Cain and Abel

The working definition of literature stated above gives you a lens through which you can view the Bible.  Your first task is to look for how individual texts portray recognizable human experience.

For illustration, feel free to take time to read the story of Cain and Abel as narrated in Genesis 4:1-16 before moving on the analysis that follows.  Then, instead of moving immediately to the following paragraphs, formulate answers to the three primary questions to ask of a literary text, as follows: (1) What human experiences does this passage present or portray?  (2) What perspective does the author take toward those experiences?  (3)  What is artistic about the author’s handling of the resources of literary technique?

Looking at the story through the prism of our three-pronged definition of literature from the previous section yields the following results:

  1. Does the story of Cain and Abel portray human experience?  Yes, in abundance.  Here is a beginning list of the conditions and emotions it touches on: sibling rivalry, domestic violence, the “model” child versus the “problem” child, guilt, remorse, envy, lying, self-pity, harboring a grudge, giving in to evil impulses, and refusal to admit wrongdoing.

  2. How does the author interpret human experience?   The story asserts that crime will be punished.  The story is not just a tale of murder, but also of moral judgment and punishment.  Following the archetypal pattern of the crime-and-punishment story, the author introduces the criminal (verses 1-4a), gives a motive for the crime (verses 4b-5), describes the crime itself (verse 8) and the arrest, trial, and sentencing (verses 9-12), as well as Cain’s ultimate punishment (verse 16).  By means of this pattern of crime and punishment, we leave the story understanding that murder is wrong and that sin leads to punishment.  The story shows what is evil and what is good. This is only the beginning of what the story communicates by way of theological and moral ideas.

  3. Does the story possess artistry?   Yes.  The plot of the story is masterfully organized, as noted above.  It is a whole and complete action with a beginning, middle, and end.  Despite its brevity, the story is a masterpiece of characterization in regard to both Cain and God.  The presentation of dialogue is equally masterful.  The story is a suspense story in which we are repeatedly led to wonder how Cain will respond to various choices that are placed before him. And so forth.