The Dark Side of the Soul: Human Nature and the Problem of Evil in Jewish and Christian Traditions
Lowry, Richard, Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Cain said to Abel his brother, "Let us go out to the field." And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. (Gen. 4:8)(1)
It is an ancient story, wrapped up in a vision of the world's creation that the modern mind is inclined to take with a grain of salt. Yet, for all its mythic proportions, it is a very human story. Cain and Abel were brothers at the dawn of time, the first two natural offspring of the primordial man and woman, Adam and Eve. Cain, the older and presumably the stronger, was a tiller of the ground; Abel, his younger brother, was a keeper of sheep. Both brothers had brought an offering to God. Abel's was accepted; Cain's was not. The reaction of the aggrieved older brother might have to be explained to a visitor from another solar system but not to a human being born of earth. He was "very angry, and his countenance fell" (4:5). In your anger "sin is couching at the door," God had warned him, and "you must master it" (4:7), but Cain did not master it. Instead, he lured his brother out to the field, where he thought no one could see and there murdered him. "Where is Abel your brother?" God then asked him. "I do not know," he brazenly replied, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (4:9). To the very end there was neither compassion for Abel nor remorse for killing him. Cain's only grief was for himself, that he had been found out and punished.
The tone of the story makes it quite clear that Cain's evil deed did not come from the prompting of some malign demigod, as is so often the explanation for human evil in other ancient literatures; nor was it the result of dread Ananke, the inexorable Necessity of the Greek tragedians. It was something that issued from his own nature, which is to say from his own intrinsic human nature. Sigmund Freud once observed, somewhat cynically, that "each of us will be well advised, on some suitable occasion, to make a low bow to the deeply moral nature of mankind; it will help us to be generally popular and much will be forgiven us for it."(2) These ancient scriptures of the Jewish and Christian religious traditions make no such low bows. Human nature, in their view, is capable of every wickedness.
If it is not Cain murdering his brother, then it is his descendant Lamech killing a man on slight provocation and then struttingly, triumphantly boasting of it before his two wives (Gen. 4:23-24); or the two cunning daughters of Lot getting their father drunk and then seducing him (Gen. 19:30-38); or the woman who is willing to have a child cut in half rather than see the other woman have it whole (1 Kgs. 3:16-28); or Solomon's use of the remnants of five conquered peoples as slave labor in construction projects (1 Kgs. 9:15-24). Murder, rape, cruelty, theft, guile, treachery, callousness, ruthlessness, abuse of power and authority - it is all there, unflinchingly sketched out in the most vivid colors. Even King David, biblical hero par excellence and sweet singer of psalms, cunningly contrived to have his loyal captain Uriah slain in battle so that he might possess Uriah's wife (2 Sam. 11:2-27), for he had seen her from his roof late one afternoon while she was bathing, "and the woman was very beautiful" (11:2): human, all too human - especially if one has the powers of a king.
From the standpoint of the religious traditions that are rooted in these scriptures, the problem with all this unflinching recognition of the soul's dark side is to understand how it got there. For, that is not at all what the Creator appeared to have had in mind. It is a problem even for those portions of the Jewish and Christian traditions that do not take their scriptures as literally true in every jot and tittle. In the first creation story recounted in the book of Genesis, we are told that God, having labored six days to create the world, looked upon all that God had made - "and, behold, it was very good" (1:31). At the center of it all were two human creatures, man and woman, the primordial pair from whom all subsequent generations would descend (Gen. 1:26-31). They had been made in the image of God, after God's own likeness; behold, they, too, were "very good." God blessed them and said to them, with a distinct tone of parental pride and confidence: "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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" (1:28). What an auspicious beginning for the human race!
Then, with hardly any transition at all, we begin to sense that there is something grievously amiss in this newly created bearer of the divine image. First comes the disobedience of the man and woman in the paradise of Eden (Gen. 3:1-13). It was not a heroic disobedience, as some have tried to represent it but a mere pusillanimous yielding to temptation. "The serpent beguiled me" said the woman, "and I ate [of the forbidden fruit]" (3:13). The man went even further in disowning responsibility: "The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate" (3:12, emphasis mine). Next comes the story of Cain, then Lamech, and on and on it goes, verse upon verse, chapter after chapter. After only a few human generations, even the Creator came to have second thoughts about whether these creatures were really "very good," as God had first pronounced them or, indeed, whether they were any good at all. For God "saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart" (Gen. 6:5-6). At the risk of making complex things seem over-simple, we might say that virtually everything else in the books of the Bible, beyond Gen. 8, is the story of God's endeavor to make the best of these human creatures despite their disappointing flaw - that "the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Gen. 8:21).
So God …
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Publication information: Article title: The Dark Side of the Soul: Human Nature and the Problem of Evil in Jewish and Christian Traditions. Contributors: Lowry, Richard - Author. Journal title: Journal of Ecumenical Studies. Volume: 35. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 1998. Page number: 88. © 1998 Journal of Ecumenical Studies. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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