PETERSON: Cain And Abel: The Hostile Brothers


The following is a transcript excerpt from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series exploring the psychological significance of the biblical stories in the book of Genesis. You can now listen to or watch the lecture series on DailyWire+.

Back to Genesis. We’re already up to Genesis 4. “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord.” This is after Adam and Eve have been chased out of the Garden of Eden. What’s really cool about this — I really think that the Cain and Abel story is the most profound story I’ve ever read, especially given that you can tell it in 15 seconds. I won’t, because I tend not to tell stories in 15 seconds, as you may have noticed, but you can read the whole thing that quickly. It’s so densely packed that it’s actually unbelievable to me that it can be that densely packed.

The first thing is that Adam and Eve are not the first two human beings; Cain and Abel are the first two human beings. Adam and Eve were made by God, and they were born in paradise — what kind of human beings are those? You don’t know any human beings like that. Human beings aren’t born in paradise and made by God. Human beings are born of other human beings. That’s the first thing, and it’s post-Fall. We’re out in the world. We’re out in history now. We’re not in some archetypal beyond — although we are still to some degree, but not to the degree that was the case with the story of Adam and Eve. We’ve already been thrown out of the Garden. We’re already self-conscious. We’re already awake. We’re already covered. We’re already working. We’re full-fledged human beings. So, you have the first two human beings, Cain and Abel, prototypical human beings.

What’s cool is that humanity enters history at the end of the story of Adam and Eve, and then the archetypal patterns for human behavior are instantaneously presented. It’s absolutely mind-boggling, and it’s not a very nice story. They’re brothers; they’re hostile brothers. They’ve got their hands around each other’s throats, so to speak, or, at least that’s the case in one direction. So, it’s a story: the first two human beings engage in a fratricidal struggle that ends in the death of the best one of them. That’s the story of human beings in history, and if that doesn’t give you nightmares, you didn’t understand the damn story. 

In these hostile brother stories, which are very, very common, often the older brother, Cain — and this is very true in the Bible, but it’s true in all sorts of folk tales and all sorts of stories for that matter — has some advantages. He’s the older brother, and in an agricultural community, the older brother generally inherited the land — not the younger brothers. The reason for that was, well, let’s say you have eight sons and you have enough land to support a bit of a family and you divide it among your eight sons; then they have eight sons and they divide it among their eight sons. Soon everyone has a little postage stamp that they can stand on and starve to death on, and that just doesn’t work. So, you hand the land down in a piece to the eldest son, and that’s just how it is. It’s tough luck for the rest of them, but at least they know they’re going to have to make their own way. It’s not fair, but there’s no way of making it fair.

The oldest son has an additional stake in the stability of the current hierarchy. He has more of a stake in the status quo, so that makes him more of an emblematic representative of the status quo, and perhaps more likely to be blind in its favor. That motif creeps up very frequently in the hostile brothers’ archetypal struggle. Cain fits this — the story of Cain and Abel fits this pattern — because Cain is the one who won’t budge, who won’t move. He’s stubborn. The younger son, who’s Abel, is often the one who’s not so much of a revolutionary but perhaps more of a balance between the revolutionary and the traditionalist, whereas the older son tends to be more traditionalist, authoritarian — at least in these metaphorical representations. 

“And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord.” There’s the first human being: Cain. The Mesopotamians thought that mankind was made out of the blood of the worst demon that the great goddess of chaos could imagine. Well, the first human being is a murderer, and not only a murderer, a murderer of his own brother. The Old Testament — that’s a hell of a harsh book. You might think, maybe that’s a little bit too much to bear. And then you might think, maybe it’s true, too. That’s something to think about. 

Human beings are amazing creatures, and to think about us as a plague on the planet is its own kind of bloody catastrophe — a malevolent, low, quasi-genocidal metaphor. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not without our problems, and the fact that this book that sits at the cornerstone of our culture would present the first man as a murderer of his brother is something that should really set you back on your heels.

Watch this lecture in its entirety here.

“And again, she bare his brother Abel, and Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.” There you see a very old representation. There’s Abel there, and he’s got his sheep up on the altar, and Cain is bringing a sheaf of wheat, and I don’t know exactly what’s happening here with the blood, but the overall impression of the image is that something transcendent is communicating with this sacrifice. And you think, oh, how primitive. How primitive, these people were sacrificing to their God. Those people weren’t stupid, and this is not primitive. Whatever it is, it’s not primitive. It’s sophisticated beyond belief because the idea is that you could sacrifice something of value and that would have transcendent utility. That is by no means an unsophisticated idea. 

In fact, it might be the greatest idea that human beings ever came up with. It’s an answer to the problem that’s put forward in the story of Adam and Eve because we became self-conscious, and then we discovered the future, and then we knew we were going to die, and then we knew we were vulnerable, and then we became ashamed, and then we developed the knowledge of good and evil, and then we got thrown out of paradise. That’s a big problem, so what the hell are you gonna do about it? Well, sacrifice. That’s the hypothesis. That’s a hell of a hypothesis. That’s what we’re doing. You’ve made plenty of sacrifices, even to sit in this theater. Many people made plenty of sacrifices to have a theater like this exist, and many people made sacrifices so that we could actually freely engage in the dialogue that we’re engaging in in a theater like this. All of this is built on sacrifice. Sacrifice bloody well better work because we do not have a better idea. Sacrifice. What’s the counter position? Murder and theft. So, let’s go with sacrifice, shall we? And perhaps we won’t consider it so damn primitive — because it’s not so primitive. 

“And again she bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain was a tiller of the ground.” Some people have read into this the eternal battle between herdsman and agriculturalists, which raged in the American West, for example, because the herdsmen liked to have their herds, sheep, cattle go wherever they were going to go. Of course the agriculturists, the farmers, liked to have things fenced off. The agriculturalists actually won in the final analysis. Abel is a keeper of sheep, and that’s interesting because that makes him a shepherd, and I think that’s part of the critical issue here. 

If you look at Michelangelo’s statue of David, which is another staggering work. David is no trivial figure. Of course, it’s David who slays Goliath, and Goliath is like the giant of the patriarchal enemy. Middle Eastern shepherds had to take care of sheep, and they’re edible. The lambs are very vulnerable, and there were lots of wild animals around. It wasn’t like England in the sixteenth century. There were lions, and you had a slingshot or a stick or some damn thing. Your job was to keep the sheep organized and not let them be eaten by the lions alone, so you had to have a clue and be tough and self-reliant. You had to be able to take care of a lot of vulnerable things. You had to be able to do it on your own. That’s all built into the shepherd metaphor, and it’s a tough thing. It’s not a great metaphor for modern people because we tend to think of the shepherd as someone like Little Lord Fauntleroy — certainly not a hyper-masculine, lion-killing monster. That’s not a shepherd. A shepherd sort of dances around; that’s not the metaphor here.

“So Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord.” He’s participating in this sacrificial ritual. “And Abel, he brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering.” You don’t know why that is, and this is a built in ambiguity. I think there’s textual hints, but I’m not sure. “Abel brought the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof.” So what does that mean? He brought high quality sacrifice. You don’t know that Abel’s sacrifice is low quality because it doesn’t say Abel brought God some wilted lettuce and then burnt it. It doesn’t say that. But there isn’t a sentence there that talks about how high quality Cain’s sacrifice is. In any case, “the Lord had respect unto Abel and his offering.” There’s a hint that Abel’s putting a little bit more into the whole sacrificial thing than Cain, but there’s also a hint that maybe God is liking you a little better than he’s liking him. That’s, I think, useful from a literary perspective because there is that arbitrariness about life. 

With my own children, for example, one of them, I would say, things come easy to him. He’s lucky, fortunate — however you want to put it. He seems to be that sort of person. Whereas with my other child there’s one horrible Job-like catastrophe after another, and it’s so strange to see that because, as far as I can tell, the characterological differences are certainly not accounting for the difference in destiny. The one child who’s had so much trouble, as a child was just a wonderful child — amazingly happy and easy to get along with and fun. And they had a terrible time of it. So, who knows what God’s up to, but distributing fate equally certainly isn’t one of them.

“And the Lord had respect unto Abel and his offering: But unto Cain and his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth.” “Wroth” is a tough word. These are translated many times. It’s hard to get the full flavor of the words, but “wroth” — his countenance fell. Well, to have your countenance fall is to have it be heavy. Depressed, for sure. Angry, for sure. Resentful, probably. “Wroth” — that’s anger. Cain is not a happy clam; his hard work is being rejected by God. That’s worth thinking about because you think about how human that story is. We could say you might be a useless character, and you’re whining about how catastrophic your life is, and it’s pretty much obvious to everyone around you — and you — that it’s your fault. You just don’t try. You don’t wake up in the morning. You don’t get a job. You don’t engage in things. You’re cynical and you’re bitter and you’re angry. And you don’t try to help the people near you, and you don’t try to fix up your own life, and you don’t take care of yourself. And then things go wrong and, well, what do you expect? But that doesn’t mean someone in that situation will just say, “Well, that’s okay. I deserve it,” then they’ll be happy about it. They won’t. They’ll be absolutely bitter about it and angry. 

But put that aside for a moment. There are people who seem to struggle very forthrightly and still have one catastrophe after another happen to them. There’s no easy answer in this story. It’s like you can fall afoul of God because your sacrifices are second rate, or you can just fall afoul of God and you don’t know why. Well, tough luck for you. Then what happens in either case is exactly this, almost inevitably. Cain was wroth, and his countenance fell. People like this write to me all the time. I’ve seen many, many of them as clients. They say they’re 20 (not so often), 30 more commonly, sometimes 40. Their lives haven’t gone well. They’re in a pit of despair of one form or another, and not only are they in a pit of despair, but they’re also extraordinarily angry about it. And God only knows what they would do with that anger if they had the opportunity to give it full voice.

One of the things I’ve always thought about Hitler is that you have to admire Hitler. He was an organizational genius. People don’t refuse the ambition to become Hitler because they don’t have the genocidal motivation. They don’t follow that pathway because they don’t have the organizational genius. They’ve got the damn motivation. If you take a hundred people randomly and you talk to them — and you really talk to them — you’ll find that 5% of them would take their vengeful thoughts pretty damn far if they were just given the opportunity. In fact, they do because they make life miserable for themselves and often for their family and sometimes for anybody they can come near. Then maybe another 20% of people have that bubble up in them on a pretty damn regular basis. 

So, you can have some sympathy for Cain. Cain and Abel don’t just represent two archetypal types of being. It’s not like you’re Cain and you’re Abel and you’re Cain and you’re Abel. It’s like you’re half and half, and you’re half and half, and you’re half and half. This is two different potential patterns of destiny, and you don’t manifest one purely and the other zero. It’s the line between good and evil that runs down the human heart. It’s exactly the same idea. Maybe you’re more like Cain or maybe you’re more like Abel, but there’s still a little Cain in you no matter how Abel you are. And maybe more than a little. And probably more than a little. 

If you watch your fantasies, which I would very much recommend, you’ll find that they show you dark things about you that will shock you if you allow yourself to be conscious of what you’re thinking. It’s a good time when you’re having an argument with someone, especially someone you love, to just watch the pictures that flash in the back of your mind. That’s part of coming into contact with what Carl Jung called “the shadow,” and the shadow is the manifestation of Cain. That’s a perfect way of thinking about it. Jung was not someone you mess around with lightly. He said the human shadow has roots that reach all the way to hell, and Jung meant that. That’s no metaphor for him. Now he might not have meant it in the same way that a Fundamentalist Christian from the Southern US might mean it, but I would say that Jung meant it in a way that’s far more terrifying — and also far more true. 

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Harvard. He is the international bestselling author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules For Life, and Beyond Order. You can now listen to or watch his popular lectures on DailyWire+.

Juliette Fogra is a fine art painter and graphic designer and was trained as a classical musician. She was the illustrator of Dr. Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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