable argument is little known today, but it is not a mere blip on the radar of biblical interpretation. It exists in different versions in other Targum manuscripts, including fragments found in the Cairo Geniza, showing that it was discussed, revised, and transmitted across Jewish communities.

And it is representative of a concern with justice we can see in many other texts where Jewish interpreters grapple with the story—and usually refuse to give a neatly moralistic tale about a good brother and a bad one.

In this version, it is “because of these words” that they begin to fight, and that Cain finally kills Abel. Here Cain is not a cold-blooded murder who lures Abel into a field to kill him. Instead, we have a crime of passion, violence that erupts from a heated argument.

But it is important to pay attention to how the argument plays out, and to notice where the anger is born—not only Cain’s anger, but Abel’s as well.

The fight does not break out because of a philosophical disagreement about the nature of the world. The brothers argue because Cain has challenged the basis for Abel’s good fortune, and, Abel, in his anger, wishes to silence Cain’s experience. Cain is saying that God favored Abel for reasons unrelated to merit—in essence, that Abel benefited from injustice. Abel’s repeated insistence that he did deserve God’s favor also, of course, paints Cain’s efforts as unworthy.

Whether we read it as smug, defensive, or outraged, Abel’s rejection of the idea that the world might be unjust— that his own good fortune might be at least partly the result of a stacked deck—sounds very familiar to contemporary ears.

***

As we see every day, social and economic oppression can go unrecognized if it does not hurt us directly—and especially if we benefit from it. And when a person is confronted with the uncomfortable idea that they are the beneficiaries of an unjust system, even if it is not of their own making, they often become defensively angry.

People who have their privilege challenged often respond, in fact, like Abel in the Targum.

Those present injustices are not a matter of capricious divine choice. They are social structures, which are perhaps more long-lasting and less merciful. Surely the writer of the Targum was not predicting 21st century America, but perhaps we can read his words as a comment about privilege, and how the privileged interact with the marginalized. In this centuries-old text, we can see an uncomfortably familiar pattern where denying that injustice exists deepens and amplifies that injustice.

This is where the translator is far more than a pious interpreter—he refuses to rehabilitate baffling biblical narratives into edifying morality tales, where heroes, villains, and victims all perform their expected roles under a just God. Rather than tidying up a problem, he magnifies its scope and zeroes in on its most profound aspects.

One of the Targum’s innovations is to give Abel a voice, something he does not have in the biblical text. But this is not the voice we expect from Abel, if we are used to thinking of him as a paragon of meek virtue, killed by a ruthless murderer. Cain is angry when Abel repeatedly shuts down his grievance, and he is the one who strikes the final blow. But here Abel is angry as well, and he rejects his already-rejected brother all over again.

Abel, too, refuses to be his brother’s keeper.

We can read this double rejection—rejection by an unfair God, and then rejection by his more fortunate brother, who refuses to take his experience seriously—as the root of the tragedy. Cain’s frustration mounts to the point that he despairs of any justice at all, on earth or in heaven.

He kills Abel, whose blood cries out from the ground, and he is condemned.

But the translator isn’t quite finished with this striking portrait of a murderer he couldn’t bring himself to condemn entirely. In the final part of the story—when God promises to protect Cain from harm, and places a mark on him—the Targum identifies the mark: Cain is to carry inscribed on his face the holiest sign of all, the “great and honorable name of the LORD.”

______________

*Aramaic had replaced Hebrew as the more commonly spoken vernacular after the Babylonian Exile, and scholars think that the practice of creating Targum—the Aramaic word for translation—began soon after, with new versions and additions continuing to appear for centuries. In the synagogue, scriptural readings in Hebrew would be followed by recitation of an Aramaic Targum, a practice that still continues today among Yemenite Jews. But many of the Targums are not straight translations. Instead, they contain changes, omissions, and embellishments—sometimes entire paragraphs of added material.

  • Jim Reed

    There may be another application of good fortune might be at least partly the result of a stacked deck here. It was the priests telling the story, and not actually God, and that might explain why the meat offering was more acceptable than vegetables. This might be the origin of the first actual good fortune from God story, and it was actually older than the first brotherly violence story.

  • Reb_Scott

    I am very, very grateful to both Prof. Mroczek and to RD for publishing this piece. As a professor of Hebrew Bible, I try to show my students how the biblical text demands context, research and careful thought to become a relevant part of our lives. I look forward to sharing this piece with them and I expect a spirited discussion to follow. I also applaud Prof. Mroczek’s use of post-biblical Jewish texts to make her case. It is important that a Jewish perspective on the biblical text be n the context of the broad scope of Jewish literature that covers many centuries and many differing perspectives. Thank you again!

  • GaryBT

    The Biblical story leaves a lot out, maybe for a reason. The explanations we derive to fill in the missing elements are a reflection of ourselves, as the author indicates. I like the Rene’ Girard understanding that blood sacrifice is always the more effective sacrifice that appeases the gods. I also like the Targum story that keeps the humanity of Abel and Cain. Thank you.

  • Jim Reed

    The modern understanding is blood sacrifice was more effective at appeasing the priests, so that is the way the story was told down through the generations.

  • Murmur1

    As an educator in the field of career education, I observed a corollary. The applicant who is hired for a position assumes that he or she was the best qualified. However, employers often have “hidden agendas” that play into the hiring processes, having to do not only with ethnic biases but any number of other unexplained biases. For example, instead of a more qualified elementary teacher applicant, a school district might hire the wife of a favorite high school coach prospect. The world is not just, but we should not cease trying to make it more so.

  • Susan B. Love

    Wonderful piece.

  • cken

    It would appear everything in Ferguson both past and present is in fact a result of the people’s own choice both individually and collectively. A crisis caused by personal choices has caused the people to look at themselves, and not liking what they see, they blame their faults on others. Which being not unlike Cain in that regard makes them human.

  • Jim Reed

    And the kid that was shot to start it all, does anyone remember why the officer was shooting him? As I recall, most of the shots wouldn’t have killed him, but as he was falling, the last shot entered the top of his head and that killed him.

  • Vacogito

    What are you talking about: “None of these moments of favor or rejection seem to be deserved, or related to the deeds or character of the chosen or unchosen.” Of course we are told. In the case of Cain and Abel, when Abel’s sacrifice is chosen over Cain’s, Cain decides the best action is then to kill Abel. In the case of Jacob and Esau, we are later informed that Esau marries a woman from the local area who does not show her Mother-in-law respect. Do you think that G-d cannot discern the hearts of those he choses?

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    This is really outstanding. An example of Midrash at its best. Kudos to the writer and to RD.

    I am currently teaching Sunday School at our synagogue — specifically, I am teaching Bible to Middle School aged kids. We just finished discussing Creation and the Garden of Eden story and are turning to Cain and Abel next. I will certainly use this piece in my class!

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    What Priests? There are no Priests yet. Or Hebrews even. The story is pre-Abraham.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Er…no.

    The Priesthood ended with the destruction of the Second Temple. The Midrashim and Targumim are the products of the Rabbinical tradition, at which point there was no Temple and no sacrifices.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Your ‘solution’ is too neat and tidy. Cain’s offering was rejected, because God already knew he was a lousy sort.

    Reading the text this way robs it of all of the value in moral reflection that can come from thinking about and discussing it.

  • Jim Reed

    That is not the issue. The issue is way back when the system of sacrifices was instituted, was that because of what God wanted or what the priests wanted?

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    What on earth does that have to do with the story of Cain and Abel or the article?

  • Jim Reed

    The article was making a point about we may not understand why God favored the blood sacrifice. I was pointing out it was not actually God that favored the animal sacrifice, it was really the priests, and we can understand their motivation.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Where does the article make that point? I must have missed it.

    Regardless, this is not what the article is about. It is about questions having to do with merit, favoritism, and justice, not blood sacrifices. (beyond which, I don’t see how you would know about it one way or the other — blood sacrifices were a widespread practice in ancient Near Eastern religions.)

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    And if, by “the priests telling the story,” you mean that the Priests wrote the Bible — or at least, Genesis — this is also completely baseless. We have no idea who wrote Genesis or even when it was written.

  • Jim Reed

    Here, it is not a question of unjust social structures, but inexplicable divine choice. In the biblical story, both brothers make an offering to God, but only one is accepted:

    This is the first of many moments in the Bible where God plays favorites. We are never told why God rejects Cain’s offering,:

    I know why. It was not really God making this choice. It was the priests making up an ancient story, and perhaps using a little misdirection about why the need for the sacrificial BBQ.

  • Jim Reed

    I guess Genesis was actually written later, but it was written based on the stories that used to be told by the priests.

  • Jim Reed

    The subject of the story is pre-Abraham, but the story itself came from a later period.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    The problem with your theory is that “the priests” didn’t write the Bible.

    So, if the thought is supposed to be that they created a story in which animal sacrifice is preferred, because it was in their self-interest, it is at odds with the fact that the priestly classes were not the writers of the Bible.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    As based on what? Where are you getting this information?

    I studied second Temple Judaism and canonization of the Hebrew scriptures at University. Never once did I hear that the Priests “made up stories” that were later turned into the stories we find in the written Bible.

    Could you please let us in on the sources you are drawing from, in making these claims of yours?

  • Jim Reed

    The people who wrote it after that time were following what was the teaching and explaining earlier practice when they wrote things down.

  • Jim Reed

    Judaism was a temple based religion until the temple was destroyed and they were taken into captivity. Then they wrote everything down, and instead of a temple based religion they were a scripture based religion

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Okay, I can see now that you are just making this stuff up. You aren’t drawing from any body of knowledge or education in the subject.

    And incidentally, even your description here is wrong. By the time the first Temple was built and the priesthood established, the Hebrews had already existed as a people for quite some time. And even once it was built, most Jews did not live close enough to it for it to provide a regular venue for worship. The synagogues and Temple co-existed.

    It’s fine to guess and make things up, but we actually know quite a bit about this stuff. Research before talk is always a good idea.

  • Lisa

    Thank you for the good words, and for using RD as a teaching tool. We are lucky to be able to work with writers like Eva Mroczek, scholars who are committed to sharing their deep research and careful reading with a larger public. Let us know how the class discussion goes…

  • Jim Reed

    Didn’t those who lived farther away come at least once a year, and offer their sacrifice? You say I am making stuff up, but where did the system of sacrificial animals come from? We can be certain it came from those making up the religion. And why was it set up that way? We can be certain that the reason they would give would not be the actual reason.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Some of them did, but that is only once a year. What did they do the rest of the time.

    As I said, sacrificial cults were endemic to the region. In terms of “where the practice came from,” the answer is, “from earlier regional religions.”

  • Jim Reed

    I think that was my point. It was not God that wanted people to contribute to the sacrificial BBQ. It was the priests, and when you see it that it is not as mysterious as if God was accepting or rejecting offerings for unknowable reasons.

  • Jim Reed

    The farther back we go in the stories, the more we see a picture of a hands on God. This might be an interesting way to look into the origins of the religions. Judaism is one of the oldest, and as Aravis was pointing out, it had even deeper roots in the religions of the region. In the process of evolving the religion, ancient stories were used to add God’s input. From a modern perspective, we would have to say they were actually adding the input of the religion builders, and using the concept of God from ancient times, perhaps to avoid questioning. Today even though we know better, that approach is still dominate, at least in other religions besides Judaism that have roots in Judaism. Is this the ultimate meaning of religion, or a temporary phase that religion must grow through? I guess we need to look to Judaism to learn more about that because they are the one religion that has a history of trying to grow intellectually, and they have been working on it for 3000 years. That is what I take from the last few years of discussion on RD.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I don’t see that you’ve made this case at all, if the case is supposed to be one that sheds light on our interpretation of the Cain and Abel story. Indeed, your “interpretation” defeats the whole purpose of engaging in Midrash.

  • Jim Reed

    I don’t think this is midrash. It is RD, and the point is to eliminate any religious misconceptions from every religion. This is the opposite from the usual direction that religions like to go, so there is certain tension, but that is necessary to make any progress in the religion field.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Jim, you obviously don’t know what Midrash is. The article itself is Midrash.

    Not everything there is to learn from religion and religious texts consists of your sort of ignorant, throwaway “it’s all just there to empower the people in power” lines. People study this stuff at a serious level and sometimes, they post articles about it on RD. The author, here, did some really excellent Midrashic exegesis on the Cain and Abel story, but rather than learn something from it, you just force it to fit into the one, tiny thing that you seem to know and keep repeating over and over again.

    I know very well what RD is. I’ve been posting here as long as you have. *Some* of the point of RD is to eliminate misconceptions, but that’s not what *this* article is about.

  • Jim Reed

    We can’t be critical of all other religions and let progressive Judaism slide, even if it is the best. Somehow there is a lingering misconception that in ancient times God was more hands on, so the most ancient people had a clearer understanding of God and his dealings with people. I know from a logical perspective you wouldn’t say that, but through the study of traditional writings you might want to consider if this sort of thinking has to some small degree seeped through even to the present day.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I have no idea what you are talking about. Certainly, this is not responsive in any way to my previous comment. Let’s just let it go.

  • Jim Reed

    I think it goes back to the original comment about the inexplicable divine choice regarding acceptable offerings. It can be explained if you see it as the priests making the divine choice, and not God.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Again, we learn nothing of value from the story — and it is just a story — if we take it in the way you suggest. But as I said, let’s drop it.

  • Jim Reed

    I think our difference is you want to learn from the story, and I want to resist learning from the story.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I will be using the article in my Sunday School class this week. I teach Bible to middle schoolers, at our synagogue, and the Cain and Abel story is next.

    One of the best articles in RD in recent memory.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    I wouldn’t brag about not wanting to learn.

    As the article indicates, the story raises all sorts of interesting questions about dessert, preference, and justice, without offering a dogmatic answer. These are important concepts to meditate upon, for any human being, as we will all confront them at some point in our lives. Why would you want to “resist” having an intelligent conversation about them?

  • Jim Reed

    The basic resistance has to do with bringing God into the story. I don’t think it has been established that God is actually involved, and that makes it a story about men.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    The story is fictional — the introduction of God into it is a plot
    device, that serves as a metaphor for the apparent arbitrariness of good
    fortune in the world. The inscrutability of God’s intentions stands in for the inscrutability of nature.

    But you choose not to learn. As a result, my middle schoolers will have a better understanding of these concepts, after our discussion this weekend, then you, a grown man, will. (I will be teaching the Cain and Abel story to six twelve and thirteen year old kids, at the synagogue this Sunday, and will use the RD article to facilitate our discussion.)

  • Jim Reed

    Why do you have Sunday school on Sunday? My experience was Sunday School added an hour plus to the the length of church. Do these kids attend Synagogue on Saturday, then return for Sunday school on Sunday?

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Jews do not work on the Sabbath. Thus, religious school cannot be held on Saturday. Religious school is held on Sunday, instead.

    Shabbat is Friday, sundown, until Saturday, Sundown. Orthodox and Conservative Jews have their Shabbat services Saturday morning, while Reform Jews have them Friday night.

  • Jim Reed

    Then back to school on Sunday.

  • Aravis Tarkheena

    Yes.

  • Faith

    As always, great job exploring the Judeo-Christian perspectives and completely exlcuding the Islamic one. Cain & Abel’s story is in the Quran also for those interested in a more in-depth and accurate account (as academic studies *should* be); much to the nescient average Joe’s suprise – all thanks to educational institutions and public media intentionally leaving out Islam. Abel was indeed the more pious one (as well the stronger of the two). As narrated, he proclaims to his brother that even if he would reach out to strike him, he would never reciprocate as he fears the Creator of the universe (Allah). True Quranic accounts, untempered with in contrast to the Torah and the Bible(s) of Nicaea. Happy exploring =)