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.[1] God would protect his Garden from the most dangerous kind of pestilence—unrestrained testosterone. 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. In the man’s world, the family would be thrust deep into the shadows to bring into the spotlight the dark hunting hearts of the warlords, whose concept of good writing amounts to little more pressing harder with the pen. It was not good for man to be alone. This history begins with two brothers. They were 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—the story of the way sin to 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.[2] 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 playing in the dirt of this thorny ground. Abel is a herdsman. 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 story does not draw 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 reach the Lord, they are wont to take it out on others, even, often especially, brothers.

Cain gets angry—a new emotion enters the Genesis narrative. Anger is a new way of dealing with shame. Shame, again, is the ground feeling of heavenly 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. 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.”[3] Sin crouches at our door. It now exists ‘out there’ like a cold front in the open air or a snake pit in a gated community.

Or does it? Where is sin actually located in this story? 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.

Cain has not sinned at this point in the story, and 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, a certain underlying tension. The sequence in the Garden story was command, confusion, deception, disobedience. In this story, the 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, 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 his words. There is, rather, an eerie sense that an invisible third party character is whispering in Cain’s ear, something like, “Did God really say…” or “Who is God to say…” or “Are you not yourself capable 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, so 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 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. And it is in that case much harder to pretend that his voice is not sometimes the ‘sweet, sweet sound’ that I hear when I sing about God’s ear, and that all my songs are slurred by the lisp of a 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-be-one. He could convince 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. Their two-become-oneness was perhaps designed at the very least, on those harder days on the homestead, to keep them from killing each other, since they’d be killing half of themselves. And although all humanity was born of this oneness (cf. Gen. 2-3; Jn. 17), there are varied degrees of separation that provide the distance necessary to sever empathy. Like stabbing a limb with dead nerves, for many, killing a brother doesn’t even hurt, even if he does bleed with my blood, even if I am, in fact, his keeper (Gen. 4:9). 

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 to be 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 of their heads, even when that means loving those who have cut off people’s heads. Perhaps the world is best when we make no amendments to “Love your enemy,” which of course was the amendment to “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Mt. 5-6). Besides, I guess I can’t hold God’s preferential nature against God. 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. 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. Perhaps that is why God prefers I not reckon myself to be God, or good.

But in the case of Cain, he only needs to accept that not all offerings are created equal, and that only means accepting that 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? But, 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?”

[1] Gen. 3:24.

[2] Of course, Seth is born, but Cain goes his own way and builds a city. The contrast between city and family is clearly intentional.

[3] Gen. 4:7.

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