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.