19. Genesis 4:1-8

I.  C. continued

3.  Cain and Abel

a) The First Murder (Genesis 4:1-8)

With the birth of Cain and Abel we get our first glimpse of the meaning of human life after the Fall. Eve named her first-born son “Cain”, which means “gotten one”, because she had gotten him from God. She understood from the first the idea that children are a gift from God because He promised that through one of her children deliverance would come. By the time her second son was born, however, the full reality of their circumstances had begun to sink in. She named her second son “Abel” which means “vanity” or “nothing”. The passage does not indicate why her feelings toward having children had altered so much; as usual, we are left to our imagination to fill in the details. One might almost say we are invited to use our imaginations, or rather our experience, to fill in the details.

Surely it was Cain himself and the experience of raising Cain (no pun intended) that had revealed to her the complete reality of parenthood. It was still true that children were a gift from God and that the hope of deliverance was in a child to come, but these gifts from God were flawed human beings, and raising them would be filled with pain and disappointment and grief. This is the meaning of death, that she would bring forth children in pain, and the pain would go on all through the life of the child.  Eve had been disillusioned by the time Abel was born. Now she knew that having children in this new world meant vanity and meaninglessness. It was the first irony in history that the role of First Good Guy was played by Abel – Vanity – and the role of First Bad Guy was played by Cain, the One-Gotten-From-God.

And so Cain and Abel were born and grew up and took up different vocations and brought offerings back to God. This brings us to the third action God took immediately after the Fall to reveal His character and His intentions: He instituted the custom of bringing offerings to be burned on an altar; and with them He introduced the blood sacrifice. From nearly the beginning people had the idea that it was proper, and desirable, and beneficial to bring offerings to God, and it would appear that, if He didn’t initiate the custom, then He encouraged it. The passage portrays Cain and Abel as being accustomed to having verbal interaction with God and somehow knowing that these sacrifices were appropriate. It makes sense, immediately after the Fall, that God would continue regular visitation, visually and verbally. For one thing He was getting them off to a good start, teaching them survival skills if nothing else. But as we became capable survivors, the personal visits became only a memory and then only myths told by lonely people.

It is interesting that the Bible does not picture the human race as ever existing without the accompaniment of domesticated animals, as if the domesticity of those animals had been built into their nature or else that God domesticated them for us. Nor does it picture the existence of humanity without agriculture and the tilling of the soil. If there were pockets of humanity that did not engage in agriculture or did not keep flocks and herds, then it was because they had abandoned the practice. This hypothesis is somewhat at odds with current ideas about the development of human culture and knowledge, but all archaeologists have is scattered and incomplete data and certain reasonable and logical assumptions about how things must have developed. Archaeology also must proceed on the assumption of uniformity of natural causes so we, or people like me, must be excused from accepting all their conclusions.

God’s rejection of Cain’s offering in favor of Abel’s was not meant to be taken personally, though Cain did take it that way. The favor given to Abel’s offering had to do with the symbolism God was setting up for the unfolding revelation He planned. He began to set the stage immediately for the animal sacrifices He would require under the Mosaic law, and for the sacrifice He Himself would make through the Messiah. From the very beginning God took a long-term view both of redemption and of revelation. For God to communicate with people required the right words, but even more so it required the right metaphors, the right symbols. To a large extent, the language we actually use with each other does not consist in words with dictionary definitions, but in metaphors and figures of speech that stretch the words beyond their literal definitions. In any event, the third thing God did after the Fall, once He had taught them to make clothing and sent them away from the Tree of Life, was to begin establishing a language of symbols, the first symbol being the blood sacrifice. At the first, the blood sacrifices they brought would not have had much meaning to them except that God wanted the blood and was pleased by the sacrifices.

The metaphors necessary to understanding God and understanding His strategy for undoing death took a great deal of time to arrange. They involved customs and rituals that gradually accumulated specific meanings as they were used. This means that at any given time the people of God would always find themselves doing or saying things, reading things, that they simply could not understand completely because the full meaning lay in the future. Furthermore, the symbols were open to misinterpretation both by  the people of God and by the pagans around them. The pagan ideas of the gods thirsting for blood was the calculated risk of introducing such a symbol as burnt offerings;  one Sumerian myth pictures the hungry gods swarming around the sacrifices like flies or vultures, for example.

Now we Christians often assume, because the canon of revelation is closed, that we must possess the full meaning of everything we say and do, that the symbolic language is completely in place and our comprehension of the symbols is perfect. While I grant that the symbols are in place, and we do not expect any new revelation in that way, church history seems to indicate that our understanding of the symbols is not perfect. Indeed, if our understanding of the symbols were perfect, we would not disagree with each other so much and books like this one would not be written. It can be disquieting when we find pockets of ignorance in our understanding of Scripture, or when we find passages we can’t agree on. It can make us afraid that we also may be missing something, and if we are missing something then it might be something important; and if we are missing something important then maybe we have missed the real point entirely. The main thing is not to let the fear of being wrong make us do absurd things to prove we are right. Let’s keep our eyes on the goal: to understand the revelation as deeply and truly as possible.

Some of you reading this may think I am guilty of going to too great lengths to invent elaborate theories to explain the Scripture. Indeed, I may be guilty. But if so, that would be my flaw and not a flaw in the revelation. God’s metaphors do not work like that. He does not reveal with the intent of misleading us. It is not like a human posing a riddle to see how many of his friends will be stuck and gradually adding hints until they get it. God’s intent with His metaphors is to make Himself known – not all of Himself, because we could not handle such deep knowledge – but a true glimpse of Himself nonetheless. His riddles are for the purpose of drawing us in, of engaging us,  of engrossing us in mystery, and when we struggle with those riddles out of a desire to know Him then He gives us Himself. He wants us to want Him, even more than He wants us to have answers. There is a subtle difference between the fear of being wrong and the love of truth and none of us, least of all me, knows his own heart very well. Wisdom and folly are next door neighbors; their houses may look identical from the street.

So what would the blood sacrifice have indicated to a discerning contemporary of Cain and Abel? I think that the sacrifices would reasonably have been understood as a means to initiate reconciliation with God, something that a human could bring that would please God and make God and worshipper closer. Thinking asymptotically, reconciliation means the undoing of death, the undoing of the Fall. If you follow the logic, then the blood sacrifices would mean that the way out of death was to be through death. It would be more like a prophetic riddle than anything else, but over the centuries new details would be provided.

Though God’s rejection of Cain’s offering had to do with issues impossible for Cain to know, and was not a rejection of Cain himself, Cain’s reaction was one of jealousy. Now jealousy is a diagnostic emotion for us: the amount of love present is inversely proportional to the amount of jealousy. Even in a sexual relationship, jealousy indicates possessiveness and mistrust, not love. If Cain had loved God he would have set aside his hurt feelings and sought out ways to please God; but the one Cain truly loved was himself. What mattered to Cain was not God’s preferences, not God’s desires, but his own status in competition with Abel. When God approached Cain, He tried to warn him that he had not been at fault when his sacrifice was rejected, but that his jealousy toward Abel was a fault in itself that was dangerous. People had so little experience dealing with their evil inclinations at this point that God’s remonstrance was as necessary as it was kind. Cain was clueless; he simply did not know how passion could lead to violence; he did not know that jealousy leads to hate and hate is murder in embryo.

It is interesting that God used the image of a beast crouching at the door intent on devouring Cain as an image of the evil in Cain. God was not speaking to Cain about the temptation to evil; the beast crouching at his door was not the desire to do something evil. Cain had already crossed the line into evil itself; he had succumbed to jealousy. God was warning him to resist this jealousy that he had already entertained like he would resist a beast intent on devouring him. The image God used here referred back to the curse on the dragon, that he would eat dust, and ever since then the dragon/serpent has been crouching at the doors of men, intent on devouring them in one way or another. First there is the temptation, the inclination and opportunity to adopt a certain attitude; then there is evil when that attitude is adopted; and then evil gives birth to death when we act on that attitude. We are accustomed to thinking of the outward action as being the evil, but really the things we do outwardly are the culmination of the process of evil, which is invisible and inward. What we are accustomed to call sins are just the outward marks of the beast tearing us apart as he eats his way out of us.

Nonetheless, though it is not the outward acts that are death in us, it is still desirable to suppress them. How much of our medicine goes toward healing disease and how much goes toward treating the symptoms to make the disease bearable? Curbing the outward expressions of evil is similar to trying to reduce the pain or the fever of a terminal disease; it is not a cure but it is still worth it. Curbing the outward expression of evil is just a way of limiting the damage evil does to the people around us, of limiting the number of innocent by-standers who suffer because of us. But curbing the outward expression of evil does not mean that there is no evil there; we are just hiding it, like we hide our nakedness, like we hide tumors or disfigurement. We are protecting the people around us from us.

The original wording of 4:8 is not totally clear. If we take the Hebrew Bible as the original, which I assume we should, then the verse should read, “Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.” This sounds as though Cain told Abel what God had said to him, though it is not clear why. Perhaps Cain wanted to talk it over with Abel; there were presumably not many people to talk to so they might have talked about everything. Perhaps he was puzzling it out, but was still very upset by the rejection of his sacrifice. It suggests that Cain was brooding on God’s words and afterwards when he was with his brother in an isolated spot he lost his temper and in a fit of anger killed Abel. Perhaps Abel was not understanding enough. This version portrays Cain as committing what we would call “second degree murder”.

Other ancient versions – Septuagint, Syriac, and others – suggest that the original should be, “Cain said to Abel his brother, ‘Let’s go to the field.’ And Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.” These versions make Cain’s act seem like pre-meditated murder, Cain inviting Abel to a place with the intent of killing him. I don’t think so, however. Evil was still too new, I think, to be planned. Later, as people became familiar with the range of possibilities for evil, they would act with deliberation. People had not learned how to scheme yet, and it is more likely that Cain behaved impulsively without thinking what the consequences might be.

In this way humanity went from stealing fruit to murder in a very short step. Indeed, there are no big steps between one kind of evil and another. They are all just different aspects of the same thing. This does show that evil behavior is not learned behavior; we do not become sinners by imitating our parents. On the contrary, we become sinners by being born, and the actual sins we commit are just the natural products of who we are. No one has to teach us the ways of evil; instinct is sufficient. It only takes a little imagination, and the whole world of evil is ours for the taking. Evil did not work its way gradually into the human heart when Adam chose to eat the fruit; it blossomed full-grown and utterly owned him from the beginning. It filled him and saturated him with its fullness. And so death and evil spread to all men because it had become who we are.

2 Comments on “19. Genesis 4:1-8”

  1. godanalytics Says:

    “And when we struggle with those riddles out of a desire to know Him He makes Himself known…..”. I certainly hope so.


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