We now come to our third story in Genesis—the story of Cain and Abel. The origins of this story probably explain the violent competition for land between herders and farmers at the beginning of civilization. Farmers need land to cultivate. Sheep herders need land to graze their sheep. Historically, even in this country, farmers and herders have not gotten along. Ancient Israel traced her ancestors back to herders. Abraham was the father of their nation and a herder with vast quantities of sheep, goats, donkeys, and cattle. He and Sarah lived in tents which could be easily moved when new pasture land was needed. Israel would have had a natural affinity with the Abel character in our story because he was a herder like Abraham. Cain as a farmer would have reminded ancient Israelites of the Canaanites (there is no linguistic connection between the name Cain and Canaanites) since the Canaanites were an agricultural people concerned with the fertility of crops. Scholars believe that it is very possible that the animosity between herders and farmers was the original background to the Cain and Abel story, but in the text before us, that background is no longer relevant. The text as we have it unveils another facet of our fractured human world—a facet related to the Adam and Eve story but at the same time different.
Adam and Eve have two sons—Cain and Abel. Cain is the first-born. It’s interesting that the first-born do not fare well in Genesis or, for that matter, in other parts of the Bible. Think of Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Jacob’s older sons and Joseph, Jesse’s older sons and David, David’s older son Adonijah and Solomon. Although Cain is the villain in this story, he dominates the tale. Abel is the victim, but the text is really about Cain and his relationship to the God who must avenge Abel’s death.
Even the names of the brothers contribute to the thrust of the text. Cain comes from the Hebrew verb qanah which means “to get, to create.” The name is a form of praise to God and an affirmation of Cain. The name celebrates Cain both as the first-born and as the embodiment of future possibility. What will Cain bring about? What can be expected from this one produced with the help of the Lord? The name “Abel” means “vapor, nothingness,” without the possibility of life. Abel’s destiny is hinted at by his name.
Both Cain and Abel bring gifts to God, but for reasons the text never explains, God accepts Abel’s gift but rejects the offering of Cain. Scholars have guessed for years at the reason for this action by God, but no one has come with a convincing answer. I’ve heard many explanations, but every one of those guesses tries to make sense of the text from our point of view so we can feel better about what happened. The story itself never explains this turn of events. Perhaps the story simply wants to acknowledge one of the hardest lessons we must learn on this earth: life is sometimes unfair. There is no explanation, no reason, and no justification. That’s just the way it is and to try to figure it out is a gigantic waste of time. What is more important is how we react to this unfairness. At any rate the text does not even hint as to why Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s was rejected. All that is important for the story (and remember, this is a story, not a literal account of something which happened to two historical people) is to set up the circumstances for Cain to become jealous, envious, and violent in his reaction to this turn of events.
We are told that when Cain saw that God had no regard for his offering, he became very angry and his countenance fell (his “face” fell). God then speaks to Cain, and God’s speech consists of three questions and two if-clauses. “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? [In other words, if you accept what has happened and move on with your life in a positive way, don’t you realize that this will pass and your time to be accepted will come—that your time for success, joy, and affirmation (or perhaps just luck) will come?] And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
God gives Cain a choice. Cain can choose “to do well.” That’s an important observation in light of our previous sermon on original sin and the Fall. In our passage Cain is not fallen. He is not a victim of any original sin. He can choose the good. He is free and capable of living in faithful and life-affirming ways.
But then there is the second choice which is presented in verse 7. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann sees this pivotal verse in three parts.
- Sin is pictured like a hungry lion ready to leap. It’s lurking right outside the door. Sin is an aggressive force ready to ambush. It is larger than Cain and takes on a life of its own. Sin can be lethal. Cain must be on guard to protect himself (and Abel). How we handle our rage, depression, jealousy, and envy is very important because like a wild animal, these emotions can become dangerous. The stakes are high—too high for us not to be careful. It’s interesting that the violent outcome of this uncontrolled rage and jealousy will impact brothers, sisters, other family members, and those closest to one another. And that only goes to show how powerful sin can be.
- God also says that sin has a desire for Cain. Sin lusts after Cain with an animal hunger. The word used for “desire” occurs in chapter 3 to describe the perverted need of the woman for the man in the disordered and cursed condition of the garden. This kind of desire is not a normal human yearning. It is the dark side of a perverted life. In Cain’s world—which is to say in our world– there is an animal yearning for destructiveness that will destroy both the victim and the perpetrator. Both Abel and Cain will suffer because of this ravenous beast/this potentially violent yearning. As Brueggemann points out, Freud may have named it the “id” but the story-teller in Genesis already knows about the power of sin that drives, even to death. With this metaphor of the ambushing animal, we know we may be torn apart by such power at work in our lives.
- But in spite of the power of such sin, God says to Cain that it can be ruled. This animal lusting for death does not have to have its way. It’s interesting how this very word “rule” is used in Genesis 1-3. In the first chapter we are told that man and woman are to rule over creation. In Genesis 3 we are told that in the oppressive world brought about through Adam and Eve’s sin, the man was to rule the woman. And here in chapter 4 we are told that Cain must rule the lusting animal within him—he must tame the beast at the door. He can and must tame it.
- The author John Steinbeck constructed the major themes of his book East of Eden around this phrase “you may rule” found in Genesis 4. The Hebrew word translated rule is timshel. Steinbeck saw that so much hangs on this strange word. Is it an invitation, a challenge, or a promise? The different translations simply indicate that it can be taken in several ways. Perhaps that’s the very way the storyteller intended it. Steinbeck ends East of Eden with the character Adam who is very ill giving a blessing. Adam looked up with sick weariness. His lips parted and failed and tried again. Then his lungs filled. He expelled the air and his lips combed the rushing sigh. His whispered word seemed to hang in the air. “Timshel!” His eyes closed and he slept. Perhaps we choose in the ways we live our lives how to translate that Hebrew verb timshel (as an invitation, a challenge, or a promise). We can tame the beast or be ruled by it. It’s our choice. We are still responsible.
We all know what happened. The beast won. Cain and Abel go out into the field, and Cain kills his brother. And then God shows up just like God showed up in the Garden of Eden. And God asks, “Where is your brother Abel?” With defensive sarcasm Cain responds: “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” (There are at least three sermons in that question.) God then says, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” Blood was the symbol of life and shed blood cries out for justice. God then goes on to pronounce basically the same punishment/consequence on Cain as God did on Adam and Eve. The earth will no longer yield to Cain its strength—the easy days of living off the earth are gone. But there is an additional element—Cain now becomes a fugitive/a wanderer on the earth. In other words, he will never be at home. He will never find his place. He will be a permanent alien.
So, Cain says that this punishment is too much to bear. As a fugitive/an alien he becomes vulnerable and says that anyone who meets him could kill him. (Who would meet him if we took this story as literal history? Besides Cain there are only Adam and Eve on the earth with their third son Seth to come later. It’s obvious that the writer assumes there are other people on the earth. That is where Cain gets his wife. That is where the population comes from who will live in the city Cain will build according to verse 17.)
But God says, “No! Whoever kills you will suffer a seven-fold vengeance.” And the Lord puts a mark on Cain to protect him. The mark is to let others know that this man is protected by the Lord God Almighty who will execute justice on anyone who seeks to kill Cain. The mark is not a punishment or a curse and certainly not the beginning of the black race as some Southern preachers taught years ago. The mark is a grace from God to protect this murderer. So, Cain left the presence of the Lord (although the mark he bore reminded everyone that in a sense Cain was still in God’s presence and under God’s protection). And Cain went to settle in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Here the storyteller is making a play on words. The land was called Nod. The Hebrew word for fugitive was nad. Even though Cain “settled” in another land and even founded a city, his life was still restless. He still did not belong—he was still alienated from others, the earth, himself, and the God he violated. I think we all know that you can spend your whole life in one place, even in one house and still not belong/still be a fugitive/still not have your place/still be alienated. In that sense all of us to some extent have lived, do live, or will live in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
So, what does all this say to us? There is so much here, but I want us to focus on one lesson of this story. In Genesis 3, what was the question God asked Adam after Adam and Eve sinned? “Where are you? Where are you in relation to me? Where are you in relation to what you have done? Where are you now that you are alienated from me? Why do you feel the need to hide in the bushes? Adam, where are you?” And what is the question God asks Cain after Cain killed his brother? “Where is your brother?” Where is your brother in relation to life/to you/to your heart?
With these two questions the Bible at the very beginning states the essence of authentic faith and life. There is the vertical dimension—our relationship to the Creator. Where are we in relation to the God who made us, who loves us, and who has such high hopes for us? The Bible correctly understands that this is the primary question of life—the most important one. The primacy of this vertical dimension is seen in Deuteronomy 6:4, the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one. And you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.” That vertical dimension to our lives and that relationship between us and God is primary.
But there is more to be said. There is also the horizontal dimension—the relationship we have with our fellow humans—with all our brothers and sisters. And we are all brother and sisters to one another because we all ultimately come from the same source–“It is God who has made us and we are Hers.” And so, the most important question in the Cain and Abel story is “Where is our brother?” (Most people think the most important question in this passage is “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Notice this comes from Cain, not God. God never said we are our brother’s keeper. What God is saying is that we are our brother’s brother.) So where is our brother? Where is our brother in relation to us/our hearts/our ambition/our compassion/our mercy/our forgiveness? Where is our brother in relation to his need/his suffering/his alienation/his hunger/his homelessness? By placing the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel side by side and posing these two questions (Where are you? Where is your brother?) the writer is emphasizing the two most critical parts of authentic religion. And what he and the rest of the Bible make clear is that the vertical and the horizontal go together. You can’t have the vertical right until you have the horizontal right. And you can’t have the horizontal in place until you have the vertical where it should be.
Jesus makes that point repeatedly throughout his teachings. (Read Matthew 5: 21-26.) It’s almost as though Jesus has the Cain and Abel story in mind when he gave this teaching. All evil done by us starts in the heart, the seat of the will in Jewish thinking. We must first murder the person in our heart before we can murder the person in deed. We do so by undermining the worth and dignity of such a person. We let our envy, anger, jealousy, and hatred fester in our hearts until it bears its wicked fruit in the real world. Jesus says in this teaching that we must turn from the things of God and get the brother matters settled first. In other words, there can be no reconciliation with God (no vertical dimension) unless we are first reconciled with our brother (the horizontal dimension). We see the same dynamic in the Lord’s Prayer. Until we get the horizontal right our lives will be pressed to the last penny. Perhaps that is what God meant when God said to Cain, “If you do well.” If you turn to your brother and be reconciled, you and he will be okay. But Cain chose not to do well, and learned that as he violated the horizontal dimension, he also lost the vertical dimension.
This critical teaching is found all through the Scriptures. Perhaps 1 John says is most succinctly: “If you say you love God whom you have not seen and do not love your brother and sister whom you have seen, then you are a liar, because you cannot love God whom you have not seen unless you love your brother and sister whom you have seen.” Nothing can be plainer than this. And yet for thousands of years we humans have forgotten this basic truth. And God shakes the divine head in exasperation and says, “What part of this do you not get?”
But as terrible as Cain’s sin and as horrible as his punishment may be, there is still amazing grace in our passage. God does not let go of the murderer. God marks Cain to protect him. God’s concern and protection extend even in the land of Nod, to the place thought beyond protection and that seemed beyond humanness. The Bible is clear: violation of our brother is a deadly act. Sin is serious and can be lethal. But God’s grace is greater than our sin—even the worst of sins. This strange God has not given up even on the murderer. God’s protection is offered even to the worst of sinners. There is still hope.
But at the same time the Bible is uncompromising. God’s promises of healing and salvation are linked to the brother and how we relate to him, and those promises will be had no other way. The gift of new life God offers is so close at hand—as close as the brother (And who is our brother? Who is our neighbor? Jesus answered that question with the parable of the Good Samaritan.) That gift of new life is so close at hand but so resisted by us. We do not want to embrace such a mystery. We don’t want to accept that the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of life are inextricably interwoven. And as Brueggemann says, perhaps that is the reason sin waits so eagerly. We have forgotten or we refuse to see the most important truth of life—love of God and love of others are all part of one reality, and you can’t have one without the other. Until we realize and embrace that fundamental truth, sin crouches at our door and we are doomed to live east of Eden in the land of Nod.
(This sermon is very dependent on the exegesis of Genesis by Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann in his extraordinary commentary on Genesis in the Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching Series. The sermon also includes some of my own insights in this most provocative passage of Scripture.)