A Spiritual Exercise From Genesis 4:1-7

The Introduction to Cain’s Story

Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD.” And again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering;  but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? “If you do well [make the best of it], will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:1-7 NAS)

 

The Lord tells Cain the best thing a resentful person could hear and he says it in two ways:

  1. You’ll feel better about your lot if you seek to improve things around you. 
  2. If you aren’t improving or don’t improve your circumstances, then it’s because there is sin inside of you and you must conquer it. 

In the rest of the Bible, these two instructions are the necessary  responses to the personal realization that we inhabit a catastrophically tragic world. The failure to enact them leaves the bitter soul in a downcast state. The story goes on to say that this resentful and spiteful attitude leads to murderous, dishonest, and sacrilegious ways of being in the world. 

Below are a series of questions meant to help you enact God’s counsels to Cain. They are generally philosophical and could be helpful to anybody reading the Bible. In other words, they aren’t just for Christians, but for any who see the value of the Bible.

The Exercise

I recommend first rereading the passage above. Then you should spend a minimum of 20 minutes writing your answers. This is the sort of thing that could take much longer. I spent 20 minutes on just the first two questions of section one. It might take a few days or weeks to finish. That’s okay. Your answers, if you are totally honest, may make you feel pretty weird or anxious. This is because you’re engaging in deep introspection and perhaps encountering your soul. 

  1. Questions pertaining to the first counsel
    These questions are about your circumstances which aren’t necessarily your fault. I wrote them to get you thinking about the circumstances in which you find yourself, how those circumstances impinge upon your interior life, and what the Cain and Abel story challenges readers to do in the face of their own troubles. 

    1. What do I wish was better in my life?
    2. What do I mean by ‘better’? 
    3. What are the sources of sorrow, anxiety, regret, or resentment to me? Explain why.
    4. Can I change any of these things?
    5. Of those which I can change, which are most important to me?
    6. Of those which are important to me, which circumstances can I act to improve today, this week, this month, and this year? 
    7. What could I add to my life, as Abel added shepherding, to improve my sense of meaning (think hobbies, exercise, Bible studies, starting written correspondence with a friend, etc)?
    8. What action will I do as soon as I can? 
    9. What actions will I do in the coming hours, day, weeks, and months? 
  2. Questions pertaining to the second counsel
    In the story, Cain is downcast because of God’s preference for Abel’s sacrifice. Cain refuses to follow God’s advice and so does not experience an uplifted countenance, improved attitude, or an elevated vision of the world. Instead, he carries on as before in the ways that led him to his lamentable state. The result is that Cain resents his brother so thoroughly that he murders him. The psychological tragedy underneath the murder is that Cain so resents the good he wishes to obtain for himself (God’s favor) that he simply aims to destroy it.
    Many of us desire some good for ourselves like a happy marriage, a disciplined child, a full bank account, a healthy body, or just one day of a cheer and good experiences. But despite those desires, we do not ‘make the best of it’ where we are. This leads us to destroy that which would be our good and like Satan in Milton’s Paradise lost we proclaim, ‘evil, be thou my good.’ 
    Back the story. God tells Cain that there are internal issues with which he must deal. He must master sin, lest it rule him. God challenges Cain to pay attention to what tempts him away from what he sees as good. In Cain’s case, the good is the divine approval.
    At this point in the Bible, sin is that which prevents us from obtaining that which we know to be good. For this exercise don’t think of sin merely as ‘doing things people do not approve of.’ Think of sin as ‘missing the mark of my best self.’

    1. What keeps me from making the best of things? Are there traits, possessions, relationships, or desires which distract me from the good?
    2. Is my understanding of good actually good? Am I desirous of things which are bad for me, impossible to acquire, or out of proportion with reality?
    3. With what must I part to master sin so that it cannot master me?
    4. What can I do to distract myself from temptation (chores when I want to wallow, sing went I want to curse, etc)? 
    5. What would happen if I let myself be mastered by sin? How much would I hate that version of myself? Would I befriend such a person?
    6. Are my sinful desires capable of being used for good (like aiming the desire for too many possessions at designing your home for kindness and hospitality)?
    7. What would I be like and how would I feel if my inner life were so arranged that only major changes of circumstances tempted me to sin? Would I enjoy the company of this genuinely good version of myself?
    8. What will I do today to master my sin?

Concluding Thought

This isn’t a ‘safe’ exercise. It requires that we look to our understanding of the good. But, what do we know? Nevertheless, the very idea of leaving our current way of being and going after what we perceive to be God has a pedigree going as far back as Abraham. I believe in the presence of Christ, who enlightens every man who comes into the world. And, like Abraham, when we mess up in our pursuit of the good, it isn’t catastrophic. Instead, it’s covenantal. In pursuing the good, we reach after God, who designed the world that we might feel after him and find him. It is he who overlooks past sins and calls all to repentance through Jesus Christ.

Self-Esteem

A former student sent me a link to a video about self-esteem last week. She asked for my comments. I finally made time to watch it today. Here’s the video:

 

Matt Walsh is certainly correct here. Confidence, defined essentially as known competence in the face of difficulty is superior to self-esteem (see note below). 

But I was asked, why I do not know, for my thoughts. William James defined self-esteem with this equation:

Self-esteem, in this sense, is inevitable. It is impossible to be void of self-reflection to the point that you never compare your level of success to your pretensions. For James self-esteem is your pretension (an ideal vision of yourself) compared to your attainment. Spiritually speaking, this is most fully explained in Romans 7, but Galatians 6:4 puts it most concisely (and more positively):

For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. (Galatians 6:3-4)

For the Christian there are two challenges when it comes to self-esteem:

  1. Determining whether our ideal self is a realistic portrayal of our potential based on our understanding of Jesus Christ and our personality, circumstances, and calling.
  2. Making the wise choices necessary to make progress toward our ideal self.

If you confront those challenges and always recall your admiration of Christ and your confidence in his ability to accomplish what he says he will, then I suspect you’ll be in good shape:

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (Colossians 2:9-10)

So, “do good things, and you’ll have all the esteem you need.”

Note: What I don’t like about Walsh’s video is that Walsh criticizes a theoretical construct (self-esteem) with a colloquial one (confidence). Note Albert Bandura’s distinction between confidence as a general term (the word Matt uses) with self-efficacy, the definition of which, Matt uses for confidence:

A brief spiritual exercise from Genesis 1:26-31

In Genesis 1, the Lord makes the world insofar as it is experienced by humanity, as a place he considers good and very good. It is a composition of chaos and order and more fully, in Genesis 2, God makes a Garden to demonstrate to man how, as a being in his image, to subdue the earth in a way that brings more potential out of it rather than ordering it in a stifling way (think of a garden with no bugs…super orderly but no fruit!) or leaving it to pure chaos (a field with no edible food for humans, but covered in fire ants and fleas hiding in the weeds).

With this in mind, I think part of being God’s image is asking at the end of our days: “Can I look at what I’ve made of this day and say, with honesty, ‘this is very good?'” And if you can’t, then revise yourself.

Jonathan Edwards had a practice like this, though it wasn’t explicitly based on Genesis 1:26-31:

41. Resolved, to ask myself at the end of every day, week, month and year, wherein I could possibly in any respect have done better. Jan. 11, 1723.

 

Psalms 34:11-14 Genesis 1:26-31
Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. What man is there who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
(Genesis 1:26-31)

A Psychology of Romance

Genesis 2:20-24 ESV The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. (21) So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. (22) And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. (23) Then the man said,“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (24) Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

In Genesis 2, man is missing something. He is missing a fit companion. This is significant on several levels, not least of which that hermit like contemplation of God is not sufficient for human flourishing despite Adam’s unique possession of immediacy with respect to his knowledge of God.

But to the point, this is a passage that gives a mythological explanation of marriage. By mythological, I mean a story that tells a society what they need to know.

What does society need to know about marriage?

  1. It’s a transcendently inspired institution. It is not necessary for our biological functioning, but it enhances, ennobles, and enables our animals selves to build worlds beyond what seems possible.
  2. It hurts. Adam must undergo a loss to get married. This is true of women as well. You cease to be a member of your previous household, your romantic options are limited to one, and your private time is curtailed. Marriage is a wound.
  3. Marriage solves the problem of loneliness. Despite Adam’s marriage story being a story about a wound, Adam finds Eve to be “flesh of my flesh.” She completes him. And the story does say that God “closed up” Adam’s wound.
  4. In the sense above, marriage is like any choice. A choice says, “No.” to millions of other options. But it opens up new possibilities. When you’re married you can build your own household, dynasty, or mini-civilization. You take on the power of God in that you can make children and fill/populate the earth as he did.
  5. You leave your parents’ household with all of their knowledge and can improve upon their errors and learn from the wisdom of another household. In this sense, marriage transmits the glories of civilization in a way that allows for persistent improvement.

All of that appears to be what this passage says…or something like that.

Genesis 1-2 and Man as Artist

One of the ideas that emerges from the first two chapters of Genesis is the distinction between creation and cultivation, nature and art, or even chaos and order.

For instance, when God makes the world it is a chaotic emptiness (Genesis 1:1-2), but through the next several verses, he organizes it into a series of useful categories. Then he makes humanity, explaining that not only would they reproduce and eat, like the other creatures, but that they would be blessed, take dominion, and bear the image of God. So man is to subdue (or cultivate in context) the created world.

In Genesis 2, while the timeline is intentionally obscured (man is made before the plants, Genesis 2:4-5), the same distinction is further articulated. There is the wild world, but man is placed in a garden planted by God. And so there is nature (that which is) and art (that which is skillfully designed), creation/culture. The idea of subduing/having dominion over the created world is more fully defined in Genesis 2: name the animals, don’t eat poison fruit, eat fruit that gives life, protect the garden, tend the garden, control your body (it’s made of earth, you know), and so-on. In other words, man is to be an artist who makes culture out of creation or art out of nature.

Aristotle’s used the word techne to describe know-how. Later Latin writers translated the word ars. We now use the word art. For Aristotle, art was a virtue of the mind. And I think our tendency to reduce art to the fine arts has led us to undervalue the fact that any human skill that can be acquired through practice is art: mathematics, grammar, cooking, gardening, shepherding, the scientific method, communication, and so-on.

Aristotle’s understanding of art is helpful for seeing what Genesis is getting at, even though Genesis doesn’t use his terminology. Part of our quest for meaning in a world that sometimes seems repetitive and meaningless is acquiring the skills necessary to cultivate the world around us into something beyond what it is. Trees can become parts of a garden, rocks can become a wall, gold can become food containers, currency, or circuits.

Of course, Scripture warns against wrong ways to cultivate creation  (Gen 11:1-9). If you try to unite heaven to earth yourself, you’ll end up utterly confused (which is bad from a personal experience perspective, but good from a necessary moral lesson perspective). I suspect that you’ll find the wrong ways to cultivate insofar as they do lead to confusion which forces different modes of cooperation and thought.

Cain and Abel: An Interesting Reading

In almost any commentary from the last century, the Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4 is typically explained as a justification for/explanation of the conflict between agricultural and nomadic life. There’s something to this, but it’s not merely about two modes of food production. The distinction is between two approaches to ethics.

Cain and Abel

When you commentaries enough you just kinda think: Here we go again. I’ve never really read it explained beyond the surface distinction. But in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony, he explained the distinction in terms of the ethic represented by the two characters. Here it is in full:

The life of the farmer. 

Cain has piously accepted the curse on the soil, and God’s having sent Adam to work the soil, as unchallengeable. His response is to submit, as his father did before him. And within the framework of this submission, he initiates ways of giving up what little he has as an offer of thanksgiving. In the eyes of the biblical author, Cain represents the life of the farmer, the life of pious submission, obeying in gratitude the custom that has been handed down, which alone provides bread so that man may live.

The life of the shepherd.

Abel takes the curse on the soil as a fact, but not as one that possesses any intrinsic merit, so that it should command his allegiance. The fact that God has decreed it, and that his father has submitted to it, does not make it good. His response is the opposite of submission: He resists with ingenuity and daring, risking the anger of man and God to secure the improvement for himself and for his children. Abel represents the life of the shepherd, which is a life of dissent and initiative, whose aim is to find the good life for man, which is presumed to be God’s true will. (108)

Hazony goes on to observe that while God did not command shepherding, God did make man to be good. God told downcast Cain, “If you do well, won’t you be lifted up? (108)” Meaning, “If you have a problem with the world, make the best of it, bucko!”

Hazony’s Omission

Some details in Genesis that he left out make Hazony’s argument tighter. God made man “very good” and commanded man to subdue the earth. So, it doesn’t seem like God wanted man to submit directly to the curse. Instead, he wanted humanity to continue the mission from Genesis 1. The curse did not nullify God’s purpose for creation, it simply made it more difficult to obtain.

The Creation Narrative and Human Excellence

Here’s a repost from my old blog:

Before we go on, below is the story of the creation of man in Genesis 1. Go ahead and read it in full as a refresher.

Gen 1:26-31 ESV Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (27) So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (28) And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (29) And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. (30) And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. (31) And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

When we read the Bible, it’s important to remember that the stories, while not always portraying morality or exemplary character, are meant to train us in good works. The stories try to give a picture of the good life as well as the internal and external threats to it. By the time the Old Testament as a whole became known as “the law and prophets” four virtues were recognized as paramount for a life of human excellence and character: courage, justice, temperance, and prudence (see Wisdom of Solomon 8:7).[1]

 

In Genesis 1:26-31 one can easily see how these four virtues must be developed for humanity to fulfill its calling on the earth:

  1. Justice:
    Fundamental to man’s relationship with the world in the passage is that humanity is the likeness of God to the world. In other words, man represents God’s rule over the heavens and the earth in relationship to the other living creatures upon the earth. For this hierarchical order to be expressed, obligations must be met. If human beings are to rule the lesser creatures in God’s stead and presumably relate to other people who do the same, then they must treat one another with justice (fairness, non-aggression, etc). They must also show God his due as the highest member of the chain of being.
  2. Courage:
    Courage is required because, at this point in the story, there is no idyllic garden (that’s in a different version of the creation story a few paragraphs later. There is, instead, a creation full of wild animals and plants that need naming, taming, and understanding. There is also a frightening world full of hostile climates and dangerous geography. And if you think in terms of modern cosmology, there is a universe full of dangerous things that will heartlessly destroy you: stars, space, comets, debris, the sun, and so-on. Man must risk greatly in order to accomplish great deeds.
  3. Temperance:
    Man, if he is to subdue the animals and plant kingdoms, also must subdue himself. The human body is of the animal kingdom. So, man must subdue his mind and body and bring them into a right relationship with God and God’s justice. There are poison berries, cold winters, and people with whom to share and none of these situations can be handled without self-control. This, by the way, is why I tell Christians today that unless it is impossible, they really must do physical exercise. Controlling the body takes work and we walk less, work with our hands less, and go outside less than any previous generation of human beings.
  4. Prudence:
    This is the virtue of understanding the world, discerning good from bad, and acting accordingly. It’s a hard virtue, Hebrews 5 says that it can only be developed by practice. Incidentally, the Genesis 3 fall story is so sad because by refusing to eat from the tree designated off limits, man was learning prudence. Nevertheless, this virtue would have been crucial. To subdue the animals and plants they must be understood, placed into categories, and studied. The same is true of plants. To learn to traverse water, make music, cook, and store food all would require prudence.

In short, one can see how the four cardinal virtue are necessarily a part of man’s vocation as man. They must be developed if one is to have the highest experience of humanity in creation.

References

[1] The case has been made by David Oderberg that these four virtues really do constitute the four pillars of human excellence in a definitive way. David S. Oderberg, “On the Cardinality of the Cardinal Virtues,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 7, no. 3 (October 1999): 305–322.

 

Abraham and Happiness

Gen 12:1-3  Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  (2)  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  (3)  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Gen 24:1  Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.

 

“Why does Abraham leave Mesopotamia? God’s words in this passage give us some insight into what is at stake. To be sure, God offers Abraham some things that any man might want, whether he is good or evil – to attain fame in history, to be the father of a great nation. But in addition to these, God speaks to Abraham about two moral dimensions that are to attend this project of exchanging the great metropolis for life in a shepherd’s tent in Canaan: Abraham is told that he will be blessed; and he is told that he will be a blessing to all the families of the earth. And in fact, the biblical History is insistent upon both of these dimensions, returning repeatedly to the suggestion that in the subsequent history of Abraham’s children “all the nations of the earth will be blessed”; and telling us explicitly, at the end of Abraham’s life, that “the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.”[1]

 

The Biblical idea of blessedness (happiness) is not altruism or a lack of interest in oneself. Nor is it a prosperity gospel way of thinking which says that as long as I am prospering I should be happy. But it is, as shown in Abraham’s life in Genesis, seeking and bestowing happiness. Or like Abel, “making good of it (Genesis 4:7)” for yourself, but also for others.

[1] Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture: An Introduction (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 111.

 

Music Monday: mewithoutYou

mewithoutYou is a band that I’ve liked since my senior year of high school when I came across one of their songs on a compilation CD that was given to me at a concert. Their sound has evolved tremendously since then. Their first album is one I very rarely listen to anymore. But their newest album Pale Horses, is very good. One song that really grabs me is Birnam Wood.

My favorite line in the song is this:

I struck firm the hollow your thigh
Withheld my name, yet from determined hold I could not fly
Though every tendon came undone

It’s a beautiful retelling of the Jacob story in Genesis 32 from the perspective of the man who captured Jacob and renamed him. What is so interesting about the story and about the song is that after the man destroys Jacob’s hip, Jacob still won’t let go of the man. Still more bizarre in the tale is that the man turns out to be divine or a divine representative who could not escape the mortal Jacob’s grasp.

Lyrics:
All dark effects I’d long withstood
Upon my room advanced
The moving shade of Birnam Wood
Disguised by broken branch

I struck firm the hollow your thigh
Withheld my name, yet from determined hold I could not fly
Though every tendon came undone

Would you take a bound-up Isaac’s place?
“Is he a God and shall your grace
Grow weary of your saints?” (– I. Watts)
Or prefer the father’s dreadful fate?
Are you a God, and shall your grace
Grow weary of your saints?
(Though every tendon came undone
Safe in the arms of the kingdom come)

Floodwater filled your formless birth
A column cloud descends
‘Your cause of sorrow must not be measured by his worth
For then it hath no end’ (– Macbeth)
Yet may my heart in tune be found
In four-shape notes from underground
And can we not call it “a nervous breakdown”
My nervous system breaking down?

Would you take a bound-up Isaac’s place?
Are you a God, and shall your grace
Grow weary of your saints?
Steady a knife held sure by faith
Are you a God? And shall your grace
Grow weary of your saints?
Riding in a westbound railcar
They’ll dump you in the Highgate Graveyard
[Poison-in-the-teacup-graveyard alpha-radiation-graveyard]

Come untie your little son
Before the angel comes