From almost the beginning to the very end of the Book of Genesis, one theme whirls through many variations: war and peace between brothers (and one pair of sisters).
The war between Cain and Abel is the first event outside Eden, the first event of "normal" human history. Why? Why do humans turn to killing when they leave the Garden of Delight? Abel, the second-born child whose name means "Puff of Breath," and Cain, the first-born whose name means "Possessive," bring offerings to God—the fruit of their labor in field and pasture. Abel's offering is accepted, Cain's is rejected.
Cain is angry—what else would you expect? But he says nothing. God speaks the first word: "Why are you glowering?" God waits. There is no answer. Instead Cain tries to turn his flaming face away, lest it betray his anger. God tries again: "Why has your face fallen? If you intend good, lift it up!"
If we think of Cain and Abel as our own children, we might imagine ourselves as parents asking them these questions: "Look at me! Talk to me! Answer me!"
Cain still gives no answer. Hearing none, God continues, "If you do not intend good, sin crouches at the door. Its urge is toward you, but you can rule over it." Cain gives no answer to God. Instead he speaks to Abel, to his brother.
Wait. Cain seems to speak to Abel, but the text is very strange: "Cain said to his brother Abel...." What? What did Cain say? In most such passages of Torah, what follows these words is a quotation, a saying. Just above, the same words about God "saying" to Cain are followed by what God said.
But here there are no words, there is no quotation. Some contemporary translations leave an empty space, three dots, a silence. No more can Cain speak to Abel than to God. So the story continues, wordless. "So it was through their being in the fields that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him."
Again with our own children vividly before our eyes, we can see the story in a new way. We can see them refusing to face our own parental challenge, failing to encounter us—and taking out their anger on each other, on someone weaker than an awesome parent.
But why is the Parent so terrifying? Why did God reject Cain's sacrifice in the first place? And once Cain got angry, would there have been no better, gentler way for God to invite Cain into an encounter? Surely we can share Cain's initial anger at his Parent's favoritism. And even though we are filled with horror at Cain's twisting of his anger against God into violence against Abel, we can still empathize with the fear that made him do that twisting.
Perhaps by this point in the story, God the Parent, Reality, looked grim and awesome. God had told Eve and Adam to choose a life of unknowing blissful childhood, and they have refused. They have chosen instead to grow up, leave childhood, shape their own futures, even at the risk of death.
Their choice of independence hurtles them into a world of scarcity, where food comes hard, through sweaty toil. And nurturing comes hard too: There is a dearth not only of material support, but also of love and acceptance. God can respond fully to just one brother.
Which brother? The easy choice would be the older one. The one who in every family already is bigger, stronger, when the younger sib arrives. The one who gives his parents their first assurance of a biological future. The one who in many social systems, including the Israelite law of inheritance, wins more wealth and deference than his younger sibs.
Cain and Jacob
But God responds not to the older Cain but to his younger brother, Abel. In a world of scarcity, God reverses the "natural" order. Amidst these narrowed choices, God calls Cain to what is a redemptive choice: If you want to grow up, grow up all the way: Face God fully. Argue. Put your anger into words. This encounter is what God invites Cain into.
But Cain rejects adulthood. Perhaps he is afraid. Or perhaps he hears his parents' wistfulness for Eden; so instead of growing up into a new relationship with God, he tries to regress to a still older one. Nostalgically he tries to remain a child. But there is now no bliss in childishness. To be childish now means to be sullen and resentful. To be sullen now means death. So Cain bequeaths to human history the long, long struggle to grow beyond the sullen rage at life that tricks us into murder of each other.
"Grow up!" says God. Challenge Me, answer Me, wrestle Me. That is adulthood.
If we fail to wrestle God, we will murder a brother; just as it is only when Jacob learns to wrestle God that it becomes possible for him to make friends with his brother.
If we refuse to speak truth to power, says the story, we will end up speaking lies or silence to the powerless—and doing murder. If we refuse to see clearly, truthfully, the world our parents have bequeathed us, says the story, then we will be unable to make the world we want to make.
The Children of Abraham
But the Bible then moves on from the saga of the mothers and fathers of the human race to a smaller arena, the mothers and fathers of the Jewish people. Here again we hear the motif of the brothers' war, in a series of variations. There is even a story of two sisters' struggle.
And in these stories, something new happens: The conflicts are warlike, but not fatal. Indeed, in each generation, the outcome is a reconciliation, until the brothers' war itself can be extinguished—or rise to a new level. It is almost as if God learns from the mistakes and failures of the earlier saga and starts over to work things out another way.
So now we enter the saga of the children of Abraham. Generation after generation in the saga, there rises the issue of "firstbornness." It is settled differently from its settlement in the story of Cain and Abel. There God chooses the younger, but the older rejects that settlement. So the conflict becomes irreconcilable, and the first-born "wins": He destroys his younger brother.
In the Abrahamic saga, generation after generation, God again—as with Abel—chooses the later-borns. But in this saga, the first-borns "agree" to lose. They lose in power and in blessing, both as a channel of material prosperity and as a channel of redemption. And unlike Possessive Cain, they step aside.
By doing this, by stepping back, they make it possible for the conflicts to be reconciled. Generation after generation, the stories end not with death but with a fragile peace in which the younger brother holds the limelight: The Bible focuses on Isaac rather than his older brother Ishmael. Yet Ishmael is not left empty, he is blessed as forefather of a people. What is more, the two brothers meet in love when their father dies. The Bible focuses on Jacob rather than his older brother Esau, but Esau is not left empty. He survives with many flocks and followers to establish his own people in Edom, and here too the two brothers meet lovingly after decades of separation.
Two sisters, Leah and Rachel, enter into struggle. (Indeed, one of them calls it an "Elohim-struggle," a God-struggle, in which she is able to prevail—in language that parallels the more famous night when Jacob, frightened of re-encountering his brother, wrestles God and prevails.) Here neither wins a clear victory in love or child-rearing, and neither achieves a full reconciliation. The relationship is much more complicated. In the next generation, the Bible focuses on Joseph, second youngest of 12 brothers. He rises above them all and, after a story of fury, hatred, and separation, is reconciled with them.
And then, Joseph's two sons test out the final resolution of the issue. What happens with these two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh? Jacob, their grandfather, insists on blessing them. Jacob, who had fooled his father into giving him the first-born's blessing, leaps across a generation to end the collision over firstbornness. Jacob, who has learned how to stop wrestling with his brother and wrestle with God instead, shows Manasseh and Ephraim how not to wrestle with each other.
Jacob recognizes and affirms his own victory over his first-born brother by reversing the hands with which the blessings should be given. The right hand—the first-born's hand—he reaches out to Ephraim, the second-born. The left hand—the second-born's hand—he reaches out to bless Manasseh, the first-born.
But in the same moment he dissolves the tension, for he blesses them simultaneously, with a single blessing. Lest they miss the point, he literally crosses his arms to bless them "backwards" and explicitly rejects Joseph's objection that he has it wrong. And he blesses them both in the same breath, saying "By you"—a singular you, each of them singularly at the same instant—"shall Israel bless, saying, God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh." And indeed Jewish tradition teaches to this day that children be blessed "that they be as Ephraim and as Manasseh."
Why these two? Why not as Joseph the ruler over Egypt, or as Jacob who wrestled God, or as Abraham who went on the trackless journey? Because here at last are two brothers who share the same blessing, who do not have to suffer exile or separation or despair or death for each other's sake. Says Jacob, your blessing as a people is to be like these two: blessed in your loving friendship, in your ability to go beyond the brothers' war.
Why all this concern over the war between the first and second brother? Why should it permeate the Book of Genesis? Because with it the Bible accomplishes a marvel of two-level teaching.
First it teaches that the first-born is not to dominate—almost certainly a teaching intended to reverse and resist a previous social politics in which the first-born won wealth, power, and blessing simply by virtue of birth. And then it teaches that the second-born is not supposed to rule either. What is supposed to happen is reconciliation, and finally the dissolution of the conflict itself. But even the dissolution of the conflict must keep its memory alive, or else the tugs of blood, fondness, charisma, and power may revive and people may regress to letting the first-born rule again.
What a subtle teaching of how to end domination! To a modern hearing, the brothers' war seems real enough—ask almost any brother, almost any sister. And the struggle among age-mates still burns: Ask the schoolchildren of Littleton, Colorado. But even this seems not the sharpest struggle of our public lives. Perhaps the substitution of women for the second-borns in these stories and men for the first-borns would carry something like the same trumpet blast of liberation. Try it: The women who have for centuries been powerless "win," time after time—but each time there is a reconciliation.
Indeed, we might read this saga of the powerless younger brother who comes to the fore as a tale about not only brothers but also other pairs of powerless and powerful: the poor facing the rich, blacks facing whites, women facing men, Jews facing Gentiles, the gay facing the straight, the crippled facing the healthy, the speechless trees and ozone facing the talkative human race. All the powerless of our own society, in their relation with the powerful.
Read this way, the saga loses none of its power for talking about the uses of power in that smallest of societies, the family. It loses none of its energy for laying bare the agonies of those who literally are brothers, sisters—still, today, at war and struggling to make peace. But the saga gains power and energy if we hear it speak to every collision of the powerful and powerless in which we act and live.
It gains power and energy for change if we can identify ourselves with Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph struggling to win free of the power their older brothers are born to—and then can identify ourselves with Ishmael, Esau, Judah struggling to win free of the humiliation and the weakness their younger brothers have put upon them. So just as Cain's murder of Abel is the first consequence of exile from Eden, the teaching of Ephraim and Manasseh is to be the key to reopen Eden. It is the Cain-and-Abel story that must be overcome if the gates to re-enter Eden are to open.
So the threads of Genesis lead us to this new beginning, beyond the brothers' war. The new people acting on its new knowledge is to be one model of how the human race as a whole might redeem the world.
One model. The model that can end in reconciliation. Yet we move from Genesis into the Book of Exodus, and there it looks as if the model vanishes. In Exodus, God calls Israel God's own "first-born." This is patently untrue, since Israel is the newest and poorest of the peoples. Egypt and Babylon are far older, richer, more powerful, smarter. So God reverses the "natural" order, and chooses as first-born a pack of slaves.
But now the story changes. Egypt, the older brother, refuses to step back as had Ishmael, Esau, and Judah. Like Cain, Egypt insists on its older-brother status. But this time a God who has grown in experience through the generations of Abraham will not permit the older, stronger, to keep enslaving the younger, weaker brother.
So in Exodus, liberation cannot be achieved until the powerful have been shattered and the oppressed have departed, once and for all. With Pharaoh there seems to be no reconciliation.
This pattern, the pattern of Exodus, has impressed itself with great power on the minds of every people that has learned the Torah or has learned its secularized analogues, like Marxism. It is the model for modern revolutions, national and social, where the saving remnant hopes to wipe out oppression and corruption, depart physically or politically from the oppressors and corrupters, and remake their country. The pattern has been so powerful that we have paid little attention to the alternative that emerges from Genesis: the war and peace of brothers.
Yet the Prophets of Israel looked beyond the Book of Genesis to see a future in which, "In that day, Israel shall be the third alongside Egypt and Assyria, each a blessing in the midst of the earth—for Yahweh of the multitudes has blessed each, saying: ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance'" (Isaiah 19:24-25).
The model of the brothers reconciled.
Today we need the model of the brothers. For there are many struggles where we do not want to destroy the oppressor or separate into a new society. Instead we need liberation-with-reconciliation. Not the gruesome grin of the powerless commanded to love their taskmasters, nor the gracious smile of the powerful who are glad to love their serfs. But the free laughter of wrestlers, where the grapple of liberation and the clasp of love are intertwined.
How many of us, women or men, want women to be freed from men by smashing men and leaving them? How many of us, black or white, want blacks to be freed by smashing America or leaving it?
Exodus may be the last resort in every struggle. If we must, we must. If the stronger refuse to step aside, then like Pharaoh they may end on the ocean floor. But we should know that the door out is not the door in. Exodus is not the path to Eden.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the author of Godwrestling—Round 2, among many other works of spiritual renewal, was director of The Shalom Center when this article appeared. He and his brother Howard Waskow also wrote Becoming Brothers, a "wrestle in two voices" that tells the story of their own struggles and reconciliations.