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Genesis and Dispute Resolution

{4 minutes to read}  Conflicts go back a long way. There’s no shortage of them. Some get resolved and some don’t. And the species has chosen many different ways to resolve disputes. One method with a long history is murder. It’s a quick solution, though not necessarily a long-lasting one.

Cain killing Abel, marble relief on the facade of the Milan Cathedral, Duomo di Santa Maria Nascente, Milan, Lombardy, Italy

According to the Bible, Adam and Eve get off to a rocky start. Even before the trials of raising a family arrive, Adam and Eve have some issues. You may recall the serpent convinces Eve she need not fear eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She eats the fruit, gives some to Adam, who also eats it, and things go downhill pretty fast. God notices what happened, asks for an explanation, and the testimony is a model of accepting responsibility and trying to work things out.

God: “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

Adam: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” [Emphasis added].

God: (To Eve): “What is this that you have done?”

Eve: “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” [Emphasis added].

God: (To Himself): “Maybe this was all a big mistake.”

Adam wins the blame game prize by blaming both God and Eve for what happened. The kids do even worse. In the Bible, and the Koran, the first murder takes place between Cain and Abel. In both versions, it appears that jealousy is the motive, though the Biblical version is extremely terse. Cain and Abel both make offerings to God, who accepts Abel’s but rejects Cain’s for reasons unexplained in the text. Cain is miffed, and God, recognizing Cain’s anger, says to him, Hey, I see you’re upset but, “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.”

Like his folks, Cain decides to think over what God has said to him and figure out how to best resolve the issue at hand. Well no, not really. Instead, he immediately goes out into the field with Abel and kills him. 

The rest of Genesis is a mix of brotherly problems and fratricidal yearnings. Abraham has two sons, Isaac, and Ishmael. Ishmael is banished since Sarah is mother only to Isaac and she doesn’t want Ishmael around. Abraham comes close to sacrificing Isaac. Isaac has two kids, Jacob, and Esau. With help from their mother Rebecca, who favors Jacob, Jacob steals Esau’s birthright, and when Isaac dies, Esau, hating Jacob, plans to kill him. Rebecca tells Jacob of the plan and tells him to leave, which he does.

Jacob has twelve sons, and having been taught well by his parents, he too plays favorites. Joseph, second to last, is Jacob’s favorite, is generally insufferable and, in the family tradition, hated by his brothers, who — guess what — plan to kill him. (Gen. 37:18-20)

However, there is a big difference between what happens between Cain, and Abel and what happens to the rest of the Exodus Brothers. Jacob and Esau go their own ways, but years later meet up again. They don’t plan future family reunions, but nor do they do battle. Reuben, and Judah, two of Jacob’s twelve sons, talk the other brothers out of killing Joseph, even appealing to their sense of family relations. “After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” (Gen.37:27) By the end of Genesis, Joseph, with a great soap opera flourish, forgives them all. 

But magnanimous forgiveness, which isn’t the worst thing, may not be enough of a guide. What follows Genesis is the book of Exodus, a treatise filled with rules for living. We may not today agree with all of them — stoning of adulterers (ok, that’s in Leviticus) is no longer on the books — but it may be the rules reflect an understanding that people left to their own impulsive devices do not always get things right. There are ways of ending bitter conflicts that recognize the societal chaos murderous impulses create, and seek to prevent its occurrence. Litigation is usually preferable to murder, and mediation is generally preferable to litigation.  The dream-like angel Jacob wrestles with before seeing his estranged brother tells him he has striven with beings divine and human and prevailed. (Gen 32:29). The biblical writers had their fingers on the pulse when they acknowledged that certain aspects of human nature require inspired intercession.

Gary Shaffer Gary Shaffer
Shaffer Mediation

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An honors graduate of Harvard University and the Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University, where he also served on the Law Review, Gary brings more than 30 years of litigation and negotiation experience to his practice as a mediator. He has successfully negotiated and mediated resolutions in family matters, employment cases, commercial disputes, personal injury cases, and major civil rights matters.

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