by Rabbi David Fohrman
Cain thinks his problems are because of other people’s choices, even God’s.
Just before Cain goes for that fateful stroll in the fields with his brother the Almighty speaks to him. This is what He says:
Why are you angry and why has your face fallen? Is it not the case that if you do well — lift up! And if you do not do well — sin lies crouching at the door, its desire is unto you, and you can rule over it. (Genesis 4:6-7)
What do these rather cryptic words really mean? And, whatever they in fact mean, why is it that Cain needs to hear them right now?
Beyond Brownie Points
A cursory glance at the words might lead you to believe that God’s speech is sort of a standard-issue religious exhortation to be a better person — something along the lines of, “You better be nice! If you are, God will reward you. But if you’re mean, He’ll punish you.”‘ And while some Divine nudging to Cain that he “better shape up or else” would not seem entirely out of place here, a closer look at God’s words suggests that something slightly more complex is going on.
To be more specific: Yes, God does talk about two alternatives that lay before Cain, a sort of fork in the road wherein he can choose either good or its opposite. But I would argue that what God says next is enigmatic, and has little in common with conventional brownie points verus fire-and-brimstone style thinking.
First off, the Lord never suggests that Cain will be “rewarded” for good conduct. The text says something else entirely: That if Cain “does well,” then, “lift up!” Now, what precisely this means is a very good question — we’ll get back to it — but it doesn’t sound like God is promising Cain some sort of tangible reward for doing the right thing. Something else is going on.
Let’s proceed a bit further: What exactly is to happen to Cain if he chooses the other path, if he doesn’t “do well?” You might have expected God to speak about punishments here — if not full-fledged warnings of fire and brimstone, then at least the rough equivalent of confiscating Cain’s ten-speed for a week. Instead though, God says something tantalizing, but a bit confusing, “if you do not do well, sin lies crouching at the door.”
Now what exactly does that mean? Whatever it means, it doesn’t sound like God is imposing a punishment. If anything, it sounds like God is saying that Cain, by choosing evil, will become vulnerable, somehow, to sin. Sin will be like a crouching lion, ready to pounce and overcome him.
But that idea is itself puzzling. For if Cain chooses evil — well, that itself is a sin, isn’t it? So why say that as a consequence, Cain becomes vulnerable to sin? The verse seems to have it backwards, no?
Talking Cain Off the Bridge
So we have some difficulties with understanding God’s words here, and we’ll get back to these issues — but in the meantime, let’s not lose the forest in the trees. Let’s step back for a moment and try to take a larger perspective. Let’s ask ourselves: Bottom line, what seems to be the overall message of the speech? What is the general tone of the Almighty’s words? What is He “more or less” saying?
Well, given the placement of this speech — it comes a sentence before Cain murders his brother — it seems logical that the Lord may have been trying to “talk Cain off the bridge,” as it were. The Almighty was surely aware of the dark deeds of which Cain was capable. Perhaps the speech was a last attempt to shake Cain into seeing a different view of reality, into seeing an alternative course of action besides the dark path that lay ominously before him.
But if the speech is an attempt to “talk Cain off the bridge,” God’s tactics seem puzzling. The verse tells us that Cain was angry and he was crestfallen. Well, if someone you knew was angry and crestfallen, and you were trying to get them to reconsider some kind of disastrous, irreversible step they were about to take, how would you go about it? What kind of tone would you adopt?
Speaking for myself, I would probably try to sound empathetic and reassuring. Its OK, I understand how you feel, it must be hard, something along these lines. But that is hardly the tone of God’s speech. Instead, God forcefully challenges Cain. As a matter of fact, He goes so far as to question Cain’s right to feel the way he does, “Why are you angry and why has your face fallen?”
When I was growing up, I was often told, “You can’t help how you feel; but you can help what you do about it.” If you feel angry, fine; but, you don’t have to act on that anger. In the words of His speech, though, the Almighty seems to take issue with that advice. Apparently, Cain can help how he feels about it. Cain is crestfallen and he is angry — but he shouldn’t be. His perspective needs to change.
Why is it so vital that Cain abandon his current set of feelings? Because, I think, those feelings indicate something. They indicate that Cain has misinterpreted what has gone on between himself and God. And only by correcting his view of the situation, will Cain be able to steer himself away from a course that leads straight to murder.
How Do You Change Your Feelings?
Anger and depression make good bed-fellows; they often go together. The reason, perhaps, is that each is basically a passive emotional response. Anger and depression take for granted that the source of our woes is located outside ourselves; that we have been betrayed by others, or have been victimized by forces beyond our control. And while this may sometimes be the case, it is often an exaggeration. More often than not, we do have choices available to us, even if we are not always prepared to recognize them. Once we see this, our anger and depression begin to evaporate.
Harriett Lerner, in her book, The Dance of Anger, paints a hypothetical scenario that nicely illustrates the point. Imagine that you and your roommate have a pet kitten. One night, the kitten wakes you with some strange meowing. It is two-thirty in the morning and you are concerned. You turn to your roommate, and a conversation ensures between the two of you that goes roughly like this:
You: “She really doesn’t sound right. I think we should call the vet.”
Your Roommate: “What do you mean call the vet? It’s the middle of the night!”
You: “I don’t know. She really sounds pretty bad. I think we should call the vet…”
Your Roommate: “Look, just go back to sleep. She probably swallowed a hairball.”
You: “Are you sure we just shouldn’t call the vet?”
Your Roommate: “Goodnight!”
You both go back to sleep, and when you wake up in the morning, the cat is dead.
Now, take a deep breath and ask yourself: How are you going to feel towards your roommate, when morning comes and you discover the lifeless kitten lying next to your bed?
You are likely to be enraged.
“It’s all your fault! Here I was, telling you that we should take the kitten to the vet, and all you could think about was getting a good night’s sleep! And now, the kitten is dead…”
Whether you like it or not, though, the reality is otherwise. You were not the victim of circumstances beyond your control here. You were not betrayed by your sleep-seeking roommate. You had free will. There were choices open to you, choices you refused to grab hold of. No one forced you to get permission from your roommate before calling the vet; you could have made whatever calls you wanted to. If you feel angry or depressed here, it is because you choose to see yourself as helpless, as a victim of your lousy, insensitive roommate. But in fact, you weren’t a victim at all.
Cain, in feeling angry, locates the source of his problem outside of himself, in God. No one can control God, and as long as that’s the problem, you’re nothing but a victim. But that wasn’t the reality. The core of his problem lay entirely in the choices Cain was himself making, in the nature of the relationship he was trying to build with God, and this was a realm entirely within his control. The first step off the bridge, then, is letting go and of anger and depression, and reclaiming this element of control.
The Perils of Neutrality
So Cain, all in all, is being given an antidote to his feelings of anger and depression. You have choices, God is saying, the ball is in your court. “If you do well, then, lift up!” What had been downcast before — Cain’s face (“why has your face fallen…”) — can now be raised. Cain will be able to look himself in the eye, as it were, when he stares at the mirror in the morning. When we seize on our power to act in a positive way, we begin to lift up our faces again, in the ultimate gesture of self-respect.
Of course, when there are choices available, there is always the option of choosing poorly, too, “And if you do not do well, sin lies crouching at the door…”
Earlier, we got stuck on this phrase. How could the consequence of sin, be vulnerability to sin? But when the verse talks about “not doing well,” who says that’s the same as committing a sin? After all, the text doesn’t say “if you do evil,” then sin lies crouching at the door; instead, it says “if you do not do well.” Not doing good isn’t the same thing as doing evil. It is simply being neutral.
Maybe God is saying something like the following: Why has your face fallen? If you are active; if you seek out the good — you can lift up your face. And if you are neutral — if you do not act positively — you can’t tread water. While being neutral is not itself an evil — it leaves you vulnerable to evil. Sin lies crouching at the door, and even the most well intentioned neutral party can still be become its prey.
An interesting speech, we might conclude. And let’s even grant, for the moment, that we are right in interpreting it this way. But still, we have yet to address a nagging question: Why does Cain need to hear this, right now? It’s all very nice, these words about neutrality and activism, about vulnerability to sin. It sure seems like an inspiring thing to put in the Bible somewhere — say, tucked comfortably in a suitable corner of Deuteronomy. But what is it doing right here, right now? Beyond the general idea that Cain can act if he chooses to, how are these words about neutrality and vulnerability uniquely relevant to Cain and to the situation he finds himself in?
Back to Eden
In the coming articles, we’ll explore that, and begin to put into place the final pieces of our look at this story. But since I’m in such a great mood just now, I’m going to leave you with a little tip. A key to understanding all this comes, I think, from some surprising language buried within God’s speech.
Earlier in this series, we had noted a striking montage of connections between the Cain and Abel story and mankind’s expulsion from Eden. Both Adam and Cain hear the Divine question, “ayeh?” Both Adam and Cain express fear and hide from God; both Adam and Cain suffer exile, and both are condemned to experience difficulty in farming.
But the connections between the Cain story and the aftermath of the Tree of Knowledge do not end here. A hidden parallel between Cain and the Eden narrative lies buried in the text of the speech we have just studied. If you re-read the speech carefully, you’ll realize that you have heard its words before. An entire section of God’s speech to Cain is almost a direct quote from something that God had told someone else, not thirty verses earlier.
Of all the Eden connections we have seen thus far, this one is the most shocking and disturbing — at least when you first see it. If you find the parallel, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. But in the mystery of this last Eden connection lies the key, I think, to really understanding what God was telling Cain in the moments before Abel’s murder.
This article is excerpted from Rabbi Fohrman’s new book, “The Beast that Crouches at the Door: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Beyond.” To purchase a copy visit www.jewishtextstudy.org
Rabbi Fohrman is resident scholar at the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies. He has taught Biblical Themes as an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University, and has served as a senior editor on ArtScroll’s Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud. He is currently spending a year in Israel, consulting for Israel’s Ministry of Education.