Sunday, January 28, 2007

The mark of Cain

Of all the characters in the Hebrew Bible, none has fascinated me as much as Cain. For this reason and others, I posted an excerpt from Steinbeck's East of Eden on this forum. One day I might even write a law review article on Cain. Mayhap.

Super Bowl I
Left: Max McGee beats Willie Mitchell for the catch in Super Bowl I
Right: Don Beebe catches Leon Lett for the strip in Super Bowl XXVII

But first a little digression. Those who know me know that I am as old as the Super Bowl, at least in the sense that I will turn XLI years old sometime in calendar year 2007. Those who know me really well know that the third or fourth full week of January always brings me some measure of emotional turmoil. For some reason, the Super Bowl seems nearly always to coincide with a memorable event of some sort in my life, for good or for ill. The Super Bowl I'll always remember watching took place on January 31, 1993. Lance and Jayne Bultena came over to what was then my home in Falls Church, Virginia, where we watched the defining play of Super Bowl XXVII: Bills receiver Don Beebe stripping the ball from Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett at the end of what appeared almost certain to be a 64-yard fumble return. The touchdown Lett would have scored would have pushed the score to 59-17 in the Cowboys' favor for a Super Bowl record. But Beebe, his team's fate beyond recovery, never gave up on the play. The resulting touchback remains the most memorable Super Bowl play that had no impact whatsoever on the outcome . . . and immeasurable inspirational impact on viewers.

And so I find myself on the Sunday before the Super Bowl, as much in need of a sermon as in the mood for one. Here it is.

Let's begin with the text of Genesis 4:10-15 (RSV):
Mark of Cain[10] And the Lord said, "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. [11] And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. [12] When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth."

[13] Cain said to the Lord, "My punishment is greater than I can bear. [14] Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me."

[15] Then the Lord said to him, "Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold." And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him.
This is one of the most misunderstood passages in the Hebrew Bible. (All of Genesis, alas, seems particularly prone to misinterpretation.) Some Protestant denominations and the Church of Latter-Day Saints have struggled to overcome their history of treating this passage as a justification for physical and spiritual abuse of blacks. Misinterpretations of the so-called "curse and mark of Cain" do not concern me. It is patently obvious that the mark of Cain is a protective emblem -- indeed, the last gift that God confers on Cain before the first-born son of Adam and Eve "went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden."

The true significance of the mark of Cain is that it marks the first instance in the Judeo-Christian canon in which a human protests to God, "No. That is unjust. That punishment is more than I can bear." Among the readers of this forum, I am quite certain that I rank far, far behind Marc Roark (of Livres-Loi) and "Red Lion" in the firmness of my religious faith. I question whether any rational, let alone benign, order rules this world -- except in one respect. I am convinced that firmly reaching the contrary conclusion -- that is, requiring us as humans to live without hope, without redemption, without some sense that justice will prevail -- would inflict greater emotional pain than any of us could bear. The phenomenal ability of human beings to overcome more pain than they can bear may be the only evidence of God that I am able and willing to credit.

Super Bowl XLIAnd for that reason, if no other, I consider the mark of Cain a blessing rather than a curse. In like fashion the Super Bowl comes to me every year at a particularly difficult time. Every year, between the commercials, the halftime show, and the postgame hysterics, I look for plays that remind me of Don Beebe. As Cain learned, it is a sign, however hard to discern, of divine mercy that life does not punish us in ways we cannot bear. And the Super Bowl, my favorite midwinter ritual, emerges every year like the rainbow after the flood. Even when it's a blowout, the players don't give up. And neither should we. Suffice it to say that I'm pleased to treat the Super Bowl as my personal mark of Cain.


Blogger la Rana said...

Loved your appearance in the Times

1/28/2007 8:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch would concur, hence his Das Prinzip Hoffnung (Frankfurt 1959) The Principle of Hope (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986). In Douglas Kellner's words, 'Just as Hegel's philosophy articulated the odyssey of spirit through history and culture, so too does Bloch's philosophy chart the vicissitudes of hope. For Bloch, hope permeates everyday consciousness and its articulation in cultural forms, ranging from the fairy tale to the great philosophical and political utopias. For Bloch, individuals are unfinished, they are animated by "dreams of a better life," and by utopian longings for fulfillment. The "something better" for which people yearn is precisely the subject-matter of Bloch's massive The Principle of Hope, which provides a systematic examination of the ways that daydreams, fairy tales and myths, popular culture, literature, theater, and all forms of art, political and social utopias, philosophy, and religion -- often dismissed tout court as ideology by some Marxist ideological critique -- contain emancipatory moments which project visions of a better life that put in question the organization and structure of life under capitalism (or state socialism).' See

'The phenomenal ability of human beings to overcome more pain than they can bear may be the only evidence of God that I am able and willing to credit.' This brings to mind the Book of Job, a nice discussion of which is found in Oliver Leaman's Evil and Suffering in Jewish Philosophy (1995).

1/29/2007 2:49 AM  
Blogger Frank said...

Two thoughts:

1. As Helen Vendler says of Wallace Stevens' "Chaos in Motion and Not in Motion:"

"As self and beloved become, with greater or lesser velocity, the final dwarfs of themselves, and as social awareness diminishes dreams of self-transcendence, the poet sees dream, hope, love, and trust. . . .crippled, contradicted, dissolved, called into question, embittered.

"This history is the history of every intelligent and receptive human creature, as the illimitable claims on existence made by each of us are checked, baffled, frustrated, and reproved."

2. Leszek Kolakowski, via Andrew Sullivan:

"Religion is man's way of accepting life as an inevitable defeat. That it is not an inevitable defeat is a claim that cannot be defended in good faith. One can, of course, disperse one's life over the contingencies of every day, but even then it is only a ceaseless and desperate desire to live, and finally a regret that one has not lived. One can accept life, and accept it, at the same time, as a defeat only if one accepts that there is a sense beyond that which is inherent in human history - if, in other words, one accepts the order of the sacred.

"A hypothetical world from which the sacred had been swept away would admit of only two possibilities: vain fantasy that recognizes itself as such, or immediate satisfaction which exhausts itself. It would leave only the choice proposed by Baudelaire, between lovers of prostitutes and lovers of clouds: those who know only the satisfactions of the moment and are therefore contemptible, and those who lose themselves in otiose imaginings, and are therefore contemptible. Everything is then contemptible, and there is no more to be said," - Leszek Kolakowski, "Modernity on Endless Trial."

1/29/2007 3:14 PM  
Blogger Marc L. Roark said...

I have been thinking through your post and, quite frankly Jim, I am not sure that the most devout theologian could come to a different response. At the end of the day we all judge our normative world by what goes on around us. I think the best evidence of God may be humanity in the sight of suffering --

I am honored and feel amazingly inadequate by your consideration of my faith.


1/31/2007 5:25 PM  

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