The Catholic Thing
The Key that Fits the Lock, Part Four Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 29 August 2012

In Greek mythology, Zeus is called “father of gods and men.” But even though his procreative propensities are remarkable, it is not really true. Zeus is the son of Cronus and the grandson of Ouranos, the sky-god. He is preceded by a whole generation of Titans, the brothers and sisters of Cronus, whom he thrust from power, by the aid of strategic alliances with a few of those Titans, most notably the hundred-armed Cottus, Gyas, and Briareus – a boon to have on one’s side in battle.

He is called “father” rather because of the combination of force and intelligence which has resulted in his pre-eminence. His daughters, the Muses, confer some of that savoir-faire on men whom they especially favor. These men will not only see what is to be done but will be able, with their honeyed words, to persuade others.

In other words, the Greek religious system is a mythic presentation of the polis, founded upon controlled violence and persuasion – sometimes outright deceit. I don’t wish to discount the tremendous Greek achievement. It is a deeply human thing – but also a deeply fallen thing.

The first chapters of Genesis will have none of it. I am struck by the utter insouciance of the account of the Fall, which in so few words aims right at the heart of any attempt, ancient or modern, to raise political structures, and the violence they presuppose, to the status of idols. 

I’ve already noted the terrible change that sin works in Adam and Eve, replacing their nakedness with cunning. Now let us examine their response to the questions that God poses to them, starting with, “Where art thou?” 

God does not need to ask, “In what location may I find you?” In the psalms, to “dwell in the house of the Lord” or “to behold the countenance of God” is to dwell in a relationship of love. “Where are you?” is then an existential question. “Why have you not met me? Why do you hide from me? Why have you rejected me?”

Adam’s response is a childish dodge. He is hiding, he says, because of his nakedness. Again, we have been told that the nakedness is not a just cause of shame. It is rather shame that is the cause of Adam’s embarrassment. He is already alienated from his body and from the body of his wife. Nor can he be frank with his Maker. He is passing the blame.

Then God asks, “Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?”

        The First Mourning by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1888

What Adam then does should be seen as undermining the possibility of lasting communion and peace upon earth: “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.”

It’s Eve’s fault. No, rather it’s God’s fault. We may well embellish the response in the fashion of Milton’s Paradise Lost. “The woman – you know, that woman that you gave to me for my companion, so perfect, so acceptable, so wise – that woman gave me the fruit,” and now the voice drops to a grumble, “and I did eat.” In this one sentence, Adam sets himself at enmity with both God and Eve – never so guilty as when he ducks his guilt.

Eve, “not so loquacious,” as Milton shrewdly notes, gives us her version: “The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.” Hers is but half a dodge. The blame is placed on the serpent – on a creature beyond Eve’s control; and yet a beguilement requires someone to be beguiled, a fool, someone who places more trust in his or her own evaluation of things than in the commands of God. So Eve also suffers alienation in the very act of setting God aside.

I will treat of God’s judgment upon them at more leisure, in the next essay. For now, consider how much light these few verses shed upon the book of b’reshith – in Hebrew, “In the beginning.” For Genesis is, to the eye and ear of this reader accustomed to ancient poetry, a work of astonishing unity: I might say crushing and disillusioning unity, sparing no illusions of human greatness. 

Adam and Eve, cast forth from Paradise, beget two sons, Cain and Abel. Each son plies a trade without which there can be no human civilization: Cain is a farmer and Abel a shepherd. Of the two, the one most obviously necessary for cities is the farmer. There can be no city without a supply of dry storable grain. 

That, for the ancients, is what a city is: a place of granaries, protected by walls, political organization, and armies. It is no accident that when Cain is driven forth from his family, he “builded a city” and named it for his son. Cain is the elder son, the one who should principally benefit from inherited property. 

Yet we do not remember Cain for his seat on the chamber of commerce, but for his villainy. God rejects his half-hearted sacrifice, and Cain, seething with envy of his brother Abel, murders him. “And Cain talked with Abel,” says the verse – he “talked.” He used the medium of human intercourse – the verse does not say that they fought. Perhaps he took Abel aside, in a brotherly fashion but with evil intent. Then he slays his brother.

When God asks Cain, “Where is Abel thy brother?” the son dodges – as his father had. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asks, casting God’s question back in his teeth. The malice that was skulking and ducking in Adam is now shameless. 

Cain’s rhetorical question, implying that it is absurd to believe that we are our brother’s keepers, is not only a sign of alienation. It is a celebration of it. A first fruit of the builders of cities everywhere.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (14)Add Comment
written by Othe Joe, August 29, 2012
written by Jacob R, August 29, 2012

I will say that the first rule of thumb for any American man is to blame a woman, so it's helpful to know where we get that trait from.

If only Catholics waded into the murky waters of these intellectual forces which animate modern paganism more often, as Christian heroes did in the past, when they were victorious and not completely routed as we are now.

No one ever talks seriously about these things.
Do we as Christians, for instance, believe that God directly controls the winds? Or do we think that he has created some perhaps unaccountable force which dictates their movements?
Did God rouse the earthquake that killed all those people in that tsunami?
Who controls these planetary forces?
They don't seem to rejoice in death and suffering the way Satan does, with intellectual relishment, but, obviously, they do seem utterly indifferent to the huge amount of human suffering they cause.

Perhaps people wouldn't lose their faith so easily if we, collectively, did not avoid these issues our entire lives.
Forgive the crude and unoriginal metaphors, but strengthening one's faith, I think, must hurt like strengthening one's muscles and frighten like going on a sea voyage in a sail boat with no motor or climbing a tall mountain with no ropes.
When people stay safe in their easy beliefs, their beliefs stay weak.
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
written by Other Joe, August 29, 2012
Grump, someday your combination of literalism and perfectionism is going to get you in real trouble. In the meantime, I would love to hear your preferred story of how we got here and how we are. You must have one or are you a floater?
written by Rhoda, August 29, 2012
"Grump" - I am not a theologian, however I will attempt to address your questions, and would appreciate the added comments of any more scholarly readers.

I believe the question, "Where is your brother Abel?" is similar to the question addressed to Adam and Eve earlier. It was not a "trick question", but a question meant to elicit a confession and (perhaps) repentance from Cain. We see in the rabbinical tradition a teaching style in which questions are asked, rather than statements being made. The intent is to make the listener think and reflect.

Abel gave a sacrifice, Cain an offering. The person was not rejected, but Cain showed his reverence and respect for God to be less than Abel's.

When I wake up in the morning, I feel death working in my body. The older I get, the more this is so. Adam began to die from the moment he disobeyed God. We are all dying from the day we are born. If we are honest with ourselves, we know this is our fate.

written by debby, August 29, 2012
on the day the Church as re-named The Passion of St. John the Baptist, the one who didn't have all the answers but offered all of himself,
i just want to say again:


i've said it so many times before and the older i get, the less i feel the need to constantly "express" myself in "comments" - especially when we are not looking at one another, being "together" in conversation.
but, I LOVE THE WRITERS HERE and most of the people making comments truly enrich my life.

you are all in my prayers and my heart longs for Heaven all the more knowing we will one day (hopefully, all of us!)be in Union with The God Who Loves Us and Made Us for HIMSELF.
written by Randall, August 29, 2012
@Grump, if Genesis is so full of contradictions and has God asking "silly" questions like "Where is Abel?" and if this is so "obvious" then don't you think it would have been obvious to the writer of Genesis too? Do you really think so many millions of believers have been so dumb as to miss this over the centuries? Or has it occured to you that maybe YOU'RE missing something?
written by Robert Royal, August 29, 2012
Debby, you may have the biggest heart among all our readers. Thank you for your loyalty and encouragement.

The Management
written by Achilles, August 30, 2012
Dearest Grump,

I have read your comments here for a long time and each time I am moved to pity. Perhaps in this case it is your own intelligence that is tripping you up. Thomas Edison said “we can not know one millionth of one percent of what there is to know.” And Grump, if you were to really think about it you would have to admit that less than one percent of what you actually know, you know from personal experience. For the other 99% you have to rely on authority just like everybody else. Our choice is not about how much we are going to experience but who we choose as our authority. If we choose ourselves, we have chosen poorly.

If we take the facts as they are we have every reason to be humble about our own powers of intellect. Choose Jesus Christ as your source, who else has the “words of eternal life?” Then back that up with those who know like the Church Doctors. St. Augustine said “believe it and then you will see it.”

You have demonstrated such utter confusion in your refutations to Dr. Esolen. You speak of contradictions in the Bible but have failed to show even one real contradiction. The one example from this article, that St. Paul says “God is no respecter of persons” and making a false connection for God accepting Abel’s and no Cain’s sacrifice is very instructive if you have any interest in untangling the skein of confusion that has knotted up your will. God’s rejection of Cain’s sacrifice had nothing to do with persons as such, but rather the disposition of Cain’s heart, as was the acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice a sacrifice given with a glad heart and that of first fruits. God will not judge us for our accidentals, but for those things that we choose by our will. He sees our hearts Grump. Belief is an act of the will, a root cause, not a fruit of empirical study. IF you see it as such you have truncated your human person.

You are in my prayers Grump, please pray for me, your brother, Achilles.
written by Grump, August 31, 2012
@Achilles. I promised TCT's editors I would refrain from commenting for awhile as I need a hiatus and all of you do, too. However, I feel compelled to respond.

First, I do no wish to clutter up this forum with the countless contradictions in the Bible, for which no doubt you will be able to refute or defend. It serves no useful purpose because neither of us will be persuaded.

Secondly, I am glad you found what you believe is the truth and thank you for your prayers if it makes you feel better to pray. As for me, I no longer pray and never will again as previous countless prayers have gone unanswered.

Lastly, as long as we're on Genesis, "God saw that it was good" after his creation. As George Bernard Shaw put it, "I wonder what he would think now."

Sorry, Achilles. But to me the world is largely evil and an ugly place and the sooner I am on to either a better world or no other world at all, the better.
written by Melanie B, August 31, 2012
It would be really nice if this page contained links to parts 1-3. I arrived here via a link from another place on the web and haven't been following this series. I'd love to catch up; but nowI have to go hunting for the first three parts. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has found this frustrating.
written by Achilles, August 31, 2012
Dear Grump, To the contrary my friend, if you think you are aware of contradictions in the Bible, and you point them out and they are successfully refuted or substantiated, then everyone has had a chance to see how another thinks and be strengthened in their righteous thinking or disabused of falsehood. No one I know on the Catholic thing would wish to continue to think in error. Most here are much less interested in being right than knowing what is true.

I don’t pray for you because it makes me feel good and I am not Catholic because it works for me. God has graced me, a former unbeliever as obstinate, prideful, stubborn, willful and narrow as you are if not more, with a faith that would not have entered my wildest dreams 5 years ago.

What you choose to believe is an act of will, faith is a grace from God. My prayer is that God will grace you with faith. If it doesn’t happen now it will someday.

It saddens me to hear you speak with a death wish. This world was made good. Satan is evil, we are fallen and our ability to hurt one another seems endless. But God is good.

Good luck Grump
written by mj anderson, August 31, 2012
May I echo Melanie B? Links to the prior essays in any series would be much appreciated. This entry from Anthony Esolen is excellent.
written by debby, September 02, 2012
to Melanie B and MJ Anderson -
scroll down below the area to add your own comment and you will find an entire list of all articles written by the author of the post you are reading.
you can also go into the Archives on the site and search the author's name.

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