‘I AM’ and ‘i am’

Inside and Outside the Bubble

The biblical story of Cain and Abel is a lulu! It’s a poetic work of theological anthropology.  The Genesis story invites us to ask again who we humans are, and what we are not, a question best addressed outside the bubble of species self-glorification. Climate change bursts that bubble. If living inside the bubble once seemed free of consequence, it is does no longer.

The Bunkers

Theological anthropology was not a hot topic for Archie, Edith, Gloria, and ‘Meathead’ in the Bunker home, or so we thought. But writer and producer, Norman Lear, used the Bunker family dynamics as a means of raising public consciousness beyond the choice of arrogance or platitudes.  

Norman’s Jewish heritage is a tradition of stories of divine-human encounter. Often these stories are humorous as well as serious. More often than not, the Hebrew Bible narratives carry meanings, sub-texts, mind-bending twists and turns, and nuances only available to those who have learned Hebrew. The story of Cain and Abel is one of those. I’d love to hear what Norman would make of the Hebrew tale of fraternal homicide.

Cain and Abel

The story comes on the heels of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Eve soon gives birth to her first-born son, Cain, and his brother Abel. The difference between the brothers is offered without further comment. Cain is a tiller of the soil (a farmer); Abel is a shepherd. Then the writer creates the scene in which the brothers are bring their offering to the YHWH (“I AM”). 

No one hugs an asparagus

Abel offers “the choicest of the firstlings of his [sheep] flocks.” Cain offers “the fruit of the soil.” I hear Norman laughing. “A sheep is precious. It pulls on our heart strings. A vegetable? Not so much. You can hug a sheep. No one hugs an asparagus.”  

Perhaps the Hebrew names  — Kayin (Cain) and Hebel (Abel)—provide hints as to why YHWH (“I AM”) “pays heed to” Hebel’s offering, but “pays no heed to” Kayin’s. ‘Hebel’ (Abel) is a breath or puff. The root of Kayin (Cain) is “to get, to gain, to have gotten.” Kayin is a hustler, an egotist, who offers what will not die, i.e., vegetables, that will sprout again next season.  Hebel offers a sheep, an offering close to the heart. Hebel offers what he knows himself to be — a precious mortal animal, a puff of the Breath, not the Breath itself on which all life depends. Hebel’s sheep is not perennial; when you sacrifice it, i.e. let it go, it does not sprout again.  Hebel lets go of the myth that he is more than he is. He knows that, like the choicest sheep he offers, he is, at the same time, precious but passing — a puff, not the Breath itself. 

 Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, Author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Dec. 8, 2022.

4 thoughts on “‘I AM’ and ‘i am’

  1. Very thought provoking, Gordon. I’m trying to figure how a plant can be equal to a sheep. Tree huggers like us come to mind who put trees on an important level of existence. After all the sheep consumes oxygen while producing CO2 while the tree produces oxygen while consuming CO2. Likewise the asparagus leads to saving the planet just like the tree. Obviously this wasn’t a known process to Cain & Abel but it was known to the God defined as “nature” by Spinoza’s & Einstein’s God. Now that I’m totally in the weeds I should stop bloviating.

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    • Good Morning, Gary. Thank you for your comment. From afar in Brooklyn Park, I don’t hear you ‘bloviating’ — you sent me to the dictionary! To be “in the weeds” is a good thing IMO. This text can and should be read from different angles. My look at the story was through the eyes of who we are in the larger scheme of things — just a puff that disappears, not mistaken the human species with the Breath Itself.

      As for the part about “you can’t hug an asparagus,” it struck me as a funny way of saying that a shepherd feels toward a sheep is akin yo my love of Barclay. The death of a beloved dog you no longer hugs is heart-rending. I get carried away sometimes. When the line popped into my boney head as something Norman Lear might say, I couldn’t resist.

      Your comments about the biosphere broaden the discussion, it seems to me, and demands our full attention NOW. The planet itself is a breath (‘i am’) that lives only because the Breath Itself (ie., the Eternal, Immortal, God only wise, as the hymn puts its) offers the breath on which all life depends. I’ve been working on a longer commentary that may appear someday, if I breathe another year! 🐛🐝🤓

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  2. Morning, Gordon, Thanks for sorting this story into a richer understanding ! Blessings for this beautiful dawn, and a loving day! Peace, Chris

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