Cain and the Birth of Injustice

Cain and the Birth of Injustice

To illustrate a post about injustice and privilege in the Biblical story of Cain, silhouette of a large shoe crushing a small person who pushes back in resistance.Cain is the first person in the Bible to be born. He is the first child of Eve. The Mother of All Life, as her husband calls her. And, wow! Eve is elated when her first child is born.

She names him Cain, or, rather, in Hebrew, Kayin. Why? Because, she says, kaniti ish et-Adonai. Kaniti ish et-Adonai.

What does that mean?

The first part is clear. Kaniti ish — I have acquired a man. A person, a baby boy.

But, the second part —et Adonai — is challenging. Adonai means “God.” Literally, et means…well, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s more like a traffic sign. It tells you: this next noun, Adonai, is the direct object of the last verb, kaniti. Kaniti Adonai, I have acquired a God. So, when Eve named Cain, she said, “I have acquired a man, I have acquired a God.”

Most commentators don’t like this literal interpretation. So, they pretend et is some kind of typo. And that the text really says “I acquired a man with God,” meaning, with the help of God. Or “I acquired a man for God,” that is, who will serve God when he grows up.

But, actually, it makes perfect sense that Eve might say, “I have acquired a God.” Because Eve is absolutely awed by her new baby. A first child, an amazing baby, something divine.

So, we might guess that Cain grows up with a sense of privilege.

Some time later, Eve has a second child. In English, we call him Abel. In Hebrew, his name is Hevel. We don’t get to see his naming ceremony. So we don’t know why Eve chose the name. But we do know what it means. Hevel is mist, vapour, breath, something insubstantial and fleeting.

What a contrast of names, eh?

Where did Abel’s name come from? Maybe Eve was awed by the baby’s first breath. Or maybe she regretted giving a prideful name to her first child. Or maybe she just didn’t think Abel was all that much. So she just continued to favour Cain and stoke his sense of privilege.

(But let’s not judge Eve too harshly. She doesn’t have much experience. And she has no role models.)

Anyway, we attentive readers know that Abel’s name is a plot point. Mr. “Insubstantial As a Breath” is not long for this world.

Cain and Abel grow up. Both men offer fruits of their labor to God. And privileged Cain expects God’s approval. But God doesn’t give it. Instead, God accepts a gift from the insubstantial Abel.

So, Cain becomes angry. His face falls. And his feelings fall.

So, God offers Cain a chance to reflect. God asks, “Why did your face fall?” And maybe Cain has no answer. Because God then explains why self-reflection is important. It helps you understand your emotions. So you can rule them, instead of being ruled by them. As God puts it, “Sin waits for an opening! It is always attracted to you. But you have to take charge of it.”

Or, in modern language, God says. Think about it, Cain. You were raised to expect approval, appreciation, adoration. But some things you cannot have all the time. Yes, your mood may fall.

But get a grip on yourself.

And then Cain, poor fallen Cain, gets up. The text literally says he gets up — and kills his brother.

Instead of mastering himself, he overpowers his brother.

God asks, “Where is your brother Abel?” And Cain replies, “I dunno. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Stunning sarcasm, isn’t it? Maybe Cain’s mother never told him siblings should look out for each other. Or maybe Cain’s arrogance just has no boundaries. But in that moment, someone sets a limit.

“You’re cursed!” God says. “Even the land won’t work for you anymore. You’ll spend your life na va’nad – Hebrew for a wanderer,” Or, in modern terms, you will be a homeless beggar. Maybe you’ll shed some privilege. Develop some empathy.

“But, no!” Cain whines, “the punishment is too great for me to bear. Everyone who sees me will want to kill me.”

“Okay, then,” God says, “I will protect you. Anyone who kills you will be punished sevenfold.”

Cain then leaves God’s presence. But does he serve his sentence? Does he become na va’nad, a wanderer? Nope. Instead, he settles in a place called Nod. In other words, he is saved by a technicality.

And that’s it. Cain literally gets away with murder.

But anyone who commits the same crime against him will get a harsher sentence.

As it was millennia ago, so it is today. Anyone could fall prey to Cain’s problems: poor parenting, lack of impulse control, need for constant recognition. But, some people are born into privilege. And thus, when they break the law, they easily exercise their legal rights. Maybe they can afford experienced lawyers. Avoid racial discrimination. Or rely on their family’s professional contacts. While, at the same time, insist on harsh penalties and punishments for others. And God, the manager of the world, seems to look the other way.

Cain and Abel’s story shows us our broken world. If it makes you angry, then good. Follow the recommendation of God the spiritual teacher. Take charge of your anger; turn it towards protest and action.

From a guest sermon at Mt. Seymour United Church, Nov 3, 2019.

  1. Wonderful commentary, dear Reb Laura! Bravissima and thank you for this for me new vantage point from which to view this difficult story.
    Looking forward to seeing you at Ohalah!
    Love and blessings,

  2. Although this interpretation of the Cain and Abel story is somewhat interesting, I see it as only one person’s perspective and not necessarily what is actually meant in the story of the world’s first family. Old Testament stories are especially open to a multiplicity of interpretations.

    1. Yes, thank you, Asnah. It is definitely an original interpretation, inspired by current events. I agree: One of the many beauties of the Torah is that it can speak to us in different ways at different times.

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