Images of Good and Evil, by Martin Buber, investigates the origins of good and evil in the Bible. He points out that the conflict between good and evil experienced by the first humans in the cosmogonic myths parallels the battle between these opposing forces which exists in our souls today. Buber investigates the story of Kain and Abel, the first humans born into a world cognizant of good and evil, in order to draw conclusions about the nature of these abstract concepts. Buber says that Kain kills Abel because the turmoil and indecision in his soul cause him to lash out at his brother. Thus, the author theorizes that evil is bred from indecision while good results from pure direction. Buber’s main point is that Kain fails to realize that he must channel his evil urge and unite it with the good in order to serve G-d with his whole heart.
Martin Buber investigates the story of the fall and Kain’s crime in order to define the abstract terms of good and evil. He says that at the time of Adam and Eve there was no conception of knowledge or sin. Eve, in a trance- like state, is hypnotically drawn to the tree of knowledge despite G-d’s prohibition, because of its beauty, its potentially delicious fruit, and the appeal of possessing the mysterious gift of understanding. When Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden fruit, they unintentionally withdraw from G-d’s protection, and without understanding, unleash the opposite forces of good and evil into the world. Consequently, Adam and Eve enter a dangerous godlike state, as G-d says, “Behold, the man has become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). However, man plunged into a now chaotic world of opposing forces, is unable to deal with them like G-d, who is familiar with, but is absolutely superior to and above the notion of the opposite forces. Thus, G-d has compassion on Adam and Eve and does not let them eat from the tree of life so that death will be a comforting refuge from a world characterized by the tense opposition of forces. Adam and Eve’s sin is one of disobedience, because they fail to listen to G-d’s commandment not to eat from the tree of knowledge. So Adam and Eve leave man to inherit and deal with a world made more complex by the knowledge of good and evil.
After the advent of knowledge, Adam “knows” Eve (which is different than paradisal intimacy) and begets Kain and Abel. According to the Images of Good and Evil, these children are born into a world where knowledge and evil exist, and therefor Kain’s crime is the first example of iniquity. The brothers both bring offerings to G-d; Kain, the farmer, brings fruits, while Abel, the shepherd, brings the firstlings of his flock. According to Buber, G-d disregards Kain’s offering and excepts Abel’s in an effort to test Kain. G-d sets up a situation of “divine temptation” for Kain to see how he will react to his brother, whose offerings are favored in the eyes of the Lord (Buber, 85). This is one of the three tests G-d sets up in Genesis; The first was the temptation to eat from the forbidden tree, the second G-d’s disregard for Kain’s offering, and the third was the test to see if Abraham would sacrifice his son. Buber also says that G-d rejects Kain’s fruits because he detects an absence of good purpose in his offering. G-d tries to show Kain that this lack of direction towards G-d can lead to evil and sin. According to Buber’s interpretation of the Bible, G-d says to Kain that if he “purposes good,” his sacrifices will be accepted, but if he does not purpose good, then sin, like a beast, will lie at the door and try and overtake him. Buber says that this story is one of the best examples of G-d’s “appeal to men to decide for the ‘good’, ... to set out in the direction of the divine.” (Buber, 86-87) However, Kain refuses to face sin before it has a chance to overtake him, and gives in to the demon’s desire. Buber says that this “intensification and confirmation of indecision is decision to evil.” (Buber, 89) So Kain goes out into the field with Abel and kills his brother. However, this was not a planned action, but rather an occurrence, because Kain struck out in the “vortex of indecision.” ( Buber, 89) Buber comes to the conclusion that Kain didn’t actively murder, but “has murdered” in the passive form. The punishment G-d gives Kain of being a wanderer on earth is metaphoric of the indecision he felt within his soul when he committed fratricide.
After analyzing the story of the fall and Kain’s crime, Buber defines the concepts of good and evil. After each day of creation, it says “and G-d saw that it was good”, but after the sixth day of creation when G-d created man, he looks upon all that he has created and he says that it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). But after the story of Noah, G-d promises never to wipe out humanity, because “the image ('yetzer') of the heart of man is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). So Buber questions, how did the first humans’ who were considered “very good” become bad? He answers that man is not evil, but his actions can be. Iniquity does not result from the inherent corruption of man’s soul, but rather of his imagination which tempts man with images of all the things which are possible for him to have. The concept of ‘yetzer’ (or image, urge) is discussed in the Talmud, where it says that G-d gave man the impulse of free will to decide whether or not he will follow G-d. Through experience, this impulse is divided into a “good” and “evil” urge. Thus, Buber recounts a midrash about the meaning of Kain’s reply to G-d after he kills Abel. The midrash says that when Kain questions, “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” he holds G-d accountable for Abel’s death, since he implanted the evil urge in man (Genesis 4:9) But G-d replies by saying that Kain is responsible, because it was only through man, that the urge became evil. Buber says that man shouldn’t try to separate the bad from the good urge, but rather should try to unite the two. The evil urge is characterized by indecision, and the good urge by pure direction, and only when you combine the two can you serve G-d with your whole heart.
I don’t agree with Buber’s view that G-d’s rejection of Kain’s offering was a test, similar to that undergone by Abraham when G-d asked him to sacrifice his son. In the case of Abraham and Isaac, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. So, Abraham wakes up early in the morning, showing unconditional faith in the lord, and is ready to kill his only son for him. However, the angel of G-d stops him from doing so because he says, “now I know that thou art a G-d fearing man” (Genesis 22:12). Thus, G-d makes it clear that this was a test to see whether or not Abraham was faithful. However, in the case of Kain, G-d acts more like a father trying to give his son advice, rather than one who seeks to test him. In the story of Abraham, G-d sets the framework of the test but never interferes or tries to influence Abraham’s thought processes. However, in the story of Kain’s crime, G-d gives Kain advice along the way and warns him about the future. G-d consoles Kain and tells him not to be angry, because if he does better his offering will be received. In addition, G-d warns Kain that if he doesn’t try to improve, he might be overtaken by sin. Thus, it is clear from the text that G-d is trying to instruct Kain, who is ignorant of the ways of the world since he is the first youth on earth to possess the knowledge of good and evil, on how to best avoid sin. Also, G-d shows the compassion of a father to his son when he gives Kain his punishment. When Kain cries to G-d that his punishment of being a fugitive and wanderer on earth will result in his own murder, G-d promises him that anyone who harms Kain, will receive seven times the punishment. The reason G-d is merciful to Kain even though he committed fratricide, is because Kain had to learn by experience since he could not learn from the mistakes of predecessors.
Genesis clearly supports Buber’s interpretation that G-d rejected Kain’s
offering because it lacked good purpose, rather than his contention that
this was part of a divine test. The text states that Kain gave G-d an offering
from “the fruit of the ground” (Genesis 4:3). There is no indication
that the fruits were the best of the crop, or an unusual species, or even
that he had grown these fruits especially for G-d. The text basically
shows that Kain put no real effort into his offering. Hence, his
sacrifice had an absence of good purpose. Abel on the other hand, “sacrificed the firstlings of his flocks and of the fat thereof” (Genesis 4:4). Abel sacrificed to G-d the best of the flocks (the firstlings) and also offered the fat. In addition, there is specific reference to the fact that the flocks were his, meaning that Abel sacrificed something of his own property that was meaningful to him. Therefore, it is clear that G-d accepts Abel’s sacrifice and rejects Kain’s in order to make a distinction between “a disposition to good and its absence” ( Buber, 87).
Buber’s view that Kain struck out at Abel while caught up in “the vortex of indecision” is unsupported by the text. In Genesis there seems to be a logical progression from verse three stating that “Kain was very angry” to verse eight where “Kain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him” (Genesis 4:3, 8). The text shows that Kain was mad that his brother's offering was accepted, while his was rejected. So, I think that Kain decisively struck out at his brother and tried to hurt him, because of his own anger and inability to control intense emotions. Kain reacted on base instinct and aggressively tried to harm his brother whom he considered to be the source of his problems. However, I agree with Buber that Kain did not try to kill Abel, because he did not know that such a thing was possible. However, Buber’s translation of the Hebrew verb 'vayahargehu', meaning to kill, as passive is incorrect. This form of the verb indicates that Kain actively killed his brother, rather than Buber’s interpretation that Kain “has murdered” Abel. Although murder was not Kain’s intention, his ange caused him to actively strike out at Abel and therefor kill him unintentionally, because he could not foresee the consequences of his actions. It is clear that Kain’s motives to hurt Abel were decisive, because he never apologizes or indicates to G-d that he is sorry for killing his brother. His response to G-d, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is cold and shows no remorse for spilling his brother’s blood. Kain, unlike Adam and Eve isn’t ashamed of his actions, and doesn’t hide from G-d after he murders.
Images of Good and Evil helped me view the Bible’s portrayal of knowledge in a new light. I always thought that Genesis depicted knowledge in a negative manner. After all, before Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, they lived in a sheltered paradise governed by G-d’s protection. However, the minute they ate from the forbidden fruit, the disparate concepts of good and evil were unleashed into the world. The price of obtaining knowledge was losing immortality, having to work for one’s food, undergoing pain in childbirth, and banishment from the Garden of Eden. Now man possessed both a good and an evil urge and was held accountable for his actions. After the notion of good and evil was introduced into the world, Kain gives into his baser instincts and kills his brother. Thus, the implication is that knowledge has led to murder. However, Buber made me realize that man would forever have remained in the shadow of G-d and would never have been able to develop his individual potential without knowledge. Buber says that knowledge allowed man to vacate his passive seat in the Garden of Eden, where everything was provided for him by G-d, and to set out upon a path of his own making- “the human path” (Buber, 80). Buber compares man’s evil urge to “the yeast in the dough, the ferment placed in the soulby G-d, without which the human dough does not rise” (Buber 94). In Images of Good and Evil, Buber basically compares man’s evil urge to his creative energy. He says that without this urge, there would be no passion and man wouldn’t be able to beget children, build a house, or engage in economic activity. After reading Buber’s work, I understand that the story of Kain and Abel was meant to portray the misuse of the creative, or evil urge, by killing another human being. The story of Kain’s crime teaches us to learn from Kain’s mistake, since he should have channeled the energy of his evil urge towards self- improvement and the service of G-d.
Images of Good and Evil, by Martin Buber, added a new dimension to my understanding of Kain’s crime and to my concept of good and evil in general. After reading his work, I incorporated some of his views into my understanding of how human history began. Adam and Eve, the parents of humanity, caused the knowledge of good and evil to be introduced into the world by eating of the forbidden fruit. Kain was the first person to be born into a complex world, governed by these opposing forces. G-d rejects Kain’s sacrifice, because as Buber suggests, He saw that it lacked good purpose. Kain becomes angry that G-d prefers his brother’s offering to his and is unable to negotiate the conflicting urges of good and evil within him. G-d doesn’t try to test Kain as Buber says, but rather tries to instruct him like a father to direct his energies toward self improvement so that he will not be overtaken by sin. Instead, Kain gives into his evil urge to harm his brother and decisively tries to hurt Abel in order to relieve his intense anger. However, his actions result in the first murder, a consequence which Buber indicates he could not have foreseen. G-d holds Kain responsible for his actions and punishes him by making him a perpetual wanderer on earth. Buber’s interpretation of the cosmogonic myths is so fascinating because he portrays the advent of knowledge as a positive occurrence, despite all the problems which it introduced to humanity. He says that one’s evil urge can be directed in a positive manner and become a driving force for good. Only man can decide if he will use his evil urge in a destructive manner like Kain did, or whether he will unite his passion with its good counterpart in order to worship G-d with his whole heart.