Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Brother's Keeper

Today’s lesson from Genesis (4:1-16) infuriates me. I don’t get it. I can’t make sense of it. I find it confounding. And I think mostly that’s because I’m an oldest child.

Why is Abel’s offering accepted while Cain’s is rejected? What does God mean when he says to the older brother, “Why are you angry…If you do well, will you not be accepted?” He brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground—the work of his hands. Why wasn’t his gift accepted by God? Abel’s was. He brought the firstlings of his flock because he was a shepherd. Cain was a farmer. He brought what he had, and God rejected it. In a very real sense, it seems like God was turning his back on everything that Cain was and stood for. It was as if the Lord simply didn’t accept Cain but preferred his younger brother.

I remember studying this passage in the first few weeks of EfM. I can’t remember how many oldest siblings were in that group, but the story bothered most of the people in the room. There is an inexplicable nature to God’s actions, and it’s hard to see such tremendous consequences born out because of something we cannot perceive. But that’s the real point behind this passage, isn’t it? This passage isn’t about Cain and Abel. Those two “people” were archetypes, portrayed in the prehistoric part of Israel’s past. The real message is about God and humanity. Cain and Abel are just instruments to get that message across.

God’s ways are not our ways. We can’t expect for things to turn out exactly the way that we think they should. This passage, therefore, is supposed to be confounding. The point is that we aren’t supposed to understand why Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s was rejected. If the real issue were the nature of their offerings, the author would explain to us why one was preferred over the other. But the author is silent to that point. There is no explanation—neither in the pages of Genesis or in our experience. Sometimes God’s ways don’t make sense to us.

But where does that leave us? Where do we turn when something happens that doesn’t seem right to us? How do we make sense of something we can’t explain? Well, as the story continues, God doesn’t give up on Cain. Just as with the Fall in the previous chapter, God doesn’t decide to wipe the offender off the face of the earth. God doesn’t abandon his creation and start over. God preserves Cain’s life, putting a protective mark upon his forehead. Even in the midst of his punishment, Cain is still in relationship with God.

If everything worked out the way we thought it should, God would have given up on us long, long, long ago. If God’s ways were like our ways, God would have abandoned this relationship when he realized that we would never learn from our mistakes. As one century follows another, humanity continues to reject God’s word, turn its back on its creator, and give up on its relationship with God. But God doesn’t give up on us. He stays with us. God’s ways are not our ways, and we are thankful for it.


  1. Evan,
    There is of course the archaeosociological explanation (I just coined that word) which perhaps you hinted at but did not elaborate on: that this event is somehow representative of the Neolithic transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, from game-chasing nomad to town-dweller. The animosity between the two brothers then becomes symbolic of the deep antagonism between these two competing cultures. Like so many Old Testament episodes, it's hard for a modern sensibility to understand the seemingly overboard actions and responses. Sure, he's jealous that Abel's sacrifice is preferred, but murder? But when the brothers are not just brothers, rather they act as stand-ins for cultures that are totally incompatible, cultures that are mortally pitted against each other in a world of very scarce resources, well then murder is not surprising, and is in fact almost inevitable. It's not about the preference of one sacrifice over the other, it's the irreconcilable nature of one sacrifice with the other.
    For me, the problem with the Neolithic symbolism explanation of the story is, "Why was the ultimate cultural victor (ie, agriculture) the one punished?" I've read discussions that address this issue as well, in that scholarly way, which favors more and more abstraction as the issue becomes more ambiguous. Maybe the story is so ancient that the issue was not fully decided yet. Though not so old that Abel is an actual hunter, but has morphed into a shepherd. Who knows? I do enjoy the topic though.
    I'll have to make sure and get you a DVD of my play "Tell Me Why", which pretty much deals with this episode, and others in the first couple of chapters of Genesis. Not reverently though. :)
    Tell Me Why

    And while I'm at it, you might want to take a look at my blog (YearsOfBeing) entry for today. It's not about Genesis, but it does offer a, shall we say, "jaundiced" view on certain religious topics.
    Variations on the Cosmological Religiosity Constant

  2. I love it, Chuck. Great point. Yes, there is the farm-to-city tension here held in each brother. I wonder, though, whether the time at which this text entered the Hebrew canon in its present form suggests a right-sacrifice/wrong-sacrifice battle going on as plans for the Temple's rebuilding were being discussed. Maybe the farm-city tension is picked up in a later generation by the Temple-Non-temple conflict.