March 15th, 2005
in Biblical Sciences and Archaeology
Fr. Frederick Eluvathingal
An Exegetical Inquiry into 1 John 3:11-18
Aggadah of Cain and Abel in the NT and in early Judaism
Moderators: F. Manns - L. Cignelli
Relators: G. Bissoli - C. Marcheselli-Casale
F. Eluvathingal, during his presentation
from right to left: G. Bissoli, F. Manns, L. Cignelli, C. Marcheselli-Casale
The Dean, C. Bottini (looking on)
Frederick Eluvathingal's main points (from the conclusions):
Two questions were posed: 1) Was the devil Cain's father? 2) Why did Cain commit fratricide? According to the author of 1 John Cain has his provenance from and appurtenance to the evil one. He also states that Cain murdered his brother, because Cain's own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous (1 Jn 3:12). This is an aggadah of the Cain and Abel story found in NT. In the biblical account Cain is the eldest son of Adam and Eve. Because the two inter-connected questions above are not answered directly in the Cain-Abel story of Gen 4:1-16, we extended our research into extra-biblical literature - Palestinian, Hellenistic, Apocalyptic, and Rabbinic traditions and documents dealing with this story. The results of this inquiry are positive and illuminating.
1 Jn 3:11-18 is seen as one unit bound by the exhortation to love, placed at the centre of the letter. 1) Fratricide is a sinful sign that Cain belongs to the devil. 2) Cain is traditionally made a model for unbelievers, which may help us explain 1 John's interpretation of Cain as a model for the adversaries.
By extending our study to include references and allusions to Cain and Abel in NT (chapter 2), we found that both the Jews and Jesus claim to have God as Father, and yet the Jews seek to kill Jesus. In doing so they are being accused of acting like their father the devil. Just as Cain acted then, the Jews are acting now - an evidence that their father too is diabolic. The Jews are not physically children of the devil, but on the moral level their actions betray their provenance as well as their appurtenance. Moreover, they partake of the devil's moral condition of untruthfulness. It is because Jesus said the truth that they attempt murder. There are references to Cain?s wickedness in NT.
By Abel's sacrifice which God accepted, he is attested to be righteous, an extra-biblical tradition that the author of Hebrews is familiar with. That reiterates the view expressed by the author of 1 John. Through his faith Abel lives on and is still speaking (Heb 11:4). Spilt blood of Abel is subordinated only to that of Jesus. The revelatory value of both is stressed. Abel is portrayed in Pseudepigraphic literature (TestAbr) as judge seated in heaven, the appropriate place for a righteous one, and Abel is the first righteous one. Abel's story is a vivid reminder that the righteous suffer and die, yet live on like Abel (Wis 3).
Human beings often fail to understand God's reasoning. God refuses to accept Cain's sacrifice for specific reasons. Cain's utterly negative reaction gives sufficient grounds to conclude that it was because of his evil disposition that God withheld his benevolence. Therefore the issue lies within human beings, and one's own possible guilt. The only way then is patient acceptance of it. But Cain reacted negatively to reproof and degenerated himself into fratricide. This understanding goes well with Johannine explanation: Cain committed fratricide, because his deeds were evil and his brother's righteous. Relevant, then, is God's admonition, "If you do well, will you not be accepted - And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it" (Gen 4:7). This interpretation is an answer in the affirmative to the second question - one concerning Cain's evil deeds.
Abel's righteousness and Cain's wickedness, even before the issue of sacrifice, form part of biblical tradition. NT depicts Abel as a champion of righteousness and Cain as the typical evil-doer. Late Jewish, Patristic and later Christian interpretations emphasized the antithesis, "righteous v/s wicked."
Divine mercy is inexhaustible. Blood revenge is not the only possible response. The otherwise terrible story of fratricide is also an assurance that God will protect even evil-doers if they acknowledge their guilt and turn to him for assistance (God places a protective sign on an apparently repenting Cain). The goal of divine chastisements is conversion of heart. The LXX translation draws a sorrowful figure of Cain, with allusions to his admission of guilt.
Both the sons - Cain and Abel - inherited nobility and are placed on the same positive level at the beginning (Philo). Evil does not come from God, but from the devil. Cain shunned wisdom and, by his deeds, became wicked.
Reasons for fratricide, as enumerated in the above mentioned works and authors, are 1) Cain's envy at rejection of sacrifice, 2) his greedy character and, 3) being a selfish principle, tendency to destroy his rival, God-loving principle. Cain chooses a life full of evil deeds (TBenj). He is defeated by the Satanic enemy (ApocMos, Vita). Conquest by the devil has macro-cosmic dimensions (Philo, Wis 10). Envy and resultant fratricide are examples of it. Fratricide affects the earth (LAB).
Abel is a lover of righteousness (Josephus) and all his deeds are righteous; he is the first martyr and first accuser (cf. Gen 4:10), and judge appointed by God (TestAbr). The original bliss of humankind, as portrayed by Josephus, especially the spontaneous growth of all things, reflects the Greek tradition. The human race was afterwards affected by evil. Primitive human being fell from the age of simplicity on account of one's greed and desire for luxury. Seth's progeny, on the contrary, lived in harmony and without civil strife.
Chapter 5 analyses Cain-Abel story in Targum and Midrash. Tj1 and PRE hold that Cain's father is a fallen angel. If so many evil deeds are attributed to him in different traditions, alleging diabolic parentage too is understandable. The Ancient Near Eastern thinking hardly made adequate distinction among physical, moral, spiritual, and metaphysical spheres.
The Targumim present a debate on philosophical theology between the brothers in the field: Cain denies and Abel defends the compatibility of divine mercy with divine justice, and the exercise of both in the creation and governance of the world. The doctrine of retribution is also debated in some accounts. It is current concerns about love and justice applied to God that are expressed in the form of a debate. Divine justice is generally tempered with love. The righteous excite his love while the wicked provoke him to justice.
The concept of "evil inclination" is read by PT into "couching sin" (Gen 4:7 RSV). Cain, representing humanity, has control over it. Consequently humans are ultimately responsible for whether to do right or sin. By the plural "bloods" in God's accusation (Gen 4:10) it becomes the voice of the blood of the righteous who were to rise from Abel. Cain is responsible not only for the death of one person, but for the death of Abel's posterity who would have been righteous. The story continues with this line of righteous posterity in the person of Seth, one born in the very "image and likeness" of Adam, as Adam was of God (Gen 5:3). Seth becomes a "type" and progenitor of a line, as too did Cain. The contrast and hostility between the seed of Cain or of the devil, and the seed stemming from God's creation of Adam (Gen 3:15) thus continues. Historical datation of targumic traditions is made by comparing the main themes in it with those expressed in dated Hellenistic and Palestinian traditions.
Finally in chapter 6 we revisit the Johannine passage. The Johannine community of the 1st century as well as the author of 1 John knew of prevalent Jewish traditions. Against that background the author formulated an absolute contrast between those who are the children of God and those who are the children of the devil. His basis for it is clear: Being righteous, doing acts of righteousness and of loving. Thus the presence of Cain casts its shadow over both language and thought of the whole chapter. He did not love his brother, but on the contrary, hated him and committed fratricide. Thus we have the author say, "Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer" (1 Jn 3:15). In the immediate context of John's community it was to strengthen its members to stand firm on his side, and not to be swayed away by opponents' untruthful claims. By loving one another they stand on sure grounds - in the message they heard from the beginning.
Why does the author of 1 John exhort his community not to be like Cain and to love one another? It is because of human choice - the free arbiter placed within humans. They are free to choose the good or the evil. Divine paternity of Christians is a NT teaching. God the Father granted that Christians become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4). Jesus is the only begotten son. Christians are (adopted) children in His beloved Son (Rom 8:29; Eph 1:5f.). This is a gratuitous gift, unmerited by humans. Yet humans are free to reject it in favour of the devil and his plans. In this sense both the good and the evil are without humans, transcending them, and not within them. Human beings participate in the one or the other, the good or the evil, by choice. By accepting divine paternity, the Johannine community should stand on the author's side, believe in the name (person) of Jesus Christ, and after the example of Jesus, love one another. This is the gist of Johannine instruction.
Cain-Abel Story, a Myth
Long before nations like Greece and Israel began to write history as a way of explaining the present by reference to causes in the past, they had their myths to account for origins of the universe and human beings, the problem of evil, divine retribution etc. The present reality is interpreted to be based upon what happened to heroes and gods in the primeval time. They function as paradigm for the present. For customs, institutions, and other aspects of life one finds explanation in myths and legends.
As long as a myth remains on the level of symbolic story, a unit of tradition without chronological or historical sequences it is agreeable to modern mind. But that is not always the case. Myths are often placed in a historical sequence of events. In order to relate the separate stories to one other, genealogical frame is fit into them. The primeval biblical stories are examples for this process.
In the ultimate analysis the story of Cain and Abel is a myth as explained above. It is human experience given expression to in the form of a myth. The story treats the origin of conflict among brothers, resulting in fratricide and the beginnings of violence, as well as the distinction between settled society and the nomad. Cain and Abel are both within me, within each of us as individuals, and in the collective consciousness of each society. Facing a temptation and succumbing to evil, or winning over it, is part of day to day human experience. "Sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you."
A mythical language-formulation goes beyond the parameters of a religion. It forms part of popular reflection of life. The story of Cain and Abel, started in the Jewish tradition, thus became a popular mythical narrative, and took different forms in different cultures and backgrounds. In fact not only the Cain-Abel story, but the whole of the primeval history has become so. This story tries to answer the perennial question of the source of evil ? the problem of evil. Thus as a popular influential story it was circulated, interpreted and re-interpreted. At some time or other it also reached the Johannine community. It was present there in the background as a deep reflection on human life. All that was needed for John was to hint at it. Everybody knew what it was all about. John uses it to bring home the Christian ideal of sharing love.
F. Eluvathingal with the Commission and Dean