Saturday, December 29, 2007

Vulgate Verse: my brother's keeper

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I have the pleasure of getting to comment on some of these verses here, focusing on the verses that seem to me to have a special significance for religious literacy and topics of general interest, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

The phrase I wanted to comment on today is a famous statement in the Book of Genesis, 4: Num custos fratris mei sum? This is famously rendered in the King James translation as: Am I my brother's keeper? Although the use of the word "keeper" here has a somewhat archaic feel to it, its use in King James has exerted a decisive influence in English Bible translations, as you can see from this page showing different English renderings of Genesis 4:9.

The story is that of Cain and Abel, two brothers, the sons of Adam and Eve. Abel is a shepherd, while Cain is a farmer. When they offer sacrifices to God, God accepts the sacrifice of Abel with favor, but he rejects the sacrifice of Cain. Here is what happens next:
And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand. When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me. And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.
It is one of the most amazing stories in the Bible, all told within just a few verses, and giving rise to this very famous Biblical saying, "Am I my brother's keeper?" By negative implication the answer is, yes, you are your brother's keeper.

This is one of the many stories from the Hebrew Bible which also figures in the Koran, although the brothers are not given names in this account from Surah 5, The Table:
Relate to them exactly the story of the sons of Adam when they each offered an offering; accepted from the one of them, and not accepted from the other. The one said, "I will surely slay thee." Said the other, "God only accepted from those that fear Him. Even if thou stretch forth thine hand against me to slay me, I will not stretch forth my hand against thee to slay thee. Truly I fear God the Lord of the Worlds. Yea, rather would I that thou shouldest bear my sin and thine own sin, and that thou become an inmate of the Fire: for that is the recompense of the unjust doers." And his passion led him to slay his brother: and he slew him; and he became one of those who perish.
You can find various English translations of the Koran, along with an Arabic text, at Sacred Texts Archive.

You can also find at Sacred Texts Archive one of my favorite books for learning about extra-Biblical stories and legends: Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews. As you would imagine from a story as striking and dramatic as that of Cain and Abel, there are many ancillary accounts of the story.

For example, one legend tells us that Cain was not the son of Adam at all, but the son of Satan (in an attempt to explain such marked differences between these two brothers, and Cain's evil proclivities). Here is what Ginzberg reports: "After the fall of Eve, Satan, in the guise of the serpent, approached her, and the fruit of their union was Cain, the ancestor of all the impious generations that were rebellious toward God, and rose up against Him."

There is also an ingenious story of why the two brothers were assigned such different occupations by their father - it was an attempt by Adam to prevent Abel's death, which Eve saw prophetically in a dream: "The slaying of Abel by Cain did not come as a wholly unexpected event to his parents. In a dream Eve had seen the blood of Abel flow into the mouth of Cain, who drank it with avidity, though his brother entreated him not to take all. When she told her dream to Adam, he said, lamenting, "O that this may not portend the death of Abel at the hand of Cain!" He separated the two lads, assigning to each an abode of his own, and to each he taught a different occupation. Cain became a tiller of the ground, and Abel a keeper of sheep. It was all in vain. In spite of these precautions, Cain slew his brother."

In the spare account provided by Genesis, it is possible to feel a bit sorry for Cain, when his offering to God was slighted in favor of Abel's (when I was a child, I never understood just why it was that God would reject Cain's offering, preferring the shepherd's fruits to those of the farmer). This is obviously something that has troubled others in their understanding of the story, and Ginzberg reports this extra-Biblical detail which would explain the problem: "Abel selected the best of his flocks for his sacrifice, but Cain ate his meal first, and after he had satisfied his appetite, he offered unto God what was left over, a few grains of flax seed."

As you saw in the version of the story in the Koran, the confrontation between Cain and Abel in the field, before Cain murders his brother, provides a dramatic opportunity for dialogue between the two of them, even though the Book of Genesis does not tell us what was said. Ginzberg reports a Jewish legend which, like the Koranic version, has the brothers engage in a debate in the field. This version also explains just what Abel was doing there in Cain's field to begin with:
One day a sheep belonging to Abel tramped over a field that had been planted by Cain. In a rage, the latter called out, "What right hast thou to live upon my land and let thy sheep pasture yonder?" Abel retorted: "What right hast thou to use the products of my sheep, to make garments for thyself from their wool? If thou wilt take off the wool of my sheep wherein thou art arrayed, and wilt pay me for the flesh of the flocks which thou hast eaten, then I will quit thy land as thou desirest, and fly into the air, if I can do it." Cain thereupon said, "And if I were to kill thee, who is there to demand thy blood of me?" Abel replied: "God, who brought us into the world, will avenge me. He will require my blood at thine hand, if thou shouldst slay me. God is the Judge, who will visit their wicked deeds upon the wicked, and their evil deeds upon the evil. Shouldst thou slay me, God will know thy secret, and He will deal out punishment unto thee." These words but added to the anger of Cain, and he threw himself upon his brother.
In Genesis, the text reads simply: "And Cain talked with Abel his brother." As so often in the Hebrew Bible, there is a hint of more: if Cain talked with Abel, what did they say to each other? There is a gap here, a gap which the extra-Biblical stories and legends naturally try to fill.

Many people tend to assume that there are two camps in the field of Biblical interpretation: literal reading and figurative reading. Speaking for myself, however, I am more interested by far in this other way of looking at the Bible, studying the relationship between intra-Biblical stories and those extra-Biblical stories, legends beyond the Bible which both expose the gaps of the Biblical text and attempt to fill them.

The book I used in writing this post, Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews, is available online, and it is a marvelous place to begin to study the extra-Biblical storytelling tradition. For more, check out any and all of the marvelous books by James Kugel, such as The Bible As It Was - an amazing and delightful feat of scholarship and storytelling.

Meanwhile, for an image, here is Jan van Eyck's rendering of the slaying of Abel for his painting the Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432. I may be wrong, but it looks to me like Cain is slaying Abel with a jawbone - perhaps an echo of the jawbone of an ass from the story of Samson? What do you think?

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