Do you have a brother or sister? Have you always gotten along? Sadly, it is quite common for there to be rancor between siblings. In the case of Cain and Abel, that rancor erupted in a most horrifying manner.
Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve, Cain being the older brother. Cain became a farmer and Abel a shepherd. They both prepared a sacrifice to God but God accepted only Abel’s. Cain was furious and eventually in a jealous fit murdered his brother. When God comes around seeking out Abel, Cain utters those well-known words “Am I my brother’s keeper?” At this point, God uncovers the truth and banishes Cain. He places a mark of Cain to ensure that Cain will endure no other suffering beyond banishment. Cain leaves, marries (Where did Mrs. Cain come from?) and starts his own ancestral line.
Let’s look more closely at each brother. Cain is the first-born so he had a position of specialness. That is until Abel came along. Then Cain wasn’t so special anymore and some attention got shifted to little brother. Further, there were likely demands made to Cain such as “Keep an eye on your little brother”. Beyond that, it would appear that eventually Little Brother began to outshine Big Brother. Perhaps shepherding came easily to Abel whereas Cain, presumably working in the arid Middle East, had to struggle to bring in a bountiful crop. Resentment may have started to set in. That resentment is solidified when father praises Abel’s work but not Cain’s.
Can I relate to Cain’s resentment? Sadly, yes. My older brother had many issues growing up whereas I was self-sufficient. As such, I was often more or less on my own, especially as I got older.
But let’s also look more closely at poor Abel. “Poor Abel” indeed. A first victim. But was Abel so innocent? I wonder what happened right after it became clear that Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s wasn’t? Might there have been a “Nyah! Nyah!” on Abel’s part? Let’s entertain the possibility that successful Abel made it clear to his older brother that “God likes me best!”
Following this interpretation, I find something of Abel in myself. I did well in school. Won scholarships. Played basketball. Won speech tournaments. Things my brother was unable to do. To his credit, he never expressed resentment but having me as a brother cannot have been easy for him.
Jealousy and resentment. These are at the heart of the Cain and Abel story. Take a moment then and make an honest inventory first of all of persons of whom you are jealous and also of what you are jealous. The other person’s success? Their charming personality? Their good looks? Their money and possessions? How have you dealt with this jealousy? Rejection? Judgment?
Examining jealousy also demands that we examine fear for fear is often at the root of jealousy. Fear that I am not good enough by some set of standards. I see such jealousy often among couples. A jealousy tinged with accusations of infidelity. At the root of such jealousy is fear. Fear that I am not a good enough provider, lover, etc. As with Cain, such jealousy can erupt into violence.
Resentments are the spiritual equivalent of cancer. Left unattended, they spread and grow, consuming more and more spiritual health along the way
Have I ever lost my temper? Allowed myself to be provoked? Have I ever erupted in violence? These are questions that this reading of Cain and Abel in the field might generate.
For many of us, it is painful and unsettling to face our potential violence. You may decry violence and describe yourself as non-violent yet still feel within you a violent impulse. If so, don’t make the same mistake I did.
In 1968 the draft still was in place and we young men were faced with decisions regarding the military. I had some friends who courageously declared themselves conscientious objectors. I considered that path but rejected it. You see, I had been in many fights as a youth and felt that, because of my penchant for violence, I could not in good conscience declare myself non-violent. So I instead began a path that eventually took me into service with the Army.
I now see that that tendency toward violence was the very reason for me to declare non-violence. I was and am a potentially violent man choosing as much as possible a non-violent path.
This issue of violence also introduces us to the very important concept of the Shadow. This idea comes to us from Carl Jung. The Shadow represents every potential within us that we abhor. For some their Shadow has a lot of lust. For others, a lot of violence. For still others, their Shadow contains all their racist/sexist biases. Here’s a quick exercise to help you get in touch with your Shadow. First make a list of those qualities you like others to see in you. Here’s my list: kind, laid-back, flexible, unconventional. Now make a list of those qualities that are the opposite. In my case, cruel, up-tight, rigid, conforming. Look at your list and shake hands with your Shadow.
The point is not to be depressed by your Shadow but to transform it. Shadow qualities have something to offer to you. It can become the stuff of growth. The inner violence, for example, can be transformed into healthy assertiveness. The lust can be transformed into a capacity to celebrate sensation.
I worked for many years counseling parents found guilty of child abuse. The vast majority of those parents loved their children and, up until the incidents, denied that they could ever be violent toward their children. That denial fueled their Shadow violence until it erupted.
Cain most likely did not see himself as capable of violence. That denial fueled by the favor shown to his brother caused that violence to erupt with tragic results.
What does Cain challenge us to face?
- Our resentments. They become dangerous of not faced.
- Our jealousy and its underlying fear.
- Our Shadow side to include our potential for violence.
- The damage it can cause to see oneself as “not good enough”.
What does Abel challenge us to face?
- Our arrogance in the face of good fortune
- The importance and value of humble gratitude
- The possibility that, even though we see ourselves as good people, we can still hurt our loved ones.
We all carry the Mark of Cain. Perhaps, rather than being ashamed, we can accept that Mark and learn from it.