From The Gift Of Mortality To The Name Of God (Jakob Helmut Deibl)

The following is a continuation of a series of articles corresponding to chapters of the book Preis der Sterblichkeit: Christentum und Neuer Humanismus (Freiburg im Bresgau: Verlag Herder, 2015), edited by Kurt Appel, translated by Rachel Thomas.  English editor, Carl Raschke.  This volume of essays represents one of the major works in the new Catholic “cultural humanism” from Central Europe. 

Kurt Appel in his inaugural lecture has shown  that the so-called priestly narrative of creation and the story of the Garden of Paradise and the Fall (Gen 1-3) can be compared to a periscope. In consequence, the displacement from the garden as well as the gift of mortality can be seen as “restitution measures, simulacra of the original protection”,[1] located in the withdrawnness of the tree of knowledge (as well as the seventh day).

The story of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4), which begins precisely where the reflections of the inaugural lecture have, at least for now, departs from the Biblical text concerning the Fall.  It builds on two opposing tendencies –  the protection given to Adam and Eve by God following the fall  and the continuation of human desire in multiple disguises along with its breaks, transitions, and shifts.  As we will see there are two different ways of understanding history. From the inaugural lecture I would like to focus on the change in perspective in the dynamics of the narratives.

The first motif in the story of Cain and Abel is that of the two brothers. Our attention is first directed toward Cain. “He is the main character, the firstborn son, the future head of the family, the new patriarch”[2], and is presented as a man by Eve: “I have acquired from YHWH a man” (Gen. 1).  Abel, on the other hand, is not specifically brought into the light, but receives his identity as conveyed through Cain as his brother: “And she gave birth to Abel his brother” (Gen 4: 2).

If at birth Cain’s God was the inaccessible reference point, Abel’s Cain moves to this place at birth. In the place of God, who represents the ganglion for the process of passing on life, we find now the figure of Abel, who manifests a concept of strength and genealogical continuity, as represented by the firstborn. The names are also descriptive. “Cain” can be associated with “acquisition” and “possession”[3], while “Abel” means “breath of wind”.  Abel’s name “speaks for itself as the wispy character of the fleeting life of the slain and the transience or nullity of man also (as) a possibility of being human in togetherness’ (Westermann …) should designate”[4].   It “is obvious that…the transitory nature, the nothingness, of man should also designate a possibility of being human in relation to one another” (Westmann). Abel thus takes on the gift of mortality in his very name. While Cain is subsequently portrayed as acting and speaking, Abel appears imitative only.  Thus he brings, following the example of Cain, his sacrifice (Gen 4: 3).  Cain is God’s interlocutor, but Abel remains silent.

The view presented here replaces the open place associated with God with a perspective that is superintended by the history of the strong, and therein becomes the frame of orientation for all human relationships, alignments, and desires. This initial situation repeats the perspective which had arisen in the story of the garden of paradise, where the tree of knowledge, which was not initially localized, but placed in the middle of Eden along with the tree of life at the center of human desire.

As a countermovement God invites Cain to a change of perspective that focuses on his needy brother and his responsibility toward him. God looks at the sacrifice of Abel and thus shows Cain in which direction he should cast his gaze. However, his gaze sinks to the ground and he refuses to look in the same direction as God. God speaks to this fallen countenance when he says, ” Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.  (Gen 4: 6) . Cain does not accept this invitation.  The only scene in which he turns to Abel ends with his murder.  Abel, who already has mortality in his name, has no defenses against Cain.  This is the first instance of dying mentioned in the Bible.

Why did Cain, the Mighty One who lacked nothing, kill Abel? Cain does not take God’s line of sight but endeavors to secure the only thing that seems to him to be unavailable, that is, God’s gaze upon him.  Seeing God’s favorable regard for Abel’s sacrifice made him realize there is a moment that eludes him. In turn, he experiences the emptiness that had settled in on the seventh day and the inaccessibility of the tree of knowledge. Cain realizes that even the power of the firstborn, as a matter genealogy, means to build on the “attempt to gain immortality through offspring”[6], not to “acquire” and “possess” that moment.

There is also a gap in his own name. The killing of Abel should erase in his mind any reminder that the genealogy in which Cain stands and the birthright that he possesses are limited by the unapproachable gaze of God as well as his own mortality. On the one hand, with the murder of Abel he wants to become the master of life and death.  Yet on the other hand he refuses to accepting God’s invitation to participate in the role God intended for him, that is, (Gen. 4: 4 -7),  to do what is right and to take care of himself.

However, Cain cannot bear the immediacy of this option: “I must hide from your presence” (Gen 4:14). He who looks in the same direction as God (i.e. turns his gaze to those who need attention), escapes his consuming gaze, and puts up a shield against this deadly divine immediacy (Ex. 33: 18-23)[7]. Cain receives a mark of protection (Gen. 4:15), and no one can take revenge on him. His genealogy then unfolds very successfully.  Beginning with Cain, seven generations are described in a triumphal procession, as it were, completing the entire cultural world of mankind: the founding of cities as centers of cultural achievement, livestock as the domestication of nature, the invention of craftsmanship for the production of tools and weapons and as a rationale for the arts.

From the standpoint of the Bible, however, cultural achievement is no guarantee of increasing humanization.  Instead it carries with it the shadow of escalating violence, as shown by the figure of Lamech (Gen 4: 23f). The genealogy of Cain flows into the violent song of the hero Lamech.  “While with Cain (as opposed to the behavior of the first humans) the defiance of his answer to God stands out (4.9), with Lamech the will to self-assertion against other human being, but also towards God, has become limitless.”[8] The figure of Lamech thus falls precisely into that line of descent, insofar as it installs one’s own desire as a comprehensive reference point, beginning with the fact that the tree of knowledge assumes an ever more localizable form and will be passed on from Cain as a matter of genealogical necessity.

At this juncture, however, there is a change of perspective that demonstrates both the specific nature of the biblical narrative of fratricide and prevents the Cain-Lamech line from becoming a universal trajectory of history from which we cannot escape. Let us now ask to elaborate the characteristics of the story of Cain and Abel in its parallels and differences from the founding history of Rome, the fratricide in which Romulus murders Remus. The basic structure seems similar.  Urban cultural development is preceded by fratricide, and the triumph of the strong is followed by a story of the victor’s successes

However, the theme of taking the side of the weaker brother, which is central in the biblical narrative from the outset, does not show up.  In the Roman narrative the vanquished one is excised from the success story.  Each mention of the name of the city refers solely to its victorious founder. All is known about Remus is that he was buried at the Aventine.  In contrast, in the biblical narrative blood “cries out” from the soil to God, who hears it (Gen. 4:10). “Cain wished to eliminate Abel; but he is not eliminated; the buried life screams.”[9] After a brief account of Cain’s successes, for whom the Bible has only eight verses (Gen 4: 17-24), there is a return to the memory of Abel.  With the birth of Seth Eve says that “God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.” (Gen 4:25).

Seth, whose name means “replacement,” supplants Abel and is given the task of carrying on the memory of his brother’s fractured genealogy. If Cain refused to look after Abel, and Lamech is worse than his predecessor on account of his bluster and boasting, then Seth himself becomes the embodiment of his brother’s image. He is quite a substitute.  His identity is therefore not in an attempt to put himself at the center and adopt a totalizing gaze, but is directed toward the other – and indeed toward the one who within history still commands a voice.

When the Gospel of Luke enumerates the ancestors of Joseph and introduces Jesus from the covenant history of Israel, not only the famous biblical figures David, Jacob, Joseph, Isaac, Abraham, Noah, Methuselah, and Enoch are mentioned, but among many others are also Shem, Seth, and Adam (Luke 3: 23-38). This personalized salvation story does not allude to the success story of Cain, but builds on Seth, the replacement for Abel. Biblical salvation history breaks from the context of natural genealogy and continues a fragile history that does not derive its logic from genealogical necessity, but rather, is an expression of the covenant.

Salvation history does not consist in the schema of “A bears witness to B, B testifies to C”, etc., but winds its way through numerous gaps and fractures, finally emerging as a cohesive narrative.  However, it is no longer the success story of the strong that perpetuates itself, but rather challenges us to adopt a change of perspective, a change corresponding to the line of vision that God had also set for Cain to adopt.

From the Christian point of view Jesus as Messiah is the hermeneutical key that offers a glimpse of the Bible in its entirety. He stands within the fragile covenant that makes its way through Abel-Seth, which effectively says that the entire Bible is in this “tradition” and can be read as Abel-Seth. But it is not a strong counter-history to the success story of Cain, but rather an invitation to a transformation of the gaze. It unfolds as Abel’s surprising post-story, starting where his story should have ended. It becomes the epilogue of the mute Abel who could never speak. It becomes the echo of the sky-high cries of Abel’s blood.

We thus are close to a critical understanding of history from a biblical perspective. Is it the Cain success story, or its countertexts and substitutions, all of which can be grasped as self-legitimizing concepts? Or is the Bible an epilogical narrative, which turns into a narrative about the abandonment of authoritative designs and the invitation to a reversal of the gaze. With the transition from Abel to Seth, where any attempt to appropriate history is fractured, the biblical account appears as an epilogical narrative.  In a fragile way the Bible will recount such transitions, which epilogically preserve the flow of history, where history itself ought to have come to an end, and finally become an invitation to continue updating the biblical narrative in later ages. Christianity is thus faithful to this epilogical narrative and the concurrent transformation of our own gaze.

The story of Abel and Seth, however, has another tag line. If the victorious tale of Cain is recapitulated in the violent hero Lamech’s song (Gen. 4:23-24), then the story of Abel and Seth invokes the unnamable name of God. “Seth also had a son, and he named him Enos. At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord.”  (Gen. 4:26)   Not only is the name of YHWH contrary to every justification of violence, the gift of the name of God also manifests in the seventh day, in the tree of knowledge, and in God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice.

In other words, in the “unsuitable and unavailable time”[10] of the seventh day, the time that steers us toward an open “place” in the “unoccupability of the garden of Paradise.” That place signifies the singular name of God as well as the openness of language. This openness is characterized by a vulnerability that makes the name of God disappear, whereby it becomes a mere potentiality of language. Never can its meaning be indicated straightaway, which is why it marks a rift that permeates language, introducing a void, a silence that prevents any self-enclosure of language.[11]

The invocation of the name YHWH is the only “development” associated with the Abel-Seth line, which can be contrasted with the series of cultural achievements on the part of Cain. The name of God thus signifies an openness that impinges upon all the breaks,  where “genealogism” and all forms of specification and systematizations must terminate.[12]

We must remember that genealogy is the essential medium for representing any kind of specification and systematization.  The Bible as a whole is not just an epilogue to Abel’s story, but continues to be inscribed in all the narratives of people who guard the vulnerable openness associated with the name of God. Designating the name of God also goes hand in hand with a new name for man. “Enos” means “human being” and carries the connotations of being “weak” and “mortal”.[13]

The descendant of Seth, whose name was entirely a reference to the Other, becomes the bearer of a new idea of humanity which, unlike the lineage of Cain and Lamech, does not have genealogically transmitted strength and the attempt to defend one’s own mortality through heroism or the construction of culture. The naming of God is linked to the gift of mortality and poses the question of what humanity means, what the human can be. Unlike Cain and Lamech, who turn their eyes away from their brother or fully immunize oneself by deterring the other, Enos and all those who will henceforth play a part in his story would have to learn a new form of palpability, which may also be implicit in the meaning of being “weak”.

Unlike Adam, Enos appears as a term for human beings “almost only in poetic texts,”[14] and thus stands at the crossroads of poetry and prayer, where the latter is the place of invocation for the name of God. Both language forms live in moments of inaccessibility and leave speech open to the danger of corrupting the name of God through its expression in language.  Can poetry and prayer thus also be forms of language that express the palpability of man in a concise manner of speaking?

Jakob Helmut Deibl is a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Systematic Theology in the special field of Fundamental Theology at the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Vienna.  His dissertation examined Gianna Vattimo’s suggestion of a transformation of the biblical motives of incarnation and kenosis (the incarnation and the relinquishment of the Divine Logos) with regard to a reinterpretation of Europe emphasizing the motive of the weakening of strong structures and noetic claims of absoluteness.


[1] Ibid, 7.

[2] K. Butting, Abel get up! The Story of Cain and Abel – and Schet (Gen 4,1-26), in: BiKi 58 (2003), 16. The following considerations are based on this article. See. also G. Fisherman, The Beginnings of the Bible. Studies on Genesis and Exodus (Stuttgarter Biblische Aufsatzbände 49), Stuttgart 2011, 42f. For many hints I thank Rita Perintfalvi.

[3] See K. Butting, Abel get up!, 16.

[4] K. Seybold, live, art., in: Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament II, Stuttgart / Berlin / Cologne / Mainz 1977, 337.

[5] K. Appel, God – Man – Time, B. The Gown of Grace and the Nakedness of Existence, 26f.

[6] Ibid.

[7] This invitation to a certain point of view may well be in the background of Jesus’ urgent admonition to Peter: “Satan, come after me again” (Mark 8:33).

[8] E. Drewermann, structures of evil. Part 1. The Yahwistic prehistory in exegetical view, Paderborn / Munich / Vienna / Zurich 1988, 156; see. 155-161, 164-170.

[9] See. C. Westermann, Genesis. 1. Subband. Genesis 1-11 (Biblical commentary Old Testament I / 1), Neukirchen-Vluyn 21976, 415.

[10] K. Appel, God – Man – Time, B. The dress of grace and the nakedness of existence, 30.

[11] Ibid.

[12]  See.K. Henry, Parmenides and Jonah. Four Studies on the Relationship of Philosophy and Mythology, Frankfurt a. M. 1966; id., Socially mediated nature relationship. Concept of Enlightenment in Religions and Religious Studies (Dahlem Lectures 8), Frankfurt a. M./ Basel 2007.

[13] Cf. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament I, Stuttgart / Berlin / Cologne / Mainz 1973, 374f.

[14] Ibid, 374.

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