Hellenism vs. Hebraism on the Inevitability of Tragedy: Studying the Cain Ad Joseph Stories

Article excerpt

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? …