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Monday, July 11, 2016

Genesis the Book of Beginnings Part 19 - Cain and Abel: A Tragic Account of Sibling Rivalry (4:1-8)

As the Biblical narrative continues, at this point Adam and Eve no longer live in the Garden, and as Genesis 4 opens up, they probably have not lived there for some time as it is now quite a while (maybe even years) after the Fall took place.  Human life is starting to conform to its patterns, and at this point the human race begins to multiply.  Although many sources record that Adam and Eve had a number of children, this narrative focuses on two in particular, two sons named Cain and Abel.  The Biblical narrative doesn't elaborate as to whether they were the two oldest brothers or not, and therefore this study will not attempt to establish who was what in sibling order, except to say that it appears Cain was older than Abel.  In Genesis 4:1-2, Eve gives birth first to Cain (v. 1) and then to Abel (v. 2).  As the boys grow older, they began to display the abilities which would enable them to make their livings, with Cain becoming a farmer and Abel a herdsman.  This would also be a good place to elaborate on the meaning of the boys' names.  According to Cornwall and Smith, the name Cain translates as "possession, acquisition, or fabrication," and in verse 1 of the chapter Eve sort of translates it for us when she observes at Cain's birth, "I have acquired a man through God."  Abel's name is translated as "breath, vapor, fading away," or even "mourning," (Judson Cornwall and Stelman Smith, The Exhaustive Dictionary of Bible Names.  North Brunswick, NJ:  Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1998.  pp, 2, 46)  and this would play into the story.  Names have a great importance to ancient people, and therefore it helps the reader of Scripture to make more sense of the narrative when he knows the etymology behind the names, as the names give us important clues to the unfolding plan of God's salvation of humanity.  With this background on the birth of the two boys being established, the main story now commences in verse 3.

The boys were taught by Adam early on about God and to worship Him, and this tells us something about Adam.  Although Adam's sin was grave, all indications would show that God was still merciful with Adam, and that at some point Adam made peace with God, although the judgment of death was still on him.  This would be logical in lieu of the fact that Cain and Abel are performing an act of worship by offering sacrifices, and they would have had to have learned that from someone, and at this point Adam is the only person who could have taught them about following God.  In the Garden remember, there was no sacrificial system, so at some point after they left the Garden God directed Adam to institute a worship which required sacrificial offerings as a way of fostering in Adam a humility and a fear of God he had lost when he sinned in Genesis 3.  Part of that institution of worship then was to pass it on, so that all humanity could know and serve the Lord, which is what man was created to do anyway. At any rate, the boys were taught by their father this knowledge, and on a particular day they both decided to bring offerings to the Lord of their labors.  In verse 3, Cain brings firstfruits of his crops, and in verse 4 Abel brings the first of his flock.  They make their respective offerings, and the offerings are received by the Lord, but He has a problem with Cain's.  

In verse 5 of the chapter, we see God's rejection of Cain's offering, and that makes Cain angry.  In verse 6, God asks (although He knew already!) why Cain was angry, and in verse 7 He asks another question of Cain - "If you do well, will it not be accepted?"  The implication of this question is really asking "If you don't do well, does it not lead to sin?"  Cain's rage then gets the best of him, and he ends up committing the first murder in recorded history when he slays his brother Abel (verse 8).  That is the summary of the story happening, and now we will explore why one offering was accepted and another rejected, of course from the point of view of the Church via its Fathers and Saints throughout the ages. 

The question at this point for many who read this is a simple one - Why was Abel's offering accepted and Cain's rejected?  I mean, after all, they did offer the fruits of their labor to God as they had been taught, so on the outset it doesn't look like this makes sense.  But to God, it is an internal issue - St. Ephrem the Syrian notes this in his writings when he comments that Abel invested more care and discernment into his offering than did Cain, and the question then arises as to whether or not God knew Cain harbored wicked tendencies?   In other words, it must be determined if Cain premeditated his brother's murder before committing the murder - in legal language, did Cain have a motive?  Although varying in detail on the specifics, many of the Church Fathers believed that a premeditation of this act did happen, and those views range from a definite affirmation by Origen to a more cautious "maybe" by St. Chrysostom, who also notes that God did try to diffuse Cain's anger before he did something regrettable. However, Cain was not receptive to God's efforts.  The real reason St. Ephrem notes that God may have rejected Cain's offering is due to the fact that this was a teaching opportunity for Cain regarding the correct rubric God demanded for offering sacrifices.  When Cain is obviously offended by God's rejection, God then tries to curb his temper.  The offering therefore was rejected not because of what it was, but rather the attitude in which it was offered, and God tries to point this out to Cain in verse 7.  Here again, we see a very clear demonstration of God's mercy to Cain when He even offers Cain another chance to make the offering right.  If Cain submits to God's direction, he will have no problem because he will do well, and if he rejects God's counsel, it then opens the way for sin.  Therefore, Cain's sin is the result of not listening to God when God was actually extending to him mercy and trying to help him to do things right.  Also, there is St. Symeon the New Theologian, who believes that this was definitely a premeditated act for two reasons.  First, Cain preferred himself over the Creator's will.  Secondly, his exaltation of himself led him to give into evil thoughts.  Cain is really no different from many today who, when given clear direction about why something is wrong, instead get their feelings hurt by the supposed "rejection" and it leads to serious consequences.  Looking at it from that perspective, we see what is oftentimes our own stubbornness being our worst enemy.  

To put all this into modern terminology, God was not rejecting Cain.  Rather, he was saying, "You are doing this wrong, so let me show you the right way to do this, and then we can move forward."  Cain didn't commit a cardinal sin with a rejected sacrifice at all, and indications here were that the sacrifice was just incorrect, not evil.  God wanted Cain to take more care in the preparation of the sacrifice instead of rushing through it, and therefore He was trying to tell Cain how to do that.  But, Cain was feeling pretty crummy about the whole thing, and to be honest, his feelings were hurt because he mistakenly thought God was rejecting him.  The feeling of rejection can evoke a powerful emotional response in the person who harbors it, and if not checked or straightened out it can lead the person who gives into it to do something dangerous, stupid, or both.  And, that is what Cain did - in his feeling of rejection, he takes out his rage on his brother who was accepted, and kills him in cold blood.  Thus, Cain turned a small and easily-corrected mistake in protocol into a violent act of aggression against his own brother.  This is why too it is important to do as Jesus commanded us in the Gospels, as He gives a very specific mandate in Matthew 5:21-23:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of judgment.'  But, I say to you, that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.  And whoever says to his brother 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council.  But whoever says 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire.

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way.  First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Although this is in the Gospels, the same rule applies in this case as it did with Cain - the God of the Old Covenant is still the God of the New, and both His mercy and judgment are applicable in both.  Remember Hebrews 13:8 - "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever," because as John 1:1 reminds us, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God."  To get off on a small tangent here, one often hears ad nauseum this argument presented by liberals and secularists trying to discredit Christianity by saying God was somehow schizophrenic or something in wiping out whole populations of people in the OT and then "loving them into the Kingdom" in the NT.  The people who make these accusations do so without understanding the organic unity of the Old and New as two parts of the same story, and that God was loving and merciful as well as righteous in the Old, and He is seen as righteous as well as loving in the New.  It's still the same God, folks, and nothing illustrates this better than in the way He dealt with Cain.   People have been a little harder on Cain throughout the centuries than they should have been too, because although Cain messed up, we read later that God actually protects Cain and that Cain is not under any curse for his transgression, although he does have to undergo penance.  By all indications, Cain may have humbled himself later and accepted God's mercy - the Scriptural record is not all that clear on this either, but for good reason - the whole of Scriptural narrative is centered upon the plan of salvation and redemption God has for humanity, and Cain's story doesn't play into that narrative.  But, in the story we also see Christocentric typologies which use a real situation and real people to teach us a greater reality. 

Abel's murder was seen by many of the Church Fathers as a typology of the Passion of Christ, and there are several ways they noticed this.  The Venerable Bede for instance notes that Cain is representative of the "older brother" (meaning the Sadducees and Pharisees of Jesus' time) and the lack of faith the older brother had - this is also reflected even in Jesus's parables too, notably the Parable of the Prodigal Son, in which like Cain the older is jealous of the younger.  Also, the ground receiving Abel's blood was seen by some as a Eucharistic reference - innocent blood symbolic of martyrdom, and from its very existence the blood of Abel cries out from the ground in a voice only God can hear.  And, Cain, like the unbelieving Pharisees and Saduccees of the future, murders by his own free will instead of trying to listen to the right direction offered to them.  Throughout Scripture, we will see many more typologies like this one too, at least two being in the latter chapters of Genesis (Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, and Joseph's being sold into slavery by his older brothers).  

In conclusion, Cain has committed a murder, and in the next lesson we see God questioning Cain to get his "story" much the same way he did with Adam in Genesis 3, and how Cain defiantly resists God's counsel yet God still protects him although he is chastised.  This too becomes a theme we will see later in other parts of Scripture, particularly involving the Hebrews and their legacy, but in it we see two undeniable facts - God's mercy is without limits, and our stubbornness limits us as a race at times.  Therefore, we will then pick up in the next lesson with verse 9 and the consequences of Cain's actions. 

(References to the Church Fathers in this lesson are taken from Andrew Louth and Thomas Oden, ed. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture - Old Testament Vol. 1:  Genesis 1-11.  Downer's Grove, IL:  Intervarsity Press, 2001.  pp. 103-107.)