The Curse of Cain cover

"A stunningly important book."—Walter Brueggmann, Theology Today

"The Curse of Cain invites a revolutionary re-reading of the Old Testament."—Christopher Shea, Chronicle of Higher Education

"[Schwartz] points out how [Cain and Abel] is the story not of the first sin, but of the first act of violence. In what is a very lucid and bold interpretation of the narrative, Schwartz analyzes the psychological reasons and the political implications of this perplexing story."—Miriam Nauri, Jerusalem Post Literary Supplement

This interview was published in 1997.


An interview with
Regina M. Schwartz
author of The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism

Question: Tell us about your book, The Curse of Cain. It is subtitled "The Violent Legacy of Monotheism." Are you suggesting that the Bible contributes to the violence between peoples that riddles our world? Does the Bible have something to do with the conflicts in South Africa, Bosnia, Albania, India?

Regina M. Schwartz: Basically, yes. The Bible imagines peoples in conflict, undoubtedly because they were in conflict in the ancient world as they are today—competing for territory, for food, and for power. Biblical narratives reflect that world of scarce resources and violent competition for them. No one would deny that the Bible is full of violence against peoples, and as the most influential book in the West, its violence inevitably has had deep—but often unacknowledged—influence. The Bible has left us a legacy of intolerant thinking about other peoples, and it has authorized such intolerance as the will of God. That is how it has had effects on religious, racial, and ethnic conflicts around the globe.

Question: But the Bible? Isn't the Bible about goodwill and "doing unto others as you would have others do unto you?"

Schwartz: Yes. But the Bible also says "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" and it is full of curses for people who worship other deities. Of course you are right to say that the Bible has promoted an ethic of charity and the prophets certainly emphasized social justice—taking care of the widow, the orphan, and the poor. The Exodus served as a model for this country's civil rights movement, for the ending of apartheid in South Africa, and as the basis of liberation theology in South America. But even the Exodus has a dark side. As a Native activist put it, "as long as we believe in God the deliverer, we also subscribe to God the conqueror."

Question: But why do you say this violence is a legacy of monotheism? What does monotheism have to do with it?

Schwartz: Monotheism is a rich, complex concept with a multifaceted history. But one aspect of monotheism has been complicit with violence: the demand of allegiance to one principle, or one god, is accompanied by aggression to those who have other allegiances. Unfortunately, the injunction "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" turns into intolerance for other people who may have other gods, or principles, or beliefs. It says in Exodus, "Whoever is for the Lord come to me. . . . Gird on your sword, every man of you, and quarter the camp from gate to gate killing one his brother, another his friend, and another his neighbor." While organizing a people under one principle seems like an effective way to create a positive identity, it can also create destructiveness and division, insiders and outsiders.

Question: But isn't there violence in cultures that are not monotheistic? What about the Greeks and Romans, or the Buddhists and Hindus?

Schwartz: Humankind has always been violent and I imagine if I had the full answer to why that's so, instead of being an ordinary person talking to you, I would be a canonized saint. The issue I am focusing attention on is the price of imagining collective identity under one principle and banishing the rest—it doesn't have to be one god, it can be one nation, one kinship group, one territory. Sometimes peoples that have a monotheistic religion are in fact very pluralistic and tolerant. The Bible has beautiful strains like that, as the prophet says, "Let every man walk, each according to his God, but I will walk in the name of Yahweh my God forever." The Romans were tolerant of diverse religious traditions and allowed their subject peoples to worship their respective deities. But there were limits to their toleration and that limit was reached when they felt that whatever principle defined them as Romans was threatened by Christianity. The issue, to be precise, is not one versus many gods, but one defining principle versus many principles.

Question: If the problem is the way allegiance to one principle defines a people, what would you say about nationalism?

Schwartz: Nations are defined against other nations—as "us" against "them"—with aggressive and defensive definitions of borders. And interestingly enough, at the birth of many European nationalisms, God was not abandoned, as you would have expected, but invoked to authorize the nation. Here in the United Sates, we pledge allegiance to the flag and the republic for which it stands "one nation under God," and when the President is inaugurated, he swears on the Bible.

Question: Why do you allude to Cain? What is the curse of Cain?

Schwartz: The story of Cain and Abel is the paradigm for the violence that so often recurs in the Bible and around the globe. In the biblical myth, the first brothers who ever existed commit the first fratricide. It tells the story of God accepting the sacrifice of Abel, from the flock, but rejecting the sacrifice of Cain, from the soil. Cain murders Abel in a jealous rage. But what if God had accepted the sacrifices of both the sower and the shepherd, and the story imagined a deity who promulgated, not competition, but cooperation between peoples? One only prospers at the expense of the other here.

Jacob and Esau repeat the rivalry. One is blessed, the other cursed. Now, Jacob and Esau are the ancestors of peoples, and the sense that one will only prosper at the other's expense becomes a prescription for how to think about people in the world, as blessed and cursed, as winners and losers, as one group prospering at another's expense. We need to rewrite that story so that there are blessings for everyone. I hardly need to draw the contemporary political parallels, they are rife.

Question: These are troubling stories, but would you say that the Bible itself advocates violence, that the Bible is dangerous?

Schwartz: It is not that simple. Biblical narratives are infinitely interpretable, and interpretations of the Bible have been put to any and every political purpose. The number of ante-bellum clergy who used the Bible to justify slavery is astonishing. One wrote, "Just as God has given us the land of Canaan to possess, so he has given us the slave to possess." It was also quoted by abolitionists. Of course, the idea of endorsing violence against other people as the will of God is dangerous. But it is also true that if we are attentive, the Bible gives us another way to understand the violence of its narratives. They can be read as a warning, not an endorsement, a warning of the terrible cost of drawing the boundaries of identity too aggressively or defensively.

The Bible also offers alternative visions toward the neighbor, of peace and generosity, of forging alliances with the foreigner, and we could highlight them. But even these visions can be put to destructive uses. I read an amazing op-ed about the flood of Albanian refugees into Italy in which an Italian spokesman for the right wrote, "We can offer them a plate of pasta but not open the cafeterias. Even Jesus who multiplied bread and fishes did not open trattorias. He transformed water into wine, but, it seems to me, only once, and even then, for a wedding. Albania, like Bosnia, is not our problem, but the problem of Europe." He had turned the loaves and fishes story, about bounty and generosity, into a story of scarcity! What matters is how these stories are used, and too often they are used as a weapon against others.

Question: Do you highlight biblical visions of toleration too?

Schwartz: Oh, yes. The Bible has bequeathed not only narratives of violence, but exquisite visions of bounty and generosity. Think of the vision of paradise: the lion lays down with the lamb, endless abundance. Exodus depicts a God who rains food from the heavens, enough for everyone. Deutero-Isaiah speaks of a God who strengthens the weary, who waters the earth. I would like to see us authorize those visions, of mutual benefit and blessings, of the lion laying down with the lamb, rather than the tired old visions of winners and losers that promote the violence of Cain's curse.

Copyright notice: ©1997 by Regina M. Schwartz. All rights reserved. This text appears on the University of Chicago Press website by permission of the author. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of both the author and the University of Chicago Press.

Regina M. Schwartz
The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism
©1997, 232 pages
Cloth $22.95 ISBN: 0-226-74199-0
Paper $14.00 ISBN: 0-226-74200-8

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Curse of Cain.

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