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Cain and Abel and Ishmael


By Vol-E (previously posted elsewhere)

Daniel Quinn's groundbreaking book Ishmael offers a fascinating, non-traditional analysis of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. 

First, the Biblical account: 

In Genesis Chapter 4, Verses 1-12, Eve gives birth to Cain, who grows to be a farmer, and Abel, who tends flocks.  Both brothers bring offerings to God, but only Abel's portions from his flocks are favored, while Cain's offerings of the fruit of the soil are not.  This leads to quick resentment on the part of Cain, who lures his brother to a field and kills him.  God quickly discerns what has happened, though Cain initially lies to cover it ("Am I my brother's keeper?").  God puts Cain under a curse ("Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground" - v.10 and "When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you." - v.12).  

The reader may find this startling, since our 21st-century culture tends to look more favorably upon people who farm than on those whose livelihood involves killing animals.  It is easy to become confused and wonder why Cain, the farmer, turned out to more violent than his brother, who by necessity was skilled at slaughter. 

In Ishmael, a teacher and his student ponder the historical developments that have brought the earth to the brink of destruction.  We currently suffer food shortages, land shortages, climate instability and huge gaps between rich and poor, both in terms of nations and individuals. Like many scholarly works, this book seeks to establish a link between a Biblical account and what we experience in the present day. 

Ishmael's repeated theme is that of the Takers and the Leavers.  Leavers represent groups of people who are often referred to as Natives, Aborigines, or "savages."  They exist on a subsistence level, killing animals to survive and respecting the land enough to limit planting and harvesting.  These practices essentially leave the earth the same when people depart as when they arrive -- just as many of us were taught to do when visiting campgrounds, forests, and parks. 

Takers, on the other hand, seek to tame the earth for their own purposes.  "Taking" is a uniquely human practice, since animals do not farm or kill other animals for material gain.  Takers are humans who perceive mankind as the "crown of creation."  They believe that until humans appeared on earth, God's creation was incomplete.  Similarly, they believe that mankind is the end product of creation.  There will be nothing new after us. 

Ishmael proposes that this assumption is merely that; little more than a myth.  And because it is possible that the earth has the potential to give birth in its time to some new configuration of life, humankind is incredibly short-sighted in the way it approaches nature and its resources.  We have become a civilization of takers, rather than leavers, with a very real danger that once we are through with the earth, it will have nothing left to give to anyone, including us. 

And so we return to the story of Cain and Abel.  Abel represents the last vestige of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  Cain represents the newer version of humanity -- the one that captures, confines and reins in vast acreages of land for his own use, creating property, driving off or killing animals that threaten crops.  Ishmael postulates that Cain and Abel is actually a symbolic narrative from the time when man began to practice agriculture.  The farmers, advancing mile after mile as the centuries passed, sought to capture the wild lands and adapt them for use by humans.  The hunter-gatherers were slowly driven to extinction -- a pattern matched by the conquest of "savages" by "civilized" humans. 

While the traditional interpretation of Cain and Abel can tell us about the dangers of sibling rivalry, it is fascinating to look at it through a wider lens and reflect on our age-old battle for survival on this planet -- and how the things we do to "tame" the earth may ultimately destroy us all. 


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