The tragedy of Cain and Abel is a shocking one that reflects humanity’s insatiable lust for conflict. Their story is traditionally examined from the standpoint of ‘what happened to Abel, and why?’, but a greater lesson emerges when we look at what happened afterwards.
Cain and Abel are introduced in Genesis 4:1-2. Cain is a farmer and Abel is a herdsman, but they are both local to each other, which tells us that Abel’s lifestyle was not nomadic.
At a certain time, offerings are due to God. The purpose of these offerings is not explicitly stated, but there is an expectation of excellence.
Cain brings ‘some of the fruit of the ground’ (verse 3) while Abel brings ‘some of the firstborn of his flock—even the fattest of them’ (verse 4). The implication is that Cain has taken little care over his offering, while Abel has presented the very best.
When Cain’s offering is rejected, he becomes enraged. In a gesture that foreshadows His later act of mercy, God does not respond in kind, but instead attempts to reason with him:
‘Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why is your expression downcast? Is it not true that if you do what is right, you will be fine? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must subdue it.”’
This is powerful imagery. It subtly invokes Adam’s superiority over the animal kingdom, implying that Cain will lose this status if he succumbs to sin.
Cain has a choice: control his emotions and retain his human nobility, or allow passion to consume him, and become no better than the animals. He chooses the latter, and thus God’s rejection of his sacrifice becomes the catalyst for Abel’s murder.
Cain’s anger is actually directed at God, but Abel is a convenient proxy. By killing Abel, he hopes to reassert his status and prove God wrong: he is still a man, capable of conscious, autonomous decisions, for better or worse. He is not like the animals, with their inferior intelligence, pre-programmed instincts and lack of moral capacity. He can knowingly, deliberately make bad choices; he can knowingly, deliberately, defy God.
Cain is determined to prove that sin does not debase him, as it did his father. He needs to convince himself that he has not relinquished the divine gift of rulership. Yet his choice has the opposite effect: by succumbing to the beast at the door, Cain becomes the slave of sin.
The murder of Abel (verse 8) is described in a single sentence, devoid of emotion and detail. This reflects the callous nature of Cain’s crime: cold, clinical, and utterly devoid of conscience. It is intended to show us just how little Cain cared or thought about what he had done.
God knows of Cain’s sin, but still gives him the opportunity to confess. Yet when challenged by God, Cain is defiant:
‘Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he replied, “I don’t know! Am I my brother’s guardian?”’
Here Cain continues to maintain the fiction that he is in control. To what extent he still believed this, is open to debate. What we do know is that he felt sufficiently confident to stand his ground under God’s cross-examination.
As prosecutor, God presents the evidence against Cain:
‘But the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!’
A footnote in the NET Bible makes this explicit:
‘The word “voice” is a personification; the evidence of Abel’s shed blood condemns Cain, just as a human eyewitness would testify in court.’
As judge, God now convicts Cain and hands down His sentence:
‘So now, you are banished from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you try to cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its best for you. You will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”’
Here we have another bitter reversal that echoes the fate of Cain’s father. Adam’s charge was to care for the garden, but he lost this commission when God expelled him from Eden. Similarly, Cain was a farmer, but now God causes the earth to resist him.
The severity of this punishment in the cultural context of the ancient world cannot be underestimated, and it shocks Cain into an emotional outburst that is characteristic of his selfish nature:
‘Then Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is too great to endure! Look! You are driving me off the land today, and I must hide from your presence. I will be a homeless wanderer on the earth; whoever finds me will kill me.”’
Cain’s appeal is another act of defiance, which has nothing to do with any sense of fair play (though he tries to pretend that it does). Despite this, God offers a concession:
‘But the LORD said to him, “All right then, if anyone kills Cain, Cain will be avenged seven times as much.” Then the LORD put a special mark on Cain so that no one who found him would strike him down.’
Can’s original sentence still stands, but vigilantism has been outlawed: God reaffirms that He alone has the power of life and death, and thus Cain is marked to show that he is God’s property. The vengeance that will result from his unlawful killing is not for Cain’s sake, but for God’s. The special mark is a sign that no matter how far Cain roams, God’s face is still turned towards him; God’s presence is still within Cain’s reach. In this act of grace, God proves that justice is at the heart of everything He does.
We are told that when Cain left the presence of God, he lived in ‘the land of Nod, east of Eden.’ The land of Nod has never been unambiguously identified, but the NET Bible notes that ‘Nod’ means ‘wandering’, which suggests that this is actually a play on words: Cain leaves his family, and enters the land of wanderers. This reflects the damage caused by loss of community and fellowship; it also implies that a life without God is aimless and ultimately futile.
True to form, Cain refuses to accept the fate of a nomad. In verse 17 he fathers a son and begins to build a city. This signifies a desperate need to regain the stability that was lost as a result of his sin. Sadly, Cain never once considers rekindling his relationship with God, which would have borne far greater fruit.
The tragedy of Cain and Abel is a microcosm of human strife: brother against brother, tribe against tribe, nation against nation, and endless wars amongst believers and unbelievers alike. Coming so soon after the Fall, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this story is intended to drive home the inescapable consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin. There is a grim predictability about the whole affair; we get the sense that Abel’s death is inevitable.
There is also a strong indication that the effects and motivations of sin are compounded with every new generation. Notice the differences between Cain and his father:
- Adam is given dominion over the animals
- Cain seeks dominion over his fellow humans
- Adam is ashamed, and confesses his sin
- Cain is defiant, and denies his sin
- Adam accepts his punishment without complaint
- Cain argues, protests, and appeals
- Adam foreshadows Christ as the son of God and firstborn of creation; in I Corinthians 15:45, Paul describes Jesus as the Last Adam
- Cain becomes a representative of sin; in John 8:44, Jesus describes him as ‘the devil; a murderer from the beginning; a liar and the father of lies’
However, there is also a similarity in that both men deserved death, but were permitted to live. Truly, God is not willing that any should perish.
In my previous exhort, I showed how the increasing institutionalisation of our faith can cause us to become disillusioned with our community, and ultimately disconnected from it. The solution I proposed was the formation of a community-within-a-community: a group of likeminded people who recognise the problem, seek out those who are struggling, and provide pastoral support without judgement.
This is effectively what God offered Cain by placing a protective mark upon him. He provided a way for Cain to remain in his community and rebuild his relationships. But Cain rejected this; he left his community and formed a new one. A community reflecting his own values and preferences; a community where he was in control; a community that did not require him to compromise or change his behaviour.
The temptation to follow Cain’s example can be very strong, particularly if we feel that our community has wronged us deeply. And I say this with the proviso that there are times when our community forces people out against their will, with no valid justification. There are times when reconciliation is simply impossible. But today I am speaking about the times when the decision is entirely our own.
We might say, ‘It’s not my fault, it’s their fault. I had to leave, because remaining would be compromise, and I refuse to compromise. They could have prevented this. It’s all on them. I can’t forgive what’s happened.’
We can always find reasons for walking away. We can persuade ourselves that we are choosing the nobler path: we are taking the higher ground by avoiding conflict, and removing ourselves from a bad situation.
But it is not the nobler path; it is simply the easier path. The nobler path is to remain and seek reconciliation; to find ways of accommodating differences; to work towards greater understanding between the members of the body; to listen more than talking; to be humble, and accept that we could be wrong. Diversity is healthy. Division is never the better way. Diverse communities grow. Homogeneous communities remain static, and shrink.
The apostle Paul was no stranger to these internal conflicts. You will sometimes hear him unfairly characterised as a hard, dogmatic man who relentlessly imposed his own version of orthodoxy upon others. But in fact, the opposite is true. Paul was far more accommodating than he’s often given credit for.
Paul’s instinct was to include, not exclude. He condemned those who restricted fellowship on the basis of arbitrary rules defined by a handful of influential powerbrokers (a situation explicitly condemned by the apostle John in his third epistle).
As challenging as this may sound, it is a simple fact that standards of orthodoxy were more generous in Paul’s day than they are in our own modern community.
When faced with ecclesias where wrong beliefs were present, Paul urged the members to show patience with those who were weak in the faith, and gently instruct them in the right way. Yes, he stood firm against those who deliberately taught wrong doctrine and defied apostolic authority, but his primary goal was always unity.
Not superficial unity: a vague, general consensus on two or three simplistic bullet points. Not false unity: mindless conformity imposed by authority. Genuine unity: unity of mind; unity of purpose; unity of relationship.
How does Paul define this unity? Come to Ephesians 4:1:
‘I, therefore, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you too were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.’
Look at the key words here:
- live worthily
- making every effort
- one body
- one Spirit
- one hope
- one Lord
- one faith
- one baptism
- one God and Father of all
These are the essential ingredients for a vibrant, loving, thriving household of faith. Nowhere does Paul give us licence to divide our community. We never find him urging ecclesias to cut each other off. He does not whip ecclesial leaders into a witch-hunting frenzy. He does not pursue vendettas against those who have wronged him. He never abuses his authority.
And we might say, ‘Well, Paul was overwhelmingly loved and respected. We’re just regular people; it’s not so easy for us to follow his example.’ But remember Paul’s past. He was a Pharisee; a persecutor; a murderer.
Who of us here carries that kind of baggage? How would we respond to a new convert entering our community with that kind of baggage?
Paul had to live with this stain on his character—and the prejudice it attracted—for the rest of his life as a Christian. Everyone knew about it. Many people would have struggled with it. Paul himself could not even join the Christian community until he was reconciled to it, and he still faced considerable opposition from ideological opponents in various ecclesias.
He could easily have become another Cain.
So, when Paul urges others to love, forgiveness, and unity, he speaks from experience. He is basically saying, ‘Show each other the extraordinary grace you showed me when I first became a follower of Christ.’ And that’s a big ask. But it’s not impossible. And it’s no less than we ask of God every Sunday.
The final message of Cain and Abel’s story is found in its parallel to Christ’s redeeming work:
- sin brings death
- redemption requires forgiveness
- forgiveness is impossible without reconciliation
Jesus distils these concepts into practical wisdom in Matthew 5:21-24:
‘You have heard that it was said to an older generation, “Do not murder,” and “whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.”
But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says “Fool” will be sent to fiery hell.
So then, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your gift.’
Look at the emphasis here. Jesus doesn’t say ‘If you have something against your brother, go and ask him to repent before you bring your offering.’ Instead he calls for self-examination: ‘If you know that your brother has something against you, go and be reconciled before you present your gift.’ This is a hard commandment. Very often, we find it too hard.
Human nature is inherently selfish. We’re more comfortable with the idea that other people are in the wrong; that other people are responsible for the problems in our lives; that other people are the ones who need to repent, to apologise, to make amends. We don’t mind asking God’s forgiveness. After all, He is perfect. It’s not difficult to ask forgiveness from someone who is perfect. But asking forgiveness from a fellow human can be very challenging, because our brothers and sisters are no better than we are: equally flawed, and prone to sin.
Our challenge is to resist the beast at the door, and seek reconciliation with our fellow Christian in the hope that we might all be reconciled to God.
I’d like to leave you with some thoughts from the Christian scholar Walter Brueggemann. Speaking in the context of Cain and Abel’s story, he reminds us that reconciliation can be a daunting prospect from which we instinctively recoil because it runs contrary to human nature. Reconciliation is, in some ways, the greatest challenge of the Christian life.
‘The miracle of new life, the wonder of resurrection, is linked to brotherly reconciliation. That is what passing from death to life is about (1 John 3:14). But life with the brother is so ominous because of the “waiting one.”
Most days, we would choose death (cf. Deut. 30:19) rather than to face the brother. But the gospel is uncompromising. The promises are linked to the brother and will be had no other way. It is a mystery that the gift of new life is so close at hand, present in the neighbour. So close at hand but so resisted.
We do not readily embrace such a mystery. Perhaps that is the reason sin waits so eagerly.’
- Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), 64.
Author: Dave Burke