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Hellenism vs. Hebraism on the inevitability of tragedy: studying the Cain ad Joseph stories.

Recent disputes about the idea of "cycles of violence" have turned on the implication, based on the Greek world view, that the pattern of historical cycles is unbreakable, and thereby denies that any blame can be attached to any participating party. In Greek tragedy, catharsis is achieved through understanding the iron laws that underlie human fate. The Jewish worldview sees the cycles of human history differently, as opportunities to redirect the course of human events as part of the process of human redemption. Catharsis is not acceptance through understanding but heroic human effort to triumph over the self and the environment. (1)

A recent book on the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, commented on the effect of his embrace of Nazism on his children as being like a "Greek tragedy," in that the sins of the father were visited on his son and daughter. (2) This short and simple view of tragedy is based on a cyclical view of history, that "no event is unique, nothing is enacted but once ...; every event has been enacted, is enacted, and will be enacted perpetually; the same individuals, have appeared, appear [again], and will appear at every turn of the circle." (3) If all is cyclical, then the action and reaction tell the whole story--a story that keeps repeating itself.

Not so in Judaism, as I would like to show is demonstrated in the very first book of the Jewish Bible, Genesis. Themes, motifs, symbols, may repeat themselves--indeed, they often do--to alert us to the fact that a continuation of a long, unified process is going on. People are continually given opportunities to redeem themselves from past mistakes by the exercise of their moral free will. What is implicit in Genesis is, of course, made explicit over and over in the Prophets, the abiding reality of free will and its function in human life.

So here we have another aspect of the Greek-Hebrew dichotomy--destiny versus free will. As Cahill has shown, free will is the basis of human progress and moral redemption; destiny is the basis of cyclical history and tragedy.

The key to a proper understanding of the Genesis tales is not segmented midrashic commentary on a word, phrase, or sentence, as homiletically rewarding as that might be, but understanding episodes in their developing, evolving completeness. And the longer the "melodic line," or the "process," that can be shown to be encompassed, the more we have undoubtedly uncovered the redemptive process--opportunities won or lost--that has taken place under the veneer of isolated action.

Let me illustrate with two episodes from Genesis, one short and one long.

The first is the story of Cain and Abel. At first glance, the story is short and not at all complex. Cain, Adam's oldest son, works the soil and, in gratitude for his success, gives a share of the fruits of his toil as an offering to God. Abel, his younger brother, a shepherd, follows suit and brings an offering from his flock--"from the firstlings ... and from their choicest...." (Gen. 4:4)

God shows special regard toward Abel's offering, causing Cain to be "angry and crestfallen." (4:5) God questions his despondency in a fatherly way (4:6), assuring Cain that all will be well if he acts properly; but if he does not, he will fall prey to sin. Cain and Abel have an altercation of some kind, beginning with words and ending with Cain's killing Abel. God punishes Cain by causing him to be forever a wanderer, unable to work the land, deprived of the permanence in life that he previously had enjoyed, but assured that he will be protected from murder by others by a Divinely placed physical mark that will be visible to all. (4:15) Cain fathers a son, who builds a city, mid six generations of descendants ending with Noah, before the Great Flood. Cain is accidentally killed by his great-great-great grandson, Lamech. (4)

What happened here? Is there a complex moral thread that binds this all together? Or is it just a simple case of two victims of their character flaws, one too zealous, one too jealous, end of story--at best, a short Greek form of tragedy.

Let me try to unravel what I think occurred. Cain, for the first time in human history, brings a tribute offering, from the wheat and other grains and produce of the soil that he had worked, in which he recognizes God as the source of his successes in life. Note that Cain breaks new moral ground, having received no guidance from his father, Adam, who never--by word or deed--pays tribute or offers gratitude to God for his ability to gain a livelihood from the soil, or the ability to father a family, after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden. (5) Moreover, Jewish law, as later enacted, regarding tribute offerings (Lev. 2:1), does not require that you give any tribute, or--if you do --that it be the first or choicest of the fruits of your toil. Indeed, this offering (minchah) is described in Leviticus as characterized by its modesty. It is the thought that counts, and which is accorded Divine favor. It would appear, therefore, that Abel, in bringing his offering from the choicest and first-born of his flock, sought not only to emulate but to outdo his older brother, with the effect--and perhaps the purpose--of showing him up, demonstrating greater zealousness and piety, to impress his parents, and, of course, God. God, for His own reasons, rewarded that act --perhaps because he had to if it was well intentioned, perhaps as a test of Cain's moral mettle--by heeding Abel's offering as something special.

This led to Cain's suffering from depression. Abel made no attempt to comfort his brother, to ask why he was depressed. Abel is silent. But God puts his arm around Cain, as it were, asking him, "Why are you depressed? (4:6) Things aren't that bad. You have done nothing wrong--indeed, your voluntary gift was a new and good thing in the world--nor have I punished you in any way for it. Your brother followed your lead, but his offering was more impressive, that's all--and I had to recognize that. But your depression over this is a dangerous state; it can easily lead to your doing something wrong, to lashing out, out of frustration, out of a sense of worthlessness, loss of self:esteem. You need to look at the bright side of things, at what is good in your life, and at the opportunities that life presents for the future, and not dwell on hurts, real or imagined, of the past. If you improve and do well in this regard, your depression will be lifted from you." (6)

But Cain is in too deeply. He can't accept God's fatherly warning. The text tells us that he speaks to Abel (4:4), undoubtedly reproaching him for showing him up--making him look bad to his parents and to God: "And why, for what? I was the first to present God with a tribute offering from the fruits of my toil. You copied what I thought of first, and then tried to outdo me. Couldn't you have just done the same, as a good younger brother should, copying the good behavior of his older brother? Or perhaps you wanted to suggest to father that he should also make a tribute offering from `the choicest, first-born of his flock'--which would be me, of course, leaving you alone to partake of father's affection and largesse." The altercation continues from their house out into the fields (4:8), perhaps even over a period of days. At this point, the text becomes unclear about what happened next, but the midrash tells us that the phrase "and [Cain] rose up" against Abel indicates that Abel was the stronger of the two and had Cain pinned to the ground; Cain, sensing danger to his life, said something like "I give up" or "have mercy," and when Abel loosened his grip on him Cain "rose up" from the ground (7) and, in self-defense--it seemed to him that he was in a fight to the finish--killed Abel.

What punishment is appropriate here? And how will Cain react to it? It seems clear that Abel didn't know what "killing" someone meant; there had been no such thing as death in the world before. He took the offensive when he had the chance, so the midrash tells us it was an unwitting killing (8)--we would call it an assault, probably in self-defense under the circumstances. But God's punishment is severe enough. Cain is exiled from his land, condemned to wander the world with the "mark of Cain" on his forehead for all to see, as a warning that he is under God's protection (Gen. 4:14-15) and, of course, marking Cain's moral fall.

Cain, so easily depressed, should certainly have gone into an even more serious depression at this juncture in his life, a depression that would prevent or abort all normal creative activity. Surely he would be too ashamed, embarrassed, to start a family now. But no, the very next words of the text tell us that Cain "rises up" again, as it were, but this time redemptively: "And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived...." (4:17) Because having children is shown as a mark of God's providence in Genes/s, this prompt Divine response to Cain's determination to seize the opportunity of life is evidently a reward for Cain's penance; God's grace is upon him no less than the mark on his forehead, for all to see. Cain has shown the moral courage to face life, to live life, not to deprive his wife or himself of a family, nor to deprive his children of the opportunity for life even if it means having to face the challenge of a father marked for a previous serious transgression, and overcome it. Six generations of progeny followed. This is not cyclical, as in the Greek version of life, but "processive" as Cahill calls it, (9) and redemptive--and for all of us who witness it through the Biblical lens, it is instructive and inspiring, thought-provoking, and uplifting.

What would the story mean through the lens of the Greek cyclical worldview? How would the Greeks fill in the blanks? How would Cain and Abel play out as Greek tragedy? I think this story as Greek tragedy would add that Abel in fact asked his father whether it would be all right to make an offering to God from his flock like his brother did. How happy this made Adam, the admiring, doting father: "Look at that, Eve. So big and strong (10) and with such a big heart, such religious sensitivity, too."

But Abel is not done. "And, father, would it be all right to make the offering from the choicest, fattest, first-born of my flock? Would that be too ostentatious, wouldn't that make Cain look, well, less thankful to God, by comparison?" "No, my son, it's a beautiful thought, go for it." And the rest is, as they say, tragedy. From this double dose of goodness, by the doting parent and the eager-to-please, narcissistic son--whose very name, in Hebrew, means vanity--come inevitable, tragic death to the son, exile to his brother, and parents bereft of both children. In Greek tragedy, this is The End--curtain.

I can hear readers asking, "Well, isn't this tragedy, family tragedy, repeated in one form or another, that is, cyclically--in the Greek sense--throughout Genesis, with Sarah preferring Isaac, which culminates in the Binding-of-Isaac episode and Sarah's death when she learns about it (11); Isaac preferring Esau, culminating in the destruction of his family after Jacob must steal the blessing intended for his brother and flee his threatening brother, his parents, and his home; and Jacob preferring Joseph, which culminates in the entire family winding up in Egypt where they become enslaved?"

Yes, but this is precisely my point. Genesis is not just the cyclical repetition of the same tragedy over and over again. In each case, there are continuous opportunities for moral successes and failures. In each case, there are openings for redemption, there is personal growth, there are processes, not cycles, because in each case, the outcome is not destined but subject to the free will of its participants. It is possible to break the cycle by understanding its causes--in Genesis it is unjustified preferences among family members--confronting them, and charging them by redemptive action.

And this leads me to my next illustration, the tale of Joseph. Follow the coat, because that is the symbol that calls our attention again and again to another turn in the plot caused by free will and the possibility of change, growth, progress, and redemption, the very opposite of cycle, of destiny, of human helplessness in the grip of larger forces that are the hallmarks of the Greek tragic worldview.

In skeletal outline, Jacob favors Joseph, son of the deceased Rachel, Jacob's tree love, over his first-born and the other children of his other wives, predominantly Leah, whom Jacob was tricked into marrying by his uncle, Laban, because Leah was the eldest. Jacob's favoritism is symbolized by the coat of many colors that he gives to Joseph. The brothers resent Joseph's dreams of family domination, and when the opportunity arises, they sell him to a slave caravan that carries him to Egypt. The brothers dip a piece of Joseph's coat in animal blood and present it to Jacob as evidence of Joseph's death. (Gen. 37:233)

Joseph, meanwhile, experiences a meteoric rise from houseboy to prime minister of Egypt. This career was almost derailed when the wife of his first master continually sought to seduce him. His final resistance to her entreaties is marked by her pulling off his coat as he pulls away from her. She then runs into the street brandishing his coat and crying out, "Here is the proof that it was Joseph who tried to force himself on me, and he was forced to run out of the house coatless when he was about to be found out." (Gen. 39:1-20) Joseph's moral courage, in rejecting the "gift" of the wife's favors because of his good looks and charm (Gen. 39:6), in contrast to his earlier acceptance of the favoritism of Jacob over his brothers, becomes the beginning of Joseph's redemption. But, for now, this newfound moral strength lands him in jail, where his demonstration of dream-solving paves the way ultimately for his rapid rise to prime minister. (40:741:48)

Eventually, the brothers must go to Egypt for food because of a famine in Canaan. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but they don't recognize him. He tricks them into bringing to Egypt Jacob's youngest child, Joseph's only brother, Benjamin, by their mother, Rachel, and then Joseph tricks them into thinking that Benjamin has stolen his special cup for which deed he must remain in Egypt, while the other brothers are free to go. At this point, they rend their garments (44:13)--a sign of mourning over many things: the inevitable death of Jacob when they return without Benjamin; their own deaths, figurative and psychological, at being the instruments of their father's death, and their own decimated moral and material condition without Jacob's presence, and Benjamin's inevitable living death, or worse, as a slave in Egypt. Finally, the rending of their garments symbolizes retribution for causing Jacob to rend his own garments when he heard of Joseph's death. Their penance has begun, with the symbol--clothing--of their earlier betrayal of Joseph and their father, Jacob. Judah, the leader of the brothers, who guaranteed to Jacob that no harm would come to Rachel's other son (Gen. 43:8-9), pleads for Benjamin for the sake of their father. They offer to remain as slaves in lieu of Benjamin. (Gen. 44:9, 44:16) Judah now implores Joseph to let Benjamin return for the sake of preserving Jacob's life. Joseph, sensing from Judah's words the precarious nature of his father's health, and remorseful over not letting his father know for so many years that he was alive, finally reveals himself, breaking down with emotion at the redemptive acts of Judah and his other brothers.

Clearly, these are no longer the brothers who were willing to sell Joseph into slavery because of their envy; they were now prepared to sell themselves into slavery for the sake of Joseph's brother and their father. The brothers are sent back with presents to bring Jacob back to Egypt to live during the next expected five years of famine. To each Joseph gives two sets of specially fine, elegant garments, but to Benjamin, his brother by their mother Rachel, he gives five times as many such garments (12)--the final appearance of the symbol of clothing in this long story--that Jacob would recognize as evidence that the torn, bloody coat that his sons had earlier shown to him was false evidence of Joseph's death, and these garments represented the truth about his life. Of course, the clothing would be a constant reminder to the brothers of how they had treated Joseph in the past. (13)

Jacob did wrong by his sons in favoring Joseph with the coat of many colors and his parental toleration of Joseph's dreams of family dominance. But he is redeemed by his willingness to send his other favorite, Benjamin, to save the family from the ongoing famine in Canaan.

The brothers did wrong in carrying their resentment too far, selling Joseph into slavery, and representing to Jacob that Joseph was killed, waving before his eyes a torn piece of Joseph's special coat. They are redeemed when they are willing to trade their lives to save Joseph's only full brother, Benjamin.

Judah, who had done wrong by proposing that the brothers sell Joseph into slavery, (Gen. 37:26), stands up as the guarantor of Benjamin's freedom in exchange for his own freedom. (33:8-10)

Joseph did wrong in lording it over his family--his mother and father and especially his brothers (37:2-11) --as if' his father's acts of favoritism were not provocative enough. The many colored coat, which he evidently wore all the time, (14) was a constant reminder to his brothers of where they stood in Jacob's affections. Joseph's beauty and narcissism almost led to his demise. Joseph redeemed himself by his moral discipline in resisting the seduction efforts of his employer's wife, represented--once again --by his coat which she pulled off him as he ran from her into the street.

Later, when Jacob is blessing Joseph's sons, Menasseh and Ephraim, Joseph insists that his father place his right hand over Menasseh, as the first born, and not switch his hands as he was about to do. Jacob, as a grandfather, and speaking with the power of prophecy, prevails--but Joseph's children know where they stand with their father, who has learned his lesson about favoritism, the hard way. (Gen. 48:1-22)

This long story is not cyclical but progressive. Free will conquers destiny. A skeletal Greek version of this family's tribulations as tragedy might run something like this: Jacob favors Joseph. His half brothers are envious and plot to dispose of him, which they soon succeed in doing, representing to Jacob that Joseph is dead. The brothers, except the youngest, Benjamin--now Jacob's favorite--are forced to go down to Egypt for food during a severe famine in Canaan. Joseph, having succeeded--as he had dreamed--of reaching the pinnacle of power, fails to recognize his brothers and--suspecting them of being spies--has them killed. Jacob soon realizes that something has happened to them, and decides that he and Benjamin must go to Egypt to find them. Joseph recognizes his poor old father, and both--realizing what has happened--fall into each others arms, sobbing in tragic sorrow. Benjamin, wearing a new many-colored coat as his father's new favorite son, stands by, taking it all in. The End--curtain. There are no opportunities for redemption here. There is just the force of destiny, man as the plaything of the gods, with no free will, and no chance to rise above his past, and sanctify his life. The Talmudic Sages said, "Where a man who has repented his past stands, no one else can stand" no matter how righteous, (15) There is no such idea in Greek tragedy. It is everywhere in Genesis, instructing us by its own special form of theater, in what makes mankind, each of us, special.


(1.) See, e.g., Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews, New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 1998, pp. 5, 250-251; Joseph B. Soloveitchik, "Catharsis," Tradition (Spring, 1978):38-54.

(2.) Richard Wolin, Heidegger's Children, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, reviewed by Damon Linker, "Philosophy and Tyranny," Pirst Things (January, 2002):41.

(3.) Cahill, The Gifts ..., Op. cit., p. 5.

(4.) Gen. 4:17-24 and commentary of Artscroll, Genesis, Brooklyn, N.Y.:Mesorah Publications, 1995, ad loc.

(5.) When Adam is expelled with Eve from the Garden of Eden, his punishment is to have to gain his bread "by the sweat of [his] brow" (Gen. 3:19), and not effortlessly as before, but God's role in the blessings of nature is no less important in the post-Eden world. Adam's lack of gratitude for, or any acknowledgment of, God's beneficence in his life, from Creation to Eve to his children, stands in sharp contrast to the Cabbalist idea that Adam, before his fall and expulsion from Eden, is a cosmic being who contains the whole world in himself, and "whose station is superior even to ... the first of the angels"; see Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, New York: Schocken, 1961, pp. 279-280. Lack of gratitude to God may truly be considered Adam's "original sin."

(6.) The usual interpretation of the first half of Gen. 4:7 is along the lines of "If you act correctly (or "do right") you will be forgiven" (or "there is uplift" in the sense of "your countenance or depression will be lifted"). But this does not follow very well from "Why are you depressed?" that ends the prior sentence, which implies that Cain has no reason to be depressed because he has done nothing wrong. If so, why the lecture, "If you act correctly in the future, etc."? If he did nothing that needs correction--as, indeed, he did not--then why the warning about doing something wrong in the future? Second, the Hebrew word for "act correctly" or "do right" in the abbreviated form in which it appears in 4:7 (tetiv), can mean "[if you] do right in your outlook, in your attitude to life," which makes more sense, in context, as a Divine suggestion to Cain on how to alleviate his depression. Third, the end of Gen. 4:7, "and if you don't [act correctly], sin awaits at the door," makes no sense; if you sin, sin is no longer at the door--it is inside the house! Because this is recognized as "one of the most difficult and obscure Biblical sentences," I believe I am on solid ground in offering my interpretation; see Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part One--From Adam to Noah, Israel Abrahams, tr. (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1998), p. 208, citing B. Yoma 52a-b.

(7.) Ber. R. 22:8, 17; Artscroll Genesis, Op. cit., ad loc., p. 150.

(8.) Ibid., at Gen. 4:12, p. 154; Me'am Loez, at Genesis 4:15.

(9.) Cahill, The Gifts ..., Op. cit., p. 251. Compare Cain's action to the decision of Moses's father and other Israelite husbands in Egypt, who divorced their wives in despair over Pharaoh's decree that all their newborn sons should be drowned in the Nile; see Ex. 2:1, Rashi ad loc., and B. Sotah 12a. Courage akin to Cain's is found among the Holocaust survivors who started new families after the war.

(10.) See note 7.

(11.) Rashi on Gen. 23:2.

(12.) Gen. 35:22 and Artscroll Genesis, Op. cit., ad loc., p. 1980.

(13.) Ibid., p. 1981.

(14.) Ibid., at Gen. 37:31, p. 1657.

(15.) B. San. 99a; B. Ber. 34b.

LIPPMAN BODOFF, since his retirement as assistant general counsel of AT&T Technologies, Inc., has devoted himself to Jewish studies, including four years of graduate work and four years as associate editor of Judaism. His essays have appeared in numerous journals.
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