How Cain killed Abel

Italian School. Cain Killing Abel
mid-17th century, (Gaetano Gandolfi, 1734-1802
My husband Mike and I had an interesting conversation the other day over dinner. The subject presented itself because of a post that Mike was writing on his blog called The Jawbone of an Ass - Timshel. Now Mike usually does not write about religious subjects unless he's taking on the far right wing over a political issue. He usually leaves the religion to me and I leave the politics to him - well, occasionally I get fired up and I speak out but it's not a common occurrence on Yahbut.

His blog post resulted from watching the last episode of Hell on Wheels from season one, in which the railroad workers and some Army troopers fight it out with the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. In the fight, a brother ends up killing his own brother. You can see the video of the scene on my husband's blog and hear the song that was playing in the background - Timshel. In fact, this is what the episode was called and I wondered what it meant. For a great explanation, check out Mike's blog post. It's linked above

During the fight scene in Hell on Wheels, one of the main characters runs out of ammunition and picks up the jawbone of an ass or some other creature, and kills a Dog Soldier with it. The scene ended shortly thereafter but I did not recognize its significance until Mike brought it up over dinner.

"They were referring to Cain and Abel," Mike said.

That was lost on me. "How do you know that?" I said.

"Because of the jawbone, and because I know what the song's about," he said.

"The jawbone?"

Mike looked at me in disbelief. "Yeah. Everyone knows that Cain killed Abel with the jawbone of an ass."

At that point, I could feel the files in my brain furiously flipping to the information I needed. "No he didn't," I said.

"Yes, he did," Mike said.

"No he didn't. The Bible doesn't say that," I replied.

And then came the most Christian part of our conversation.

"Do you want to bet on it?" Mike asked.

"Yeah." I said.

When we got back to our computers, Mike sent me links to classical and biblical artwork depicting the Cain and Abel story, illustrating how Cain killed Abel with the jawbone of an ass. I sent him one link - the reference in Genesis 4 where it says that Cain killed Abel.

"See? The Bible doesn't say how he did it. He just did it," I said.

We both learned something that night. Mike learned that he was depending on artwork to tell him how Cain killed Abel. I learned that thinking that Cain had killed his brother with a jawbone was common.

Growing up in church and Sunday school all my life, I had learned simply that Cain killed Abel. It was Samson who used a jawbone to kill 1,000 Philistines. We're not sure what Cain used. I just assumed that it was probably a rock or something. The Hebrew word, according to the first page of a scholarly article I read by A.A. Barb, alludes to several methods. It's all quite interesting.

From our conversation, you can see how artwork can affect an opinion or convince someone that a small detail, like with what instrument Cain killed Abel, was one thing when it really was something else. Artwork also affects our conceptions of Christ. In the past, many artists have depicted Jesus as a blonde man with blue eyes - a European living in Jewish Palestine during the Roman occupation in the first part of the first century C.E. If that were the case, Jesus probably would have died of melanoma long before he could go to the cross. Pardon the sarcasm here, but you can see how depictions of Jesus as a European may have contributed to the idea that white Anglo-Saxons were the only ones who thought they were fit to rule places like Palestine, Asia, the American West, South America, Mexico, Africa, etc.

A lot of artwork also depicts Christ as very stern or morose, even insipid, as if holiness can not involve laughter and good times.

And so with art, as with any form of media, we need to be careful about the message that we, who call ourselves followers of Christ, are promoting. This is especially true of political ideas, the e-mails we forward, the things we "like" on Facebook and the literature we introduce to people we are teaching, especially our children. We need to research people's claims before we pass them to others as a form of gospel. Once we do this our words become like the jawbone of an ass. Not good for anything except bringing harm to others.

Now back to the betting. If there were any stakes to the bet Mike and I made, I have forgotten what they were - lucky you, Mikey, because you owe me! Usually, we bet each other a dinner where we like to eat. In any case, it really doesn't matter because all of our money goes into the same account anyway. It's all in fun. We learn a lot from each other and have a good time talking about the Bible and other subjects.