Abel, Cain, and the Triangle

Pay attention to process, not just to content. That’s a gold key to life in community, whether you’re a leader or a committed member. How we decide is as important as what we decide. Conflicts might be expressed in terms of doctrine or policy, but they are often driven by unresolved family issues. Roles, motives, and relationships are at least as important as the supposed facts. Conflicts can’t be resolved by quoting Bible verses, as many leaders have painfully discovered. But paying attention to process can make the difference.

The stories of Abraham’s family in Genesis have much to teach us about family process. These stories include three major sibling conflicts—Isaac vs Ishmael, Jacob vs Esau, and Joseph vs his brothers—and Cain vs Abel introduces them all.

In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. And the LORD said to Cain,
“Why are you distressed,
And why is your face fallen?
Surely, if you do right,
There is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin couches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master.”
Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him. Gen. 4:3-8, JPS Tanakh

Cain is the firstborn, but the LORD chooses to favor Abel and his offering. Here’s a theme that will prevail throughout Genesis—the Creator of the universe is not an impersonal force, but a personal God who makes choices, and who also communicates with his human creatures, even those who don’t cooperate with those choices.

The story of Cain and Abel is unique, of course, but it portrays some other universal truths, including truths about family process. In particular, it pictures what family therapists call triangulation. In his classic Families & Family Therapy, Salvador Minuchin applied the term to a dynamic in which “each parent demands that the child side with him against the other parent” (p. 102). A conflict between husband and wife becomes triangulated when one or the other draws one of the children in as an ally. Conversely, triangulation happens when parents who have never worked out their own differences make a child the scapegoat, the “bad kid” who becomes the center of attention for the whole family. In community life, triangulation occurs when an adult with unresolved parental issues projects those issues onto a leader or mentor.

Triangulation doesn’t occur simply by having three parties to a relationship. From the perspective of Genesis 2:24, every marriage is triangular because every marriage has three parties, a man, a woman, and God who brings them together. Triangulation happens when issues between two parties are projected on to the third, or when a third is brought in, or steps in, to protect or control one of the two parties. Again, Genesis 2:24 sheds light on this issue: “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.” The one-flesh union of man and woman requires a de-triangulation from father and mother. In-law problems can often be understood in terms of triangulation. A mother still sees herself as mother to her daughter, and therefore in some measure of competition with the son-in-law. Or a wife feels overwhelmed in her new role and underappreciated by her husband, and draws her mother or father in as an ally against him. I can cite plenty of additional examples, but the underlying appeal, and threat, of triangulation is that it allows one to redirect energy away from a difficult or intimidating relationship to one that seems more manageable. It seems to provide some control over a scary or unsatisfying relationship, but in the end only makes the problems worse.

To bring this home to Cain and Abel, Cain has a problem with God, but he redirects—or triangulates—it on to Abel. God is the one who pays no heed to Cain and his offering; God is the one who calls Cain out for his downcast and angry response; and God is the one who exhorts Cain to master the sin that “couches at the door.” But Cain knows he can’t get back at this God, so he invites Abel out to the field for a friendly talk . . . and murders him.

Cain’s response becomes a model for the triangulation that we see in the stories of Abraham’s family. For example, Sarah creates a triangle when she gives her slave-girl Hagar to Abraham as a wife in order to bear a son through her—and then Hagar triangulates by showing contempt for the barren Sarah, perhaps the same contempt she feels as a slave, who isn’t chosen to be a wife, but is given as chattel to her mistress’s elderly husband for the purpose of procreation. Sarah triangulates when she tells Abraham, who had only been following Sarah’s suggestions all along, “Let my wrong be upon you! . . . Let the Lord judge between me and you.” Indeed every story that involves a chosen one (which is a repeated theme in Genesis) also involves the triangle of the chooser, the chosen, and the not-chosen. And triangulation repeatedly occurs as those who are competing to be the chosen vent their frustrations over the father’s choice, or God’s choice, on each other.

God, of course, is above all this, but at the same time he remains engaged, and in his response to Cain he provides a model for our response to triangulation. The Lord responds in four ways that we can emulate, by paying attention to process as well content.

  1. He keeps lines of communication open. Cain is not favored, but he’s also not rejected. God doesn’t give him the silent treatment for his distress and his fallen face, but keeps him in dialogue.
  2. He stays calm. I know, it sounds odd to say that God stays calm, but one of the most powerful antidotes to unhealthy triangulation is simply to remain present and engaged without reacting or escalating the situation. Don’t walk away and don’t react.
  3. He articulates options. Cain, despite his distress and anger, still has a choice, as the LORD reminds him:
    “If you do right,
    There is uplift.
    But if you do not do right
    Sin couches at the door.”
  4. He lets the other be responsible for his choices. He exhorts, but doesn’t manipulate. As the one who gave humans free will, the LORD respects their freedom to make even the wrong choice. Don’t take on responsibility that really belongs to another, and don’t neglect what belongs to you.

If you’re a committed leader or member of your community, you’re likely to be drawn into triangulation, which can become either destructive or redemptive. Remember to think process—and apply process lessons from the Torah—as well as content, and you can be a source of resolution and healing.

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2 thoughts on “Abel, Cain, and the Triangle”

  1. Thanks, Russ, it’s a cool analysis. I wonder about Zerah, Judah’s second son (but who was supposed to be first) by his daughter-in-law, Tamar. In your picture, there is the chooser, the chosen, and the un-chosen, and this theme shows up in many places. This tiny little story in Ex 38 has Zerah putting his hand out first, getting tagged with red thread, and then not being the first born. I think of him as the “Should-Have Kid”. HIs brother gets into the ancestry of Messiah, but he becomes an Edomite (I think). In this case he is even marked as the one who should have. He shows up again as ancestor of Achan, who took the forbidden spoil at Jericho. We are seeing quite an important psychological force in our world, that “should-have” sentiment.

    1. Hi Jerry. Here’s a really late response to your comment about Zerah as a “should-have.” I say “the chooser, the chosen, and the not-chosen,” rather than the un-chosen. It’s a subtle distinction but important. “Un-chosen” is more negative; it sounds like explicit rejection, whereas the not-chosen isn’t rejected, but just . . . not chosen. The not-chosen often benefit from the election of the chosen one, as we see in the story of the chosen Joseph and his not-chosen brothers, for example. So I’d say that the not-chosen takes on the “should-have” sentiment when he or she doesn’t accept the chosenness of the chosen one and wants it for himself. That’s the position of Joseph’s brothers in the first part of the story.

      Good point about the connection between Zerah and Achan. I’ve never noticed that. But I don’t know about Zerah becoming an Edomite.

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