Cain & Abel & Stagger Lee

When Lee Shelton and William “Billy” Lyons were in the middle of their final confrontation, the furthest thought from either of their minds was that nearly 60 years later teens would be jitterbugging at sock hops in commemoration of the event.

It had a nice beat; you can dance to it.

By now everybody has heard some variation of "Stagger Lee"[1] but few people know it's actually a fairly accurate account of a real crime on Christmas Eve in St. Louis in 1895.

There's something very primal, very basic about the tragedy of Lee “Stagger Lee” Shelton and Billy, something that echoes in human hearts.  Billy is the victim, yet in a certain sense Stagger Lee is a hero, not a villain.  Staggerlee feels he's been cheated, certainly feels he's been insulted, and in his rage kills Billy even though Billy begs for his life for the sake of his children and sick wife.[2]

We -- all of us -- can understand Stagger Lee; we have stood in his shoes and if the result wasn't the same it was a difference of degrees, not kind.

I think Cain and Abel actually existed.

Probably not by those names, and certainly not actual bona fide literal descendants of Adam and Eve (whoever/whatever they may have actually been), but the ur-story sounds too real to be a product of pure imagination.

At some prehistoric time in some culture that eventually lead to the Hebrews and Arabs, two brothers vied for the approval of their Father-God.

The details seem scant; one brother pleased God, the other didn't.

Some speculate the reason is that Abel presented a blood offering while Cain went vegan, but I don't think the text shows that.

Rather, the text seems to indicate Cain's shortcoming was within him; further, that it was something he knew and had control over.

We're told God showed favor to Abel but not to Cain yet we aren't told how this favor was displayed.

I don't think it matters.  I don't think that's the point of the story.

Indeed, there may have been no difference in the circumstances of the two brothers, but Cain knew! Cain could feel something lacking in his relationship with God.

Cain then whips out one of the purest acts of evil one could hope for:  Because he felt bad, he attempted to punish Abel and punish God by murdering his brother.

This is a story that resonates universally.  Every culture is acutely aware of sibling rivalries, yet such rivalries are as vicious a betrayal of our humanity as we can imagine.

Siblings should have a greater, stronger reason to love one another; our literal biological flesh and blood brothers and sisters should be the last persons we raise hand or voice on against.

That's why I think the Cain and Abel story really happened, involved real people, was the talk of the tribe for many, many moons, eventually passed along in folklore to later generations and codified into religion.

Cain's crime reflects his ignorance.  Whoever God was to Cain, He was not omniscient.  Cain’s hypocritical retort to God -- "Am I my brother's keeper?" -- the words of a murderer trying to deny any responsibility for his crime -- answers itself, but God already knew.

And Gain’s great terror was realizing God knew -- and had known -- all along…

The Biblical account does not have other humans judging Cain; the judgment handed down is Cain's own guilt in his own words.  He flees and sets up a new community, which again sounds like a real event.

Cain feared vengeance from his tribe.  In truth they probably wanted nothing to do with him.  He was driven from their midst not by their actions but by his shame.

The Biblical account is somewhat at odds with the chapters surrounding it (not entirely unexpected when one considers it came to us solely through the memory of a drunken farmer and his dysfunctional family).  The two genealogies of Adam in Genesis do not jibe, Cain and Abel are apparently the first two sons of Adam and Eve yet he's got a wife and fears strangers (!) killing him, he goes off and builds a city out in the wilderness all by his lonesome.

In a very real sense, he enters Hell -- an absolute separation from God.

The account seems to be true, but its placement in Genesis seems arbitrary.




[1]  Probably Pat Boone's insanely cleaned up version from the 1950s; Pat made some weird career choices and this was one of the weirdest but, hey, whatever works...

[2]  Though if he was that concerned, why wasn't he at home with them instead of gambling on street corners and hanging around bars on Christmas Eve?

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