Iakov Levi

Rembrandt and the Prodigal Son
On Elder and Youngest Brothers

"If anyone slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken
on him sevenfold". And the Lord put a mark ('oth) on Cain,
lest any who came upon him should kill him (Gn. 4:15).

Jan. 5, 2004

Rembrandt: The Prodigal Son (L'Hermitage, St. Petersburg)

Rembrandt's painting shows the merciful father of the parable pardoning the Prodigal Son, while the elder brother is represented with a knife, conspiring a murder.
The Gospel's story draws a parallel between the Prodigal Son and Christ, who after having been crucified (atonement) reunites with the Father (Dextera Patris "sitting at the right of the Father") and is pardoned, as Vicar of all the patricide sons of mankind.
Christ is unigenitum (the only son). Apparently, he is not the elder, nor the youngest son. However, in Christian theology, the parallelism between Christ and the other youngest sons of the biblical stories is omnipresent. In every Christian Bible, Abel and Isaac, the other youngest sons who are killed or sacrificed, are interpreted as forerunners and prototypes of Christ.
Of Isaac is written: "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you " (Gn. 22:2).  Isaac is the only son, although he was the younger of Abraham’s two sons.
Henceforth, "only son" (Unigenitum) does not mean "the only born" but "the preferred one".
Abel, the shepherd, as Christ, is the Agnus Dei (God's Lamb). He sacrifices to the Lord the best of his herd (the preferred), and he is sacrificed, as Isaac, Abraham's preferred son.  Christ, too, is the Good Shepherd. Shepherd and Sacrificial Lamb condense in the same representation: preferred, chosen, beloved, and sacrificed.
The Angels' annunciation to Sarah is interpreted, as well, as the event forerunning the Angel's Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, and so on.
The Gospels present to us, according to Christian interpretation, youngest sons, sacrificed, beloved and pardoned (Abel, Isaac, Jesus, the Prodigal Son), and elder sons impious and wicked (Cain, Esau, Reuben and Judah, the elder brother of the parable, the Jews [1] ).

Freud has shown how the youngest son, the one beloved and preferred by his mother, had been the leader of the rebellious horde of the brotherhood, who acted out the patricide and had been crowned as king by his brothers  (Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) Chap. X and XII B).
Greek mythology presents the events in a very explicit way: Zeus, the youngest son is saved by the mother Rhea from the infanticide rage of Cronos, he dethrones him, he saves the elder brothers (the Titans) who had been jailed by the Father, and he becomes king of the gods.
In tales, the mnemonic traces of the original prehistoric events remain as well:  the youngest son was the beloved and the preferred of the mother, and not of the Father. In Grimms' The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids, The Six Swans, The Three Feathers, The Three sons of Fortune and others,  he is always  the one  who prevails. For instance, in the first tale we are told ..."Once upon a time...", Mother Sheep had been living in a beautiful little house with her seven kids. The mother had often to leave home in order to make her errands in the market. Before exiting home, she had been admonishing her sons not to open the door to anybody, because a ferocious wolf was wandering along.
The story continues telling how, once that Mother was absent, the wolf came to the house's door, and tried to seduce the kids into opening the door.
At last, he succeeded. The seven kids hided in different places, but the wolf found and devoured them all, as Cronos devoured his sons, exept the seventh - the youngest - who hid in the little space inside the grand-father's clock, until the return of the mother. As Theodor Reik has shown, the sons are identified by the fathers with the children's grand - fathers, namely with their own fathers ("The Puberty Rites of Savages", in Ritual - Psychoanalytic Studies, Farrar & Strauss, New York 1946).
When the mother returned from the market, the youngest kid came out from his hiding place and told everything to his Mom. She immediately took a big knife and cut the belly of the wolf - that in the meantime had fallen asleep - and the six brothers jumped outside and reunited with their little brother, the Savior of the whole horde.
As in Greek myth, in this tale too, the mnemonic traces remain that the youngest son had been the preferred of his mother, and not of his father (the wolf), and the Savior of his brothers.
Afterwards, the myths and the legends introduce a displacement. The youngest son, who had been the greatest enemy of the Father and the beloved of the Mother, becomes the beloved of the Father, whom he had killed and dethroned. The Lord prefers Abel to Cain, Abraham prefers Isaac to Ishmael. At the beginning, Isaac prefers Esau, and here the Biblical story betrays the substance of the original events, but eventually Jacob, the youngest son, overcomes the elder, substitutes him, and becomes the Patriarch of Israel. It is not by accident that, at the beginning of the story, the Bible told us that he had been the preferred son of the mother Rebecca. Then, Jacob himself prefers Joseph to his elder brothers, and finally the youngest of all, Benjamin, becomes "The Benjamin", household name for future generations of youngest and preferred sons.
All the youngest sons are killed (Abel), or threatened by death by their father (Isaac), or by their elder brothers, who are a substitute of the father (Jacob and Joseph). If they must suffer, they must have sinned. In our unconscious, as in archaic psyche, the Law of the Talion is the only valid logic that must prevail. That is the reason why Christian theology emphasizes forgiveness. It is a trial to invalidate our unconscious inner logic, which is archaic and indestructible. The Christ, the Son, is unconsciously perceived as guilty of the sin shared by the whole mankind: patricide, which he came to atone for. Only an ideology of forgiveness would allow him to replace the Father, dethroning him, and in this way invalidating the Talion's Law. Although the Gospels' version speaks of atonement (the Crucifixion) and of identification with the Father (sitting at the right of the Father), repeating the main features of the archaic puberty rites in which the novices where tortured and then allowed to identify with the generation of the fathers, Christianity developed an ideology of supremacy of the Son on the Father. Christ becomes the Last Judge, and in paintings and art, He is represented as the main figure of the Kingdom of Heaven. In order to make acceptable to our inner logic such supremacy, it was necessary also to generate an ideology invalidating the Law of the Talion. Henceforth, the parable of the Prodigal Son is paramount to Christian theology.

In Rembrandt's painting, we see how an elder son is intriguing to kill the youngest, as Cain had killed Abel, as Joseph's brothers, and as the Jews were accused of having killed the Christ.
The displacement of maternal love for the youngest son from the mother to the father is the outcome of the archaic puberty rites, in which the son is kidnapped from the mother and he is born again from the father, who becomes the one who generates him, to whom the novice owes loyalty, and whom he identifies with.
Many tales keep the mnemonic traces of the displacement and of the archaic puberty rites.
In The Ugly Duck, the seventh son is also the must important because he becomes the hero of the story, as the seventh kid of the tale previously mentioned, and like Zeus who becomes the Father of the gods.
He is taken from the mother for the whole winter, a long period during which he is exposed to extreme suffering, and he is found, almost dead, in the icy waters of a lake by a farmer, who keeps him in his pocket and warms him up (like in the couvade).
The ugly duck is born again from the pocket of the farmer, exactly as the seventh kid of the previous tale had jumped from the belly of the grand- father' clock.
The aim of puberty rites is to make the novices born again from the fathers, who will become their tutors and brothers in blood  (see Reik, op.cit. p.130 and pp. 150 - 164).
At conclusion of the rite, the little ugly duck has become a beautiful swan, who displays proudly his phallic symbol (the wings), and reunites with his brothers into adults' congregation.
The Seven Crows is another tale with the same elements. The transfiguration of seven youngsters in seven birds is even more explicit.
The seven sons behave so badly, that they poison their parents' goats. It is a particularly interesting element. Reik, who has analyzed the puberty rites of savages, writes:

Among the Janude in the Cameroons the youths who are to be initiated destroy everything that falls into their hands; and in Darfur they steal fowls. The boys, who are often conducted by their teachers, make attacks by night on the villagers of their tribe and plunder them. The circumcised youths ravenously attack the paternal kraals, steal cattle, and misuse anyone who opposes them (op.cit. p.135).
When the tale deals with youngsters poisoning their father's goats, the parallelism with the circumcised youths ravenously attack the paternal kraals, is striking.

The Wood' cutter of the Seven Crows represents the Father with his threatening axe as a phallic castrating symbol. Oddly, it is the mother who curses the sons, expressing the wish that they would transform into crows and would fly away.
The young novices who are kidnapped by the fathers must explain to themselves why they are separated from their mothers. Henceforth, the tale explains that it had been the mother who expressed the wish to make them fly away.
In this tale, the father, like the one in The Ugly Duck, is depicted in a positive way. It is with him that the youngsters must identify as a conclusion of their puberty rite, and it is from him that they must be born again, invalidating, through the rite, their biological birth from the mother and the consequent incestuous drives.
With Reik's words: "The condition of heroship seems rather to be that the birth of the hero from the mother is nullified"  (Op.cit., p.148.)
As we have seen in The Wolf and the Seven Litle Kids, the hero is born again from the grand - father's clock, and in The Ugly Duck he is born again from the farmer's pocket, which are both the symbol of the maternal womb, but were displaced into the Father's Imago.
As Reik has shown in his work, misogyny is rooted in the sense of guilt of the sons towards the Father (Op.cit. 151 - 152).

The youngest sons, who originally were the leaders of the brothers’ horde, in the legends and myths elaborated by the peoples, they become the preferred of the Father and are pardoned by him. However, they bring in the flesh the trace of their rebellion and of the Father's retaliation.
Oedipus has "inflated legs", Jacob limps (Gn. 32:31)  (see: Theodor Reik, "The Wrestling of Jacob", in Dogma and Compulsion, International Universities Press, New York 1951, pp.229-251), and the Christ brings the stigmata in the legs and in the hands, the very organs which erected against the Father.
Stigma means "mark", "sign", from the Greek Stizein = to impose a sign. In ancient times it was impressed on the front of slaves and criminals, and they are also the signs inflicted by the Cross' nails on Jesus' hands and legs
The mark impressed in the flesh represents the trace of the rebellion and of the crime against the Father. Therefore, it is also admired, adored, and worshiped by the horde of the brothers. It is the proof of the heroic deed of rebellion.
Afterwards, the mark becomes the sign of the Covenant between the Father and the Chosen among the sons, acting as the delegate of the people, who in their name commits also not to repeat the murder:

And God said, "This is the sign ('oth) of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations" (Gn. 9:12)...
God said to Noah, "This is the sign ('oth) of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon earth"  (Gn. 9:17).

Of the Ransom of the First Born, is written

It shall be as a mark ('oth) on your hand or frontlets between your eyes; for by a strong hand the lord brought us out of Egypt." (Ex. 13:16).
Henceforth, the Jewish precept of putting every morning phylacteries on the hand and on the head became the rite through which the Jews commit themselves never to repeat the crime.
As we have seen, the youngest sons are the ones who, as delegates of the horde, bear the mark - mutilation - stigmata ('oth).
In Judaism, the 'oth as sign of distinction - preference is bestowed on the all people, which become the Chosen People, a people of novices, youngest sons, preferred and beloved, for ever immerged in an eternal puberty rite.
In Christianity, the vicariate is delegated to the Christ, who represents the Brotherhood Horde, on behalf of His sacrifice.
Now, the peoples take their vengeance on the elder brothers, who in the prehistoric events had been perceived as the allies of the Father in the struggle between the generations. Those are represented as wicked and hated by the Father (Cain, Ishmael, Esau, Reuben, the elder brother of the parable of the Prodigal Son, and the Jews vis a vis the Christians, the new Israel).
However, the mystification introduced by the peoples in order to erase the traces of who had been, in the prehistoric events, the real preferred son of the Father remain, and not only in the verse – lapsus calami: "Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his game; but Rebekah loved Jacob (Gn. 25:28)". It is the story of Cain, the elder brother wicked and fratricide, which releases from the repression the more evident mnemonic trace of whom the Father had preferred:
...If anyone slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold". And the lord put a mark ('oth) on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him (Gn. 4:15).
And here we have the 'oth, the sign of the preference of the Father on the front of the elder brother, not of the youngest.
The legend of Romulus and Remus is equivalent to the Biblical myth of Cain and Abel: Romulus, the elder brother, kills Remus. They apparently were twins, but also Esau and Jacob had been twins. The analogy between Romulus and other elder sons runs further; of Cain is said: "Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch" (Gen. 4:17). Romulus is the builder of the city par excellence. Henceforth, the builder of a city is an elder brother, who originally had been the strongest and the more succesful between the two.

The Law of the Talion is the only valid one, in our unconscious as in archaic psyche. Henceforth, why did not Cain pay with his own life for his murderous crime?

The Rabbinical rationalizations are numerous. The most revealing is the one by Nahmanides (Ramban). He explains in a comment to this verse (Gn. 4:15): "Cain was punished by exile, because that is the punishment inflicted on killers".
We know that it is not so. In Hebrew legislation, every assassination is punished by death. However, there is one kind of killing (not quite assassination) whose consequence is exile and not death, and we are not dealing with punishment:
...then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there  (Nm. 35:11 and Deut.19: 1-13).
Unintentional killing implies the exile, in order to protect the slayer from the blood feud by the relatives of the victim. Therefore, the exile is the destiny of the innocent, not of the guilty. Only the one who kills any person without intent may flee there.
Henceforth, Cain was not punished by death because he was not guilty of murder, but he had killed without intent. He had been the instrument of the retaliation of the Father, and the executioner of his Law . By the way, in Medieval Europe it was custom that the condemned to death paid a coin to their executioner, as a symbol of their lack of hard feelings towards him: after all he was performing only his duty.
In this context, it is very interesting to notice that the ideology of the Catholic Church prohibits killing the Jews, although, until lately, they had been considered God - killers (Deicide). According to Christian ideology, the Jews' destiny is wandering, like Cain. The mnemonic trace emerges here that they acted as instrument of the Father's justice. Therefore, They killed without intent , as is explicitly said by Jesus: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

However, what does it mean "the elder son as the preferred by the Father?". Did the primal narcissistic father of human hordes really prefer anyone of his abused children?
Let us check what Freud said on the existential conditions of the primitive horde:

The strong male was lord and father of the entire horde and unrestricted in his power, which he exercised with violence. All the females were his property - wives and daughters of his own horde and some, perhaps, robbed from other hordes. The lot of his sons was a hard one: if they roused their father's jealousy, they were killed or castrated or driven out. Their only resource was to collect together in small communities, to get themselves wives by robbery, and, when one or other of them could succeed in it, to raise themselves into a position similar to their father's in the primal horde. For natural reasons, youngest sons occupied an exceptional position. They were protected by their mother's love, and were able to take advantage of their father's increasing age and succeeded him on his death. We seem to detect echoes in legends and in fairy tales both of the expulsion of elder sons and of the favouring of youngest sons  (S.Freud,  "Moses and Monotheism", Third Essay, D, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, Ed. and Trans. J. Strachey, Hogarth Press, London 1964, vol.23, p.81 ).
The Biblical story of Cain's curse and his exile represents the mnemonic trace of the elder sons, as inferred by Freud, that were driven out as the others, but were doomed to remain in a condition of inferiority vis a vis their youngest brothers who succeeded in gaining the supremacy on the Father and on the rest of the horde. The elder brothers had not received a better treatment from the Father, but when they found themselves in a condition of subjugation to the last born, in a virtual way they became the natural ally of the tyrant.
Henceforth, the connotation of envious and traitor of the elder brother in myths and tales. It is underlined in the parable of the Prodigal Son and in Rembrandt's painting, in the legend of Robin Hood, who has an elder brother bastard and not recognized by their father, and the stories of Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and Joseph and his brothers.
So is to be interpreted the image of Iago in Shakespeare's Othello, who envies his master, the sole to be entitled to enjoy the beautiful Desdemona's love.
The same role was attributed to the Jews, and it is not by accident that the name of Jesus' traitor was Judah, the one who sells to the Father's justice the son unigenitum and preferred.
Judah had also been the brother who had suggested selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites (Gn. 37:26). Henceforth, the repetition of the same name in the Gospels.
We must only right the displacement enacted by the myth in order to conceal our inner unconscious truth, and instead of "preferred by the Father", we must understand "preferred by the Mother".

Cain had killed Abel out of envy not, as we are told by the Bible, because the latter was the preferred of the Lord, but because he was the preferred of the Mother, and he was the one who had succeeded in prevailing on the Father and in substituting him. In this way, killing Abel, Cain had also been the instrument of the Father's vengeance.

Art is of paramount importance in the task of decoding unconscious contents that are delivered by the artist to the spectator through the subliminal message. The viewer identifies with the latent meanings of the work of art, as Freud has shown in The Future of an Illusion (1927), 2:

art offers substitutive satisfactions for the oldest and still most deeply felt cultural renunciations, and for that reason it serves as nothing else does to reconcile a man to the sacrifices he has made on behalf of civilization
In Civilization and its Discontents (1930), speaking of the artist, Freud writes:
Another technique for fending off suffering is the employment of the displacements of libido which our mental apparatus permits of and through which its function gains so much in flexibility. The task here is that of shifting the instinctual aims in such a way that they cannot come up against frustration from the external world. In this, sublimation of the instincts lends its assistance (op.cit. vol. 21, p.79).

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the narrative of the Gospel did not mention a murderous desire of the elder son towards his brother. It only mentioned his complain on the preferred treatment his brother had enjoyed without any merit.
However, Rembrandt painted the knife and the murderous glance. Through his art, the artist told us what we did not know that we know.



[1] It is not by accident that the Pope John Paul II, in his visit to the synagogue in Rome on the 14 of April 1986, spoke of the Jews as "our elder brothers in the faith".


The Prodigal Son by Arturo Martini and the Wrestling of Jacob by Marc Chagall

Pinocchio: The Puberty Rite of a Puppet

Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the Harlot of the Horde + the Primal Father, John the Baptist

Hamlet. The Puberty Rite of a Danish Prince and His Companions

A Comment to "Whose Hatred", (Haaretz). On Western and Islamic Anti - Semitism

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