Dancing with Echoes: On Cain, Shame, & the Devil in Disguise (An Excerpt)

Below is an excerpt from a book project I will probably never finish, in which case it is more properly called a fragment from an unfinished essay. So below is a fragment from an unfinished essay. Let’s call it Unfinished Essay 2. In a fragment from, say, Unfinished Essay 1, I discussed the familial nature of the image of God as the design against which all other forms of human relationality must be judged. The fragment below assumes familiarity with that argument from that fragment in Unfinished Essay 1. But you’ll manage.

The family project continues in the east. Eve’s title as mother of all the living is brought to fruition in the spread of Adam’s seed. Eve was formed out of Adam’s rib, but the rest of the world is formed out of Adam’s loin. Eden has been barred. The first guardian angels are sent to block the way back (Gen. 3:24). The men of the east would take their pens of dominion and plowshares of the Garden and beat them into swords. Gardening in God’s world would give way to nation building. Men would begin to scribble history with blood, becoming increasingly brute and uncreative with each generation, whose concept of good writing amounts to little more pressing harder with the pen. In the man’s world, the family would be thrust deep into the shadows to bring into the spotlight the warlords—it is hunting season in the East—battling one another for mastery over history altogether fighting in a world war against time. It was not good for Man to be alone, estranged from his feminine side.

This, human history, as we know it, begins with two brothers, the firstfruits of Adam’s seed.

The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 is has clear intentions. It is a ground account of the bird’s flight to follow. In principle, it is the same story as Genesis 3 (as well as all of the stories of Genesis 5-11)—the story about the way sin divides the human family from one another and from God. But it does have a few significant differences. While Genesis 3 focuses on the first causes of sin in the parents of the human race, Genesis 4 focuses on the first effects of sin in the children. It is therefore naturally more empathetic to the world that begins outside the Garden, the world in which its readers find themselves, the world of Israel, the world of us. Genesis 3 also reveals the true faces of the family and its enemy, of the divinely ordered unity and the soulless search for divinity, the ignorance of which produces much strife in subsequent history. It is not trivial that it begins with two brothers and ends with an only child (Gen. 5:1b-3). Adam’s world was and has ever since been a world of brothers killing brothers and calling them others. If there are any illusions about the way of a man after Adam, any lingering hope of returning to Eden, this story sobers and severs. It exists to orient us to the long road ahead, a one-way easterly road that ever polarizes its travelers from the Garden way. The Garden gate and its guardian angels will grow smaller and smaller in our rearview memory.

Cain and Abel were born after the cherubim took their posts at the east gate. Adam’s seeds immediately begin to sprout out of the cursed ground of the east. Cain is a gardener, like his father. He spends his days with his hands in the dirt of a curse with sweat from the toil and blood from the thorns. Abel is a shepherd, and a butcher, like the Levites. No women are in the story. The Lord does not intervene. He gives space for the love of freedom, which men love to fill with control. It turns violent—quickly.

The brothers bring offerings to the Lord. The Lord does not regard Cain’s ground-grown offering. He accepts Abel’s first-born offering. It is too early to make sense of the Lord’s discretion. Speculations can be made about the parallels of the Garden garments or the kind of sacrifice needed in a condemned world, but they are only speculations. The Lord speaks graciously to Cain. He has not yet rebelled against him. He had only acted in ignorance. Cain was just like the child who offers his parents a ketchup and ice cream sundae. It was not that Cain had done anything particularly wrong with his offering. God did not condemn him for that. God just reserves the right to aesthetic judgments. It is good to separate the waters from the land and the ketchup from the ice cream, even if Cain prefers otherwise, even if Cain prefers red to cover white, for waters to flood the field. At any rate, the story has nothing substantial to tell us about the offerings. It tells us, instead, about Cain, and therefore about ourselves. It does not draw our attention to a symbolic meaning of either offering, but to the way Cain reacts to his sense of the Lord’s rejection. Human history is unwittingly all about the creative and uncreative ways men handle that sense of the Lord’s rejection. Since men cannot find peace with the Father, they are wont to make enemies with others, even, and especially, with brothers.

Cain gets angry. A new emotion enters the Genesis narrative. Anger is a new way of dealing with shame. Shame, again, is the horizontal feeling of vertical guilt, the impulse to hide from we know not what, only that we must hide ourselves. Shame in the Garden sought a scapegoat, but in this world the scapegoat is ripe for the slaughter. It is much the same as what we have already seen. An obvious pattern emerges. Discord in the divine-human community finds first expression on the ground—on earth as it is in hell. God did not accept Cain’s offering, but he does suggest to Cain that Cain can still be accepted, “if you (Cain) do well. If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7). Sin crouches at our door. It now exists ‘out there’ like a cold front in the open-air or a snake hole in a gated neighborhood.

Or does it? Where is sin, or temptation, or the tempter, actually located in this story? Within or without? That is perhaps one of the questions this story is designed to answer. Regardless, its desire is for Cain. All it has to do now—all sin ever has to do—is exploit Cain’s shame. Sin has found its dance partner.

Shame has many reflexes. It adapts to its environment. But its goal is always the same as it was in the almost-beginning: to self-preserve. In the Garden, shame sought merely to find a worse offender to deflect the guilt. Adam points to Eve, Eve to the serpent, and the scale terminates at bottom with the devil. But this is a different environment. The serpent is missing. God has made a judgment about the brothers’ offerings. Cain is unpleased with God’s judgment. God does not condemn Cain but he does offend him. Cain does not need to repent. He needs only to stay humble. He needs only to accept that God’s judgments are good, even if that means God does not regard his offering good. Perhaps God is just real, and real Persons have preferences. And perhaps God is good and just to impose his preferences upon us. Perhaps it is good that God prefers we love our enemies and not cut off their heads, even when that means loving those who have cut off people’s heads. Perhaps the liberation any man from an Absolute good is inherently slavery of all men. Perhaps the power of the will to choose good aimlessly in its own eyes is always already only the will to power.

At any rate, Cain sure should not hold God’s preferential nature against God, and certainly he should not take it personally if God preferred Abel’s lamb to Cain’s durian. If I’m honest, I have no regard for my grandma’s offering of (yet another) three-pack of bright white Fruit of the Loom underwear every Christmas (she worked in a Fruit of the Loom factory, making loin coverings for men for over three decades). But that does not mean I have no regard for my grandma. That is why I lie to her. But God is not a liar, like me. God’s prefers truth-telling to ego-stroking. The whole world was lost in a single lie safeguarded in every ego, so it does no good for God to protect our egos and thereby preserve the lie that i am that I AM, that my preferences determine the absolute good.  

For Cain’s part, he only need accept that not all offerings are created equal, and that only means accepting God is God and he is not. But who is really willing to accept that? Who will not first have to accept that “no one is good but God alone”? Who will not first have to acquit all their enemies of their evils and throw their stones down in the dirt? Who will not first have to pardon others by crucifying the voice of the accuser in their own head every single day of their life? So, alas, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn after emerging from Soviet captivity in the Gulag, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every man. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” It is far less painful to destroy your brother’s. 

Cain has not sinned at this point in the story, yet he behaves as like an escaped convict, as though living in the shadow of some past offense, as though guilty before proven innocent. He is impulsive, rash, desperate. It is evident that there is more to the scene than meets the eye, like a subterranean fault line under immense pressure. The sequence in the Garden story was command, confusion, deception, disobedience. In this story, the two middle components are indistinct because they seem to be all that is there. The motivations for Cain’s actions are not part of the script. They seem, instead, to be encoded in the heart of the script, perhaps encoded in the heart of Cain.

The Lord announces that Cain can still be accepted, that he can rule over sin. But there is no response, no indication that an attempt is made to heed these words. There is, rather, an eerie sense that Cain is in constant consultation with an unseen third party, an invisible echo whispering into, or within, Cain’s ear: “Did God really say…” or “Who is God to say…” or “Are you not like God, of knowing good and evil?” or “You are God.”

But the serpent is nowhere to be found. He had returned to his hole. He apparently no longer needed to be present for his echoes to be heard. It behooved him to remain hidden. If blame terminated at him each time, as it did in the Garden scene, he would never accomplish his goal of instigating retaliation. The presence of a tempter makes guilt a far more slippery a thing to hammer down—and guilt must be hammered down. A visible talking snake means there is an enemy of God, and it may not be me. But an invisible talking snake means there’s an enemy of God in my head. In that case, the thoughts of ‘I’ and ‘I AM’, ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘he’ and ‘it’, all slide off the divide into a slurry of distances off the tip of that two-pronged tongue. 

If the serpent’s whisperings were now in some sense buried in Adam’s seed, his greatest strategy would undoubtedly be to never rear his head again—indeed, he never does again, at least not to ordinary eyes. The only thing more dangerous than a talking snake in a Garden is a talking snake in your head. That is the kind of thing that will drive a man mad. It drove Cain mad. 

In the Garden the serpent could encourage segregation, domestic violence and even divorce between the two-made-to-become-one. He did so from without, hurling grenades of deception to cause divisions and convincing them, as is his custom, to stop holding each other’s hearts and to start pointing their fingers and clinching their fists. But he could not yet convince them to embrace a segregation and begin to throw stones. He could not convince them to declare a civil war. But the conditions are different in the East. The serpent now begins by splitting a man at his nucleus. The family is divided because the man’s heart is divided. Cain’s pointing finger was not pulled away by some open-air attraction, looking merely for someone to blame and send away like a scapegoat. The projection was much more deeply seated. It grew out of the branches of his heart. As such, it was much harder, sharper and more prodigious than his parents’, their fingers merely meeting their targets through an invisible trajectory. With Cain, the trajectory materialized. His finger pointed all the way through Abel’s body. The brotherly community is now destroyed—nuclear fission in the nuclear family.

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him” (Gen. 4:8)

The Lord had been gracious with Cain and given him another chance to offer an acceptable sacrifice—to another God. He led his brother Abel into his field, the place of his produce, like a sheep led to the slaughter. Cain waters the cursed ground with Abel’s blood, but his blood cried out to the God of the Garden (Gen. 4:1). The world that once sprouted with life expedites its process of decay. Everything is dying, plants and people withering into the brittle brown of dead leaves and dried blood. This was the work of two gardeners. Everything in the East is going the way of the dust. A man dies. A family dies. Cursed is every man who hides in the shadow of that God-damned tree (cf. Gen. 3; Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13).

Every man from Adam is born on the other side of yet another divide. With each generation the oneness of creation is more easily disregarded as a creative fiction, thus providing the necessary distance necessary to embrace degrees of separation that increasingly sever empathy with others who live at a distance. Eve was formed from Adam’s rib, that place that guards the heart. Man in the image of God was made to share heartaches. But men became islands unto themselves and took to the image of the beasts. As such, as long as a professional distance is maintained, stabbing another man, or a brother, in a field, or nailing another Man, or a Brother, to a cross, feels only like cutting into a limb with severed nerves. It doesn’t even hurt, even if he does bleed a common blood, unless indeed I AM my brother’s Keeper (Gen. 4:9). 

The Lord confronts Cain. “Where is Abel your brother?” he asks. As with Adam, he gave Cain a chance to confess. “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain has become a smart ass. He has his father’s sense of humor. In addition, he is a liar. He did know where Abel was. Lying is another pathetic form of sewing. It is the grammar of making garments in an attempt to hide our guilt from the one before whom “all are naked and laid bare…to whom we must give an account of our lives” (Heb. 4:12-13). 

Cain is sent to wander on the wide and aimless easterly road, a fugitive. Anger in community gives way to fear in isolation. His own internal sense of justice condemns him. Cain discovers his conscience, but we discover in Cain that our condemning conscience does not lead us to repentance but only deeper into a more permanent form of our modus operandi: self-preservation. Cain, like his father and like the first criminal in the crucifixion account, and like most every man, seeks sympathy from God, not forgiveness. He asks for salvation from his guilty conscience, not forgiveness for his guilt. He demands pardon from his punishment but is unwilling to confess that he deserves it. So he rejects God as a Person and constructs an eastern worldview indeed of an inescapable and impersonal karma: 

“Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (Gen. 4:13-14).

He killed and knew what he deserved. But the Lord, even here, shows a deeper arrangement. It is grace for Cain while preserving justice in the world (Gen. 4:15-16). It is not an exacting arrangement, at least not yet, and it requires personal and preferential bias, intervention, indeed, Incarnation.

God marks Cain to protect him. He then sends him away from his presence. Eden continues to shrink. The Lord returns to his Garden. Cain builds a city. In God’s world, families are the center, in Cain’s world, cities. The partitions grow. The world apart from the presence of the Lord, from the Garden of the Lord, has nothing but the future in potentia. There is no model or microcosm for home, only natural resources for the limitless imagination. The world has lost its essence and all is reduced to utility. Men continue moving forward, telling themselves that the pot filled with gold is bigger than the emptiness they seek to fill. Those futile attempts to fill that inner infinite void, however, has only ever served to keep us “distracted from distraction by distraction” (T.S. Eliot). The soul made for rest has no recourse for restlessness from within because rest indeed only comes from without. 

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” ~ St. Augustine

This world knows nothing of true rest, though something called rest exists within the grid of utility. Utilitarian rest serves the function of efficiency. Rest is calculated to maximize production. Relationships, too, are calculated accordingly, subsumed within the crowd and therefore entangled in untruth (Kierkegaard). There is no time for eye contact, much less for reflection, contact with one’s self and its host of inner demons. Such is was keeps us so distracted. Men only band together to run from themselves, to build cities, to hide. The world looks progressively less like a Garden. It is too painful to remember the trees, so they built, so we build, concrete gardens. 



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