Cain Murders Abel
Part of my series “A Satanist Reads the Bible,” in which I explore the Bible, Christianity, and other religions and their sacred texts through the lens of Satanism in order to reinvent religion for myself.
What were Cain and Abel told by their parents in their childhood? All children wish to know about the world, and inevitably ask questions to that effect. Parents, in response, tell stories that signify their knowledge thereof. Did Adam and Eve tell them about their life in the Garden of Eden, how they sought knowledge and were for that reason exiled from paradise?
Immediately following the second account of creation, in which Adam and Eve are created in and subsequently cast out from the Garden of Eden (which I wrote about in my essay “Another Account of the Creation”) we have the story of Cain and Abel, which begins in the fourth chapter of Genesis.
Cain and Abel are the children of Adam and Eve, both of them having been conceived and born after their parents’ exile. Abel’s job is to tend to the sheep, while Cain is assigned to farming. At some point, they make an offering to God, Cain giving him fruit that he had grown and Abel giving him rich lamb meat. “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Genesis 4:4–5, NRSV).
“Regard” is here translated from שׁעה, sha’ah, which seems to mean something like “to look at in consideration.” So this is to say, God did not even bother to see what Cain had offered. He may have given the barest of glances, but had not considered it beyond that. Seeing Cain’s resulting dismay, God says,
Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.
Genesis 4:6–7, NRSV
Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
Genesis 4:6–7, KJV
This is quite enigmatic; it took me some time and conversation to come to an understanding of what may be going on here. First, I’ll note that this narrative continues the depiction of God as YHWH, who is immanent to the world. God is physically present to Cain and Abel, as they are both able to confirm whether God had regarded their respective sacrifices. Second, God is looking upon Cain and seeing both anger and fallen countenance, the latter being something that might better be described as sadness. And then there is the difference in meaning conveyed by that critical turn: “shalt” in the King James Version to “must” in the New Revised Standard Version. The former conveys inevitability, the latter necessity, and the two meanings do not always overlap.
But why has God not even deigned to look upon what Cain has offered? If God is omniscient, then he has planned this, and had intended to inspire Cain to murder his brother. Again, this makes God seem a malevolent trickster, but again we see evidence in the text that the ancient Hebrews did not believe this of God: after Cain murders Abel, God asks him, “Where is your brother, Abel?” and “What have you done?” (Genesis 4:9–10, NRSV), both indicating a lack of knowledge of things that an omnipotent god would know perfectly well. God may have some extraordinary powers of perception (God is able to hear Abel’s blood crying out to him from the ground), but this is different from omniscience.
So what then is God suggesting? “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” And here “accepted” might also be translated as “exalted” or “dignified.” It seems there are two possibilities, the first being that Cain had been an ineffective farmer and that the fruits that he had offered were of diminished quality. God would then be saying, “Once you do a better job, I will consider your offering.” I don’t see this interpretation as being impossible, but it doesn’t seem to reflect the text. The text does not say that God regarded Cain’s offering and rejected it, but that he did not regard it at all. And Abel, whose offering was regarded, was not noted as having been accepted, exalted, or dignified in any way as a result.
So then the interpretation seems closer to “Why do you care what I think?” It seems then that God is asking Cain to take pride in his accomplishments in terms of their own inherent value to himself, and not because they are pleasing or displeasing to God.
But what of that third line, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it”?
This is the first occurrence of the word “sin” in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew is חטּאה, chatta’ah, and “sin” is the only English word I can find that seems to neatly correspond. No explanation is given in the text surrounding this passage as to what sin is; it must have been a concept already deeply encoded in the culture of the ancient Hebrews, and I wish I knew better what exactly they meant by it. I can only assume that it lines up with our common, modern understanding. Odd that the word was not used to refer to Eve’s having eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge; I’ve often heard the fundamentalists refer to that act as the “original sin,” the first sin, which all people somehow inherit. What they call the first sin was not even called that in their own text?
In Modern English, of course, “sin” means “an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law” (Google Dictionary). Sin is first shown to us personified: it lurks at the door, and it desires Cain. Perhaps God means here that, should Cain fail to take pride in his own work and to work for himself first, he will be tempted to (somehow) transgress against God. The King James Version is more enigmatic still, while still personifying sin: “And unto thee shall be [sin’s] desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” “To master” and “to rule” are translated from the Hebrew mashal, which appears to mean exactly what we would expect those words to mean in English discourse. Odd that God does not say that Cain must reject or deny sin, as one might reject someone who desires them, but that he must master it. Generally, we understand the verb “to master” to mean that one makes something their tool, and not only that one not be subject to that thing themselves.
My partner had some insight here, when I was talking about these ideas with them during a walk in the early night. They had heard what I had said about God asking Cain to do his work for himself and not for God, and had applied that both to God’s third statement to Cain, and to what I had been talking about with them regarding Hegel, Nietzsche, and Marx. Say that one is alienated from their own work, and takes no joy in it. What is then left to them when they see the works of free individuals? Envy. And is envy not a sin? As I said, that hasn’t been clarified at this stage. And in fact the Bible never expressly equates envy or jealousy with sin. But it is one of the seven deadly sins, widely known even in popular culture (cf. the Diablo franchise), which came to us not from the Bible but from early Christian teachers. And what makes envy a sin?
I’ll start with Hegel, and to that end I’ll start with Alexandre Kojève. Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel is more than the title suggests; it’s an independent and striking work of philosophy that goes forward directly from Hegel and develops and argues its own ideas from Hegel’s work. And it ties Hegel to Bataille, whose Theory of Religion sheds light on the offering that Cain and Abel made to God, and was greatly inspired by Kojève’s work, and I’ll be getting to that in a few paragraphs.
Kojève’s Introduction begins with an exposition on the Master-Slave dialectic, which appears in Hegel, Nietzsche, and Marx in different forms. To summarize: In all aspects of life, an individual relates to other individuals either as a Master, or as a Slave. The four philosophers approach this both as a historical reality, as with the Greeks or the Americans or any other historical slave-holding society, and as something more subtle, an aspect of interpersonal relations on even diminutive scales. In Hegel, both Master and Slave seek Recognition: the acknowledgement by another free individual that one is likewise a free individual. The Slave can achieve freedom by freeing themselves of slavery; the Master is incapable of freedom because true recognition cannot come from the Slave, who is not a free equal to the Master. While the Slave is a Slave, they have no agency of their own: what would seem to be their own agency being only a proxy for the Master’s will. And while the Master is a Master, they have no agency of their own, being alienated from their work because it is the Slave who ultimately performs it, even though it is not of their will.
God is then saying: If you fail to do work for yourself, then you subject yourself to envy. If you fail to do work for yourself, for your own enjoyment and satisfaction, then you willingly subjugate yourself to me and to those whom you feel may be doing superior work. In this you take on the role of Slave and lose yourself to the will of the Master.
God is explicating for him the dangers of this. Envy is a degradation of the Self, a loss of freedom and identity. If Cain submits to envy, he will have to struggle with it in order to make himself free again (make himself master of it, as in the text). Instead, he murders his brother, whose Godly favor he desired. In doing so, he cuts himself off from what would have led him back to freedom: the recognition of himself by Abel as a free and equal being, which he could only have by first honoring his own work for himself. For if Abel honored Cain’s work without Cain first honoring it himself, Cain would be dependent on Abel for his selfhood rather than attaining selfhood through an interdependence between free individuals.
Back to the question, what makes envy a sin? I’ve read some mystical interpretations of religion that speak of sin as acts that separate one from God. As I’ve elsewhere elaborated, the nature of God is the coming-into-awareness of the self. And as we see in Kojève, we are cut off from this when we subordinate the world, make ourselves Master over it. And as per the Bible, this is what we do when we envy, for envy arises when we are alienated from our own work, and for this reason God has taught that what is best is to take pride in one’s own work.
As well, if we are made in the image of God, and we are unable to take pride in our work, then likewise is God unable to take pride in their work, which is us. And what would it mean for God to have no pride in us? I don’t think that it would mean good outcomes for us. There is, again, the coming flood.
There is an interesting parallel here in the Isha Upanishad, a sacred text of Hinduism of unknown age and origin. It begins:
All this, everything that moves in this moving world,
Must be pervaded by the lord.
Enjoy what has been abandoned.
Do not covet anyone’s wealth.
The translator, Dr. Valerie Roebuck, describes in the notes the difficulty of translating that second line. Much like Logos (see my essay on Christmas), the Sanskrit word from which this phrase is translated is highly polysemous, and Roebuck notes, “Probably the author of the Upanishad wanted us to think of all of these [meanings].” “Enjoy what has been abandoned” is enigmatic, but I won’t explore it here (I will likely write “A Satanist Reads the Upanishads” at some point). In any case, we see a warning against envy. The Upanishad continues, saying that one must “seek to live a hundred years just doing work here,” (in other words, do work for yourself, for your own survival), and seems to imply that those who do not follow this teaching are “self-slayers” who will go to a sunless world “covered with blind darkness” after their death.
Bataille might help us to answer the question: for what reason were Cain and Abel making an offering to God to begin with? The text does not indicate that this is something that God taught to or commanded of them, or of their parents. This must have been so a part of ancient Hebrew culture that they thought it self-evident: if there are gods immanent to you, make them an offering. That seems entirely reasonable: if you encounter a being more powerful than you, offer something to ask their favor. This isn’t at all unique to the religion of the ancient Hebrews; sacrifice seems to have been common in the ancient world, practiced by the ancient Greeks, the Romans, those who practiced the ancient Vedic religion on the Indian subcontinent, and various Pagan peoples.
Humans have at least escaped the planet’s atmosphere and traveled to other worlds, and even beyond our own solar system now, and we’ve encountered no beings that are in nature like ourselves except more powerful. We see forces greater than ourselves but no beings. But the ancient Hebrews couldn’t have known this, and so imagined (not at all without good reason) beings more powerful than themselves, perhaps in a hierarchy of power, and called such beings angels, gods, and other names. And they thought, if one was to encounter one of these beings, what might it be best to do? Well, definitely don’t piss them off, to start with; probably the best approach is to get on their good side.
In his Theory of Religion, Bataille says that there is an intimacy — the intimacy of animals, who are “in the world like water in water” — which we seek to restore through sacrifice.
The first fruits of the harvest or a head of livestock are sacrificed in order to remove the plant and the animal, together with the farmer and the stock raiser, from the world of things… [T]he destruction that sacrifice is intended to bring about is not annihilation. The thing — only the thing — is what sacrifice means to destroy in the victim. Sacrifice destroys an object’s real ties of subordination; it draws the victim out of the world of utility and restores it to that of an unintelligible caprice.
What binds us to an object, what makes us necessarily objectify things in the world, is that they serve the ends that reality constrains us with, namely survival and desire, and desire foremost because survival is a desire to live. If we consume irregardless of our survival or desire, as we do in sacrifice, the world of subject and object is transcended for both.
Which brings me back to what it was that Adam and Eve told Cain and Abel of the Garden of Eden and their exile from it. What could they say of a world in which there was neither Good nor Evil? I don’t at all know, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable that there might be a part of that life that their progeny might see as lost or wrong and might wish to restore or rectify. Bataille suggests that sacrifice would be the very means to accomplish this.