Now Abel kept his flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look for favor.” (Genesis 4:2-5).
Indeed, what a strange sacrifice was Cain’s! Is not a sacrifice to involve some kind of bloodshed? Did Cain not see how odd a basket of fruits and vegetables would look on a sacrifical altar?
What exactly was his point? In these few lines, we shall attempt to understand the meaning of Cain’s sacrifice by comparing it to similar proceedings present in the Greek cult of Orphism. Our argument will be one of analogy. Indeed, Cain’s type of sacrifice was perhaps the first in human history, but it was by no means the last. If his sacrifice comes across as odd to our biblicaltaught minds, where sacrifices concern animals only, to the Greek mind, Cain’s sacrifice is not at all strange.
Vegetable oblations linked to a certain vegetarian asceticism were quite common in the Greek mystical religions, particularly in Orphism. Orphism grew out of a reaction to the traditional religion of the Greeks, which, much like the ancient Hebrew religion, held animal sacrifices accompanied by a feast during which the flesh of the animals was eaten. As in biblical times, these sacrifices were held to be the only way of communicating with the god.
But such a means of communication only emphasized the incommensurable rift that had opened up between man and God.
It was this rift, this distance that the Orphic cult refused to acknowledge. Orphism is the expression of man’s deepest longing for a closer, more intimate relationship with God. By refusing animal sacrifices, the Orphic cult was refusing the rift between man and God. Orphic mysticism tried to overcome this rift by adopting a more god-like stance, i.e. one that was not tied down to the flesh, one that, like the gods’, was spiritual versus carnal, hence the importance of vegetarianism.
Such a mystical attempt for a closer and more intimate relationship with God is precisely Cain’s. Cain’s action is of an orphistic nature. He too is longing for a time of more direct communication between man and God. For a time where there was no rift between man and God, where God walked, talked and dwelt with man. Cain’s action is a sigh of longing for Eden, for a Paradise Lost. The very nature of his offering, fruits and vegetables, serves as a reminder of the garden of Eden, of its trees, of its rivers and of its fruits. Cain’s sacrifice is an attempt to move God to remember, to forgive, to start afresh.
Like the Orphists, Cain is refusing the rift between man and God, between man and the animals. He is expressing, through his offering, a spirit that wishes to remain pure of sin, and therefore of carnality, for this is where they first become associated. Sin is associated with carnality for the first time in the ritual of the sacrifice. The refusal of the flesh that Cain expresses through his vegetarian offering is a refusal of sin and of the separation between God, man, and beast that ensues.
But what about God? To this desperate attempt on the part of man, God answers by silence. God does not remember, He does not forgive, He does not answer. Why?
So Cain turns and kills Abel, reaching thus the point of no return and forever tainting his spirit with the blood of his brother.
There are two ways to interpret this story. One which holds God’s silence to be a condemning one, and the other which doesn’t. The partisans of a condemning silence one which does not “look with favor” upon Cain’s action, understand the story as follows: salvation cannot come from man, but only from God. Only God can start over, only God can recreate.
Cain tried to save the world with his gesture! He is our first utopist, our first humanist! But we learn from this story that when man tries to take the place of God, murder is not far behind.
But is God’s silence necessarily unfavorable? Indeed, God in the text does not speak. He remains silent. This silence is then interpreted by our narrator as “unfavorable”: God does not accept Cain’s offering. But is God’s silence necessarily a condemning one? After all, God often doesn’t answer the righteous (cf. Job); God sometimes remains silent even when His people are exterminated.
Perhaps God is silent because He is waiting. Because He is holding his breath. Perhaps God is silent before Cain to give him the opportunity to speak. Perhaps God is silent so that Cain’s voice can be better heard.
But then, Cain goes and kills his brother. Therein lies his first mistake! Had Cain not killed his brother and entered into the dialogue that God was favoring with His silence, perhaps he would not have been so wrong and shown that man may also answer God and not merely listen and obey.
Image: Cain leadeth Abel to death, by James Tissot. Public Domain