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A very interesting lecture which contains a discussion of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. It can be viewed on YouTube here:

I’ve transcribed Dr. Peterson’s talk and it is presented below exactly as spoken with no additions, subtractions or corrections.

Cain and Abel are two sons of Adam and Eve and they’re really the first people because of course Adam and Eve were made by God so they’re really not people at all because people are born and Cain and Abel are the first two people and they characterize, as far as I can tell two canonical patterns of reaction to the terrible vulnerability that’s revealed as a consequence of the development of self-consciousness.

Cain and Abel make sacrifices to God. Why? Human cultures make sacrifices, that’s what they do. Sacrifice, sacrificial rituals are a human universal. Blood sacrifice is a human universal. Human sacrifice, at least in some anthropological epochs, was regarded as a human universal. Why do people make sacrifices to God? To please Him. It seems like a mystery to modern people. I ask my students, what sacrifices did you make to go to university? Well, they can answer that in two tenths of a second. They can’t party as much as they might have. They can’t drink nearly as much beer as they might have liked to. More seriously, a lot of them work, a lot of them have put their families in serious financial straits to send them to university. They’ve given up all sorts of things in order to pursue a course of action that they believe will best insure their harmonious relationship with the nature of reality. Everyone makes sacrifices.

We can say that now because we’re psychologically sophisticated and linguistically sophisticated and we know something about human psychology. But thousands and thousands of years ago, before people had this explicit psychological acumen, the best they could do was act out and tell stories about human psychology because they hadn’t developed any further than that. And Cain and Abel is one of those stories.

The sacrifices are burnt on an altar. Why? Well, the smoke rises. Well, so what? Well, God’s up in the sky and if the smoke rises up there, he gets a whiff of it, he can tell what the quality of the sacrifice was. And you can laugh about that and you can think about it as primitive, but it’s not primitive, it’s artistic and it’s beautiful and it’s accurate and here’s why. Because before the invention of the electrical light and maybe before the invention of fire, the closest a human could ever get to confrontation with the absolute unknown was to look up at the night sky. Because the night sky, especially when it’s sprinkled with stars, confronts you directly with the fact of the infinite. And to make the presupposition that God resides in the infinite, and you’re having a direct experience of the infinite at that moment, is not a primitive notion. It’s a very intelligent and creative hypothesis and so the notion that God occupies the sky, and the day sky being as equally impressive as the night sky, is not a primitive hypothesis. It’s a reflection of the nature of a certain kind of human experience. You burn something and you send the smoke up. God gets a crack at determining the quality of your offering, the quality of your sacrifice. Well, let’s be perfectly clear about this. If your sacrifices aren’t first rate, the nature of your relationship with the infinite is going to suffer dreadfully. And that’s exactly what the story of Cain and Abel reveals.

Abel, he’s a trusting character. He believes in the nature of experience and the nature of existence. When he’s called on to make a sacrifice, he sacrifices the best that he has to offer. And that makes God happy and as a consequence everything that Abel touches turns to gold. Everyone likes him, they respect him, his crops multiply, he’s successful with women, plus he’s a wonderful guy. So you can hardly imagine a more annoying creature if you possibly attempted to do it.

Whereas Cain, see Cain has reacted to his self-consciousness by withdrawing from the infinite. And there’s a tremendous danger in that, because it starts to mean that he relies purely on his own devious devices to sail his ship through the shoals of life. He believes, as his arrogance develops, as a consequence of his withdrawal from the infinite, that a contact that he can’t tolerate, because he can’t tolerate his own vulnerability, that he is able to deceive the structure of reality itself, to offer second rate sacrifices to God himself ( who can see absolutely everything  because the infinite is absolutely everything) and to prevail nonetheless.

Well, needless to say, this does not work. And it doesn’t work in an obvious way. If you talk to people and they reveal to you their unnecessary suffering, it’s very straight forward to look behind what it is that they have to say. They’ll tell you the poor decisions they made in their lives and the opportunities that they didn’t take and the chances that they didn’t have enough courage to grasp and the sacrifices they failed to make. There’s nothing mysterious about it. And their own experiences teach then full well that they pathologize the relationship they have with the nature of reality. Well that’s a terrible thing. Cain is dreadfully unhappy. He’s unhappy because nothing he ever wants happens, and that’s probably because he doesn’t really want it, because if he really wanted it, he’d make the right sacrifices. The salt is rubbed into his wounds by the existence of his brother for whom everything seems simple, but of course really isn’t.

Cain goes to complain to God. I had to read three or four different translations of these particular verses to figure out what this meant. And he says “What in the world is going on here? I’m working myself to the bone, I’m sacrificing things left, right and center. Everything I touch turns to dirt, everything turns against me. What’s up with the nature of reality.” Cain’s essential vulnerability is revealed and exacerbated by his pathological attitude towards his own actions. God says to him, essentially, “Sin is a predatory cat that crouches at your doorway and leaps at you at will, but if you only wanted to, you could master it.” And that is absolutely the last thing that Cain wants to hear. Because if things are going from bad to worse for you and you’re playing a causal role in it, there’s nothing more horrible that someone can do to you, but reveal to you in a way you can’t deny that you’re entirely complicit in your own demise. And that’s exactly what God does to Cain.

And so what does Cain do? Well, the logical thing would be listen, because if the structure of reality itself tells you something it’s best to listen since there’s no way out of it. But that’s not what Cain does. He’s so incensed by his essential vulnerability, compromised and exacerbated by his failure to make the appropriate sacrifices and conduct himself appropriately that he just decides then and there, number one: to destroy his ideal, reduce the tension that he feels when that ideal exists as a contrast point and number two: to destroy the favored son of God. And so he goes out into the field and kills Abel. And God comes along and says “Where’s my favorite son?” and Cain says “I killed him.” And it’s so interesting to me that that story is placed, really it’s the third story in the Old Testament.  It’s with the archaic stories and it’s a story that reveals as far as I can tell that there are two essential patterns of reaction to the self-conscious vulnerable conditions of existence. And one is a humble approach to infinity with determined attempts to make the appropriate sacrifices. The other is arrogance, resentment, the keeping of everything good for oneself and the degeneration of the soul into something that’s homicidally murderous.

Well, the story doesn’t stop there and it gets really compressed in this part and perhaps because some of it’s been lost with the passages of time. But the next thing that happens is that, well, God doesn’t punish Cain. And you think “That’s kind of strange”. I mean the Old Testament God, he’s punishing people left, right and center. “Why not Cain?” you think, well He marks Cain and he says to the people who are around that they should leave him alone, because he’s been marked by God as to be left alone. And the reason for that I think, and this is something that’s reflected in our legal system, is that murder promotes revenge. And revenge destroys societies and so God puts an end to the situation right there and then by telling people that, despite the fact that Cain has committed a terrible crime, that there will be no retribution.

Cain goes off and gets married and he has a number of generations of offspring. If you insult a member of the first generation of Cain’s offspring, he doesn’t kill you, he kills seven of you. And if you insult a member of the second generation  of Cain’s offspring, he doesn’t kill seven of you, he kills seven times seven of you. And then on down the road the offspring of Cain is Tubal-cain and Tubal-cain is the artificer of weapons of war. And this stunningly brilliant story says in its incredibly compressed fashion that the motivation that drives the commission of the worst human atrocities is an inevitable social consequence of the refusal of the self-conscious individual to make the sacrifices appropriate to establishing a harmonious life and their consequent degeneration into a kind of murderous and resentment filled rage propagating endlessly through its variations in society until everything comes to an end. And the next story? Is the flood. And it’s not surprising. Because if things go from bad to worse long enough everything falls.

I’ll make very minimal comments since Dr. Peterson’s  commentary is quite extensive, much longer than the piece of literature that he is commenting on (which is probably true of many commentaries on the subject). His is not the only interpretation, but it does seem to me to be a valid one.

He makes an important point that this is probably part of a much older story and possibly a longer one (stories in oral traditions can be quite lengthy). The people listening to the original would have been much more familiar with the background and context of the stories as well as the meaning and value of the sacrifices. Even populations in later biblical times (1st century AD) would perhaps have been at least somewhat familiar with the context. To the modern reader, completely removed from such a culture, and none of whose ancestors in memory would have been part of such a culture, it is seemingly a remote piece of history. The reader needs to be able to read the text without being part of the living cultural matrix in which the text is situated, the way its authors and original audience would have been.