“We are a little bit like brothers where we rough each other up once in a while, which is totally normal for brothers,” he went on to explain. But in an interview Thursday on CNN in which he appeared to accuse Priebus of leaking information, Scaramucci made a startling biblical allusion. “Some brothers,” he said, “are like Cain and Abel.”
In that reading of the comment, Priebus perishes, which may well be what Scaramucci had in mind. But it’s not really a great analogy for him, either. This isn’t a story about crime and punishment, where Abel gets what’s coming to him. It’s a story about entirely unjustified premeditated murder.
For those unfamiliar with the tale, a brief recap: The brothers Cain and Abel, a farmer and a cowhand, and the offspring of Adam and Eve, each bring an offering to God. God favors Abel’s offering, which distresses Cain. Though God warns Cain to control his temper, Cain kills Abel out in the field. When God hears Abel’s blood “crying from the ground,” Cain is punished, cursed to fail in his future farming endeavors, and told that he will be “a ceaseless wanderer on the earth.”
Abel is virtually defined by his innocence. As for Cain, nothing good comes of Abel’s death. In fact, having killed his sibling, Cain is suddenly terrified that anywhere he goes, people will look at him as a murderer, and will seek to kill him for his crime. It’s hard to imagine that Scaramucci wouldn’t similarly be viewed by some in the White House and the Republican Party as a hatchetman if Priebus gets the ax. In getting rid of one enemy, you often make many others.
One place where the parallel with the biblical story is pretty apt, though, is in the rationale for Cain’s murder of Abel: jealousy. The story starts with the two brothers offering sacrifices to God—Abel’s is accepted, and Cain’s is rejected. Genesis doesn’t tell us why one is favored and one isn’t, and that’s part of the point. God even tells Cain not to get upset about it— these things happen. Go get ‘em next time. Scaramucci’s original grievance with Priebus, even before the leaks, was reportedly that Priebus had contrived to keep Scaramucci out of the White House. The root cause of both the biblical story and the drama in the administration is basically the same: Favoritism is fickle.
To his credit, Scaramucci has had the guts to air his complaints against Priebus, rightly or wrongly. As he put it Wednesday in a Fox News interview, “I’m more of a front-stabbing person.” When Cain kills Abel, he never verbalizes his anger, which is why Abel never sees it coming. Priebus has gotten more warning than Abel ever did—so he might be smart enough not to go out into the field with his brother, and find himself on the wrong end of the knife.
And while Cain might be the villain of the story, at least he’s got a personality—he’s the protagonist of the narrative, even if he’s no hero. Abel, by contrast, is virtually a ghost. His name in Hebrew even means “nothingness.” He never speaks, he never communicates with God, he never makes a choice. He’s there only to die, which he dutifully does. In this media-driven society, lots of people have made the basic reckoning that fame, even if it’s infamy, beats being ignored. Scaramucci is, if nothing else, savvy about the power of the media.
It’s also possible, though, that Scaramucci meant for us to read the roles in reverse. After all, if he wants to make Priebus out to be the bad guy, that would be Cain, not Abel. And there are some fun parallels to be found in this casting, too.
If Scaramucci sees himself as Abel, then he could have in mind that Priebus had tried to kill his earlier attempts to join the administration. Even better is the punishment that Cain has to endure: He is not sentenced to death for killing Abel, but is doomed to wander the earth, friendless. That sounds a lot like what Scaramucci might want for Priebus: banished from the Oval Office, stripped of his influence and forced to roam the sets of whatever cable news shows will take him in.
The Cain and Abel story is almost always read, with justification, as a statement about the corrupting influence of jealousy on the human heart, and on the power of sin to overtake our intentions. As God warns Cain, “If you not do right, sin lies in wait at the door; its urge is toward you. Yet you can be its master.” Cain, of course, doesn’t heed God’s word, and suffers the consequences. Fair warning, then, to both Scaramucci and Priebus.
The most famous line from the biblical text is surely Cain’s claim of innocence when God asks (laying the trap) where Abel has gone: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The moral of the story is supposed to be yes: We are all our brother’s keepers, responsible for the health and welfare of those around us. It’s probably safe to say that this particular lesson isn’t getting much play in the West Wing.
Biblical scholars have also often pointed to this story as a depiction of an early conflict between pastoralists like Abel—that is, shepherds—and agriculturalists like Cain, which is to say, farmers. So too the Scaramucci/Priebus drama is really about something bigger: The conflict between traditional Republican politics and the new Trumpian attitude. It could also represent the clash of styles between Priebus’ aw-shucks Midwesternism and Scaramucci’s New York brashness. Either way, one potential lesson of the biblical story is the same: When the two sides come to blows, no one really ends up winning.
The story of Cain and Abel is rich with interpretive possibilities, with moral and ethical lessons, and with potential parallels to our modern experience. It’s hard to imagine, though, that Scaramucci had any of this in mind when he suggested that he and Priebus were like Cain and Abel. It seems far more likely that he was just expressing, in crude biblical terms, what everyone knew from the day he was hired: The White House just ain’t big enough for the both of them.