For some reason, I found myself pondering Genesis 4 — the story of Cain and Abel — yesterday. Not sure why, maybe my current circumstances, but I think a lot about exile, and what that means. The world has never felt much like my home to begin with, not a place where I’ve been much wanted. Rather, it’s felt like a wilderness, a place of exile, a largely inhospitable place I’m just traveling through on the way to someplace else. Not sure where that is. I only know I don’t much belong here.
Enough of that. Genesis 4:1-16 tells the story of the first murder, the first time one human being in anger and jealously, took the life of another. There is much to be made of the story (including the alleged “mark”), but I’m interested in who and what Cain and Abel are. Abel is a “keeper of sheep” (4:2, JPS Tanakh — again, this little Asus Eee PC doesn’t let me do Hebrew), a pastoral nomad who wanders from pasture to pasture (scrubland in the Middle East), tending his flocks, while Cain is a “tiller of the soil,” a settled farmer who doesn’t wander, who is tied to land and place. Abel’s life is one of tents, of open skies, of moving from place to place to follow the rains. His home is wandering, it’s on his back and the backs of the animals he keeps. Cain’s home is one of brick and mud and fences and furrows. He worries about the rains, but he cannot follow them — he must remake the world around him to get the water for his crops, to build the tools to work the land.
The story continues:
In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings from his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. (Gen. 4:3-5, JPS Tanakh)
Some might say that Cain’s offering was inferior — not firstfruits. Maybe. But it may also be that God was partial to Abel’s “choicest of the firstlings” as opposed to whatever grain and fruit Cain offered. There is, I think, a subtext in Jewish scripture that laments Israel’s slow evolution from pastoral nomads to a settled people, a concern reflected in the use of the pastoral metaphor (all the way through the gospels and the epistles, which use this metaphor extensively as well) to describe, in particular, David, and to condemn the kings of Israel (Ezekiel 34 is the example that comes to mind) for their failures. For a settled people there is wealth and power, but there is also intense inequality and exploitation — the weakest suffer the most. The surplus wealth created by sedentary activities (farming and resource extraction, like mining and timber before silviculture) almost never goes to those who extract or create that wealth.
But this is not the matter up for discussion today. Cain, the first-born older brother, murders Abel. (In the Qur’an, he also buries him in an effort to hide what he has done.) Abel’s blood cries out to God from the very soil (adamah) that Cain tilled. God then tells Cain: “If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer (yanad) on earth (ba’aretz).” (Gen. 4:12)
Cain is made a wander, and he goes to live in “the land of Nod” — eretz nod — the land of wandering/exile, “banished from the soil” (Cain’s own words, 4:14) and away from the “presence of the Lord.” What kind of wandering can a farmer do? What kind of exile is this, being yanked away from who and what he was? Did Cain love the land? Did he love tilling it? It’s hard work, and perhaps he felt that God did not reward his work well enough. But maybe the sense of rejection he felt when God favored the firstling of Abel’s flock was intolerable. Tilling the land wasn’t just what he did, it was who he was, and clearly he saw that who he was simply was not good enough for God.
That’s a hard pain to live with, that sense and perception that who and what he is, what he has to offer God, is simply not good enough for God. Perhaps this is how he understood what happened, and he took his despair and rage out on his brother who was clearly much more acceptable to God. How to imagine the despair and rage that comes from knowing that God has favored someone else over you, accepted them and rejected you? When one is rejected by God, what possible acceptance anywhere or by anyone can make up for that?
And yet it is Cain who separates himself from God. He tells God, “I must avoid Your presence.” It is Cain who fears being killed, not God who threatens Cain with death. God, in an act of odd grace, “marks” Cain, and promises vengeance upon anyone who kills him. It is Cain who walks away from God. The greatest punishment he inflicts is upon himself. He compounds his alienation from the land, from what he does and who he is, with a self-imposed alienation from God. God condemned him to wander, but said nothing about avoiding the divine presence.
Cain did that. All on his own. Maybe that says something about us, as human beings, as we wander, as we pass through and try to live in eretz nod – the land of wandering and exile.