Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review
Reading André LaCocque's book on Cain and Abel feels like sitting down with the author in his study and listening to him reflect on a lifetime of thinking about this primal biblical story. In this conversation, LaCocque is surrounded by his books, an amazing number of which—from the classics, the New Testament, and rabbinic thought to contemporary philosophy, psychology, and literature—he draws into the conversation. Among his favorites are Freud, Dostoevsky, Bakhtin, and his past colleague Ricoeur. His observations are rich, eclectic, and complex: often more anecdotal than linear—like holding up a gem and examining its various facets. No reader—no, listener—will leave this conversation without learning something about this story or being prodded to think about it in a new way.
LaCocque's thesis, as the title of the book states, is that the story of Cain and Abel is above all about Cain's violence and his attack on innocence, as represented by Abel. Cain's violence is, to be sure, triggered by jealousy, but it is ultimately motivated by Cain's offense at Abel's innocence. Cain feels the urge to soil purity; his killing of Abel is the paradigmatic onslaught against innocence (p. 66). Ultimately, however, when Abel's blood cries from the ground, innocence is given a voice and triumphs over death. LaCocque explores this approach to the story by examining three of its facets or dimensions: the anthropological, theological, and psychological.
In his introduction, LaCocque describes this book as a sequel to his earlier book, The Trial of Innocence: Adam, Eve, and the Yahwist, where he sees the primal sin as hubris rather than violence. He attributes both of these stories to the Yahwist, whom he dates late as is fashionable nowadays, though the date of J is not really instrumental in his argument. And he makes the very important point, which he will pursue throughout the study, that Cain is not a villain for J but a fully human character—a representative of us all.
LaCocque's anthropological analysis embraces several traditional notions about the story, including Cain and Abel as representatives of farmers and shepherds, God's acceptance of Abel's sacrifice because Abel was more devout (bringing to God the flock's firstborn with their fat portions), and Cain's freedom to choose whether to do good or bad (not, as later Christian interpreters, that Cain was under the grip of original sin). Then LaCocque introduces, to my mind, two rather innovative ideas. First, he sees an Oedipal theme in the story's opening verse whereby Cain has replaced Adam in Eve's dedication: Adam plays a minor role, while Eve directs her attention to Cain through special words about him and by her reference to him as a man (יîš). Later, Cain, like Oedipus, must go into exile. Second, LaCocque goes beyond the common notion of jealousy as motivating Cain's act of murder, and he places the blame instead on the offensiveness of Abel's innocence to Cain.
In his analysis of the story's theological dimension, the briefest of his three kinds of analysis in this book, LaCocque focuses on the relationship between God's power and Cain's freedom in this narrative. LaCocque believes that in the Yahwist's work as a whole, as in this story in particular, God is lord of history not through might and coercion but through a loving self-limitation which bestows on humanity the full power to choose (p. 82). Cain had the power to do well, or not do well. The tragedy of the story is that Cain chose wrongly, failed to take responsibility for his actions, and even thought of himself as a victim, lamenting his exile. LaCocque is particularly critical in this chapter of modern interpreters who believe that the story subtly blames God, because of favouritism or lack of intervention, for Cain's violence.
In the chapter on the story's psychological dimension, LaCocque introduces some new themes and expands on others previously discussed. He begins with an analysis of the sign on Cain, identifying it as a symbol of God's pure grace, which in no way mitigates or compromises the radical evil of Cain's violence. LaCocque goes on to claim that Cain and Abel represent two sides of human nature, the animal side belonging to nature and the human side distinct from nature (p. 93). Cain is/chooses the baser side of humanity, killing the higher side of humanity with its conscience and innocence, thus suffering the tragic fate of exile from the human community. LaCocque devotes a section of this chapter to an examination of Cain as a tragic figure, who represents the hubris, violence, punishment, and exile of the tragic hero in Greek drama, but who survives and begins again by building a city—in the end, a tragicomic figure. Indeed, in Cain's new city, LaCocque sees a ray of hope for a new era, noting that the name of the city (and Cain's first son), Enoch, means inauguration. By presenting the city as ambiguous (it was, after all built by the first murderer), LaCocque's approach is much more nuanced than the usual view that the Bible as anti-urban. In this chapter, LaCocque reprises two earlier themes: his critique in his theological analysis of interpreters who wish to exonerate Cain by pointing to flaws in J's God, and his claim in his anthropological analysis that this story is built upon an Oedipal conflict.
In a concluding chapter, LaCocque follows the story of Cain and his descendents up to Noah and the flood, suggesting thereby that this book and his earlier one are really part of a larger interest he has in the sweep of Israel's primeval history at the beginning of Genesis. Here LaCocque's previously ambiguous view of Cain's city takes a turn for the worse: the city becomes a frantic denial of finitude and death—the city as cemetery! The true hope left us by Cain's descendents is not in the city but in Seth's son Enosh, the new human being, and in the first reference to people calling on the name of Yahweh (Gen 4:26b).
An aspect of LaCocque's interpretation that I find particularly strong is his claim that Cain is the true center of the story, that Cain is free to choose (to do well or not to do well), and that his humanity is honored (p. 6). Despite his great wrong, he is neither demonized nor rejected, and he ultimately inaugurates (Enoch [Cain's son and city] means inauguration, dedication of something new) a fresh course in the history of humankind (p. 33). This is an important corrective to our quick identification with Abel and our failure to recognize the crucial role Cain plays in the Yahwist's early narratives and genealogies. Yet accepting LaCocque's ultimate assessment of Cain's sin—his onslaught against innocence—depends heavily on believing with LaCocque that we can know both Cain's and Abel's hearts, their inner dispositions (pp. 19, 22). LaCocque embraces an old tradition (e.g. 1 John 3:12) that Cain's simple, unselective vegetable offering indicates his guilt, while Abel's selective offering from the firstborn of the flock with its fat portions indicates Abel's innocence. This, however, is only one among a number of solutions to the story's notorious crux: why God rejects Cain's sacrifice and accepts Abel's. And it goes beyond the Yahwist's explicit words, which remark only on Cain's anger and fallen countenance after his offering is rejected, and which say nothing at all about Abel's disposition.
Elsewhere LaCocque makes the astute observation that in the Yahwist's other stories of fraternal conflict in Genesis—stories that I wish LaCocque had used much more extensively to help us understand this one—the reasons for God's selection of one son over another are never given (p. 61, n. 145). I believe we have here the key to this story as well: this story like all of the stories of fraternal conflict in J is not about why God accepts one and rejects the other; rather, it is about how the rejected firstborn will respond. Will the first born who has been passed over kill his younger brother who represents the family's future, or will he do well and preserve the family by resolving the conflict without bloodshed? Viewed in this light, this story is not about Cain's attack on innocence, nor about his attack on his father (the Oedipal theme), but about his relationship to his preferred younger brother. As such it serves as a kind of archetypal negative model of fraternal conflict resolution, a model rejected explicitly by Esau, by Judah, and by Reuben, who all chose relationship over murder and thereby preserved the family. Thus the point of the story is not so much in siding with innocence against guilt, in existentially choosing to be the slain Abel rather than the slaughterer Cain (p. 143), but rather in making the choice Cain did not make, but which all the other elder brothers of Genesis did: to count the relationship with the favoured brother more important than the feelings of rejection, and therefore to preserve the family and by extension the nation.
LaCocque, A. The Trial of Innocence: Adam, Eve, and the Yahwist (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006).