Thursday, 11 February 2010

cain and abel

As a child, I attended both Sunday School at the church where my mother was a member and Bible classes at the local Gospel Hall. In neither case do I remember any doctrine that may or may not have been attached to the stories I heard, but while this was happening I was also learning about Greek and Norse mythology at school, so it seems unlikely in retrospect that any kind of in-depth explanation of any of these stories was provided.

However, there was one story that even as a youngster made no sense to me: the story of Cain and Abel:
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.…

Genesis 4 (Authorized Version).
I simply couldn’t work out why God would show this kind of favouritism, which is not explained in the subsequent text. For example, the words attributed to God in verse 7 (“If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?”) suggest that Cain didn’t do well, but the reason for this is not made clear.

Hermann Hesse attempted an explanation in his novel Demian, the eponymous hero suggesting that Cain was feared by others due to his strength and that Abel was killed merely because he was the weaker of the two. However, this notion is simplistic and, ultimately, unsatisfying.

The mystery might have remained unresolved, but one day, a few years ago, I was reading about the Mongol invasions of China. What struck me in this account was how much the nomadic Mongols despised the civilized languor of the Chinese, whom they regarded as degenerate. This was the principal reason for the savage cruelty that characterized these invasions. And Genesis was being written at a time when outright conflict between nomadic pastoralists and arable farmers was endemic throughout the fertile crescent, while China suffered incursions across its northern and western borders so serious that it built a defensive wall in a vain attempt to keep the ‘barbarians’ out. The biblical account of ‘the promised land’, a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’, casually overlooks the fact that it was flowing with milk and honey only because it was already being farmed and is therefore nothing more than a cynical justification for seizing someone else’s land.

The meaning of the Cain and Abel story should now be clear. It is not a historical account; it is an allegory of that conflict, written from the point of view of one nomadic tribe. It is also clear that the ban on eating pork by that same nomadic tribe is not based on anything as mundane as health grounds, although pork is more likely to cause illness than other meats if not cooked thoroughly—pork had been and continues to be widely eaten throughout East and Southeast Asia. This prohibition is also a symptom of the nomad/farmer conflict. Nomads herd sheep and goats (or yaks and horses in the case of the Mongols), while the domestication of pigs, which are not browsers like the nomads’ animals, was achieved by settled farmers. Hence the nomads’ disdain for pigs and their meat.

However, although the Israelites were not very advanced technologically, they did have the nous to observe that cities are also the product of settled agriculture:
17 And Cain…builded a city. (ibid.)
The emergence of Islam, which also has its origins in nomadism, provides a close parallel to Judaism, not only in its proscription of pork but also in a requirement that animals for food be slaughtered in a way dictated by ritual and tradition. And this too can be traced back to nomadic roots: animals are not merely important to nomads; they are central to the nomadic way of life. But why should nomadism have any relevance in the twenty-first century? Why should what was once purely a cultural practice have become ossified over the centuries into religious dogma?

That question I am unable to answer, although ritual slaughter does at least accord the animal a degree of respect, something that is sadly lacking in modern factory farming, where trying to associate the red stuff stacked in shallow styrofoam trays in the chiller cabinets of supermarkets with a once-living animal requires a huge effort of the imagination.


  1. Thanks for the breakdown on the historical context of that story. I love unravelling these myths to their origins in history. I have found that what many of these stories have to do in the twentieth century is just a continuation of the early patriarchy that overtook the monotheistic religions (judaism, christianity,islam)and part of keeping the control under a patriarchy was to portray a masculine god that was to be feared and mysterious in his ways, thus always keeping one off balance and unsure of their own authority. The perfection prescription for guaranteeing control of the masses.


  2. Dennis:

    Strange! Yesterday I was discussing with my family how I cannot fathom the story of Cain and Abel as well as Jacob and Esau. And today I find a post of one of the pairs. I enjoyed this deconstruction of the story. The question which you have raised - "Why should what was once purely a cultural practice have become ossified over the centuries into religious dogma?" is quite relevant today as dogma more than anything else corrupts the minds of fundamental Christians and other religions.

    Great post. I am glad that I stop by here as I always gain an intellectual fill for the day!

    Joy always,

  3. Have you ever read anything by DM Murdock? Her site is She uses a plethora of research and references to back up her logic that all religions are in some sense derived from astrological phenomena--and that religions build on other religions' concepts.

    It really is fascinating. I recommend, "The Myth of Christ--The Greatest Story Ever Sold". She also has bright and biting wit.


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