Suppose every man is a sculptor and his mouth and mind, his chisel. A story is then not the work of one man, but the magnum opus of many. Handed to and fro, a story is quick to lose its original silhouette and men are quick to forget it. No better example perseveres than the oldest and most influential story of all: The Bible. The Bible is literature, art, and most importantly, a source of fundamental morality that has driven men to war, persecution, and pilgrimage. It persists in every person’s life, Christian or not.
Of this collection of stories one of the most infamous is that of Cain and Abel. But after centuries of being communicated away from the explicit text, the story of Cain and Abel has been distorted to characterize its subjects to moralistic extremes. The notoriety of Cain and Abel can be attributed to its rather severe content. In no more than sixteen verses, the story of Cain and Abel is relayed with unforgiving conciseness. Cain and Abel are born to Adam and Eve. Cain, the elder brother, is a farmer and Abel, a shepherd.
As time passed, the two brothers eventually came to make offerings to God: Cain offered the Lord the fruit of his harvest and Abel, the firstlings of his flock. “And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had no respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell (Genesis 4: 4-6). ” Later in the fields, Cain “rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. ” It is crucial to remember that The Bible is a religious text and its stories are meant to reflect its intended scruples.
Nevertheless, The Bible has grown up and out of itself. Its stories are no longer bound by its covers and are instead shared actively by mouth and other adaptations and allusions. These diversions from the text do two things: they spread the word and more often than not, caricaturize it. Lessons of good and evil are exaggerated, contorted in order to convey morality as effectively and simplistically as possible. In a sense, it is a utilitarian methodology. Clear examples of this are the many children’s adaptations of The Bible.
In these versions, the characters of Cain and Abel are stereotyped and their story is minimalized for didactic clarity. Cain is often portrayed as a large, burly, dark man—his ensemble perfected by scraggly facial hair. Abel, in contrast, is depicted as smaller, thinner, paler, and full of youth. The visuals themselves reveal the distortion that has been adapted to impress the story’s message onto its young audience. Like the visual representation, the story’s content is further revised to show to demonize Cain.
These versions often follow a particular structure. First they introduce Cain and Abel and their characters, speak of the offering and Cain’s jealousy, and then finish by saying that Cain killed Abel and was punished for it. This strait-laced delineation forces the themes of the story into black-and-white, prohibiting its audience from making fully-educated self-interpretations. In fact, the over-stylized Biblical stories are not much different than the same story of Thanksgiving feast, of Pilgrims and Native Americans that is popularized in elementary.
While teachers and parents may, understandably, eliminate details about European Pilgrims massacring the Natives, in the story of Cain and Abel, the vital conversations between and God and Cain are usually omitted. This is precisely why returning to the text is imperative. With the inclusion of God’s words to Cain, the story has the ability to reveal an entirely different angle to its readers and religion. Two essential points are often neglected in the paraphrased versions of the story: God’s proclamation about Cain’s rule over sin and the Mark of Cain.
After the rejection of Cain’s offering in which “his countenance fell,” God spoke to Cain, perhaps comfortingly, “.. sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him (Genesis 4: 7). ” Although these words were issued before Cain’s actual murder of Abel and it can be said that Cain failed at ruling over this sin, the existence of this proclamation is nevertheless crucial and even hopeful. This declaration, which is frequently discounted in simplified versions of the story, reveals that Cain still has the ability to conquer evil.
He may still be able to redeem himself. He then cannot be as wholly evil as the simplified versions portray him. Cain is not forlorn and he is not forgotten—there is still hope for him. The second instance of neglect, the Mark of Cain acts with a similar purpose. Despite Cain’s murder of Abel, God gives unto him a mark on his forehead which purpose is not to ostracize Cain but instead protect him. After casting him away into the world, God puts this mark on Cain so that no other man will lay hands on him. This, again, reveals that Cain is still not entirely begotten to the Devil.
He is still under the jurisdiction of God. Both God’s proclamation of Cain’s rule over sin and the Mark of Cain are crucial components of the story that, when omitted, strip the story of its dynamic core. These two components, for better or worse, add grayness to an otherwise black-and-white Christian parable. Cain and Abel, like several other stories, has been manipulated to suit certain men’s purpose. This manipulation of the story’s face strips it of its expressive features and the absence of these features impedes the development of individual, progressive thoughts.
Cain and Abel thus becomes a prime example of an instance where we, as readers and thinkers, must return to the text in order to cultivate our own opinions in as true a form as possible. In order for a story to survive it must continue to live off the conviction of its readers. And, in turn, its readers must create that conviction for themselves. After being taught the story of Cain and Abel in Catholic Bible Study classes as a child, and growing up with this tilted expression for years, I finally returned to the text. What I had previously ignored as a static dogma, I’ve now come to recognize as a vigorous expression of the human struggle.
I have come to believe that, more than anything—more than being a representation of sin or evil or the devil’s influence—Cain is the archetype of man. He was the first man born, the first man to have lived with his father’s sins and to create, by his own hands, his own damnation. Cain was more man than Abel. He loved what he felt was an unrequited love, he seethed with jealousy, was blinded by rage, played fool by his emotions. He is man as we know it. And as humans and descendants of Cain, we must believe that he can be forgiven—so we might also hope the same can be done unto us.