Art as Midrash: Cain and Abel, The Offerings

Genesis 4:1-8

By Peggy Berman de Prophetis

I. Introduction
As soon as we begin to read the Bible, we are creating Midrash ‘ that is, we are interpreting what we read in order to bridge the distance that separates us from the text. That distance may be temporal, physical, philosophical, or cultural. In any case, it is idiosyncratic, because the biblical text is open to various interpretations. We can in a way trace midrash, (that is, textual interpretation) to Moses, who, as tradition says, received both the written and the oral laws when he stood atop Mount Sinai. What is the oral law if not a complement to understanding the written one?

Jews have a long history of textual interpretation. There is the famous story in the Babylonian Talmud (Menahot 29b) that tells of Moses sitting in the academy of Rabbi Akiba and not recognizing that his own words are being interpreted. They were already being elaborated upon according to the understanding of Akiba. According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, even the Torah itself, as a report about revelation, is a midrash.1

Jacob Neusner describes the midrash-ic method as writing with Scripture as opposed to writing about Scripture. By this he means that ‘the received Scriptures formed an instrumentality for the expression of a writing bearing its own integrity and cogency, appealing to its own conventions of intelligibility, and, above all, making its own points.’2 This statement can equally apply to art as midrash.

Before there was writing, people were telling stories by drawing them on the walls of caves. They were expressing themselves by image-ining. Art is the space where there is a tension between text and the imagination. Art is another way of thinking, of interpreting, criticizing, and explaining. Although the Bible is principally narrative, it is full of visual images. Some of the stories can be turned into illustrations for example, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; but there are also visions and dreams, like those in Ezekiel (1:4-28; 10:1-22; 37: 7-10) and Amos (7:4-9; 8:1-3; 9:1). I will call them unrealized images. These images are painted on the canvas of the mind. Words provide the color; sentences are the brushstrokes.

An artist approaching biblical text, like a writer, tries to fill in details and interpret visual cues. The style may reflect the artistic norms of that historical period, which would, in turn, affect its choice of details. The artist is expressing his/her imagination in terms of color, line, composition. Further, in giving form to this expression, the artist may contemporize and/or nationalize the story, thus introducing social, political, or ethnic commentary. While there are dictionaries of words, there is no equivalent dictionary giving a fixed meaning to color, line, shape, etc. Thus the very act of interpreting a written text without words, already introduces another layer of meaning, explanation ‘ midrash, if you will ‘ to the text.

Art as midrash is waiting to have its meaning unpacked. The following is an example of one exercise in studying artistic midrash focusing on the story of Cain and Abel.

II. Cain and Abel: The Offerings, Genesis 4:1-8
The Art:
Church of Moutier St. Jean, 12th century
Rohan, Book of Hours, 14th century
The Ghent Altarpiece, 15th century

The Text:
I have chosen these verses because they are part of our foundational story and because the story will reverberate in different ways throughout the Bible. This is the first occurrence of a biblical narrative typology in which the younger son will be preferred to the older one. It is also the first example of an outcome that appears to be unfair and unprovoked. (After all, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they disobeyed. There is no disobedience here.) It is the first example of an offering (albeit an unsolicited one) made to God, and it has a bad result. (Compare Nadav and Abihu and their unsolicited offering.)3 Since the past is prologue to the future, we should do our best to understand it.

This text, because it is so brief, leaves open many questions. It begins in a very even-handed way which we can see by the way the biblical text alternates between presenting one brother first, then the other in verses 1-4a, but a turning point comes in 4b where Cain becomes the subject. God appears. Abel becomes the object and disappears.

Cain is born
Abel is born

Abel keeps sheep
Cain tills the land

Cain brings offering
Abel brings offering

Abel’s offering respected (4a)
Cain’s offering not respected (4b)

Cain becomes upset/angry
God speaks to Cain
Cain speaks to Abel
Cain rose up against Abel

We do not know whether Cain and Abel were assigned their work they did or whether they chose it themselves. We can wonder whether keeping sheep or tilling the ground were equal in status or whether one was considered a more worthy occupation. Nahum Sarna, suggests that Cain, as the first-born, was following in his father’s footsteps.4 If so, were the cards stacked against him from the start, because tilling the soil was associated with punishment? We don’t know how much time elapsed between when they began to work and when the offerings were made. We don’t know what their relationship was to each other during this time. No reason is given why Cain decides to bring an offering to the Lord. Was it his idea or did the Lord request it? In the Torah portion, Vayikra, we read about rules for the sacrificial system. However, the origin of this system seems to have been with Cain and Abel, who made the first offerings. At that time were there rules about sacrifices and were those rules known to both of them? It is interesting too, that in the sacrificial system we see in Vayikra, an animal was more important than grain.

Why did God choose Abel’s offering? Was it required that for God accept only one offering? Did accepting Abel’s offering necessarily mean a rejection of Cain? How did Abel react to God’s treatment of his offering? Why does God speak to Cain and not to Abel? What does God’s admonition to Cain mean? Is it possible that once Cain made the offering, Abel tried to outdo his brother with one of a better quality? Does the lesser quality of Cain’s offering represent a lack of generosity on his part? Were there better sheaves of wheat that he kept for himself?

Were the offerings metaphors for the characters of the two brothers? This is a possible explanation of Gen. 4:7.

Art as Midrash:
God’s preference for Abel’s lamb is clear. In the Moutier St. Jean bas relief and the Rohan, Book of Hours, two of God’s fingers are pointing in the direction of Abel and/or the lamb. To confirm the preference, a sad-looking bird dips and droops its head in Cain’s direction. The bird’s body speaks discouragement, which is perhaps what Cain is feeling. In the Moutier St. Jean, God’s fingers are pointing only at the lamb, but in the Rohan, Book of Hours the fingers point to Abel, with radiations that include the lamb. In both the Moutier St. Jean and the Rohan, Book of Hours, the lamb is held in a cloth, the proper manner of presenting an offering (according to Christian practice). Although there is no hand of God in the Ghent Altarpiece, it is clear that Abel’s offering will be favored.

The three works differ with respect to the body positions of the two brothers. In the Book of Hours, both brothers are reaching upward toward God, but Abel’s head is higher and he thrusts his offering as high as he can in God’s direction. Even the lamb is extending its head in God’s direction. Cain’s offering and head are marginally lower than Abel’s, this despite the fact that he is positioned somewhat higher on the ground than his brother. Cain’s head is thrown back, showing more humility before God. In the Moutier St. Jean, it is curious that Cain seems to be humbly offering his sheaf, whereas Abel’s expression is one of uncertainty and he appears to be hanging onto the lamb, which is wrapped in an attractive blanket, as though Abel does not want to give it up. This suggests to me that Cain’s offering is more freely given, and so his disappointment at its rejection would be even harder. Cain appears more straightforward and humble in his posture than Abel.

In each work of art the brothers are making their offerings at the same time and in the same way. In Moutier St. Jean, they hold their offerings at chest level. In the Book of Hours, both extend their arms and reach up. In The Ghent Altarpiece, however, the offerings are not being offered simultaneously. It is Cain’s rejection that leads to our assumption that Abel’s offering will be accepted. Cain is crouching with his back turned to God and his arms extended straight down as he prepares to lay down the unwanted offering. Abel and his lamb face in the same direction ‘ forward and upward. His arms are bent ready to offer up the lamb. Abel’s arms signalize potential, whereas those of Cain signify defeat.

In the Moutier St. Jean and in the Rohan Book of Hours, Cain’s sheaf of wheat is tainted. In the Book of Hours, a sheaf superior to the one Cain is offering can be seen lying on the ground. Abel has made a gracious presentation of the lamb, wrapped in a white cloth. Cain’s wrapping is functional, just what is needed to hold it together. In The Ghent Altarpiece however, Cain’s offering looks full and healthy, leaving us to wonder why it was rejected. In the Rohan Book of Hours, Abel is surrounded by several lovely lambs which indicate that he has had a fertile year. He can afford to give the best of his firstlings. However Cain has only one spare sheaf of wheat at his feet and it is not of the best quality. Along with the sheaf, at his feet are the tools of his trade, perhaps a message that even to produce those substandard sheaves was hard work.

In the Rohan Book of Hours and the Moutier St. Jean, facial expressions are hard to read. But in The Ghent Altarpiece, the portrayal of Cain’s face holds anger, which he can express only to Abel’s back. (Abel should watch his back!) However, revisiting this sculpture several months later, and looking at Cain’s fallen face, I am not sure whether I see in it anger, jealousy, or defeat.

In all three works, Abel is portrayed as the younger (beardless) brother who is also fairer and better looking. His hair is very pretty, almost feminine. Cain is darker, bearded, and has a bigger nose. His hair is more masculine. These attributes reflect cultural norms that developed well after the time when Cain and Abel lived. In the Ghent Altarpiece, Abel is wearing something that looks like a Roman toga, or at least it is aristocratic dress. The garment appears to be long. It does not look like a workman’s clothes. His brother is wearing a short tunic, efficient for manual labor. In the Rohan Book of Hours, the clothing difference is even clearer because of the color. Abel’s robe is pink, with gold embroidery; he has a hat to shield him from the sun and to keep his skin white (unfortunately, always a status symbol). Cain appears to be wearing undyed homespun with an unfinished hemline. His gift is dark, whereas Abel’s is white. In the Moutier St. Jean, there are also differences in clothing. Abel’s draping is more ornate. A sculptural detail on the corner edge ‘ a piece of filigree-like work ‘ frames the face of Abel.

Of the three artworks, The Ghent Altarpiece, the last chronologically, presents the most ambiguous version of the story. There is no indication that either offering is of lesser quality, no hand of God to show preference; in fact, it occurs before the moment of selection. It is mostly through physical beauty, physical positioning, and facial expression that we know what is going to happen. Perhaps we are meant to focus more on the character of the brothers as an explanation for what happened rather than the product of their work. In the earlier works, it is clear that Abel is preferred to Cain, but the only reason appears to be the quality of the offerings.

These three works of art may not offer more answers to our questions than does the written midrash, but they present them differently. Midrash Tanchuma portrays Cain with empathy and says that God recognizes that Cain has repented.5 It does not mention the offerings. In the artwork as in the written midrash, the brothers may be morally equivalent (except perhaps in The Ghent Altarpiece), but they are not presented as socially equivalent. Aside from their offerings, their respective ages, skin color, clothing, and haircuts indicate Abel’s superiority. It is probably true that the artists had in mind the eventual outcome ‘ that Cain killed Abel, thus branding Cain for all time as the evil brother and leaving Abel to be the innocent victim.

III. Conclusion
Despite Martin Buber’s contention that we, the people of the Book, are an ‘ear’ people , there is compelling evidence that we are also an ‘eye’ people,6 and that both faculties ‘ seeing and hearing ‘ are necessary for understanding. After struggling with the questions of God’s omnipotence and God’s justice, Job says:

I had heard You with my ears,
But now I see You with my eyes:
Therefore, I recant and relent,
Being but dust and ashes.’7

How do our eyes serve us in ways unknown to our ears? ‘Reading a text is writing a text, inscribing it with the meaning that we find in it.’8 Similarly, creating art is also ‘writing’ text, but the language is different. Art is an unaccustomed language which is suggestive rather than definite. The written language has its limitations, a proposition advanced by the deconstructionists. Words have their limitations and associations. In the language of linguistics, this is the problem of seeking absolute values in the relationship of the signifier to the signified.

According to the deconstructionists, it seems that any attempt to find a center, see a structure, or find unity in a text represents our imposing meaning on the text, rather than our letting the meaning of the text unfold, even though, as is likely, it will be riddled with ambiguities. How much the more so is this true of the Bible! It, more than any other book, records the consequences that flowed from the moment when God began to create, imposing order on the ‘tohu va-vohu‘ (‘unformed and void’). Our efforts to analyze the Bible usually seek out order. For example, much has been written to explain the episode of Nadav and Abihu. The story has been characterized as punishment in search of a crime9 that is, there must be some explanation for their punishment.

However, like the Nadav-Abihu segment, much of the Bible is ambiguous. For many persons, the more ambiguous and mysterious the text is, the more people find it sacred, proving evidence of God’s existence and effect on history. Time and again we see that God does not play by our rules (e.g., disturbing the rights of natural birth order by showing preference to the younger son rather than the first-born). Indeed, above all that exists, God cannot be described or understood. God is ambiguous, mysterious, ultimately unknowable.

Because art does not have a vocabulary like written text that is laden with meaning, it seems to me that it is a very appropriate medium for addressing the Bible. (For example, the signifier ‘cat’ does relate to a variety of related signifieds, but most people would agree on the concept, whereas a curved line can suggest a variety of meanings depending both on its context ‘ position, direction, size ‘ and the emotional-visual perception of the viewer.) It can handle ambiguity because, by its very nature, it is even more open to interpretation than the written word. Art can make the ambiguity more comfortable, or art can highlight the ambiguity and make it more distressing. Art can bring order but it can also convey mystery. It engages our emotions, sometimes viscerally. Art does not lend itself to being pinned down, and since it cannot be pinned down how much the more so is it suitable to represent the ways of the biblical God.

With art, the interpretation is always in the eye of the beholder. Art dealing with the Bible beckons and engages people in ways that text does not. Almost any age group can respond to art. The same artwork can be read in age-appropriate ways. You do not need the junior Bible story version. You do not outgrow it; the same artwork can be reread as a person matures and is buffeted by or comforted by life. Art can cross language and cultural barriers. (For example, Dr. He Qi, a professor of philosophy and theology at Nanjing University and Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, has been creating biblical art using traditional Chinese techniques as well as Western ones to make biblical texts more culturally understandable.)There are Jews in almost every country in the world, not all of them fluent in Hebrew. But everyone can ‘read’ images.

While art can further illuminate biblical text, it can also provide us with personal self-knowledge. This idea of understanding one’s self through art is expressed by M. Owen Lee. He writes: ‘What is it that we have a right to expect great art to say to us, to do for us? To delight us, of course, but also to deepen our awareness of the things that matter, to enable us to accept darkness and pain, to tell us what we might not have wanted to know but needed to know, to make us into something more than we were before, more human and more compassionate. And most of all I think, to enable us to see ourselves.’10 Most of us would agree that these are some of the same benefits to be derived from religious practice and experience.

Art can also play a positive and dynamic role in perpetuating our Jewish heritage. Saul I. Goodman writes that ‘One who undergoes a Jewish esthetic experience, one who enjoys a Jewish scholarly work, poem, or novel, becomes thereby a minor artist. He cannot rest until he communicates to others what has been ‘communicated’ to him. Such experiences will, as a matter of course, be conducive to a creative Jewish continuity.’11

  1. 1. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (Philadelphia, Pa.: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1956), p. 185. [back]
  2. 2. Jacob Neusner, Art as Midrash: An Introduction (Northvale, N.J.: Jacob Aronson, 1994), p. x. [back]
  3. 3. JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999), Lev. 10:1-2. [back]
  4. 4. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 31. [back]
  5. 5. Midrash Tanchuma, Solomon Buber, ed. (New York: Sefer, 1946), vol. 1, p. 19). [back]
  6. 6. Martin Buber, Juedisches Kuenstler (Berlin: Juedischer Verlag, 1903), p. [back]
  7. 7. The JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, op.cit., Job 42:5-6. [back]
  8. 8. Edward L.Greenstein, ‘Deconstructionism and Biblical Narrative,’ in Interpreting Judaism in a Postmodern Age (New York: New York University Press, 1996), p. 31. [back]
  9. 9. Ibid., p. 37. [back]
  10. 10. Owen Lee, Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1999), p. 91. [back]
  11. 11. Saul I. Goodman, ‘The Credo of a Jewish Educator,’ in The Faith of Secular Jews, ed. Saul I. Goodman (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1976,), p. 121. [back]