I recently read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden where a beautiful and powerful exegesis of the Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4 is found. East of Eden is based on this pivotal story in the Old Testament and Steinbeck presents a deep and thoughtful presentation of the human condition, specifically as an archetypal story of the human soul. He presents the murder of Abel as an act of rejection, jealousy, revenge, and guilt. “I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul. I’m feeling my way now—don’t jump on me if I’m not clear. The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt—and there is the story of mankind. I think that if rejection could be amputated, the human would not be what he is. Maybe there would be fewer crazy people. I am sure in myself there would not be many jails. It is all there—the start, the beginning. One child, refused the love he craves, kicks the cat and hides his secret guilt; and another steals so that money will make him loved; and a third conquers the world—and always the guilt and revenge and more guilt. The human is the only guilty animal…Therefore I think this old and terrible story is important because it is a chart of the soul—the secret, rejected, guilty soul.”
Steinbeck makes the brilliant point that in the story God did not condemn Cain for his unacceptable offering but simply that God preferred or liked Abel’s offering better. What Cain did not see, did not understand was that God was simply asking for a different offering, make another attempt, “If you do what is right will you not be accepted?” This hurt Cain and he felt rejected, and when we get hurt by rejection we almost always get angry and when we get angry we do violence of some kind, whether emotional or physical, and we feel bad for it, guilty for our actions which traps and ensnares us by a guilt that needs atonement, expiation of our guilt. This is a pattern that gets played out again and again in relationships, with couples, between parents and children, with friends and others that we deem important. It is an old story that resonates with truth; rejection is the hell we all fear. So please, love one another.