"Cain rose up against Abel": murder, mystery, and paradise lost.
While something of a literary mystery, then, Cain's slaying of Abel is simultaneously a theological mystery, as the human drama of brother against brother is entangled with and within the inscrutable ways of God. Karl Rahner begins his discussion of mystery as religious truth by establishing "mystery" as "one of the most important key-words of Christianity and its theology" (1000). Christian truths such as the Trinity, Incarnation, divine foreknowledge, and grace are theological mysteries; they are incomprehensible, that is, to human reason and are available to those of faith only through divine revelation, as St. Paul explained to the Ephesians: "By revelation [God] made known unto me the mystery" (Eph. 3:3). Within the story of fratricide in Genesis 4, however, theological mysteries must somehow be made to engage with the human drama so as to shape the presentation of God who is, after all, the major character in this murder mystery. As literary mystery Abel's murder necessarily poses a series of narrative problems that challenge the creative insights of all the story's redactors; as Christian mystery, however, Abel's murder poses theological problems that most seriously challenge those writers who acknowledge "the incomprehensible God who comes to us as mystery" (Rahner 1000). In the tableau that begins Adam's vision of the future before his expulsion from the Garden, John Milton achieves in Book 11 of Paradise Lost one of the most profoundly integrated of all the literary attempts to present the mystery that is the death of Abel. When Adam witnesses history's first ritual of worship sink into violent death and implores, "Is Piety thus and pure Devotion paid?" (11.452), he pronounces a question to which only mystery can truly respond (cf. Quinones 17-19).
To the simpler question of what Cain used as a murder weapon, the authorized rabbinical answer is either a staff or a stone, although several rabbis also contend that Cain strangled Abel (Midrash 188), as does Rogier Van Aerde in the 1941 Dutch novel titled Cain (109). The apocryphal Books of Adam and Eve record that Cain first beat Abel with a staff and then hit him with a stone "until his brains oozed out" (58). In Beowulf Cain, who is Grendel's ancestor, is reported to have "ingan briber, / faederen-maege" ("felled his own / brother with a sword" ). In the Genesis section of the early-thirteenth-century Histoire Ancienne, Cain wields a baston or truncheon as he kills Abel (Joslin 88). The weapon of choice in the several medieval English miracle plays presenting Abel's murder rather curiously becomes a jawbone. In those medieval plays in which Abel, while pious, is also often irritatingly preachy, a note of irony sometimes marks the moment of the murder. For example, as Cain in The Wakefield Mystery Plays fiercely silences Abel, he draws the point by saying, "Thus braying curs are chastised best" (82). In the Cornish Creacion of the World, the choice of weapon and the fatal injury's site neatly coincide: "Take that / you dirty outcast, / on the jaw with a jawbone? (95), shouts Cain as he kills his brother. (2) The stone returns as the conventional murder weapon with the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century biblical poets. Sieur DuBartas describes a stone "so huge / That in our age three men could hardly bouge" (389), and Abraham Cowley's allegorical figure of Envy, gleefully recalling Abel's murder, tells Lucifer that he saw Cain
... fling the stone, as if he meant, At once his Murder, and his Monument, And laught to see (for 'twas a goodly show) The Earth by her first Tiller fatned so. (8) (3)
Milton's Abel is also slain with a stone, but when the murderer in Paradise Lost strikes his brother "into the Midriff with a stone / That beat out life" (11.445-46), Milton abandons the traditions that had accumulated about another important lacuna in the biblical text. A head injury, not a chest injury, is most often assumed to have caused Abel's death, recurring, for example, in Jewish legend and in all of the English miracle plays. Lord George Byron's Cain "snatches from the altar" a "brand" that he slams into the side of Abel's head (243). In Van Aerde's novel death finally results from a wound to Abel's temple that Cain inflicts with his bare hands after he strangles Abel (110). The more recent 1997 trial novel Herein Lies the Tale: The First Case of Murder has Cain take the stone boundary marker at the edge of his field and reduce Abel's head to "a squashed melon" (Thomas 146), according to the archangel Michael, who serves as the prosecuting attorney. (4) It is, of course, much more than a desire to be original that explains Milton's decision to have Cain strike Abel in the "Midriff." The wound is to be associated with the field in which the murder occurs, for "I' th' midst" of that field "an Altar as the Land-mark stood" (11.432; my emphasis).
Indeed, Milton carefully and immediately details the physical appearance of the field as Adam's visionary experience begins, allotting to the field's description one-fourth of the first vision's total lines:
His eyes he op'n'd, and beheld a field, Part arable and tilth, whereon were Sheaves New reapt, the other part sheep-walks and folds; I' th' midst an Altar as the Land-mark stood Rustic, of grassy sward; thither anon A sweaty Reaper from his Tillage brought First Fruits, the green Ear, and the yellow Sheaf, Uncull'd, as came to hand; a Shepherd next More meek came with the Firstlings of his Flock Choicest and best; then sacrificing, laid The Inwards and thir Fat, with Incense strew'd, On the cleft Wood, and all due Rites perform'd. His Off'ring soon propitious Fire from Heav'n Consum'd with nimble glance, and grateful steam; The other's not, for his was not sincere; Whereat hee inly rag'd, and as they talk'd, Smote him into the Midriff with a stone That beat out life; he fell, and deadly pale Groan'd out his Soul with gushing blood effus'd. (11.429-47)
The altar in its center, not a stone boundary marker at its edge, is the "Landmark" in Milton's crime scene, (5) and that altar is "Rustic, of grassy sward,' its description poignantly recalling Adam's earlier lament to Michael that he had hoped to remain in the Garden despite the Fall:
So many grateful Altars I would rear Of grassy Turf, and pile up every Stone Of lustre from the brook, in memory, Or monument to Ages, and thereon Offer sweet smelling Gums and Fruits and Flow'rs. (11.323-27)
Centering his presentation of the murder of Abel as he does, Milton is suggestively figuring forth the concept that Ricardo J. Quinones develops: "Although differing in their directions, each category [of the Cain and Abel story] begins by addressing the fundamental proposition over which the theme presides, that is, the reality of a fracture at the basis of existence, a breach in its heart, and the correlative need for finding and promoting means of reconstitution" (239).
No altar is even mentioned, let alone described, in the original biblical presentation of Abel's death. In fact, the only place mentioned in Genesis 4 is "the field" where the murder occurs (8). Furthermore, in the Bible no place is assigned to the site of the sacrifices or to God's ensuing remarks to Cain; only the subsequent murder is situated in "the field." Is the site of the brothers' sacrifice in the Bible therefore also the site of God's chiding of Cain, as well as the site of the subsequent murder? In "The Killing of Abel" from the Wakefield cycle, the brothers offer sacrifices on a hill where God also chides Cain for his anger, but then explicit stage directions state that the brothers "leave the hill," and the murder occurs in "the field" (81). The Cornish Creacion has both the sacrifice and the killing appear to take place on Mount Tabor (91). In the play from the Chester cycle, Cain talks Abel into going afield away from the place of sacrifice (Emerson 851). DuBartas perhaps most boldly endeavors to particularize place in his rendition of the murder. In The Divine Weeks each of Adam's wealthy sons builds an altar, and each altar is on a separate mountain: "Now th' one in Cattle, th' other rich in graine, / On two steep mountaines build they Altars twaine" (388). The place of the murder in DuBartas' version is clearly removed from the place of the sacrifice and is rather ominously described. Cain draws his brother "with dissembled love ... far into a grove, / Upon the verdure of whose virgin-boughes / Bird had not pearcht, nor never beast did brouze" (389).
A Jewish understanding of the murder field, found in the Midrash Rabbah as well as in legend, converts the question about the relationship between the site of the first murder and the earlier site of the first sacrifice into an assertion that looks toward the future function of that dimly glimpsed field. The rabbis claim that the field where Cain murdered Abel was the future site of the Temple: "FIELD refers to nought but the Temple[;] as you read, Zion [the Temple] shall be plowed as a field (Micah III, 12)" (Midrash 187). "The place of offering which they chose was the spot whereon the altar of the Temple at Jerusalem stood later" (Ginzberg 107; see also Graves and Patai 91). Milton, it appears, adapts the midrash and the legend identifying the site of the first murder with the future site of the Temple by tightening his focus to the construction standing at the center of both--the altar. When Cain strikes Abel in the midriff with stony death, the nexus of altar-heart-stone thereby established assumes terribly ironic associations not only with other sequences in Paradise Lost but also with biblical texts such as Psalm 51:16-17: "For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou will not despise."
Giving unprecedented attention to describing both the field and the altar in its midst, Milton reveals less precise interest in that which seems most to intrigue other writers--Cain's motivation for murder. The Histoire Ancienne attributes envy and malice to Cain throughout his life: "Onques n'ama bien a faire ne droiture. Fel fu e enveious e de male maniere" ("Never was he good or just. He was evil, envious, and of bad intention" [Joslin 87]). While the biblical text also emphasizes anger as a motivation, that anger is evident only after God rejects Cain's sacrifice: "But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen?" (Gen. 4:5-6). In the Old English "Genesis A" God does not speak to Cain at this point, but when the ruler of angels ("Brego engla") and the king of all creatures ("cyning eallwihta") rejects his offering, Cain fills with anger. His, though, is an anger ennobled by grief, which fills his "hero's heart" more than his face and which renders the Anglo-Saxon Cain a tragic figure marked by dignity and deep-seated spiritual suffering:
paet waes torn were hefit aet heortan. Hygewaelm asteah beorne on breostum, blatende nid, yrre for aefstum. [That was grievous to the man oppressive to his heart. A swelling anger surged in the hero's heart, an ashen fury, a rage rooted in anger.] (32) (6)
In subsequent literary retellings of the first murder, Cain's anger is most flamboyantly developed in the medieval miracle plays. Indeed, anger seems to motivate almost everything that Cain does, but his wrath so strongly characterizes him that he becomes at times more of a loud-mouthed comedic character than a figure of evil. The Wakefield Cain most entertainingly realizes this comedic type. He enters cursing, then fist-fights with his servant, and greets Abel with an expression that becomes something of a leitmotif for him: "Come kiss my arse" (75). Yielding to Abel's nagging, Cain agrees to offer a sacrifice, but he shifts sheaves of grain back and forth as if he were running a shell-game and God were the mark, openly admitting that he intends to offer God no more than "he might wipe his arse withal" (79). (7) Finally, absolutely furious when Abel, his sacrifice approved by God, asks, "If thine smoked, am I to blame?" Cain wittily replies, "Why, yea, and thou shalt smart with shame" (82), as he slams the jawbone into Abel's head.
Because of biblical authority, anger always edges the portraits of Cain, but it is never again as outrageous or inexplicable as the anger of the Wakefield Cain. Sexual jealousy, for example, is sometimes offered as an explanation for at least part of Cain's anger. The rabbis of the Midrash first suggest a sexual foundation for Cain's anger, involving either Eve or the twin sister who, the rabbis believed, had been born with Abel (87). A sexual motivation for Cain's anger is the core of the sensationalistic, if not at times bizarre, novel Herein Lies the Tale, and it involves Eve, the only available female. With Adam as a decrepit burden more than a husband, Eve flirts incessantly and indiscriminately. Cain confesses at his trial that, driven by sexual frustration, he had tried to convince Eve to run away with him. As she rejected him, Eve turned instead to Abel, then approaching across the rain-soaked field. Under Michael's questioning Cain dramatically recalls seizing the stone marker, hearing himself say "You shall not have her!" and then smashing the stone into Abel's head (Thomas 188).
The early rabbis also first suggest lust for wealth or authority as a basis for Cain's anger. The Midrash offers two different dialogues to develop this motivation, but in both scenarios the brothers seem equally greedy. One group of rabbis contends that Cain and Abel had divided the world between them, and each then accused the other of taking what did not belong to him, as the germinal struggle between the farmer and the shepherd ensued: "`Come,' said they, `let us divide the world.' One took the land and the other the movables. The farmer said, `The land you stand on is mine' while the other retorted, `What you are wearing is mine.' One said: `Strip'; the other retorted: `Fly [off the ground].'" (8) Other rabbis suggest that the brothers quarreled because each wanted the Temple built on his land: "One said, `The Temple must be built in my area; while the other claimed, `It must be built in mine'" (87).
Greed is perhaps insinuated in the characterization of Cain in subsequent versions of the murder, but most often Cain's anger is rooted in his failed struggle to understand the mysterious ways of God. Even in apocryphal Jewish legends Cain's anger with Abel is complicated by anger with God, and the brothers argue theodicy as well as property rights. "`I believed,' Cain says, `that the world was created through goodness, but I see that good deeds bear no fruit. God rules the world with arbitrary power, else why had he respect unto thy offering, and not unto mine also?' Abel opposed him; he maintained that God rewards good deeds, without having respect unto persons. If his sacrifice had been accepted graciously by God, and Cain's not, it was because his deeds were good, and his brother's wicked" (Ginzberg 108). Jewish legends also present Cain defending himself by directly charging his Judge of complicity in the murder: "True, I slew him, but Thou didst create the evil inclination in me. Thou guardest all things; why, then, didst Thou permit me to slay him? Thou didst Thyself slay him, for hadst Thou looked with a favorable countenance toward my offering as toward his, I had had no reason for envying him, and I had not slain him" (Ginzberg 110).
Byron's intellectual hero also struggles passionately against the ways of God throughout Cain: A Mystery, and Quinones therefore stresses the importance of Byron's Cain as the major pattern for all post-Romantic presentations of Cain. The protests of Byron's Cain, Quinones explains, reveal him as one "who senses the higher divisions in the universe and who also, from his bitterest experience, knows the need for their reconciliation" (107). In an early soliloquy, for example, Cain engages with the doctrine of Original Sin: "And wherefore should I toil? Because / My father could not keep his place in Eden? / What had I done in this? I was unborn" (163). Atonement similarly mystifies Cain. "Sacrificing / The harmless for the guilty" makes no sense whatsoever to him (232). In Byron's drama, as in the Midrash, it is God's inexplicable rejection of his offering, though, that triggers Cain's rage. His sacrifice of "sweet-blooming fruits" scorned, while Abel's bloody, dead sacrifice is approved, Byron's Cain vows, "I will build no more altars / Nor suffer any" (243). As he vigorously moves to destroy Abel's altar, Cain, perhaps inadvertently, kills his own brother. In Paradise Lost, however, the protests against God first heard from the Cain of Jewish legends and later echoed by Byron's Cain become the protests of Cain's father, for as he sees worship slip into fratricide it is Adam who cannot understand: "Is Piety thus and pure Devotion paid?" (11.452).
As a consequence of such a strong tradition, Adam's question may allude as much to God's ways with Cain as with Abel. From the narrative's biblical beginning it has been difficult to understand God's role in the murder, especially why "the Lord has respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect" (Gen. 4:4-5). Wiesel provocatively poses the question in this manner: "Why did God choose to commit the first act of discrimination between men?" (44). The Old English "Genesis A" obscures any difference between the brothers' offerings, "Hie a drihtne lac / begen brohton" ("An offering to the Lord / both brought" ), thereby most intriguingly permitting God's reaction to appear even more arbitrary. In the Histoire Ancienne, however, Cain is reported to have chosen the worst sheaf as his offering: "Chayns, qui n'avoit voloir ne pensee a nulle droiture fere, quant il devoit son disme aportier, si eslisoit tote le pior garbe" ("Cain, who had no wish or thought to be just, when he had to bring his tithe, thus chose to take the worst sheaf" ). Establishing Cain's offering as inferior to Abel's had great popular appeal, of course, since it made God's otherwise unexplained rejection of Cain's sacrifice perfectly reasonable. In the medieval miracle plays, as in some Hebrew legends, this explanation of God's behavior is maintained. Thistles, rotten corn, culls, and even cow dung are all suggested as "the fruit of the ground" that Genesis identifies as Cain's offering (Gaer 58). The rabbis of the Midrash also believe that Cain's sacrifice was rejected because it was inferior, but they establish as a foundation of their understanding "the fact that it [Gen. 4:3] does not say, of the first of the fruit." Cain brought "inferior crops, he being like a bad tenant who eats the first ripe figs but honours the king with the late figs" (182). In Questions and Answers on Genesis Philo similarly indicts Cain, noting that the absence of "from the first-fruits" in Genesis 4:3 reveals "great wickedness" in Cain (37). Milton's modern editors, perceiving a similar explanation for God's rejection of Cain's sacrifice in Paradise Lost, consistently emphasize the contrast between Cain's offering--"Uncull'd, as came to hand" (11.436)--and Abel's--"Choicest and best" (11.438)--to urge a conclusion similar to the one Alastair Fowler provides in his edition: "God's preference for Abel's `choicest' sacrifice is not arbitrary" (587). (9)
Surveying sixteenth- and seventeenth-century commentaries on Genesis, Arnold Williams reports, however, that explaining God's rejection of Cain's offering on the basis of the sacrifices themselves did not satisfy all inquirers into the mystery. "Several of the commentators" writes Williams, "think this too external an explanation and seek the cause of God's displeasure rather in Cain's interior condition. Luther, for instance, writes that materially the sacrifices of both Cain and Abel were the same. The difference lay in Cain's heart. His sacrifice was a mere outward act, not seconded by interior righteousness" (142). Just such a reading controls DuBartas' handling of this troublesome element in the murder story:
Each on his Altar offreth to the Lord The best that eithers flocks or fields affoord. Reine-searching God, thought-sounding Judge that tries The will and hart more then the work and guise, Accepts good Abels guift: but hates the other Prophane oblation of his furious Brother Who feeling deep th'effects of Gods displeasure Raves, frets, and fumes, and murmurs out of measure. (388)
Milton proffers an explanation of God's behavior that is similar to the one in The Divine Weeks. In Paradise Lost Abel's gift "Fire from Heav'n / Consum'd with nimble glance, and grateful steam; / The other's not, for his was not sincere" (11.441-43). This explanation, however, is available only to the reader, not to Adam who sees the vision that compels him to question the ways of God.
Dedicating the smoothest line in the entire vision to delineating Cain's offering, Milton points toward his own most profound reaction to these burgeoning questions and uncertainties, a reaction that develops God's mysterious involvement in history's first murder. In "On the Birth of Abel and the Sacrifices Offered by Him and by His Brother Cain," Philo effects what Quinones describes as the "greatest revolution ... in the history of the Cain-Abel theme" by transforming Cain and Abel into "universal, rival, and contending principles" that Ambrose would come to identify as Judaism and Christianity, and Augustine as the earthly and the heavenly city (23ff.). In addition, however, Philo develops a lengthier and more intense discussion of Cain's unworthy sacrifice than the one in Questions and Answers on Genesis. Philo again condemns Cain, as do the rabbis in the Midrash, for not offering first-fruits, but in this fuller consideration of Cain's sacrifice Philo supplies an illuminating biblical cross-reference to support his reading: "And yet the Lawgiver laid down that we should bring `the firstlings of the first-fruits of the land into the house of the Lord God' (Exod. XXIII. 19), and not ascribe them to ourselves" (133, 149). This cross-reference clearly indicates that Philo and the rabbis of the Midrash evaluate Cain's offering by reference to the Feast of the First Fruits, one of the three feasts that God established with the Jews as He led them out of Egypt and toward Canaan. God's requirements for the feasts are recorded in various Pentateuchal texts, but the primary text is the one from which Philo quotes:
Three times thou shalt keep a feast unto me in the year. Thou shalt keep the feast of unleavened bread: (thou shalt eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded thee, in the time appointed of the month Abib; for in it thou camest out from Egypt: and none shall appear before me empty:) And the feast of harvest, the first-fruits of thy labours, which thou hast sown in the field: and the feast of ingathering, which is in the end of the year, when thou hast gathered in thy labours out of the field.... The feast of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring into the house of the Lord thy God. (Exod. 23:14-16, 19) (10)
Turning to the Feast of the First Fruits to accuse Cain of wickedness even before he slays Abel, as do also the rabbis of the Midrash, Philo implicitly refutes the Septuagint version of Genesis 4:3 that identifies Cain's offering as the first-fruits: [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("Cain brought the bloodless offering of first-fruits"). Although he most often follows the King James Version of the Bible, itself based on the Hebrew text, Milton boldly refutes such authority when Cain in Paradise Lost brings his offering to the altar: "A sweaty Reaper from his Tillage brought / First Fruits, the green Ear, and the yellow Sheaf" (11.434-35). (11)
Shavuot is the Jewish festival known as the Feast of the First Fruits. It is also identified as the Feast of Harvest, Feast of the Sheaf of Wheat, and Feast of Weeks or Pentecost. Established by God while the Israelites were still in the wilderness of Sinai, Shavuot and the two feasts to which is it linked in Exodus 23--Passover (Feast of Unleavened Bread) and Sukkot (Feast of Tents or Feast of Ingathering)--were occasions to commemorate the Exodus (Encyclopaedia 1319-22). According to Thierry Maertens, various Jewish sects disagreed for some time about the mathematical calculations involved, but together they recognized that in Leviticus 23 the date for Shavuot is fixed by reference to Passover, which begins at evening on "the fourteenth day of the first month [Abib]" (5). Fifty days thereafter, in the third month (Sivan), as God tells Moses, "Ye shall bring out of your habitations two wave loaves of two tenth deals: they shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven; they are the firstfruits unto the Lord" (17). With this coupling between Passover and Shavuot, the Feast of the First Fruits also became known as the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost. Furthermore, when the Pharisees turned to Exodus 19:1-4 to support their calculations about counting the fifty days between Passover and Pentecost, the Feast of the First Fruits was seen to coincide with Moses' receiving the Law on Sinai. This connected Pentecost even more closely with the Exodus story, making it "a feast of the promulgation of the Law" and "the renewal of the Covenant" (Maertens 142, 146). The Book of Jubilees greatly elaborates this association between the Feast of the First Fruits or Pentecost and the giving of the Law by correlating other important biblical events with that date, including Noah's sacrifice, the covenant with Abraham, and the birth of Isaac (67). By the time of Christ, then, Pentecost "shared the soteriological meaning of the Passover and completed its content" (Maertens 147).
As the agrarian festivals of the Canaanites were given new historical-religious meaning for the Israelites in the Penteuch, so the process of spiritualization of these feasts was continued by Christianity. In celebrating Passover, for example, Christ establishes himself as the Paschal Lamb and, in doing so, fulfills the eschatological dimension of the Passover Feast, while Abel has traditionally been seen as the earliest anticipation of the Lamb: "Abel's sacrifice was the type of the primary festival of the Jewish Passover, and the murdered shepherd Abel was also, for Christianity, a type of Christ" (Frye 143; cf. Quinones 18). Like Passover, Pentecost also developed new meaning for Christianity. Acts 2:1 reports that following the Crucifixion, "when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they [the disciples] were all with one accord in one place." With the noise and fire reminiscent of Moses' experience on Sinai, the gift of tongues descended upon the disciples, and the Covenant of Grace was forged, inaugurating the eschatological fulfillment of the Feast of the First Fruits. As Moses had brought the Word of God down from Sinai to effect the salvation of the Israelites, so the disciples of Christ would carry the Word throughout the world. "The gift of tongues" Maertens explains, "repeats the theme of the promulgation of the Law which was meant to be carried to the ends of the world but which the Jews alone accepted. The promulgation made on the Christian Pentecost will be brought to the four corners of the earth" (149). (12)
Although the Passover Feast is anticipated typologically by Abel's death in Book 11 of Paradise Lost, some Jewish authorities contended that Abel died not on Passover but on Pentecost. Jewish legend has it that Adam, on the fourteenth day of Nisan, directed Cain and Abel to offer sacrifices: "This is the day on which, in times to come, Israel will offer sacrifices. Therefore, do ye, too, bring sacrifices to your Creator on this day, that he may take pleasure in you" (Ginzberg 107; see also Midrash 181-82.). As Milton's "sweaty Reaper" brings "First Fruits, the green Ear, and the yellow Sheaf" to the altar that stands at the heart of both the Temple and the Church, but then proceeds to murder his brother, the Feast of Pentecost is doubly anticipated--but also violated--in Paradise Lost. Pentecost and Passover in Paradise Lost, as in both the Pentateuch and the Christian Bible, are therefore not so much separated in time as unified by the shared purpose of commemorating and renewing the soteriological covenant--the Covenant of Law that is fulfilled by the Covenant of Grace. Furthermore, Milton's masterful invocation of the biblical theology of feasts expresses fulfillment of the "need for finding and promoting means of reconstitution" that Quinones establishes as the correlative of "the reality of a fracture at the basis of existence" enduringly expressed by the Cain-Abel story (239).
The vision of the murder of Abel thereby functions most appropriately to initiate Adam's entire visionary experience in the last two books of Paradise Lost, which are "structured so as to display the progressive manifestations of the Covenant of Grace operating throughout human history to create mankind anew, by means of Faith" (Lewalski 28). This emphasis on covenant theology comes to overshadow the human drama of the fratricide in Book 11, as Milton ignores, for example, God's judgment of Cain and condemnation to life in exile--popular features in the literary tradition that grew from the Cain narrative. Indeed, even the names of Cain and Abel are lost in the scene's presentation and are never mentioned by Michael. While it is certainly true, as modern editors point out, that the names are most probably omitted to spare Adam the burden of knowing which son will be a murderer (Fowler 587), the omission also blunts the significance of any differences between the brothers beyond the critical fact that one kills the other. (13) The references to "hee" and "his" that almost collide against each other in the scene's closing lines continue to blur the brothers' individual identities, preparing for Michael's abrupt, impersonal, and prophetic words: "The bloody Fact / Will be aveng'd, and th' other's Faith approv'd" (11.457-58). Michael's remarkably powerful prophecy speaks for both the Covenant of the Law and the Covenant of Grace, condemning the violation of the commandment against murder--not yet delivered on Sinai--while also promising acceptance of "th' other's Faith."
Veiling the literary mystery of Abel's murder with the theological mystery of salvation, as promised and performed in the Christian Passover and Pentecost, Milton thereby continues to implicate God in Abel's murder--not to blame God, as does the Cain of literary tradition, but to exonerate Him, to celebrate the mystery of His wisdom: "But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory" (1 Cor. 2:7). The feasts of Exodus 23, Maertens explains, transformed worship, making it no longer "primarily a religious act of man on the occasion of a natural event but the representation, as it were, of an act of God that man recalls and in some way renews" (70). (14) In Exodus 23 that act, of course, is the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, but in Paradise Lost Milton supports and develops this very same claim to its eschatological fulfillment when, as the Son prophesies, the "multitude of [Christ's] redeem'd / Shall enter Heav'n long absent" (3.260-61). While Adam in Jewish legend prophetically tells Cain and Abel to sacrifice because on the same day in the future "Israel will offer sacrifices," Milton's Cain and Abel anticipate the sacrifices of Passover and Pentecost without realizing what they do, any more than at that point Adam can realize it. The reader, however, observes from a different perspective, and the reader sees the scene of sacrifice in Book 11 to a different purpose.
As Abel's sacrifice proceeds, for example, Milton's reader recalls the act of God that perfectly prefigures it in Book 3 where the mystery of God's foreknowledge and the mystery of God's grace effect the sacrifice of the Son:
Behold mee then, mee for him, life for life I offer, on mee let thine anger fall; Account mee man; I for his sake will leave Thy bosom, and this glory next to thee Freely put off, and for him lastly die. (236-40)
The Son's sacrifice not only satisfies Justice, but it also manifests the faith by which humanity is saved through the Covenant of Grace. Like Abel's, the Son's faith will be approved in triumph over death: "I shall rise Victorious, and subdue / My vanquisher, spoil'd of his vaunted spoil; / Death his death's wound shall then receive" (3.250-52).
Cain's sacrifice of first-fruits in Book 11 disintegrates, of course, into fratricide, but God, foreknowing the failure of that sacrifice, has already acted to complete the soteriological meaning of Passover. Breaking the commandment against murder, Cain fails to anticipate the purpose of the Pentecost feast, but his failure recalls to the reader Christ's offering at the "Golden Altar" earlier in Book 11, an offering graciously accepted by the Father (18). As the Spirit will descend upon the disciples, marking the Christian Pentecost and giving them the gift of tongues, so in Paradise Lost the Spirit descends upon the penitent Adam and Eve, and they too are given a new voice--"sighs now breath'd / Unutterable" (11.5-6). The prayers of the penitent Adam and Eve rise to Heaven because "Prevenient Grace descending had remov'd / The stony from thir hearts" (11.3-4), proleptically reversing the deathblow of Cain. The Son, as the Priest serving before the Father, designates those prayers the "firstfruits" as he presents them to the Father:
I thy Priest before thee bring, Fruits of more pleasing savor from thy seed Sown with contrition in his heart, than those Which his own hand manuring all the Trees Of Paradise could have produc't. (11.22, 25-29) (15)
Along with the Pentecostal gift of tongues, Adam receives the gift of prophecy. In the first Pentecostal sermon of the New Testament, the apostle Peter recalls and renews the prophecy of Joel by which the voice of God spoke to the Israelites: "And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams" (Acts 2:17). In Paradise Lost Adam becomes the first prophet, recalling to Eve the prophetic voice of God and renewing the promise of the protoevangelium by which God and man meet:
Methought I saw him placable and mild, Bending his ear; persuasion in me grew That I was heard with favor; peace return'd Home to my Breast, and to my memory His promise, that thy Seed shall bruise our Foe; Which then not minded in dismay, yet now Assures me that the bitterness of death Is past, and we shall live. (11.151-58)
Many mysteries are inherent to the story of Abel's murder, and those mysteries have always raised questions, evoked contradictory answers, and stirred controversy. Within the Cain-Abel scene that Adam witnesses atop the visionary mountain in Book 11 of Paradise Lost, some of those traditional questions are provoked once more, but in that scene Milton has also placed the answer intended to satisfy all the questions--the Christian mystery of salvation. The reader who understands God as mysterium tremendum sees in that scene the promise and fulfillment of Passover and Pentecost, while Adam sees the death of a son. When Adam asks "Is Piety thus and pure Devotion paid?" his education into the theology of mystery begins. Over the course of the epic's two concluding books, revelation gradually makes the mystery of God's salvific covenant with man more and more explicit to Adam, as indeed the course of history similarly reveals that covenant to Adam's descendants, including the reader who sees in the murder of Abel the promise of Passover and Pentecost. When Adam descends the mountain, his education into what Rahner calls the "theology of mystery" is complete, for he has come to understand that "man's ground lies in the abyss of mystery, which accompanies him always throughout life. The only question is whether he lives with mystery willingly, obediently, trustingly, or represses it and will not admit it" (1002). In Paradise Lost Adam's choice is clear, for he has come to embrace with joy the ultimate mystery of salvation, understanding
... that suffering for Truth's sake Is fortitude to highest victory, And to the faithful Death the Gate of Life; Taught this by his example whom I now Acknowledge my Redeemer ever blest. (12.569-73)
(1) Moving from the theological treatises of Philo and Augustine to the twentieth-century fiction of James Joyce, Unamuno, and Michel Tournier, Quinones has brilliantly examined how changes in the literary presentation of Cain reflect "basic alterations in our cultural history" (238). While he supports and develops a number of my major points, Quinones does not mention Milton's presentation of Abel's murder in Paradise Lost.
(2) The popularity of this English tradition of the jawbone as murder weapon underlies Hamlet's witticism about Yorick's skull: "How the knave jowls it to the ground, as if 'twere Cain's jaw-bone, that did the first murder" (Hamlet 5.1.76-77).
(3) Flannagan associates Cowley's lines with Miton's description of the murder of Abel: "Genesis does not specify a weapon in Cain's murder of Abel, though Milton and Cowley (Davideis 1.16n) concluded independently that a stone would have been appropriate (since the murder weapon could then be used as tombstone)" (607).
(4) Graves and Patai note that in Hebrew legend "Cain was also the first man who placed boundary stones around fields" (94).
(5) The altar in the center divides the single field: "Part arable and tilth, whereon were Sheaves / New reapt, the other part sheep-walks and folds" Leonard's gloss of "Land-mark" as "boundary marker" points to that function (438), but standing "I' th' midst" and drawing the two men together for the purpose of worship, the "Altar as the Land-mark" also supports the alternative definition of "a conspicuous object on land that marks a locality" (Webster's 646). Fowler's note identifies the altar as the "symbol of the Law and the Covenant," implying both of these meanings within a religious context (586).
(6) I am indebted to my colleague Helen Damico for assistance in translating this sequence on Cain and Abel.
(7) Quinones identifies the Cain of medieval drama as the homo profanus and homo economicus, finding in his scatological references "an indication of a monde renverse and of the reversal of social values that Cain and his man represent" (55, 56).
(8) Maertens considers how the opposition between agrarian and nomadic or pastoral cultures influenced the development of Jewish worship throughout his book, giving specific attention to the murder of Abel (38-39). Also see Frye 142-43.
(9) Humans choose--"Choicest and best"--or fail to choose--"Uncull'd, as came to hand"--and perhaps reason is to be found in their choices. God's choosing, however, is beyond reason; it is an occasion to be celebrated, not contested: "Blessed is the man whom thou choosest, and causest to approach unto thee" (Ps. 65:4). God's choosing causes the chosen to approach, and, as Paul explains, God's choosing--His will--is a mystery: "He hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence; having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself" (Eph. 1:8-9).
(10) Cf. Exodus 34; Leviticus 23; Numbers 28; Deuteronomy 16, 26.
(11) The phrase rendered "first-fruits" in the Septuagint is "fructibus terrae" in the Vulgate, "the frute of the grounde" in the Geneva, and "the fruit of the ground" in the King James Version of the Bible. Skinner follows the Greek text of Genesis 4:3, as does Milton, and also associates Cain's offering of "first-fruits" with the Old Testament passages describing the Feast of the First Fruits. Skinner then concludes that "it is arbitrary to suppose that his [Cain's] fault lay in not selecting the best of what he had for God" (104). Frye also describes the biblical Cain's sacrifice as the "bloodless offering of first-fruits" (143).
(12) According to Maertens, the Feast of Tents or Ingathering "was never fully capable of bearing the mystery of the person of Christ[,] and that is why it disappeared or was at least absorbed into other feasts" (89).
(13) Quinones' consideration of the "undifferentiation" that blurs the victims with the victors of civil war in Dante's Commedia, as well as his discussion of mutuality and complementarity in the Cain-Abel literature of the twentieth century, is perhaps not wholly inappropriate to Milton's presentation of Abers murder in Paradise Lost (65).
(14) Maerten's notion of recalling and renewing as central to the biblical theology of feasts is very much in accord with Schwartz's notion of remembering and repeating in Paradise Lost.
(15) Cf. Deuteronomy 26:2-3: "That thou shalt take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which thou shalt bring of thy land that the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt put it in a basket, and shalt go unto the place which the Lord thy God shall choose to place his name there. And thou shalt go unto the priest that shall be in those days, and say unto him, I profess this day unto the Lord thy God, that I am come unto the country which the Lord sware unto our fathers for to give us."
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Cheryl H. Fresch received her Ph.D. from Cornell University and is Associate Professor of English at the University of New Mexico. Contributing editor for Paradise Lost in the Milton Variorum Project, she has published articles in Milton Quarterly and Milton Studies, as well as elsewhere. An earlier version of her essay in this issue of Christianity and Literature received the Earl Award from the Popular Culture Association in 2000.
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|Author:||Fresch, Cheryl H.|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
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