The blood of Abel speaks

On Augustine's allegorical reading of Cain and Abel

The blood of Abel speaks
Gustave Doré, Cain Slays Abel (1866)
By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh. (Hebrews 11:4)

For Augustine, the sacred Scriptures disclose a coherent narrative about the world and human history, the central drama of which is the onward march of the city of God to its heavenly end. However, as Augustine discusses in great detail throughout The City of God Against the Pagans, Scripture’s language not only discloses literal or historical meanings, but there are also hidden spiritual meanings within the historical record. These types, allegories and symbols are not merely literary flourishes, but they form the structure of the narrative by relating lower things to higher things, and earlier things to later things.

In this paper, I will focus upon Augustine’s treatment of the brief biblical record of Cain and Abel, and consider how Augustine’s use of typology and allegory helps him to relate this little episode to many of his other points throughout The City of God.

Typology or allegory?

There is sometimes a distinction drawn between the concepts of typology and allegory. Michael Cameron helpfully summarises the conventional wisdom on this apparent distinction:

Scholarly opinion seems to favor seeing the terms as competitors, viewing “allegory” as arbitrarily denigrating or dismissing the literal historical base of the word or event that, by contrast, “typology” respects. “Typology” […] describes the figurative link forged between narrated biblical events, something that appeals to the modern preoccupation with historically verifiable accounts. (Michael Cameron, Christ Meets Me Everywhere: Augustine’s Early Figurative Exegesis)

However, as Cameron goes on to claim, this apparent antagonism between the terms would have made little sense to Augustine. This is seen in The City of God itself: Augustine uses the term “allegory” not only for “upward” relationships between earthly and spiritual, but also in some places for the “forward” relationship between one historical particular to a later one. For example, in Book XVII chapter 3, Augustine writes:

when we read of prophecy and fulfilment in the story of Abraham’s physical descendants, we also look for an allegorical meaning which is to be fulfilled in those descended from Abraham in respect of faith. (St Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans)

Accordingly, I will use the terms “allegory” and “typology” fairly interchangeably.

Cain and Abel

Let us briefly review the outline of the narrative of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4: After Cain, the older son of Adam and Eve, makes a tribute offering that fails to be accepted by the Lord, he murders his younger brother, Abel, whose own offering was pleasing to the Lord. The Lord then casts out Cain from his presence as a vagabond; Cain then establishes the first city. Adam and Eve give birth to another son, Seth, whom Eve receives as a replacement for her murdered son Abel. Amidst Seth's descendants are those who call upon the name of the Lord.

Diptychs and eschatology

Before any consideration of the specific features of the two main characters, Cain and Abel, the fact that there are two main characters should not be overlooked. The author of Genesis sets Cain and Abel against each other as in diptych (a two-panelled artwork) so that their various similarities and differences can be seen more clearly. This “diptych” aspect of the narrative provides the basic framework for all the other allegorical elements.

In Book XV, Augustine quickly relates the Cain/Abel diptych to the work’s titular “diptych”, namely, that of the city of God against the pagans:

Now Cain was the first son born to those two parents of mankind, and he belonged to the city of man; the later son, Abel, belonged to the City of God.

The diptych of the two sons in the Cain and Abel narrative together with the diptych of the two cities invites Augustine to make connections to other diptychs in The City of God, such as those between earth versus heaven, the seed of the flesh versus the seed of the promise, the Jews against Christ.