Monday, March 20, 2017

Crime and punishment in the story of Cain and Abel

Here is an excerpt from an essay by Elie Wiesel:

"Cain and Abel: The first two brothers of the first family in history. The only brothers in the world. The saddest, the most tragic. Why do they hold such an important place in our collective memory, which the Bible represents for so many of us? Mean, ugly, immoral, oppressive—their story disturbs and frightens. It haunted mankind then and still does, working its way into our nightmares.

At first we become attached to Cain. He shares with his younger brother, Abel, the generous idea of offering gifts to the Lord. But for this, Abel might never have felt the need to do the same. For reasons the text does not bother to explain, however, God accepts the gift from Abel after refusing the gift from Cain.

An unjust Creator of the World? Already? How can we understand this favoritism? What did Abel do so great, beautiful or praiseworthy as to merit the divine sympathy denied to his brother? Cain, innocent victim of unprecedented heavenly discrimination—how can we not wonder about his fate?"


Read the rest of Elie Wiesel's important essay at this link.

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And here is a personal postscript:

I am convinced that the story of Cain and Abel has important lessons for all of us, and Elie Wiesel's brilliant exegesis gives us much to ponder. However, I would add one more important point. Notice that God's punishment of Cain did not include a death penalty. If the first, most unforgiveable murder did not merit capital punishment, why should human beings now support or impose the death penalty on anyone? Yes, I think that is an important lesson in the story of Cain and Abel.

Well, now, what do you think?




9 comments:

  1. As Auberon Waugh once pointed out, the best argument against capital punishment is that it is wrong to kill people.

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    1. Frank, it seems clear enough to me, but many people in and out of governments remain convinced that "capital punishment" is not wrong. And if God's earliest opportunity and refusal to choose that option is not instructive, I guess no other argument would be persuasive.

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  2. I wonder which is more perplexing: that God rejected Cain's gift or that God refused to follow the Biblical injunction of an eye for an eye. And, if I'm not mistaken, the Bible comes from God.

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    1. Yes, Fred, the Bible is perplexing, contradictory, and equivocal (which it is at the same time absolute). What a paradox! It is helpful to remember this fact -- one that has some frenzied fundamentalists' hair on fire -- the books of the Bible were written, edited, redacted, and spliced together over long spans of time by different people with different objectives, skills, and shortcomings. The fact that the Bible remains such an influential "book" continues to amaze me. Don't get me wrong. I don't use the word "amaze" in a negative or critical sense. I mean to say that the Bible's influence is impressive. Many people with very good minds over the centuries have been committed to the Bible's messages. My muddled mind is only now beginning to fathom the significance of the messages without the filter of fundamentalist fervor (i.e., the residue of my childhood indoctrination). And here is a postscript: Yes, the "eye for an eye" injunction seems clear, but so is the New Testament injunction about letting anyone without sin throw the first stone at the allegedly immoral and sinful woman.

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    2. Tim,

      Which do you think has influenced most people: an eye for an eye or he who is without sin. . . or judge not. . .

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    3. Fred, that is an interesting question. Perhaps there is no sensible answer. However, being insensible fool that I am, I will attempt a response. Only the most fervent and committed Christians (and other people with different humane belief systems and behavioral codes) embrace the kind of do-no-harm, forgiveness, and pacifist precepts found in the NT. However, push some pacifists hard enough, and the reactions are not so passive. In any case, most of humanity, I fear, is very vengeful and unforgiving; most (all?) governments make things even worse. Note my previous posting on _Abraham's Curse_. Perhaps that is what the myth-makers in stories about the Garden of Eden, Cain v. Abel, and thousands of other Biblical examples had in mind: explaining humans' inability to live peacefully in idyllic harmony. It just is not in our DNA; that kind of complicates the "man is made in God's image" notion, doesn't it? So, the writers of the Bible's books tried to explain and make sense of our shortcomings. I guess that was an impossible task.

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    4. Tim,

      I've often thought that the God of the OT was made in man's image, rather than the other way around.

      The NT seems more to be an impossible goal, sadly.

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  3. You make a very well-taken point, Tim, about Cain's punishment. For that and a lot of other reasons, it's little wonder that a lot of people oppose the death penalty.

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    1. Margot, if the Creator, Cain's "grandfather," won't execute a murderer, why should anyone else execute murderers? It makes no sense.

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