The Dark Side of the Soul: Human Nature and the Problem of Evil in Jewish and Christian Traditions

By Lowry, Richard | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

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.

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