The American Genesis Story of Abel & Cain

In the Virginia colony four hundred years ago in July 1619, writes Jill Lepore in These Truths, pp. 37-38,

twenty-two English colonists…met in a legislative body, the House of Burgesses, the first self-governing body in the colonies. One month later, twenty Africans arrived in Virginia, the first slaves in British America. Twenty Englishmen were elected to the House of Burgesses. Twenty Africans were condemned to the house of bondage. Another chapter opened in the American book of genesis: liberty and slavery became the American Abel and Cain.

We are all familiar with Cain and Abel, if not their story. Gen. 4:1-16…read more.

Cain, the older brother, was “a tiller of the ground”; his younger brother Abel “was a keeper of sheep.” Gen. 4:2. As God, for no apparent reason, favored Abel’s offering of the first born of his flock over Cain’s offering of the first fruits of his fields, Cain became insanely jealous and killed Abel. Gen. 4:8. God confronted Cain and asked about Abel, to which Cain famously replied…”am I my brother’s keeper?” Gen. 4:9. “God then banished Cain from the land….” Gen. 4:16.

This sacred story of fraternal conflict, which ends with the death of one brother and the banishment of the other, forever condemned to “be a fugitive and wanderer on the earth”, Gen. 4:12, does not end well for either brother. The question then is: how will the American Abel and Cain story end?

Lepore’s analogy is not perfect. In the American book of genesis, the Cains not only killed and enslaved African Abels, but massacred indigenous Abels as well. If the field of dispute resolution teaches us nothing else, we know that, unless the offspring of America’s Cains, of which I am one, find a way to reconcile with the offspring of America’s Abels, be they of African or indigenous descent, the American Abel and Cain story also will not end well.

Another sacred story, the story of Jacob and Esau at the River Jabbok, offers a picture of what reconciliation might look like. If America’s Cains can summon the courage to reconcile with America’s Abels, we Cains may be blessed, as Jacob was, with a new name, Gen. 32:28, and an ability to see “the face of God” in the faces of our Abel brothers and sisters. Gen. 33:10.

Sacred Stories: Paul, Dispute Resolution Consultant

There’s a wonderful ADR story in Paul’s first letter to the newly established Christian church in Corinth. These Corinthian Christians were in conflict with each other over almost everything: over whom to believe - Paul or Apollos, over sexual relations, circumcision, marriage, food, hair styles, veils, you name it. And, in at least one instance, one Corinthian Christian was apparently suing another.

Paul is clearly exasperated and angered by all these disputes, but especially by this lawsuit. See 1st Corinthians 6: 7-8. So Paul writes: “When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it to the saints?” 1st Corinthians 6: 1. Paul then asks: “Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer – and before unbelievers at that?” 1st Corinthians 6: 5-6.

Even more than the specific dispute, whatever it was, I think Paul was upset about how bad this lawsuit made Christians in general look to Greco-Roman society, as these Corinthians aired their dirty legal laundry in Roman courts. Hence, he issues this famous call begging these “believers” to use some form of arbitration to resolve their dispute within their faith community, not outside of it.

NOTE: One commentator makes the following observation, reminding us that these early Christians were still considered Jews by Greco-Roman society. “Under Roman rule, the Jews enjoyed a large measure of autonomy. Disputes among those in the Jewish community were settled among themselves. Indeed, the rabbis taught that it was unlawful for a Jew to seek a judge’s decision in pagan courts. Even within the pagan world, there were religious brotherhoods and mutual-benefit societies that pledged not to sue one another in the courts. Disputes among these groups were settled through arbitration among themselves.” Shepherd’s Notes – 1 Corinthians, D. Gould, ed. (Broadman & Holman, 1998) (commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:5-6, titled “Arbitration Within the Church”)

Sacred Stories: Was Jesus a Mediator?

As Jesus was addressing a crowd of thousands (Luke 12:1), “[s]omeone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ 14But [Jesus] said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’” (Luke 12:13-14). Jesus then turned to the crowd and warned them “against all kinds of greed; ‘for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’” (Luke 12:15).

In this exchange, Jesus refused to assume the role of judge or arbitrator, a role that rabbis often played in resolving disputes involving religious law. Did he then offer to mediate between these two brothers? He did not even recommend it. In this sacred story, Jesus was neither judge, arbitrator, nor mediator; he was, as the aggrieved brother said, a teacher, and, as the text that follows tell us, a storyteller.

“Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Luke 12: 16-20.

Quotations and citations come from the New Revised Standard Version of the Christian Bible.

Sacred ADR Stories: The Wise Woman of Abel of Beth-maacah

There’s a sacred ADR story in the Second Book of Samuel, which relates how the negotiating skills of a “wise woman” saved her city of Abel of Beth-maacah. 2 Samuel 20: 1-22*. A man named Sheba son of Bichri tried to incite a rebellion among the people of Israel against King David and the people of Judah. David’s nephew Joab and his soldiers pursued Sheba and the Bichrites, who took refuge in the city of Abel. The following passage tells the rest of the story:

15 Joab’s forces came and besieged…Abel of Beth-maacah; they threw up a siege-ramp against the city…. Joab’s forces were battering the wall to break it down. 16 Then a wise woman called from the city, “Listen! Listen! Tell Joab, ‘Come here, I want to speak to you’.” 17He came near her; and the woman said, “Are you Joab?” He answered, “I am.” Then she said to him, “Listen to the words of your servant.” He answered, “I am listening.” 18 Then she said, “They used to say in the old days, ‘Let them inquire at Abel’; and so they would settle a matter. 19I am one of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel; you seek to destroy a city that is a mother in Israel; why will you swallow up the heritage of the Lord?” 20 Joab answered, “Far be it from me, far be it, that I should swallow up or destroy! 21 That is not the case! But a man…called Sheba son of Bichri has lifted up his hand against King David; give him up alone, and I will withdraw from the city.” The woman said to Joab, “His head shall be thrown over the wall to you.” 22 Then the woman went to all the people with her wise plan. And they cut off the head of Sheba son of Bichri, and threw it out to Joab. So he blew the trumpet, and they dispersed from the city, and all went to their homes, while Joab returned to Jerusalem to the king.*

In reflecting on this text, I can only wonder how life would have been different for the people of Afghanistan and the NATO countries had there been such a “wise woman” and, of course, a NATO general willing to listen to her, who together had devised a similar plan about the fate of Osama bin Laden. Countless lives of both combatants and innocent civilians would have been saved. Lacking both this wisdom and willingness to negotiate, we know all too well the course of this modern tragic story, one that is sadly still unfolding.

*Citations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible

Sacred Stories: Jethro, Early DR System Design Consultant

Exodus 18 tells the story of Moses and his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. When Jethro visits his son-in-law in the Sinai wilderness, he discovers that Moses is spending entire days and nights trying to settle disputes among the people of Israel. Jethro tells Moses that what he's doing is not good; that he's going to wear himself out. Get help, Jethro says.

Moses listens to his father-in-law and appoints "able men from all Israel" as quasi-judicial "officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens." Exodus 18:25. The text then tells us: "And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves." Exodus 18:26. As this sacred story from the Sinai wilderness takes us back around 3,000 years, I think this makes Jethro the first ADR system designer in recorded history.

Sacred ADR Stories: Moses’ Second Negotiation with God

Moses became a self-imposed fugitive after murdering an Egyptian and going on the lam somewhere in the land of Midian (Exodus 2:15). We know little about this man for the next 40 years as he shepherds his father-in-law Jethro's flocks in the barren desert of the Sinai. But then something happens. Moses encounters the Living God in the burning bush and becomes a changed man (Exodus 3). As an exile returning to the scene of his crime, Moses goes boldly before Pharaoh and secures the release of his people through many signs and wonders.

However, once on the move and away from the relative security of Egypt, Moses finds that he has inherited an obstinate, sinful people. When he descends from Mount Sinai with the stone tablets, the Lord tells Moses that the people have quickly turned away from their devotion to the Most High. In Exodus 32:9-10 we read: "9 The Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation." However, Moses would not take this as God's last word. He had grown in such a relationship with God that his heart became consumed with love for both his Creator and His created. What follows is probably one of the greatest examples of turning God's heart and intention due to the selfless intercession of Moses:

11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, "O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, "It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, "I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.' " 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. (Exodus 32:11-14)

Often critics focus on the fact that God changed His mind and ascribe this to weakness of character. I believe it demonstrates just the opposite. The Almighty is desirous to do good for His children. Isaiah tells us that "He longs to have compassion on us" (Isaiah 30:18). The Lord God is bound by two great forces of His character that are both driven in love. The first is justice and the other is mercy. God will always function from either of these two dynamics as they are fueled by love. He looks for those that would stand in the gap (Ezekiel 22:30), 2 much like Moses did, so that He would be moved to mercy. That, beloved, is what he desires to do, but He needs men and women with passionate hearts for others to move Him in that direction.

Exodus 31:18 When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.

Exodus 32 1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." 2 Aaron said to them, "Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord." 6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel. 7 The Lord said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!' " 9 The Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation." 11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, "O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, "It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, "I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.' " 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. 15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, "There is a noise of war in the camp." 18 But he said, "It is not the sound made by victors, or the sound made by losers; it is the sound of revelers that I hear." 19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses' anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it. 21 Moses said to Aaron, "What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?" 22 And Aaron said, "Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. 23 They said to me, "Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.' 24 So I said to them, "Whoever has gold, take it off'; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!" 25 When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, "Who is on the Lord's side? Come to me!" And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 He said to them, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, "Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.' " 28 The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. 29 Moses said, "Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day." 30 On the next day Moses said to the people, "You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin." 31 So Moses returned to the Lord and said, "Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will only forgive their sin— but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written." 33 But the Lord said to Moses, "Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will 4 punish them for their sin." 35 Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf—the one that Aaron made.

Sacred DR Stories: Moses’ First Negotiation with God

As the story goes, Moses flees Egypt after murdering an Egyptian and becomes a fugitive in the land of Midian (Exodus 2:15), where he marries and spends the next 40 years helping his father-in-law Jethro shepherd his flocks. Then one day Moses encounters "the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" in the burning bush. (Exodus 3:1-6).

Then God said, "…The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt." (Exodus 3:7-10).

But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, "The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, "What is his name?' what shall I say to them?"

God answered Moses, "I am who I am." God said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, "I am has sent me to you.' " (Exodus 3:13-14).

Having thus successfully negotiated with God by extracting the revelation of God’s name, Moses goes boldly before Pharaoh, with this credential in hand, in company with the elders of Israel, and secures the release of God’s people through many signs and wonders.

Jacob’s Reconciliation with Esau: a Sacred Story of Restorative Justice

One of the great peacemaking stories in scripture relates the remarkable resolution of the mortal conflict between the first born twin Esau and his younger brother Jacob, who came out of the womb “with his hand gripping Esau’s heel.” Gen. 25: 26. Indeed, Jacob’s name comes from a play on the Hebrew word for “heel”, e.g., “he takes by the heel” or “he supplants”. Gen. 25: 26, FN26.

When they grow older, Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, tricks his father Isaac into blessing him, instead of his older brother. Discovering this duplicity, Esau then swears that he will kill his brother after their father dies. So Jacob flees, again with help from his mother, to live with his Uncle Laban in Haran. There Jacob marries Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel, takes concubines, and has 12 sons and one daughter. Jacob prospers, but finally, at God’s behest, Jacob leaves, actually “flees” (Gen. 31:20-22), Haran to return to the land of his birth, where he must confront his brother.

Fearing that Esau will “kill us all, the mothers with the children” (Gen. 32:11), Jacob places his trust in God and decides to reconcile with his brother. To do this, he first sends a series of peace offerings to Esau, hundreds of goats, sheep, camels, cows, bulls and donkeys. That night, after dispatching these peace offerings, Jacob wrestles famously with an unnamed man, whom Jacob does not release until he’s blessed and given a new name: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Gen. 32: 28-29. After deciding to reconcile with and pay restitution to Esau, “Jacob,” the supplanter, becomes “Israel,” the victorious, blessed, god-wrestler.

The next morning, Israel, limping because of his hip, injured during the night, finally meets his brother. Before greeting him, Israel bows seven times. Esau embraces him, and they both weep. What happens next is even more astonishing. Esau initially refuses his brother’s peace offerings, saying that he already has enough. Israel insists, replying: “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God….” Gen. 33:10. Jacob, now Israel, sees “the face of God” in the face of the very brother who had sworn to kill him.

This sacred story shows us just how difficult reconciliation is. It involves risk; comes with sacrifice, even injury; and takes faith and trust in one’s God. The “Israel” of Torah teaches us, however, that when we do this; and are finally able to see “the face of God” in the face of our enemy and reconcile with our brother (or sister); we will be blessed.

*Quotations from the New Revised Standard Version of the Christian Bible. See generally Genesis 25:19 – 33:17.

Sacred ADR Stories: Abraham Negotiates with God

There’s a sacred ADR story in the Book of Genesis, which tells how Abraham tried to negotiate with an angry God to save the city of Sodom from total destruction. The following abridged passage from Genesis 18: 16-33 describes the heart of this negotiation. In reflecting on this story, the question is whether Abraham is a positional negotiator, an interest-based negotiator, or both.

Then Abraham came near [the LORD] and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “…Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And [the LORD] said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” [Abraham continues]: “Suppose forty are found there…Suppose thirty are found there…Suppose twenty are found there…Suppose ten are found there.” [Finally the LORD] answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham….

As a postscript, regardless of Abraham’s bargaining styles, in the end he’s not successful in averting Sodom’s destruction. In the next chapter of Genesis, however, Abraham’s nephew Lot is more successful in negotiating with the “angels" sent to destroy Sodom. Lot is able to save himself and his household, except sadly his wife.