The Garden and the Fall
The story of the fall in Genesis is the story of contagious desire, not desire in the romantic or the Freudian sense, but precisely the kind of desire that is awakened by displays of another's desire. The serpent's alluring gesture inspires Eve to see the fruit of the forbidden tree as desirable, as "pleasing to the eye." Behind this desire is the desire to be God-like, for the serpent tells Eve that the fruit will make her like God. The fall, then, involves two things: mimetic desire for the fruit and mimetic rivalry and resentment toward the divine. The forbidden tree is simply the author's device for making mimetic desire and resentment intelligible in narrative form. (1) Here, then, is the fall: mimetic desire and resentment in a situation in which there is no unsatisfied appetite and only One Transcendent Being against whom resentment might be aroused. It is, one might say, a perfect test case. The "test" that the tree represents is whether or not humans can tolerate even the most innocuous form of self-restraint and even the most beneficent form of transcendence without becoming resentful and rivalrous. If, under these circumstances, we humans chafe and connive for godlikeness and dissemble in our efforts to match or surpass our model/rival, how much more certain is it that we will find whatever social prestige our fellow creatures enjoy a perpetual stumbling block to our happiness and peace of mind. As the book of Wisdom has it:
. . . it was the devil's envy that brought death into the world, as those who are his partners will discover. (Wisd. 2:24)Even in a situation that is as unconducive to envy, covetousness, and resentment as the Garden of Eden, the serpent's gaudy desire is all that it takes to unhinge the human race and shove it on its grasping and violent "career."
We are creatures "made in God's image." Consciously or otherwise, we shape our lives according to our experience of God or whatever functions as a god for us. It is a truth we may deny, but we will never be able to keep from behaving in ways that validate it. As the prophet Jeremiah put it, once we humans fall into the caldron of mimetic desire, we behave like frantic camels in heat, running in all directions -- a frenzied "career" that ends, as Jeremiah points outs, at the sacrificial altar where human victims die (Jer. 2:23-24).
In verse 6 of the third chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. In verse 12, Adam scapegoats Eve: "It was the woman you put with me; she gave me some fruit from the tree." In verse 13, Eve scapegoats the serpent: "The snake tempted me and I ate." The fallen condition is summed up with breathtaking economy. The story is about how we humans fall into an alien and duplicitous relationship with God and one another because of an inability to be in the presence of the "other" -- whether a human other or the divine Other -- without succumbing to envy, resentment, guile, and dissembling. Adam and Eve cover their nakedness, now sensing that sexuality is fraught with uncertain dangers, as of course it tends to be in a world saturated with mimetic desire. Whatever the social dangers that sexual appetite might occasion, they are insignificant compared to those created when that appetite is contaminated with mimetic desire. After the fall, physical appetite becomes the slave of metaphysical desire. The fig leaf is by no means incidental. It is both a symptom of the dissembling that accompanies the fall and a symbol for the dangers that sexual attraction entails in a world where the mimetic passions -- covetousness, envy, and jealousy -- bedevil humanity's sexual relations.
As I said, the Bible's first act of violence is the killing of Abel by his brother Cain. Because siblings offer each other the most readily available models for mimetic desire, they very frequently become mimetic rivals. Myths, legends, and scriptures are filled with stories having to do with siblings in rivalry. Resentment, the product of those passions, is the stuff violence is made of, and in the Cain and Abel story it comes to violence. The Bible's first violence is as clearly the result of mimetic rivalry as humanity's fall is the fall into mimetic desire. The murder of Abel by Cain happens in chapter 4 of Genesis. Chapter 5 is taken up with a catalogue of patriarchs. In chapter 6 we learn that the earth is now "filled with violence" (6:11). It doesn't take the Bible long to lay before us the human problem.
Sacrificial Substitution: Cain and Abel
In the Cain and Abel story, the conflict reaches its crisis as sacrifices are being made to Yahweh. We're told that Yahweh found Abel's animal sacrifice more pleasing than the first fruits of the harvest that Cain offered. This seems unfair and even historically regressive if we think of an agricultural civilization as an advance over a nomadic one. The crucial issue here, however, is not the author's preference for shepherding over farming. The real issue -- of which the ancients were necessarily more aware than we -- is that blood sacrifices "worked" whereas those that involved no ritual slaughter often did not. In the Cain and Abel story, a bloodless sacrifice failed to resolve the rivalry between the two brothers in the same way that the London hanging in Patmore's poem failed to resolve the rivalry between the two spectators who had "disputed places" and left the hanging "with murderous faces." In both cases, and in others, the way to find out what the purpose of the sacrifice was is to notice what happened when it failed. The purpose of sacrifice is to prevent what happens when it fails. The one thing that can be said with utter certainty is that Cain's bloodless offering failed to extinguish his resentment. Like all sacrifices that fail, it exacerbated the tensions it was incapable of dissolving. In the end, the Cain and Abel story provides a parable of the sacrificial dilemma with which the Israelites would wrestle for centuries and with which we are still confronted. Under the cumulative pressure of the biblical revelation, the sacrificial system fails, beginning with its most abominable form, human sacrifice. But attempts to abandon the sacrificial system too abruptly deprive the society in question of its only effective ritual for curing itself of the tensions to which mimetic desire inevitably lead. When the Bible says that Abel's blood sacrifice was pleasing to God, it means that it was religiously and socially effective, whereas Cain's bloodless sacrifice was not.
There is, I feel, a tragic aspect to the story of Cain, similar in many ways to the tragedy that surrounded the life of the biblical Moses. Cain renounced the sacrificial underpinnings of religious and cultural life too casually. His ritual innovation was driven by no discernible moral or religious scruple. Lacking that motivation, his renunciation of sacrifice was accompanied by no heightened sense of moral and religious responsibility. To dispense with sacrificial systems without accepting greater moral and religious responsibility is to follow Cain down a dark road that, in the Bible, led in five generations to Lamech, who declares:
I killed a man for wounding me,The story of Cain shows what the history of the twentieth century shows, namely, that if we dispense with the sacrificial structures upon which religion and culture have for so long depended without at the same time renouncing the mimetic passions that made these structures necessary in the first place, then sooner or later we will become murderers. Does this mean that we must tolerate existing sacrificial structures that we find morally offensive? Emphatically not. It was Nietzsche who argued -- against the biblical tradition -- that we must summon the resolve to perform acts of sacrificial violence for which we may feel a moral repugnance. It is crucial to note that Cain does not renounce the sacrificial conventions of his day as morally repugnant and religiously meaningless, as do the later Hebrew prophets. There is ample biblical warrant for believing that humanity can learn to live without its sacrificial apparatus, and it seems to me that the pace at which we should try to do so ought always to be determined by genuine moral or religious promptings. Only in light of such promptings can we be reasonably confident that the effort required to live with fewer sacrificial structures will be made. For if we are to live without such structures, we will have to be able to renounce conflictual desires and abstain from the kind of social melodramas whose worst consequences the sacrificial system averts.
a boy for striking me.
Sevenfold vengeance for Cain,
but seventy-sevenfold for Lamech. (Gen. 4:23-24)
As obvious as it is, it has often been overlooked that the story of Cain revolves around the anthropological problem of sacrifice, just as the story of the fall revolves around the anthropological issue of mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry. Like many of the Bible's major themes, however, it is only as these themes recur ever and again throughout the Bible that one begins fully to realize their centrality. The story of Cain, for instance, doesn't really become fully intelligible until we get to the story of Abraham and Isaac. So let me turn to that.
1. For a related discussion, see Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence: Paul's Hermeneutic of the Cross (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 88-119, and Gans, The End of Culture, 190-202.