Thursday, September 12, 2013

When Blood Cries: Abel and the Appeals of the Dead

I've been waiting a long time to work a Prince allusion into a blog title.  You might recall from Sunday school that after Cain kills his brother in the book of Genesis he decides to play dumb. Unfortunately for him, YHWH finds out about the crime, and confronts him during their little post-murder interrogation: "What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground." (Gen 4:10)  

One of the fascinating things about the history of interpretation is that one little verse can give rise to a rich and varied tradition.  When we look at later Jewish and Christian literature we see that YHWH's claim that Abel's blood cried out from the ground inspired some sacred speculation about Abel and the postmortem cries of the murdered and the martyred.  For instance, in 1st Enoch 22 the antediluvian visionary Enoch gets a tour of the abode of the dead by an angelic docent.  While there are some difficulties with the text as we have it, the gist is this: the souls of the dead are being kept in hollows/caves carved into a mountain in the west.  Unlike popular Protestant conceptions of the afterlife, the souls of the dead are not divided into two realms with the righteous souls ascending to heaven and the unrighteous descending to hell.  Instead, all souls go to the same non-heavenly realm where they are placed into four (or three?) bins for safekeeping until judgment day.  When traveling towards judgment you can fly first class, business class, coach, or be neatly stowed in the baggage compartment.  Kensky compares this intermediate state to a jail, where prisoners are kept during trial, which is different from prison where they get sent after sentencing (the final judgment).  

While surveying the mountain Enoch notices something interesting, which he asks Raphael to explain for him:
"There I saw the spirit of a dead man making suit, and his lamentation went up to heaven and cried and made suit.  Then I asked Raphael, the watcher and holy one who was with me, and said to him, 'The Spirit that makes suit -- whose is it -- that thus his lamentation goes up and makes suit unto heaven?'  And he answered me and said, 'This is the spirit that went forth from Abel, whom Cain his brother murdered.  And Abel makes accusation against him until his posterity perishes from the face of the earth, and his posterity is obliterated from the posterity of men." (22:5-7)

 Later, as Raphael explains the different caves/hollow places he says of one of them: "And this has been separated for the spirits of them that make suit, who make disclosure about the destruction, when they were murdered in the days of sinners." (22:12)

The author of 1st Enoch has taken Genesis 4:10 somewhat literally.  Blood is associated with the life force in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:11), so Abel's blood becomes his spirit, and it literally cries out to heaven, the abode of YHWH (although in Enoch it is the angels who hear the cries and then bring them to YHWH).  It does not merely cry out in lamentation though, but  appeals, intercedes, or makes suit (Grk = entugchano).  In vs. 12 we learn that Abel is not alone -- he has cave mates who also appeal to heaven (cf. 9:1-11 and 47:2).  Why they did not just climb into the neighboring cave where the souls of their murderers were being kept to dish out some postmortem street justice is not discussed in the text.

While Enoch's vision has clearly been inspired by Genesis, its embellishment may have been inspired by the Greek tradition as well.  Glasson notes:
"Abel is a representative of the righteous who have died a violent death, and the language used concerning him is remarkable . . . This goes far beyond the statement of Gen. 4:10 . . . It is rather reminiscent of Greek beliefs.  Rohde [Psyche], for example, dealing with Greek conceptions, speaks of the soul of one done violently to death: 'he himself would become an 'avenging spirit'; and the force of his anger might be felt throughout whole generations.'  In a later passage Rohde refers to the still unavenged soul of the murdered Clytemnestra complaining bitterly in Aeschylus' play Eumenides (line 98)." (T.F. Glasson, Greek Influence in Jewish Eschatology, 16)
To quote Rohde more fully: 
"At Athens even in the fourth and fifth centuries the belief still survived in undiminished vigour that the soul of one violently done to death, until the wrong done to him was avenged upon the doer of it, would wander about finding no rest, full of rage at the violent act, and wrathful, too, against the relative who should have avenged him, if they did not fulfil their duty.  He himself would become an 'avenging spirit;' and the force of his anger might be felt throughout whole generations." (E. Rohde, Psyche: The Cult of Souls and the Belief in Immortality Among the Greeks, Volume 6, 176-177
Abel does not directly haunt Cain or his descendants, however, but rather cries a cry that is heard in the heavens.  So evil-doers can be encouraged: you have no need to worry about being haunted by ghosts, you'll be quite fine until the day of judgment.

This tradition of the souls of the murdered crying out for justice continued to be developed in Jewish and Christian literature, with the emphasis sometimes shifting specifically to martyrs (Abel would eventually come to be seen as a proto-martyr).  Around the end of the 1st century CE 4th Ezra tells us:
"Did not the souls of the righteous in their chambers ask about these matters, saying, 'How long are we to remain here? And when will the harvest of our reward come?' And the archangel Jeremiel answered and said, 'When the number of those like yourselves is completed'". (4th Ezra 4:35-36)
There's also the familiar scene of Revelation's fifth seal:
"When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, 'O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?'  Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been." (Revelation 6:9-11)
The Revelation text is a little different, since the souls of the martyrs seem to be in heaven, rather than a mountain chamber somewhere.  The altar is a new element as well.  Both the 4th Ezra and Revelation texts introduce the idea of a number of completion that needs to be reached before justice can be meted out, something which we do not see in the Enoch passage.  Aside from these differences, these texts are examples of the same tradition we see in Enoch.  Interestingly, many commentaries on Revelation only offer a passing footnote on the 1Enoch 22 passage, or in some cases fail to mention it entirely.

We might also be reminded of some other texts, like Luke's postmortem vision of Lazarus and Dives (Luke 16:19-31), where it is the wicked rich man rather than the righteous who calls out for respite in his hellish afterlife.  Or Hebrews 11:4 which says Abel is still speaking through his faith.  Or recension A of the Testament of Abraham, which upgrades Abel from lamenting victim to judge of the dead:

"Do you see, all-pious Abraham, the frightful man who is seated on the throne? This is the son of Adam, the first-formed, who is called Abel, whom Cain the wicked killed.  And he sits here to judge the entire creation, examining both righteous and sinners . . . For every person has sprung from the first-formed, an on account of this they are first judged here by his son." (13:2-5; see 11:2 in Recension B)

I wonder what the author of Genesis 4:10 would think if s/he knew some of the interesting traditions that would develop partly as a result of that one little reference to blood crying from the ground?

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