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.
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.