What it means to be a marginal

Andrew Parker looks again at the myth of Cain and Abel and comes to a shocking conclusion.

What it means to be a marginal

Most people, including scholars, think the story of Cain and Abel is about two brothers one who was a farmer and the other a shepherd but this is not the case.

​The name Abel, meaning ephemeral, makes it perfectly clear his role in the story is simply to get blown away. This means the story is not about two brothers who as a result of economic diversification become rivals. Rather it is a story about a man called Cain who becomes a marginal as a result of killing his brother. This makes him a pariah in the community where he is living, as Yahweh (Cain’s conscience) is swift to point out. So Cain is forced to become a marginal living in the land of Nod, a mythical place of utter despair where there are no prospects of any sort since nothing grows. (What a perfectly marvellous, succinct and evocative way this is of bringing to mind the condition of the marginal. I find it deeply moving. However, I imagine that to appreciate it fully you would have to be a marginal yourself). Contemplating his fate, Cain is naturally inconsolable. He cries out in anguish that it is more than he can bear. Yahweh is driving him out of the community to a place where he will be forgotten even by Yahweh himself. To cap it all there is the very real prospect that anyone who finds him will kill him in revenge.

In later accounts concerning the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) the writer of this story often describes moments when a character he is talking about suddenly finds himself or herself marginalized and it is always at such moments that Yahweh reveals himself to them, thereby showing that he is the god of the marginals and therefore their god. This is precisely what Yahweh does here. He begins by telling Cain that he couldn’t be more wrong in thinking that as a marginal he will be forgotten. To make his point unmistakably clear Yahweh puts a mark on Cain showing that, as a marginal, Cain now is his personal property in a way that he wasn’t previously when he was an honest and law-abiding person with a place in society like everyone else. This, of course, is a point which scholars as law-abiding folk with a place in society find quite unacceptable so they either avoid it or else explain it away in any number of different and ingenious ways. However, their problems are not over for there is more to come!

Doomfully, Yahweh declares that anyone who dares to kill Cain in revenge will be severely punished, and not just severely punished but punished by being given the maximum sentence imaginable: death seven times over. The point being made is that there is nothing, but NOTHING in the whole wide universe that is worse than attacking a marginal, for marginals belong to Yahweh as god of the marginals. I am aware of course that people will object to what I have just written pointing out that in Genesis 4. 13-14 Cain specifically says:

“My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

Doesn’t this mean that Yahweh punishes Cain by banishing him? Well, no it doesn’t. Punishment is an authoritarian act that adds a supplementary woe to the suffering already experienced by a criminal whose crime has been uncovered. If you read verses 11 and 12 carefully you will see that Yahweh does not punish Cain with banishment. As I have indicated above he simply spells out the inevitable consequences of Cain’s act given that it has become public knowledge: for now, of course, Cain cannot remain in the community with all the exchanges with neighbours that this implies.

In our society we would have dealt with the matter by putting Cain in prison but there were no prisons in those days. Consequently, discovery of his crime of itself renders Cain a marginalized outcast. Being civilisation officials and consequently judging Cain to be beyond the pale, scholars have traditionally translated the Hebrew word describing Cain’s appalling predicament as ‘punishment’. However, honesty has meant that even they have felt it necessary to cover themselves by adding a note in the margin saying that the actual Hebrew word used does not in fact mean punishment but rather ‘shameful condition’ or ‘guilt.’ So, no, Cain is not punished by Yahweh. However, as we have just seen, law-abiding folk (like us) who would take revenge on people like Cain most certainly are threatened with punishment and how!

Of course it’s not just biblical scholars who, as modern day revisionists, persist in rubbishing the terrifying point the Hebrew myth-maker is making. Their ancient counterpart – the priestly writer of Genesis 1 – did the very same thing. He was most probably one of the administrators of the post-exilic community, a government official working on behalf of his Persian overlords with responsibility for good order. So it’s natural he couldn’t accept the mythmaker’s point that god-fearing civilisation folk who take revenge on Cain are a thousand times more guilty than the marginal himself. Because of this he lost no time in inserting a ‘corrective’ in Genesis 9.6:

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.

What we find here is the time honoured, conservative ‘image of god’ formulation – with its wretched, authoritarian civilisation-perspective – used to cover up and obscure the mythmaker’s mind-blowingly important, marginal stance.

Image: ‘‘Cain Killing Abel’‘, mid-17th century Italian School oil painting, Honolulu Academy of Arts


1 On 15/01/2013 edward conder wrote:

I suspect that this Blog relates to such texts as “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and so on,  or to the concept that God relates to the little children more than to those capable of looking after themselves; for we have to become like little children to enter God’s kingdom.  Do we not? Is it not when we give up (can not manage whatever situation) that God takes a hand?
I wonder if “the marginalised” are merely an example of these in a more forthright guise.
Yet I wonder if God gave us what he gave us for us to make best use of or to ignore and turn back to His loving (but perhaps frustrated) arms, demanding attention ahead of our brothers and sisters.
I wonder if I am insensitised by many years in the main-stream to the needs and aspirations of those on the fringes.
Is it God that we hear in the wilderness or merely the howl of the hyena and the pangs of starvation?

2 On 29/01/2013 Dafydd wrote:

You make a number of good points. But please remember that Jesus said ‘whoever lives by the sword shall die by the sword’. It is also possible to read “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” as having the same meaning.

And also remember, that prison is a form of banishment for nations that lack antipodean penal colonies.

However, the thrust of what you write seems to be in truth. Because the ‘mark of Cain’, in popular thought, is not a stamp of ownership and protection, but a branding of guilt.

God is the God of the marginalised, of the widows and the fatherless.

3 On 18/03/2013 Andrew Parker wrote:

Edward wouldn’t you say it’s important to understand a story from the Jewish Bible out of itself without reading later stuff from the New Testament back into it? That said it seems to me you are right in saying that all of us civilisation folk are insensitised to what comes from the margins. That’s what makes the Bible so important wouldn’t you say…  because it too comes from the margins: as a voice from the wilderness?

Dafydd you can of course read the Bible any way you want but my interest is to try and read it as it was intended to be read. The ancient Mesopotamian texts make it quite clear that the imago dei is a conservative/authoritarian construct and the priestly writer of Genesis 1 makes it equally clear that this was how he was using it. It seems to me what Jesus was talking about was happily something quite different: the need to adopt a non-coercive political approach.

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