Regina M. Schwartz presents a radical, stimulating view on the meaning of monotheism. Its influence, according to the author, extends far beyond theological import. Monotheism informs cultural consciousness and greatly influences group identities. As such, religious beliefs can promote certain types of psychological, sociological, and political realities. In The Curse of Cain, Schwartz specifically focuses on the nature of Biblical monotheism as it has been expressed in the Jewish tradition. Drawing the foundation of her theory from the allegory of Cain and Abel, the author describes how Jewish monotheism has contributed to a violent, antagonistic worldview. Not intended to be an attack against Judaism itself, this thesis is set forth to explain how myths and religion can shape the consciousness of entire groups of people. Schwartz uses the story of Cain and Abel to symbolize brothers killing brothers, what she calls "original violence." There are four basic facets of Schwartz's theory. First, the Bible promotes a sense of "us" against "them." Favoring one God, who himself favors one group of people, creates a sense of identity based on exclusion and hatred rather than inclusion and love. Second, because the Bible is so influential and has such deep impact on political and social realities across the globe, the book's impact is potentially dangerous. Third, Schwartz links monotheism directly exclusionist politics and the collective identity that is based on it. Fourth, Schwartz shows how a belief in scarcity coincides with Biblical monotheism: the story of Cain and Abel illustrates that God's divine blessings are limited, that there isn't enough divine blessing for everyone. Therefore, each person or group of people must fight to the death to win the favor of God's love. Because myths and allegories have so much power over group consciousness and collective identity, it is easy to see how the story of Cain and Abel could promote the kind of violent exclusionism visible in the world today.
An interesting theoretical tangent to Schwartz's work is the fact that Biblical monotheism is actually henotheism or "monolatry," the worship of one God among many (17). The acknowledgment in the Bible of the existence of pagan or "false" gods proves that the people of the book have selected or chosen their God. This act of exclusionism in selective worship ties in with the type of exclusionist politics that Schwartz addressed throughout the text. Moreover, on page 3, the author shows how exclusionism goes both ways: "the God who excludes some and prefers others, who casts some out, is a monotheistic God -- monotheistic not only because he demands allegiance to himself alone but because he confers his favor on one alone." This extended definition of monotheism as a divine preference as well as a human one is central to Schwartz's thesis. In fact, exclusionism on the part of the divine has extreme power over collective identity formation, one that models itself after Biblical teachings.
Exclusionism does not necessarily lead to violence but it easily can. For instance, the recognition of an individual ego as separate from other people does not automatically beget hatred for the "other." The diversity in the human and natural worlds often points to harmonious coexistence. However, any thorough examination of the political and social realities that course through human history will show that exclusionist beliefs often do entail violence. Biblical teachings point to extreme exclusionism. In fact, Schwartz shows that the fundamental way Israelite identity was formed historically was through a doctrine of exclusion and consequently of a superiority complex that invites violence toward the "other." "What makes one cast out and other not, is of course another way of asking who is an Israelite and who is not, what is Israel and what is not," (139). Many Biblical allegories refer to violent definitions of nationhood for the Israelites. Schwartz lists several, including a passage from Job describing the "nameless people, outcasts of society," (Job 30:3-8). Acts of violent exclusionism in the Bible abound, and are often clothed in sexual imagery as well, as sexuality is the natural extension of union with the "other." Adultery is a metaphor for the violation of a divine covenant, one that demands exclusive allegiance: in one case to a lover or spouse and in the other case to a deity. Because Judaism is fundamentally henotheistic, it makes perfect sense that a jealous God would demand an allegiance akin to sexual fidelity. This powerful interplay of self and other through sexual imagery fosters violence because of the essential anger underlying jealousy. Although Schwartz does not delve deeply into sexual politics it is also easy to extend her theory to sexism: the favoring of the male over the female produces the type of exclusionism that implies male superiority. The superiority of one God over another, as it is written in the Bible, extends onto other realms of human life. Exclusion infers the superiority of one God, one race, one nation, or one gender.
Collective identity is forged in negation and then underwritten by inviolable transcendence," (21). Negating other gods is at the root of the demands for monotheistic exclusivity. If God himself creates imaginary or real boundaries between people, it may be necessary to defend such a position with violent acts. Moreover, violence toward the other, toward the excluded group, is rooted in Biblical symbolism. Schwartz delineates the plethora of Biblical ceremonies tinged with blood and violence, many of which involve animal sacrifice and the metaphorical cutting of human flesh or stone. Schwartz notes that even the Ten Commandments were "cut" into stone tablets (21). Sanguine imagery and the act of cutting are necessarily violent. Therefore, violence is not simply based on a policy of exclusion. Rather, it is fundamentally underwritten into Biblical teachings through its abundance of allegories and metaphors.
Schwartz continues to assert, "When Biblical myths carve up humanity into peoples, they make assertions of collective identity in negative terms," (19). The cost of not ascribing to the concept of exclusive worship is violence: "the degradation, suffering, and bloodshed of the Other are depicted graphically" in the Bible (19). Therefore, it becomes impossible for an individual or a group to live with diversity in a harmonious setting. If God mandates exclusivity in the form of a divinely authored covenant, then the people who are party to that covenant become willing to perpetrate violence on any group or individual that threatens that cohesive identity. Because divine mandates are ultimate; that is, they cannot be altered by human minds, they become underwritten by immutable law. The Biblical God not only condones violence toward the Other but in many cases demands it as a graphic display of fidelity.
The power conferred to an ultimate deity is dangerous because it extends to the secular world. This danger can be witnessed not only through the myths contained in the Hebrew Bible but also historically. "Biblical archaeologists tell us that the written treaty between God and man is indebted to ancient social treaties between men," (26). The social treaties that predate the Bible helped the Israelites easily adapt the policy of violent exclusionism written into the Bible. Once the Bible was accepted as a divine rulebook, it naturally followed that the people of the book would continue to practice this divinely ordained violence toward other groups of people. Collective identity is forged through a policy of exclusionism and a sense of superiority. One specific God is favored over all others, just as one group of people is favored over all others.
Violence even extends to relations within the favored group: this can be witnessed in the central myth of Schwartz's book, the story of Cain and Abel. These two brothers were linked through ties of blood but the deity expressed favor of one brother. Cain, formerly part of the in-group, suddenly became cast out. Violent expressions of kinship abound in the Bible, as Schwartz points out. "The tragic requirement of collective identity that other peoples must be identified as objects to be abhorred is manifest in the violent exclusions in Israel's ancestral myths of kinship, assuming especially poignant expression in the story of the blessing of Jacob,' (79-80). Like the story of Cain and Abel, the story of Jacob and Esau divides brother against brother: they become ancestors of two separate groups of people. The bible therefore teaches that ties of kinship can be overruled by ties to the chosen deity and it is actually the deity that determines who or what group is part of the collective and who is the Other. Removing human responsibility from the equation, the Bible teaches that God mandates divisiveness even between people as closely linked as twin brothers.
Schwartz also shows how her theory of scarcity ties into the division of kinship groups: "a blessing cannot be conferred upon both of Isaac's progeny," (80). Even though God is deemed as omnipotent, his power is limited, only able to be conferred onto select groups of people. There is no logic inherent in this thinking but it nevertheless remains a…