The City of Cain

In an unimaginative but happy manner, I quote from Alan de Benoist’s On Being A Pagan:

The following episode introduces Abel (Hével) and Cain to the scene. “Time goes by and it happens that Cain presents products of the earth in offering to Yahweh and Abel, for his part, offers the first born from his flocks, and even their fat. Now the lord accepts Abel and his offering. But he did not accept Cain or his, and this vexed Cain greatly… Cain spoke to his brother Abel: ‘Let’s go outside’ and when they found themselves in the countryside, Cain hurled himself on Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:3-8).

The initially obscure reasons for Yahweh’s choice of Abel are clarified when the offerings from each brother are examined. Abel’s murder by Cain in fact involves two different lifestyles. Abel is a nomadic shepherd, whereas Cain is a farmer (Genesis 4:2). The first extends into the new society, born of the Neolithic revolution, a typically pre-Neolithic lifestyle. In continued loyalty to desert tradition, he has formed no attachment to any particular land. The second, Cain, is the man of the Neolithic revolution, the revolution that allows man to more clearly assert his mastery over the world, to subjugate the world more fully as an object. As a farmer, he is by that very status rooted, attached to the soil that Yahweh has cursed because of Adam (Genesis 3:17). To borrow an expression I used earlier, he is displaying an “incestuous” attachment toward the earth. He has chosen, as Lévinas puts it, Totality as opposed to Infinity, the “pagan” conquest of space against the Hebrew possession of time as eternity. For this attachment to a given soil, rootedness, bears within itself the warning signs of everything the Bible stigmatizes as idolatry. These include the distinct cities, patriotism, the state and reasons of state, the frontier that distinguishes citizen from foreigner, the vocation of soldier, politics, and so forth. Whereas by his sacrifice, Abel shows he keeps his spirit totally open for Yahweh, Cain’s sacrifice asks God to sanctify the kind of existence that has earned God’s disapproval because it is a manifestation of the increased autonomy man is seeking. Just like Adam, Cain reveals his pride, and this is why he is condemned. In fact the principal cause of Cain’s condemnation is not Abel’s murder, but Cain’s refusal to humble himself by repenting. Questioned by Yahweh (“Where is your brother Abel?”), Cain returns the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 9:4). The underlying message is that it was Yahweh’s responsibility to guard him. Cain, the farmer, is condemned to wander. He is exiled to a nomadic existence—expelled back to “nature” for having sought to give himself a super-nature. Adam had been similarly condemned for having placed himself above the Law. What is involved in each incident is a pejoratively unidealized nature. Adam’s transformation into a true human is accompanied by the transformation of nature into a “jungle.” In the case of Cain, the nomadic life is converted into exile. Cain then declares, “My punishment is too heavy to bear” (Genesis 4:13). But all he means by this is that the condemnation he has been struck with is overly harsh. “Pride” again.

Cain is in fact the preeminent civilizing hero. If we are the “children of Cain”—a rather exaggerated term, as Adam and Eve also engendered Seth—it is as people of culture and civilization. After his condemnation Cain in fact founded the first city, which he named after his son Enoch (Genesis 4:17). By this same act, he doubled his transgression; first because by all evidence he was seeking to make a name for himself, next, because biblical tradition condemns “vanity,” by virtue of which he named a city after a person. This name Enoch is significant itself, as it is built on a root that means “inauguration, beginning,” as well as “man.” In other words, Cain was seeking to substitute a specifically human beginning for the absolute beginning represented by the Creation. He set up his own beginning in opposition to Yahweh’s and thereby profaned the notion. Cain did not restrict himself to engendering urban civilization, the one where history is made, but he also forms the first link in a long chain of inventors of civilization. One of his descendants, Yubal, was the first musician. Another, Tubal-Cain is the ancestor of smiths, and it is to him we owe the discovery of metallurgy. In this respect he is considered to be the first specialist in the art of war, a fact that of course earns him God’s personal disapproval.

It is another descendant of Cain, Nimrod, the “hunter”—in other words the conqueror—son of Kush, to whom Genesis symbolically attributes the construction of Babylon, Nineveh, Accad, Rehoboth, Calah, Resen, and so forth (10:8-12). This is certainly not by chance. Jacques Ellul, in an insightful book, furthermore, has found that the Bible lays a veritable curse on the city, as it represents the place where man is most apt to sovereignly declare his free destiny.

“The city,” Ellul notes, “is a direct consequence of Cain’s murder and Cain’s refusal to accept God’s protection … Just as history began with the murder of Abel, civilization begins with the city and everything it represents.” Again what the city stands for is roots, territory, the frontier, power—everything that allows a man to make a name for himself. And also, of course, “idolatry,” because every city seeks its own protective deity; the result is a multiplicity of gods. “The curse,” Ellul goes on to say, “is pronounced right at the start. It forms part of the town’s very being; it is embedded within the framework of its history. The city is a cursed locale because of its very origin, its structure, withdrawal, its quest for gods. Every city in its own development resumes this curse and tolerates it, for it is one of the constituent elements of every city.” The large city is itself a manifestation of “pride.” Nineveh declared itself as “without equal!” (Zephaniah 2:15). As did Babylon (Isiah 47:8). In Egypt the people of Israel had already been toiling to build the cities of Pithom and Ramses (Exodus 1:11). They later suffered exile in Babylon, which explains the special execration devoted to that city. In Babylon, writes Jacques Ellul, “all cities are encompassed and synthesized. It is truly the queen of cities and the yardstick by which all other cities are measured. When the wrath of God is unleashed, it is the first to be struck. When it is struck, all other cities are struck with it … Everything said of Babylon in reality relates to all cities in their entirety. Like all cities, Babylon is the center of civilization. Commerce toils for the city; industry develops inside it; fleets ply the waves for it; it is where beauty and luxury bloom; it is where power is built…” The Apocalypse transformed Babylon into the “famous harlot” (Revelation 17:1) and the “mother of harlots and the abominations of the earth” (17:5). An angel makes the announcement that it will be consumed by flames: “It has fallen; it has fallen; Babylon the Great has fallen!” (14:8 and 18:2). Yahweh also condemned Nineveh, Tyre, Damascus, and Gaza (Amos 1:3-10). Jericho was destroyed in “miraculous” fashion. The sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were razed in the most appalling manner. The Apocalypse denounces Rome as “the beast of the sea” and wears upon its “seven heads” (the seven hills) “blasphemous titles” (Revelation 13:1-2). It utters “proud words”; those who worship it will be subject to the torment of “fire and brimstone,” and the smoke from this torment will rise aloft “for centuries upon centuries” (14:10-11).

Published in: on March 30, 2007 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment