Cain and Abel
October 10, 2004
The man lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, "With the help of the Lord I have acquired a man." Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.
In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. Then the Lord said to Cain, "Why is your anger blazing? Why has your face fallen? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."
Now Cain spoke to his brother Abel. And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?"
"I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's doorkeeper?"
The Lord said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are cursed from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth."
Cain said to the Lord, "My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me."
Then the Lord said to him, "Very well, if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over." Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord's presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
This story is about the first murder: how Cain slew his brother Abel. The more we look into the story, the more mysterious it becomes. It is told in sixteen verses, yet its consequences are still going on--and on a daily basis. As we read it, all sorts of questions arise. Up to now the Bible mentions just four people: Adam and Eve, and their two sons Cain and Abel. So where did Cain find his wife? Why was he afraid that in his wanderings "everyone meeting me will slay me"? Clearly there were other people around!
The Bible is primarily concerned with individuals, and not with multitudes of people. What happens in human lives happens because people like you and me desire certain things, think about them, take decisions, and do something to attain them. Individuals are what God has to work with--with you and me, with each heart, soul, strength, and mind. This is why it is all so personal.
But wait a minute! Wasn't the whole incident God's own fault in the first place? Why did he prefer Abel's offering and reject Cain's? It seems arbitrary. Yet if we read more carefully, we realize that there was already something unsound in Cain's heart. Some evil, like a nasty worm, was gnawing inside him. Was it jealousy? Hatred? Impatience? At the first provocation (when his offering was not accepted), it flared up. Now it was out in the open!
Cain was angry, and his "faces" fell. The Hebrew does have a plural here, because most of us have many faces: one when we are with our family, one when we are at work, one when we are asking a favor, one when we are angry. God asked "Why has your anger been set ablaze, and why are your faces fallen?" Our faces "fall" quite visibly as true humanity drains away from them. It is as if gravity increased its pull, since the expression is dragged down towards the earth--indeed, deep into hell.
One of my colleagues told me that he had recently met a married couple, and they seemed pleasant and charming. They were believers in God. But when the conversation turned to the subject of hell, their relaxed faces suddenly changed. They were charged with hatred and became hard and inflexible, and seemed to gloat over the punishment the wicked were going to experience.
My friend was appalled to see this change. What happened to the gentle, charming people he had been talking to? Where did that anger spring from? It must have been present within them. Is this the story of Cain all over again? Let us hope not. Perhaps it was something they did not fully understand.
But how do any of us fill with such sudden anger? How many of these violent feelings lurk within us? Today, watching the news, it is easy to take passionate sides against individuals, or a community of people, or a gang of terrorists. And the Lord goes on repeating, "Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself." In today's world, surely this is well nigh impossible! So much evil, so many ghastly things happen! Remember, it was always so from the time of Cain to the present day, and will continue to be until we, as individuals, begin to think about it very seriously. There is nothing special about today that makes it more difficult.
Some old Hebrew rabbis suggested that Cain and Abel may have been twins. This is not at all suggested by the text. Yet it is quite an interesting insight, since our doctrines teach that those two personalities do correspond to the dual part of our nature: the shepherd and the grower, the inner affectionate part and the outer more intellectual part. Their work illustrates this quite well. The shepherd's work is a daily routine. Livestock must be fed and watered every day, cared for as well as protected. Hence the affectionate, loving character, which takes no holidays from its daily routine. We see why the Lord called himself the Good Shepherd. Love never ceases to care. It is like our heart--the organ we associate with love. It beats unceasingly from the very early moments of the fetus, as yet unrecognizable as a future human being.
The sower and harvester has long periods of rest, and so an opportunity to do other things--especially time to think. It is clear that humanity could not have evolved higher civilization until the shepherd or herdsman turned turn into an agriculturist; until he had time to think, to plan, to invent, to build, and kept on improving and adopting new ideas.
Agriculture led to higher civilization, and so to wealth, power, pride, jealousy, dominion, conquest, and warfare. Cain represents the stage in human history when these things started to develop. He was not rejected because God found any fault with his offering, but because of his inner state: smoldering with resentment.
Had Cain been humble at heart, he would not have taken it out on Abel--who clearly had done him no harm. He would have turned to God and asked, "Where have I done wrong? Why was my offering not acceptable to you? What can I do to put matters right?" That would have been the right thing to do.
Instead he blamed Abel, and even made plans to kill him. It was not done in a flare-up of blind passion (one could perhaps see that as an extenuating circumstance), but through a subterfuge. It was as if it had been on his mind for some time, and he was just waiting for some excuse. "Let's go for a walk into the fields!" He had thought it all out before he committed the crime.
Oh, the thoughts we can get sometimes! Are they are a hint to us of what we are capable of doing, if sufficient provocation arises? We then suppress the gentler, loving tendencies as if they did not exist, or even have a right to exist. "Kill the soft-hearted shepherd!"
"I am not here to be my brother's doorkeeper!" Cain declared. A "doorkeeper"--not merely a "keeper," which could be seen as having some authority over him, but a menial servant, a slave.
It is a very clear-sighted recognition (by Cain) that to be a charitable, loving person is really to be a doorkeeper, a servant, at the beck and call of other people, putting them first sometimes, and making their welfare as important as one's own. No wonder it is difficult to accept such a burden. Therefore we often make the wrong choice and experience the curse of Cain. We are fugitives, isolated, and live in fear that everyone is trying to exploit us--and that seems like death. Notice that this "curse" did not come from God, as some kind of punishment, but was the result of Cain's action. When we deny or even exterminate the love we carry within us, we are alone, and cannot settle down.
But now the story takes yet another strange turn. Cain complains that this burden is too heavy for him to carry. He will not survive, since everyone is out to get him. Surely one can only be killed once! But consider how this applies in the world of commerce: each bank, each company is trying to swallow up and liquidate smaller rivals. It is a question of "kill or be killed!" It is a succession of killings, and the appetite never stops, but grows.
Suddenly God seems to repent, and places a mark on Cain-- not the same thing as the curse. It is a mark that no one is to do him any harm. It is like a magical charm of invulnerability. If anyone attempted to kill him, his state would be seven times worse.
What this really means is that without our intelligence, our ability to understand the truth, we could never return to a state of innocence and faith, and so have a sense of divine forgiveness and love. Here is the good news: If you have felt and understood the horror of Cain's selfishness, the flaring up of his anger, his brutal deed, then through this understanding the Lord has given you the light that offers a way to self-examination and repentance. We have the ability to say, "Yes, I can be like that sometimes"--selfish, impatient, merciless; mad at the people around me if they do not see my point of view, or if they outshine me or do not recognize me. The "mark of Cain" is part of the Lord's mercy towards us. It is the indestructible part within us where the truth can shine in its own light as it receives love from the Lord, and changes our attitude.
Of course, the Lord knows no anger towards us; but like a patient Father and true lover of our soul he woos us to return to him, and so give up our angers and jealousies, because in his eyes we are all equally loved and worthy of his love.
That charming and respectable couple my friend met regarded severe, nay endless punishment as part of divine nature. They had not understood the true love of God, in which even Cain, representing our damaged humanity, was protected and kept safe until he could admit his sin, and ask to be forgiven.
Lord, you give us so much to think about! Why do we recognize evil and selfishness in others? Because these are well known to us: we recognize what is our own. We have experienced them; they cause us much anxiety. We know the burning poison of jealousy, the hollow feeling when we are passed over for another. How hard it is to say, "Perhaps she is better qualified" or "He may have some hidden qualities that will appear during the course of his work." Sometimes we need to turn to you and say, "Lord, there may be something else you want me to do. I do not know what it is, but I leave it in your hands. It will all come clear to me one day."
Cain flared up, and we know what that feels like. When something unexpected or terrible happens, we may feel anger; thoughts of revenge may creep in and leave a bitter taste in our mouth, and our heart in a vice. We understand Cain. His character is also our character. And when this controls us, we too become fugitives and aimless wanderers, because our heart is closed to others, and their hearts seem to be shutting us out. We pray that you will place the mark of Cain on each of us, so that we will always have the ability to think clearly, recognize the truth, and be ready to acknowledge it. May your truth never lose its light in our life. Amen.
Rev. Christopher Hasler