27 JULY 1996, Page 25


Cain and lbny

Sir: I am afraid I must contest your assertion (Leader, 6 July) that your reading of Genesis chapter iv is 'as good as anyone else's'; in fact, I venture to suggest that your piece dis- plays the same confusion exhibited by the unfortunate Cain himself.

The issue of whether he is or is not his brother's keeper is raised by Cain, not God. Since God is omniscient, his question, 'Where is Abel thy brother?', may be regard- ed as a rhetorical one. Presumably what is meant by the enquiry is something like, 'I know you have done something bad to your brother, but I am going to give you an opportunity to own up to it' — a strategy which headmasters of primary schools every- where will recognise as being of limited use- fulness. Sure enough, Cain not only feigns ignorance but goes on to make his famous riposte, which may certainly be seen as Bran- doesque posturing, but which more signifi- cantly expresses a profound moral flaw. For God's question is surely meant not to sug- gest to Cain that he is his brother's keeper, but to remind him that he ought not to have murdered him. Cain's response implies that he sees any social responsibility, even the elementary responsibility not to do harm, as stifling and excessive. You are right to observe that his indignant and defensive statement would not be out of place in a cop drama, but quite wrong to overlook its broader relevance.

Like most of the more evocative passages from the Bible, this text has undoubtedly been subject to various wrongheaded inter- pretations by clergy and others. The point is that just as there is a difference between dis- playing some basic degree of care and toler- ance towards one's brother (or neighbour, or colleague) and being one's brother's keeper, so a society in which a little trust, respect and kindness can be found does not inevitably tend towards the absurdist cat's- cradle of paternalistic social relations, presided over by a socialist superstate, which you luridly evoke at the end of your piece. Furthermore, the creation of such a state is Manifestly the last thing on Tony Blair's Mind, and would in any case win him pre- cious few votes; in fact, the Labour Party may be less delighted to receive the support of people like the Bishop of Willesden than You seem to think.

Keith Miller

199d Camberwell Grove,

London SE5