Who will punish the lord?

Robert Alter

José Saramago’s last work of fiction, published in Portugal in 2009, the year before he died, created something of a furore there. It is less likely to ruffle feathers in the English-speaking world, where scathing critiques of the Bible, in fiction and even in biblical scholarship, have been commonplace since the 18th century. Cain is obviously a companion piece to Saramago’s The Gospel according to Jesus Christ (1994), which proposed a revisionist view of the New Testament; this book turns its attention to the Old. The relationship between the two novels is by no means symmetrical: Cain is very different both in the attitudes that inform it and in its narrative strategies.

Saramago, an anarcho-communist, has no patience with biblical theology, but he is much more forgiving towards the New Testament than the Old. In The Gospel according to Jesus Christ he shows sympathy with Jesus and the task of salvation he undertakes. God the Father does not come off very well, especially because he has hit on the perverse scheme of sacrificing his son, while a rustic figure first cast as an angel but who turns out to be the devil is altogether more morally attractive. This devil is not very diabolic, and serves as an angelic enough spiritual guide for Jesus. The Gospel according to Jesus Christ is a fairly conventional historical novel, varied only by brief interpolations of contemporary Portuguese life and a few passing references to modern thinkers. The New Testament miracles appear, with no hint of irony, though Jesus is made more of a creature of this world than he is in the Gospels. (Rather predictably, he discovers the raptures of carnal love with Mary Magdalene, a less interesting decision than D.H. Lawrence’s in The Man Who Died to involve him with a priestess of Isis.) Just three years before The Gospel according to Jesus Christ, Saramago far more elaborately and far more brilliantly interwove a contemporary story with the fictional invention of the past in The History of the Siege of Lisbon, perhaps his best novel.

Cain’s most engaging moments are in Saramago’s whimsical recasting of the biblical materials. The first sentence of the book, an illustration of Margaret Jull Costa’s deft translation, strikes this note:

When the lord, also known as god, realised that adam and eve, although perfect in every outward aspect, could not utter a word or make even the most primitive of sounds, he must have felt annoyed with himself, for there was no one else in the garden of eden whom he could blame for this grave oversight, after all, the other animals, who were, like the two humans, the product of his divine command, already had a voice of their own, be it a bellow, a roar, a croak, a chirp, a whistle or a cackle.

These opening lines establish the perception of God as a bit of a blunderer, inclined to petulance, given to correcting divine mistakes in ill-considered ways. That image has at least some grounding in biblical representation, especially in Genesis, where God is imagined in emphatically anthropomorphic terms. The notion, on the other hand, that the first man and woman were initially without language is Saramago’s invention for satiric ends: J’s narrative in Genesis makes perfectly clear that the first human (the Hebrew ’adam is a common noun, not a name) is endowed with language and uses it to give names to the animals.

The best part of Cain, unfortunately visible only in bits and pieces, is its midrashic fleshing out of the biblical story, providing a wealth of details absent from the laconic original. As one of the other characters tells Cain, ‘the savour of any story is always in the details.’ A brief passage from the Midrash Genesis Rabba (from the early centuries of the Christian era) indicates a certain correspondence between the old Hebrew-Aramaic rewriting of the biblical story and Saramago’s modern Portuguese one. This is how the Midrash imagines the tale of the switched brides, Leah and Rachel, in Genesis 29:

And all that night he cried out to her, ‘Rachel!’ and she answered him. In the morning – ‘and, look, she was Leah.’ He said to her, ‘Why did you deceive me, daughter of a deceiver? Didn’t I call out “Rachel” in the night, and you answered me?’ She said, ‘There is never a bad barber who doesn’t have disciples. Isn’t this how your father cried out “Esau”, and you answered him?’

This elaboration makes a shrewd point, that Jacob’s deception of his blind father is punished measure for measure when, trying to effect another displacement of elder by younger, he is deceived in the darkness of the night by the firstborn sister. What is equally notable, and quite in keeping with Saramago’s interest in the sparsely intimated erotic dimension of the biblical narrative, is the way the vigorous young Jacob, at last in bed with the woman he thinks is his beloved Rachel, goes at it again and again (‘all that night’), passionately crying out Rachel’s name, until he is disabused in the light of dawn.

Saramago is less interested in interpreting the biblical text than in inventing characters, events and entire scenes that supplement it, often with the intention of overturning its dominant assumptions. An entertaining instance early in the book is when he sends Eve back to the gates of Eden after the banishment in search of food because she and Adam have found nothing but thorns and thistles outside the garden. The angel with the flaming sword posted at the gates of course can’t let her in, but he is prevailed on to step inside and fetch her some fruit, enticed by her exposed breasts.

Saramago gives freest rein to the erotic reimagining of scripture in the figure of Lilith, not actually a biblical character but a Talmudic invention, whom he rather oddly introduces here as Noah’s wife. (When Noah reappears at the end of the book, he has a different wife, no explanation offered.) Cain in this novel is a wanderer and a fugitive not only in space but also in time, flipping forward and backward to Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Job and again to Noah. He finds himself a labourer outside the palace of Lilith and Noah, and is peremptorily summoned by her to become her sexual consort. It is an ecstatic but perilous experience that Saramago manifestly enjoys creating, though it has little connection with the anti-biblical argument that drives the book: ‘In this antechamber where no sound from outside can penetrate, lilith and cain are like two swordsmen sharpening their blades for a duel to the death,’ and a moment later: ‘lilith, when she does finally open her legs to allow herself to be penetrated, will not be surrendering, but trying to devour the man to whom she said, Enter.’

The terse biblical narrative, as many readers over the generations have noticed, swarms with unexplained details. Where did those animal skins come from with which God dressed Adam and Eve when no one had yet slaughtered animals? How all of a sudden are there human settlements among which Cain wanders when only four human beings have at this point been introduced to the story? Here is the way Saramago deals with the first of these conundrums: ‘The lord plucked out of the air a couple of animal skins to cover the nakedness of adam and eve, who exchanged knowing winks, for they had known they were naked from the very first day and had made the most of it too.’

Cain is not as consistently lively as the examples I have cited might suggest. There are long passages – the promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah followed by Abraham’s bargaining with God over Sodom in Genesis 18 is an egregious instance – that are little more than quotation combined with close paraphrase of the biblical text. One gets a sense that at moments Saramago tired of his subject, allowing the source-text to do his work for him. And some of the attempts at humour seem forced: ‘Among the dead were the kings of midian, namely evi, rekem, zur, hur and reba, for kings then used to have strange names, rather than being called joão or afonso or manuel, sancho or pedro.’

Saramago’s imagination is energised throughout by the project of exposing the Hebrew God as malicious, capricious, unreasonable, overbearing and, finally, murderous. Cain is the first murderer, but Saramago argues that the fratricide was really God’s fault for arbitrarily favouring Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s and thus driving Cain to violence. Cain in this representation is not a bad sort, although lacking in definition as a novelistic character. His principal use is as a counter to God. Several times he reverts to the thought that he killed one man, and was punished for it, whereas God has been guilty, as he sees through his time-travelling, of repeated instances of mass murder: all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, including women and small children; 3000 Israelites in the incident of the golden calf; untold thousands of Canaanites in Joshua’s genocidal conquest. ‘Who, I would like to know,’ Cain wonders, ‘is going to punish the lord for all these deaths … lucifer was quite right when he rebelled against god, and those who say he did so out of envy are wrong, he simply recognised god’s evil nature.’ Shortly after, he reflects that ‘this lord will one day be known as the god of war,’ and that the pact between God and men may amount only to ‘two articles, namely, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.’ Satan, in a bitter recasting of his characterisation in The Gospel according to Jesus Christ, ‘is just another instrument of the lord, the one who does the dirty work to which god prefers not to put his name’. And Cain, vouchsafed a glimpse of the future centuries of religious wars and murderous persecutions carried out in God’s name, concludes that God must be a madman, ‘unless, of course, it’s not a case of real, authentic madness, but evil pure and simple’.

There is warrant for at least some of this in the biblical texts. But Saramago presents a rather one-sided account of the God of the Hebrew Bible, grounding his view in all those moments when God is angry, impatient and punitive. In the Bible, the Flood story often threatens to be repeated, despite God’s assurances to Noah, and the people of Israel are by no means exempt from the danger: Moses has to dissuade God from annihilating them. Such stories reflect a general belief in the ancient Mediterranean world that catastrophes such as famine, plague, earthquake, flood and military defeat were divine punishment for human malfeasance. (Thebes was plague-stricken because Oedipus had killed his father and slept with his mother.) More troubling are the reiterated exhortations to wipe out the pagan population of Canaan, men, women and children. It may be reassuring to learn from historians that such a campaign of mass murder never actually occurred. Instead, it is a fictional realisation of the Deuteronomistic agenda that Israel should have absolutely no cultic, cultural or social intercourse with its pagan neighbours. (In fact, the contacts between the two populations were multifarious and persistent.) Nevertheless, the unhistorical character of the biblical report does not entirely relieve it of culpability. As Claude Rawson persuasively argues in God, Gulliver and Genocide, once a writer puts forward a vision of total destruction, however fantastic the context, a toxic element has been released into the intellectual atmosphere that, though not a direct cause of genocide, helps make it imaginable. The Deuteronomistic writers have much to answer for, and there is an element of justice in Saramago’s condemnation.

The problem, though, with almost any polemic is that it tends to be repetitiously insistent, and this is certainly true of Saramago’s novel. He makes the same point again and again with different examples, sometimes sophomorically, while entirely ignoring other aspects of the God of the Hebrew Bible. This is, after all, a God who repeatedly enjoins us to protect the orphan and the widow; to look after the stranger, reminding us that we were strangers in Egypt; to provide for the poor and the landless; not to favour the rich and powerful in courts of law. Saramago never mentions the Ten Commandments, perhaps because they might suggest a nobler divine vision than the one he arraigns. The God of the narrative books of the Bible selectively invoked here manifests himself in ways that could warrant condemning him as a god of war, but his call for social and legal justice and, in counterpoint to the wrath, his expressions of solicitous concern for humankind point forward to the lofty vision of the deity in the prophets – most memorably, in Second Isaiah. Saramago, unsurprisingly, chooses not to bring his Cain in contact with them.

There is also something incoherent about the book. Parts of the narrative contradict other parts in ways that do not seem productive of meaning. The book ends with the Flood story, Cain joining Noah on the ark, where he murders Noah’s family, one by one, so that there will be no more human race. When God objects, denouncing Cain as a man true to his character as the wicked killer of his own brother, Cain responds: ‘Not as vile and wicked as you, remember the children in Sodom’. God has no answer. If Cain is angry with God, why is he bent on destroying the human race? Saramago relentlessly represents God as evil, but humanity, by contrast, has been shown to be capable, at least intermittently, of decency, so Cain is destroying it chiefly to spite God. The book’s underlying narrative assumption, moreover, has been that humankind continues to have a history after Noah, both in the biblical story Cain witnesses and in the long centuries of bloodshed for which he condemns God. The end of the novel seems not fully imagined and thought out but an act of petulance, the writer behaving rather like the God he has excoriated.