The previous Chronicle left us at the moment of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. This episode has given rise to countless “anthropological” interpretations. But what interests us is less parallels with human prehistory than to the sense we can make of the expulsion and its succeeding developments as providing the bases for fundamental anthropological understanding. How does the account provided in the first eleven chapters of Genesis parallel and enlighten the model of human origin provided by our own originary hypothesis?
The transition from the biblically prehistorical to the historical story of the Hebrews beginning with Abram/Abraham goes through two principal stages:
(1) (Genesis 4-7) The period following the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden begins with Cain’s murder of Abel. After this, even the introduction of a new line with Seth fails to prevent the increasing dominance of evil and violence. God becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his creation, and finally puts an end to this phase with the Flood, sparing only Noah and his family.
(2) (Genesis 8-11) After the Flood, the tribes that issue from the three sons of Noah correspond recognizably to the “races of man” of which the Hebrews were aware. But before their history can be pursued in recognizably human terms, in response to the projected Tower of Babel that embodies man’s attempt to reach/replace heaven, God intervenes to diversify (“confound”) human languages, with the result that the different peoples cannot join forces and are “scattered” over the earth (11:3-9)**.
To summarize, we have (1) creation in “paradisal” conditions; (2) Adam and Eve’s disobedience, punished by expulsion into mortality and suffering; (3) Cain’s murder and the ensuing domination of evil, punished by annihilation in the Flood, starting over with Noah; (4) “utopian” human arrogance at Babel, punished by “confounding their language.” After this final punishment, humanity has become pretty much as we recognize it, and we are ready for the specific history of Abraham and the Hebrews.
Adam and Eve, expelled from paradise, are already recognizably human, having been shorn of their prelapsarian innocence. What then is the anthropological significance of these subsequent divine interventions, which have no conceivable basis in historical events?
Cain and Abel, the archetypal frères ennemis—although the text never suggests that Abel was the enemy of Cain—begin postlapsarian human history in such a way as to insure humanity’s moral corruption. Cain may have repented his crime, as the rabbis suggest, but his example, as illustrated by his descendant Lamech (4:18-24), is characterized by the use of weapons and the absence of any compunction in exercising forceful domination. Lamech is uniquely characterized as having taken two wives, and of having an example of his speech recorded, that of his triumphal song in 4:23-24, where he boasts that he killed a man (or two) to avenge a lesser injury. It is only following this episode that Adam and Eve have a third child, Seth, whose line will eventually produce Noah, the new beginning of the human race, but cannot be prevented from mixing with that of Cain.
Cain’s resentment is aroused when his offering of “the fruit of the ground” is rejected, whereas Abel’s of “the firstlings of his flock” is met with “respect” (4:3-5). For GA, as opposed to Girard (see La violence et le sacré, p. 17ff), the superiority of animal over plant “sacrifice” resides not in the animal’s ability to substitute for a human “emissary” victim, but simply in the fact that (large) animals, unlike food made from plants, must be centrally divided among the group, as we hypothesize concerning the transition from Alpha-Beta organization to the centered order of the first humans.
This does not, however, explain the asymmetry of the two brothers, especially given that Cain is the elder. Why is the more honored role assigned to the younger brother? (The parallel with Esau and Jacob in Chapter 25 repeats this anomaly.) No doubt because precedence risks arousing resentment when it is not honored. Indeed, the text suggests that, whatever its anthropological grounding, God’s preference of Abel’s sacrifice is intended as a moral test for Cain. In 4:6-7, God questions Cain’s anger and warns him against sin, suggesting that his offering’s future success depends on whether Cain “does well,” and consequently that its rejection had reflected a past sinful action or state.
What Cain exemplifies, in contrast to Eve’s originary resentment against God, is the potential violence of resentment against other humans. The solution embodied by Lamech and his armament-making family is to impose the rule of the stronger: might makes right.
We should take seriously the rabbinical insistence on Cain’s repentance, that the “mark of Cain” is not a curse but, on the contrary, a sign of this repentance, which renders Cain invulnerable to what Girard will call la violence réciproque. But as Lamech’s example makes clear, Cain’s personal destiny does not eliminate the problem caused by the absence of a general prohibition of murder. Rather than understanding Cain’s and Abel’s divergent success in terms of the superiority of meat-offerings over plant-offerings, we should rather see the first murder as an indication that the obligation to make ritual offerings to God does not in itself provide a sufficient source of human cohesion.
Even the birth of (presumably virtuous) Seth and the progress of his descendants is insufficient to resist the evil introduced by Cain. The intermarriages of the “sons of God” with the “daughters of men” (6:2), including those in which the descendants of Cain and those of Seth mate with the quasi-prehistoric Nephilim (6:4), produce a humanity whose evil nature (6:5) makes God repent of his creation and vow to destroy it.
Something more must apparently be added to the human formula for it to be able to resist the dominance of the Cain-gene—dominant because, in the absence of a communal prohibition against resentful violence, the stronger will dominate the weaker. The failure of God’s original prohibition in Eden had left postlapsarian humanity without transcendental guidance.
When Cain’s offering is rejected, God’s admonition to “do well” has no power to move him. Cain should have willed to “rule over” sin (4:7), but God could not force him to do so. Seth’s line, in contrast, “call[ed] upon the name of the Lord” (4:26). Yet they could not be prevented from mixing with the Cainites and being dominated by them, given that no universally accepted law prevented the latter from continuing to enforce the rule of the strongest. Only a transcendental prohibition, but this time, one enforced by humans themselves, could prevent this, and for this, God would have to restart his creation.
Anthropological necessity cannot of course explain every detail of the biblical story; what is important is that all the necessary components of the human community be covered in one way or another. How then does the Noachide covenant improve on the human world as inaugurated by the expulsion of the primal couple?
God had loosed the couple into the world without any principle other than to keep themselves alive; this corresponds to the zero-degree society that is Hobbes’ and everyone else’s state of nature, without prejudging the quality of the lives of the people—whatever their other Hobbesian deficits, they were in any case not “short”!
In contrast with the absence of such commands to Adam and Eve, God gives two ethical instructions to Noah. In 9:4-5, he demands the “blood” of every animal (leading to the provision of kashrut that obliges all meat to be drained of its blood), and above all, the “blood” of every human life, in the sense that was missing from the world in which Cain killed Abel. To make this prohibition on taking life explicit, this accounting of the “blood” of each man is followed in 9:6 by the first command that can be equated to a human law, that of the sixth Commandment, expressed not however as a divine interdiction, but as a promise of vengeance: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”
In hunter-gatherer societies, the families of murder victims were normally able to come together to avenge them even in the absence of a judicial system (see the discussion of Richard Wrangham’s The Goodness Paradox in Chronicle 614). But as we have seen, the “primitive” society into which Adam and Eve are expelled is already that of sedentary agriculture and pastoralism. In such a society, property rights and other elements of order cannot be maintained without a judicial system. Hence in the Noachide covenant, of the series of seven commandments that the rabbis found implicit in this text, the first demands the establishment of such a system. For the Torah, the tribal procedure of vengeance for murder was indistinguishable from Cainite lawlessness.
As an expression of his confidence that this sole law of blood-responsibility—which includes precisely what Cain had denied, the responsibility of each for the blood of his brother (or brother-man, as one translation has it)—will suffice to constitute a viable human society, God promises not to repeat the destruction of the Flood.
Yet God’s final tweak to the system is by no means trivial. After the domination of the “natural” human community by violence, the society that emerges following the Noachide commandments comes to err in the opposite direction: by an excess of the hubris occasioned by unproblematic human solidarity.
The world of the Cainites had lacked the ability to form complex societies; Lamech’s song corresponded to a world of families or tribes constantly at war. But a post-diluvian society in which sharing a common language allows humans not only to maintain peace in their local communities, but to avoid the broader problems occasioned by cultural and national diversity, interprets this facile human unity as a reason to do away with the transcendent altogether. It seeks rather to construct its own transcendence from within: to “make us a name” by constructing “a tower with its top in heaven” (11:4).
In answer to this challenge, by “confounding” their languages and “scattering them abroad,” God divides the human community, as it has historically been divided, not only into a variety of local communities, but a variety of languages, and by extension, of cultures, of nations, whose mutual cooperation cannot be, as had seemed possible at the outset of the Babel project, taken for granted.
What the Babel episode suggests from an anthropological perspective is that conflicts among cultures and nations, each with their own laws that permit them to function, cannot be prevented from arising. Hence God did not permit them, humanity would no longer remain as it is, but would, as Adam and Eve would have done had they remained in Eden, reach for the Tree of Life and seek to contest God’s transcendental status.
Not only do the members of individual societies need to create laws, beginning with “thou shalt not kill,” but peoples must learn to deal with cultural differences, as most clearly and fundamentally illustrated by different and mutually incomprehensible languages. We are indeed all “brother-humans,” but in order to realize this brotherhood, we require translators and mediators, and armies as well; we are not just one big happy family.
And as we have recently learned to our chagrin, the dream of global liberal democracy, however much it may be superior to the International Soviet shall be the human race, is far from having conceived of global institutions that would be capable of bringing it about. At this point, we should probably be satisfied if humanity neither destroys itself altogether nor falls into some form of global 2084.
These first eleven chapters of Genesis set the stage for the genuinely historical content of the Torah. The narrative that follows will be an attempt to depict a genuine sequence of historical events, albeit containing legendary and mythical material that make it less than fully reliable.
The prehistorical prologue is fundamentally different. Yet, in agreement with Girard, I would not call it mythical. We may distinguish between myth and what I will call for lack of a better term transcendental anthropology, according as each of them obey in spirit, or simply ignore, Ockham’s razor.
I think even this admittedly rapid analysis has sufficed to demonstrate that the biblical narrative makes a serious effort to explain the minimal qualities of la condition humaine. The Torah’s very limitation to One God should be understood in such terms. If what must be explained is transcendence, then it suffices to posit, or to believe in, a single agent of transcendence rather than a multiplicity of such agents. Once Ockham is forgotten, one is driven as in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but already in Homer, to invent “tales” of the interactions of the gods with each other and with mortals. In the process, the role of the transcendent as a necessary constituent of the human is forgotten.
I am not of course suggesting that this mode of writing is illegitimate, but that its anthropological ambitions are of a different nature from that of biblical anthropology. No one can say that the narrative domain that includes myth and fiction fails to convey anthropological insights other than those formulable in minimalist terms. But the minimalism that distinguishes the Torah from other accounts of the Creation makes it uniquely compatible with our own minimal hypothesis, which seeks to derive from our animal ancestry the transcendence that distinguishes us from other creatures. The two anthropologies are ideally suited, if I dare say, to collaborate.
This effort might well be fruitfully pursued into the biblical narrative that follows. For the moment, I hope this and the preceding Chronicle can stand as examples of the kind of religio-anthropological reflection that alone the formulation of a minimalist originary hypothesis makes possible.
**As in the previous Chronicle, the English translation is that of the second edition of The Pentateuch (J. H. Hertz, ed.; London, Soncino Press, 1980).