In the face of violence, whose extreme form is described in the first pages of the Bible with the murder of Abel by his brother, the Old Testament proposes two remedies: the law and prayer.
The Bible tells the story of two brothers. The first is called Cain, and his name evokes possession in Hebrew. As a farmer, he dominates the laws of the land. He represents working humanity, the one that dominates nature and builds factories.
The second is called Abel. His name means fog, it evokes the ephemeral. In fact, his existence will be short and he will not leave any heirs.
Compared to Cain, Abel is the one who is inspired, open to reflection, to discernment, to the search for meaning.
The violence of sacrifice
The two brothers each offer a sacrifice and, without explanation, the text says: “The Lord looked at Abel and his offering, but he looked away from Cain and his offering” (Genesis 4:4-5). How is this reaction explained?
Multiple answers can be offered. The ethnologist would respond by emphasizing the content: Abel’s sacrifice is animal and Cain’s is vegetable. One of the functions of sacrifice is to ritualize violence in order to channel it. Abel exorcised his inner violence by sacrificing himself, but not Cain. In fact, Cain couldn’t get over his jealousy and became a fratricidal.
The epistle to the Hebrews suggests another reading: it says that Abel’s offering was offered by faith, unlike Cain’s (Hebrews 11:4). This interpretation is based on an interpreted detail in rabbinic thought: Abel sacrificed the firstborn of his cattle, while Cain brought in only part of his crops. The offering of the first fruits is an act of faith, it testifies that the totality of what is possessed comes from God.
A third reading focuses on Cain’s jealousy and questions man’s relationship to difference. One comment puts the following observation in the mouth of God: “Why are you angry and downcast? Wouldn’t you be encouraged if you did well?” However, the key verse is found in the following words of God to Cain: “Sin lurks at the door and covets you, although you can master it” (Genesis 4:7). The challenge that is posed to the human being is that of the relationship with difference: how to face the injustices of nature?
The violence of the unsaid
In relation to this last point, commentators have pointed to the lack of dialogue between the brothers.
Like most translations, the TEB [Traducción Ecuménica de la Biblia] translates verse 8 as follows: “Cain spoke with his brother Abel and when they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.” This translation does not reflect the distance between the two phrases in the Hebrew text. Chouraqui has translated it more correctly: “Cain spoke to Abel his brother[…] and it was when they were in the field that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.”
This verse presents what in grammar is called an anacoluto, that is, a break in the construction of a sentence. The first part, Cain said to Abel, requires a continuation, because the verb to say is usually followed by an object complement. What did Cain say? Going forward (and when they are in the field), the verse suggests that Cain did not say anything to his brother, that they could not speak to each other. We have a conflict that cannot be expressed in words. And when there are no shared words, there is only violence.
The second part of the verse confirms this impression by the abruptness of the act: it kills him. Everything seems to happen in the space of an instant, like thunder. No explanation given. The murder is almost instinctive, without any reason or form of judgement. Located at the beginning of the Bible, this episode reminds us, if necessary, that violence is constitutive of our humanity.
A civilization can be evaluated by the means it uses to regulate this violence. The Old Testament proposes two paths: the law and prayer.
The law: you shall not kill
During the First World War, Freud was amazed at the barbarity with which men killed each other. This gave him the opportunity to question the value of the prohibition of murder: “The first and most significant prohibition that arose from the emerging moral conscience was: You shall not kill.” He adds that, if this prohibition is necessary, it is because the impulse to kill is a threat: “What no soul desires must not be prohibited, it excludes itself” (Essays on psychoanalysis). If the prohibition is universal, it is because man does not own his impulses in the face of death and blood, fear and violence. To remove this protection is to open the way for occult powers that can quickly overwhelm.
Historian Christian Renoux, president of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, drew attention to the fact that it is no accident that genocides took place in times when violence was uncontrolled: “Is it necessary to remember that the genocide of the Armenians took place during the First World War and that of the Jews of Europe during the Second? The Cambodian genocide is inseparable from the wars that engulfed the Indochinese peninsula from 1945 to 1975, just as the Rwandan genocide is linked to the civil wars that bloody the Great Lakes region since 1959” (“Une théologie injustifiable”, Cahiers de la Réconciliation). War is never fair, it is always dirty, it carries within it fearsome seeds, powers that quickly reveal themselves to be uncontrollable.
In a sermon in memory of the dead of the Great War, Albert Schweitzer said: “Our children must preserve throughout their lives, as a legacy, the conviction that the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ has a value far more fundamental than what our parents and ourselves thought” (Vivre, paroles pour une ethique du temps present).
Prohibition is necessary, but is it enough to stop the violence? The Old Testament proposes another path, spirituality.
Prayer: you will leave your violence
The Dominican Michel Froidure recounts that one day he was picked up by a driver who was interested in his status as a religious. He asked her a lot about the Psalms. He explained that during the war he was deported to Germany and that thanks to the Psalms he was able to survive.
It was a fellow deportee, who knew them by heart, who showed them to him: “It was the only thing that was up to the drama we were experiencing” (Vieillir avec la Bible).
When we pray the psalms, we like psalms of praise and trust that speak of God’s friendship. We like to go back to them regularly, 23, 91, 103, 121, 139 (from which we cut the last verses)… and we do well to do it because they are magnificent.
As for the others, those who speak of illness, hatred, persecution and violence, we forget them and make mistakes, because sometimes they define our inner life better than the first.
Forget these psalms those who have no darkness, no grudges, no struggles inside, and who are totally transparent to the light of God. But may all the rest, those who are internally divided, divided, troubled… find in these stories the truth of their hearts.
What can we do when we feel violence, injustice and resentment inside us? We can try to silence them because they are not Christian sentiments… and we risk building up hatred and resentment that will explode at some point.
We can also say them in our prayer, even if it is not a very elegant prayer, to put this violence, to put it into words, to find a place for it… to get that advantage over the sin that lurks at our door.