Genesis 4:1-8 Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of the LORD.” She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. And the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.
Learning heals in mysterious ways. It’s a reason to teach.
Take Genesis 4: Eve has just gotten a child with the help of YHVH. Said child is Cain, whose name means “acquisition.” Abel follows; his name can be translated as “vapor.”
Like a vapor, Abel is here… and gone.
We all know the story. Or we think we know it. Cain offers YHVH a sacrifice of fruits; Abel offers the firstlings of his flock. YHVH accepts the latter and doesn’t much care for the former.
Last week, my college students and I discussed various midrashim about these few verses. We explored the interpretations suggesting that Cain and Abel fought over an unnamed sister. We read from Targum Pseudo Jonathan (Gen. 4:1), which insisted that Cain was the devil’s child.
No wonder God had a divine hissy fit.
Biblical literature is cryptic, mysterious. There are plentiful gaps between the lines. What did Cain actually say to Abel? Why does YHVH seem to be overreacting to Cain’s disappointment by delivering an overbearing and sententious lecture?
We came back to the sacrifice issue. Some of the midrashim suggest that Abel’s offerings were better than Cain’s – meat, after all, in ancient Israel, was to be prized. Shake out the sheep’s value and you would likely trump the tangerine, after all. By a bunch.
“So,” one student says, “if God wants a blood sacrifice, is it possible that Cain just misunderstood? He didn’t have any flocks. Was Abel the only blood sacrifice he could offer?”
There was a tad bit of gentle mayhem for a few minutes.
Here is what’s important, though: I want my students to ask questions of the text – even if they seem outlandish or bizarre. I want them to approach these texts as if they had never known a thing about them, never been told how to interpret them, never heard that they were supposed to take an explanation on faith.
I want them in the wide open space a classroom is supposed to provide. In such a place, my students will ask about Cain’s grief and sorrow when he anguishes over a future defined by wandering, marked by banishment from God, Godself. They will acknowledge that rejection and dismissal – in their world, too – can be a thing of a moment that can scar lifelong.
They see that the texts are real.
Last semester, a student of mine noticed the way Ruth appeared to be manipulated by Naomi. Naomi instructed Ruth; she was to venture down to the threshing place in the dark of night, entirely alone. She was to enter treacherous territory. She was to seduce an older man.
This student was thinking about Ruth’s vulnerability, the danger she endured. Maybe she was also, in a way, thinking about herself. This student walks in a hazardous world herself. She moves from one classroom to another but avoids ever going to the bathrooms on campus.
“I don’t want to face a confrontation,” she says.
Once, she and I spoke about her upbringing, about the way her classes in biblical literature were allowing her, finally, to ask questions in a safe environment. She joked with me once, claiming that after learning what was going on in our classrooms, it was possible that her parents were finding it easier to acknowledge that she was trans than to talk bible with her.
Will this student ask amazing questions, write revelatory and astonishing texts, find, in a way, that her learning can be healing?
I think so. I hope so.
For those of us who write about worlds not our own, a prayer: May we write respectfully, carefully, and with the safety of those we write about in mind.