September 27, 2006

Genesis 4-7 -- Sacrificial Brother

Today's reading is Genesis 4-7 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the story of Cain and Abel, the generations from Adam until Noah, and part of the story of Noah (until the flood). I am rapidly coming to realize that for any given reading, there are myriad possible topics to discuss in the Daily Breadcrumb. For today's reading, I jotted down over a dozen potential subjects, of which I need to pick one. It was a hard decision, as they say, but eventually I settled on a topic: the first sacrifices.

Because I'm devoting so much attention to a relatively short passage, it might be worth citing it in full, from Genesis 4:2-5

2 ...And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.
 3 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.
 4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:
 5 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.

The previous passage is from the KJV. You can also read it in the NIV, or any other Bible version you care to consult.

The pivotal question in this passage, to my mind, is: "why did God respect Abel's offerings, but not Cain's?" The first murder could have been avoided if God had only respected Cain's offering as well as Abel's. Why, then, didn't He?

Most answers I have heard to this question, whether from priest, rabbi, scholar, or layperson, seem to be that God was more pleased with the flesh sacrifice than the grain sacrifice simple because of the nature of the substance. Flesh is inherently more precious than grain, goes the argument, because to sacrifice it involves taking a life. We are giving up more when we kill one of our cattle than when we set aside a portion of grain or fruit, which we did not need to kill.

This argument leads us to a curious slippery slope. If our sacrifices are considered better based on how much it pains us to give them up, then wouldn't killing a human be an even better sacrifice than killing an animal? When we kill an animal, we deprive ourselves not only of their future produce, such as milk or eggs, but of their potential offspring and even their companionship (no sheep jokes, please). When we kill a human, we deprive ourselves of even more: their company, their conversation, their friendship, and so on. Therefore, it seems human sacrifice would be even more respected in the eyes of God than an animal sacrifice.

Let us place ourselves in the position of Cain for a moment. Let us suppose that he has reasoned his way along the argument I have just presented (that just as animal sacrifices are more respected than grain sacrifices, so too are human sacrifices more respected than animal sacrifices). Keep in mind that this these events occurred before the Noahide laws against murder. Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, Cain determines that killing a family member must be the most respected form of sacrifice, as it involves giving up the most. What if Cain's murder of his brother Abel (Gen. 4:8) was, in fact, a form of sacrifice?

The verses immediately following this passage detract from such a reading, as they imply that Cain felt guilty about the murder. Perhaps, after pausing to consider his actions, Cain did not feel so triumphant in his sacrifice to God. Perhaps he knew all along he was doing wrong.

But many cultures through history, even Judaic, contained the theme that that human (especially familial) sacrifice is the most potent form of sacrifice. Later in Genesis (Gen. 22), God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. In Greek mythology, Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia in order to produce the winds needed to sail to Troy and begin the Trojan War. In Roman mythology, Romulus murdered his brother Remus, then proceeded to bury him with full honours. This might not have been an intentional sacrifice, but it was posthumously treated as one. The motif of familial sacrifice occurs continually in mythology.

Of course, in an era when people buy their meat pre-packaged in grocery stores, the idea of flesh sacrifice, let alone human sacrifice, is highly distasteful. People offer sacrifices of time, prayer, money, energy, and occasionally material goods, but almost no one in the modernized western world would take knife to beast to appease their God. For better or for worse, the concept of animal sacrifice has receded to nothingness in the Judeo-Christian religion.

Let us return, for a moment, to the Cain and Abel story. I propose an alternate explanation to God's displeasure with Cain's sacrifice. After all, when, in Leviticus, God gives commandments to the Jews, he orders them to give him grain and fruit sacrifices. Grain is apparently perfectly satisfactory for him under certain circumstances. Why, then, was God displeased with Cain's offerings?

Abel is described as offering the "firstlings" of his flock, or the choicest portions. Cain, meanwhile, brings some of his fruits. Later Biblical commandments exhort the Jews to bring their "first" or "choice" fruits (see, eg., Exo. 22:29) as sacrifices to God. It seems that Cain did not do this, but instead offered whatever fruits he happened to have on hand. The contrast is even more apparent compared to Abel's "firstlings."

Perhaps God's disrespect for Cain's offering stems not from its substance, fruit and grain, but from its quality: it was not his best. If Cain had given his best or first fruits, just as Abel gave his first and best sheep, God may have found respect in that as well. The lesson, I believe, is that it is the quality of the sacrifice, rather than the substance, that makes it acceptable.

So the moral of the story seems to be: if you're going to make a sacrifice, do it properly, no matter what you're putting on the altar.

One final note: For people who are interested in the Cain and Abel story, go check out the July 9th, 2006 episode of The Spirit of Things podcast. Yael Unterman leads "bibliodrama," which involves the participants roleplaying the members of the first family, to surprising revelations.


Damien said...

Huh. The idea that Cain was trying to make up for things with a (familial) human sacrifice is interesting.

Anonymous said...

Cain is a pastoralist. Abel is an agriculturalist. Its a simple story about the rivalry between (nomadic) Pastoralism and (settled) Agriculturalism in primitive culture.