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Home / Poetry R. M. Rilke / Poetry / Genesis



Lessons from Genesis

Allegories contain many lessons. They challenge our imagination with a spectrum of plausible interpretations. Indeed, the story of Adam and Eve goes well beyond the apple (in a tropical garden it may have been the passion fruit, a kiwi, a pomegranate, a cherimoya, or even a mamey). We behold the human appetite for knowledge and the distablizing dangers of discovery: Loss of innocence – and of illusions.
We think of Prometheus, and of Goethe’s Dr. Faust. And, as in Faust, God did not destroy his creation, but released the searching human into the great adventure of ephemeral life, at the end of which there is a promise of salvation (“wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen” Faust II, 5 act, vers 11936).
The story of Cain and Abel is the story of man’s cruelty to man (homo homini lupus). Four human beings on Earth. Adam, Eva, Cain, Abel. And already one murder! Down to three. Violence at the very doorstep of Paradise. It is also the parable of God speaking directly to his creatures, to the criminal, as Jesus spoke to the outcast, to the adulteress, to the Samaritan woman. These outcasts, they too, are God’s creatures. No capital punishment yet. No eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. Cain is banished, not killed. There is a vague hope of rehabilitation. No lex talionis. Jesus comes back to this principle in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew V, verses 38-48)
There is another lesson to be learned from this story. How to deal with the inequalities of life. Some are rich, others poor. Some are healthy, others sick. This is not a question of merit. We have to deal with inequalities everyday, and it is the "how" that determines the wisdom of our actions. We do not kill our neighbour because he has a bigger and better house or a more beautiful spouse. We accept the inequalities as a fact of life. This is an important lesson.
Yet another lesson is that Abel, the nomad who moved with his sheep, was killed by his brother Cain, who had settled and chosen agriculture as a way of life. What does this mean? Is settled existence better or worse than nomal existence? Does settled existence further materialism? Is the nomadic existence closer to God, because less bound to the earth and to material goods?
On a lighter vein, we behold a quaint picture of pre-historic agriculture – and a whimsical God. Cain toiling the earth, the good farmer. God indifferent to the harvest and to Cain's offerings, manifesting his preference for the meaty offerings of the shepherd Abel, the keeper of sheep and goats. This God seems to prefer carnivores to vegetarians. A form of arbitrariness or just de gustibus non est disputandum?.
Centuries passed and humans multiplied, and with them injustice also grew and multiplied. There was a reasonably just man called Noah – only he, his family, and the animals in the arc would survive the floods. The crow flew to and fro to oversee the level of the waters, and the dove came back with an olive branch. Eventually Noah landed on the Armenian slopes of Mount Ararat. God regretted drowning most of mankind and renounced henceforth to employ such apocalyptic measures. A revised Covenant was made. A new Covenant with all of humanity (what was left of it, and with all future generations) – and with the animal world as well. Its sign was the rainbow. Colours of the Banner of Peace. Pax optima rerum.

Then Noah became a good farmer and planted a vineyard. He made good wine and took pleasure in it (Genesis 9, veses 20-21). Jesus would yet manifest his glory at the Wedding at Cana, transforming six stone waterpots filled to the brim with water -- into vintage wine (John, cahpter 2, verses 1-11). Ah, it is good to celebrate and be jolly. In vino veritas.

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