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Affirmations and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman – God Deserves Our Best: The Story of Cain and Abel

The first sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis is the story of Cain and Abel. The rest of the chapter is genealogy.

Let’s examine the Genesis story and then see if we can ascertain why it was included in the Bible.

Adam and Eve, banished from the garden and sent out into the world, took God’s directive “to be fruitful and multiply” seriously. They produced two sons, Cain and Abel. As adults, Cain became a farmer, while Abel became a shepherd.

The older son, Cain, offered God a portion of his crop as a sacrifice, but God was more pleased when Abel presented the fattest portion of his flock. God’s rebuff angered Cain and he refused to listen to the LORD who told him he must master his anger.

Cain’s anger continued to seethe, so he lured Abel into the field and killed him. So in the fourth chap-ter of the first book in the Bible, murder enters the world.

Surprisingly, God did not kill Cain for slaying his brother, but forced him to become “a wanderer on the earth.” Cain was afraid that someone he met would kill him, but the LORD told him that whoever killed him would “suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” Okay, let’s stop for a minute. Where did the person or persons who Cain is afraid of come from? No answer is evident, but we can assume from this state-ment that there were other inhabitants nearby.

The LORD marked Cain so no one would kill him. What is the mark of Cain? Was it a visible mark on Cain’s body? If so, what was it? The mark was, according to Genesis, for Cain’s protection, but some interpreters have suggested that it was a badge of shame. One explanation in a Jewish midrash (Genesis Rabbah XXII.12) said Cain’s punishment was leprosy. That same midrash document suggested that Cain grew a horn for identity and could be used as a weapon; it also speculated that the mark was a dog to protect him from attackers. Others speculated that the mark was some symbol on Cain’s fore-head – perhaps God’s name (YHWH). Another farfetched interpretation suggests that Cain’s mark was dark skin. In that vein, the Mormon John Lund, in his book The Church and the Negro, wrote, “It marked Cain as the father of the Negroid race. It also acted as a sign of protection for Cain and set his seed apart from the rest of Adam’s children so there would be no intermarriage.” Another LDS writer, Joseph Fielding Smith, in The Way to Perfection, wrote, “Not only was Cain called upon to suffer, but because of his wickedness he became the father of an inferior race.” A Christian theologian, Isidore of Seville (560–636), in Quaestiones in Vetus Testamentum: In Genesis 6.16-18, linked the mark with circumcision (since that is not visible, how is it going to protect him?) Obviously, there is no definitive answer. Since this is not a literal story, the speculation and different explanations do not really matter.

So Cain traveled to “the land of Nod, east of Eden,” where he settled and built a city (Genesis 4:17). So Cain did not remain a wanderer. Once he settled in Nod, he took a wife. Where did his wife come from? Maybe she came from Nod, but where did the people of Nod come from? Genesis also says Cain built a city (does that imply that he should not have built a city?). The Hebrew word for Nod means to “wander.” This is a clue that Nod was not a real place. It is also interesting to note that the “Land of Nod” could mean “the land of sleep”

Symbolically, going east is going away from God, so east of Eden was a Godless place. Adam and Eve went east when they left the Garden of Eden; God “placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning” on the east side of the Garden to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24) so Adam and Eve could not return. Cain traveled east to the Land of Nod. Later in Hebrew Scripture, Lot went east when he separated from Abraham; and when Israel and Judah were taken into captivity, they traveled east.

The story of Cain and Abel provided the framework for John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. His nov-el explores the conflict of good and evil in human life and basically retells the Cain and Abel story twice, once with the characters Adam and Charles and, in a more direct retelling of the Genesis story, with Aron and Cal. The novel’s title also implies that, like the Genesis characters, the novel’s characters have been expelled from paradise and are forced to wrestle with evil and sin.

God’s preference for Abel’s offering isn’t explained in Genesis (maybe God like the smell of smoked meat more than cooked vegetables). Some scholars speculate it was because Abel gave God the best of his flock, while Cain did not.

God should have realized that favoring the offering of one brother over the other was going to make the slighted one jealous. If God had accepted each brother’s offering with the same favor, the murder of Abel probably would not have occurred. All God had to do was show equal love. God acted like a flawed human parent, which is not a good way to picture God.

When Adam was 150 years old, Eve gave birth to another son, Seth, to replace Abel (Genesis 4:25). When Seth was 105, he had a son that he named Enosh (Seth’s wife is not mentioned). During the next 807 years, Enosh “had other sons and daughters.” According to Genesis, Adam died at the age of 930.

Genesis 4:26 is the first mention of the divine name of the Hebrew God, YHWH or Yahweh, which is translated “the LORD” (“At that time people began to invoke the name of the LORD”). In the Priestly tradition, however, the divine name is not used until the time of Moses.

Cain, according to the story, was the first person to offer a sacrifice to God – long before rules had been made concerning proper and improper sacrifices. The ancient Hebrews offered both plant and an-imal sacrifices to God and both were reportedly pleasing to God. So what was the difference in their offerings? Is the difference that Cain’s offering was produced by his labor, but Abel didn’t “produce” his offering; he only watched over his flock?

Cain offered “the fruit of the ground, and Abel… brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat por-tions.” In ancient Middle Eastern cultures fats and oils were treasured. A fat person was a sign of wealth.

Abel’s offering was the “firstborn” sheep. In ancient Hebrew culture, the best offering to God was the first of the harvest or the firstborn livestock. God deserved the best – the first.

To continue “the first” analogy, the firstborn son in a Hebrew family received a double portion of in-heritance.

Perhaps Cain felt that God did not need any food, so the quality of his offering was not important. His intent was good, so he was not worried about the quality of the sacrifice. Abel, on the other hand, may have reasoned differently. Perhaps he thought the intent was important, so the sacrifice needed to be significant. God, of course, does not need our offerings, but we demonstrate our good intent by giving our best. Instead of realizing that he had made an judgment error and correcting it by making a proper offering, Cain did what many people do in similar situations. He did not accept the blame for his mis-take; he shifted the guilt to someone else. Abel became his scapegoat.

Some theologians have suggested that the problem with Cain’s offering was that it was not a blood sacrifice. It is true that the later Hebrews practiced blood sacrifices, but there was no rule governing sacrifices this soon after Eden.

Cain means “acquisition” in Hebrew. It is used in modern Hebrew in the verb form “to purchase, “kinyan,” or as a modern shopping mall is called a “kanyan” from the word “cain.” Abel is derived from the Hebrew word, “hevel,” meaning steam, vanity or nonsense. Solomon uses this word when he says, “vanities of vanities” or “hevel hevelim.” That seems to suggest that Abel was vain, that he was hot-headed, and that he did some nonsensical things.

Perhaps Cain was like a modern person who considers acquiring material possessions and achieving status as their life’s goal. Maybe Cain thought to sacrifice his best to God, who did not need it, was a waste. Abel, on the other hand, does not hesitate to give his best animal. Worldly possessions meant little to him. When God accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s, Cain became jealous; jealousy is common in people who seek material superiority. His jealousy turned into rage and he vented his anger on Abel.

Cain’s ego was hurt when God was more pleased by Abel’s offering. Our ego tries to create, solve and fix problems. Giving in to his ego resulted in his killing his brother. An ego, however, is not necessarily evil. Ego is important to actors, actresses, musicians, artists, and any other profession that is before the public, even politicians (well, they could do without some of their ego).

We have been told this many times, but it doesn’t seem to soak in – we must not be consumed by the physical and material sides of life. Acquiring material abundance and spiritual understanding are not always compatible, but we must attempt to live our lives to its spiritual and physical best.

Actually, the LORD’s behavior is more difficult to analyze than Cain’s. We know that humans are ca-pable of doing very bad things, but we expect better from God. After both men offer a sacrifice, God does not act like almost any decent parent would. Instead of praising both offerings, Cain’s is rejected and Abel’s is accepted. Shortly after that and before Cain murders Abel, God talks to Cain and ques-tions if he has the right to be upset. Evidently Cain was pouting, his countenance was fallen. God asks, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its de-sire is for you, but you must master it.” That sounds like God thinks Cain did not “do well,” therefore his offering was not worthy. God appears to say, “Get over it!” Master the urge to sin.

Finally what are a few things we can we learn from the Cain and Abel story?

1. God deserves our best. According to Hebrews 11:4, Abel offered God a more accepta-ble sacrifice, but there was nothing intrinsically wrong with Cain’s offering; it was not second-rate or defective. So we are left to speculate that Abel’s offering was accepted because it was his best, the first-born, sheep, while Cain’s offering was a portion of his crop, but not necessari-ly the “cream of the crop.”

2. Our deeds are an outward reflection of our inward thoughts. Thinking about harming someone might not be a sin, but it certainly becomes sinful if we allow the thought to become action. Cain’s ego was bruised and he may have become angry at God. That anger was transferred to his brother who was blameless. Cain allowed the anger to fester and decided to “sacrifice” Abel.

3. We cannot hide our sins from God. “And the LORD said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10) Our sins cry out; they be-tray us.

4. Cain was not sorry nor did he show remorse for killing Abel, but he was sorry that God con-fronted him and that he was forced to suffer the consequences of his evil deed. He lamented that God’s punishment was greater than he could bear (Genesis 4:13).

Topics: Bibles and Bible Study. 8 Points: Point 5: Non-Dogmatic Searchers. Ages: Adult. Texts: Genesis. Resource Types: Articles and Read.

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