We struggle when we come face to face with stories like these. We ask, “It’s in the Bible? Are you kidding?” It seems more fitting for myth and legend of ancient cultures, and indeed, it has something in common with stories like the founding of Rome – Romulus kills his brother Remus and founds the great urban power and empire. Cain kills his brother Abel, and he founds the city of Enoch, named for Cain’s son. Cain’s descendants (Genesis 4:17-24) are musicians, metal-smiths and another murderer. What is the connection between the “impulse to create” and the “impulse to destroy”? (See Christopher M. Leighton, cited in Talking About Genesis: A Resource Guide, by Bill Moyers with Public Affairs Television, p 53.)
But our struggle with the story is not just the academic one – is it history or myth? Either way, for people of faith, it is Holy Scripture, Word of God. But that brings us to another struggle: The moral ambiguity and, often enough, the moral degradation reflected in these stories. Even God is not without fault, it seems, for regarding one brother more favorably than another. My own response to this tension is two-fold. First, a newsflash: Life is not fair. When my kids complained about parental fairness, which kids do at a certain point in their development, I just reminded them of this fact and informed them that I had no intention of treating them “fairly”, if by “fairly” they meant “equally”. From my perspective, treating two different sons as entirely equal would have been, as Jon Levenson would say, not just an inequity but an iniquity. (See the phrasing, “inequity” and “iniquity”, of Jon D. Levenson cited in Talking About Genesis: A Resource Guide, by Bill Moyers with Public Affairs Television, p 51.) The boys are different, and we treat them differently.
My dad’s moral tales for us kids ... Bad Bart, Nice Ned, Naughty Nell, and Sweet Sue.
To the moral ambiguity and degradation of these stories, I reply, “Life is not fair.” The implication for the stories we tell is that moral instruction needs to do more than offer commands and directions for a good life. Moral instruction needs to equip us to live with integrity in a world that is unfair and even unjust. Otherwise, we will find ourselves morally compromised and perhaps unaware of the fact. We need stories that force us to examine larger contexts, engage our imagination, ask questions, and dive beneath the surface of presenting behavior to family systems, social systems, and the murky world of the heart. The Bible gives us just those kind of stories.
Two stories have haunted us and followed us from our beginning. We carry them along with us like invisible tails – the stories of original sin and the story of Cain and Abel . . . I don’t understand them at all but I feel them. John Steinbeck, East of Eden, cited in, Moyers et al, p 50.To the moral ambiguity and degradation of these stories, I reply, secondly, that the Holy Scriptures are not designed chiefly as moralistic literature. They do present ethical guidelines. But the purpose of the Bible as Scripture is to capture us entire – body, mind and soul – and confront us with the Holy, Living, and Loving God. If its purpose was moralistic literature, it could have been written a lot better, Christians would agree with each other on pressing social issues, and Jesus wouldn’t have posed the remarkable question about the Scripture: “How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26, literally translated). But as a text designed to confront us with God – and, in the process, the truth about our own souls – there is nothing better.
Some of the questions raised by the story:
What is the connection between the impulse to create and the impulse to destroy? We witness it in the best and brightest of Hollywood, Nashville, Wall Street, and Washington. Is it simply the idea that the rules that apply to mere mortals do not apply to us exceptional people? Or are creation and destruction much more intimately connected, like two sides of a coin?
What is the connection between Cain and cities? It reflects the widespread disdain of cities as places where sin is concentrated. There are lots of sinners in cities. That’s because there are lots of people in cities, not because people in cities are particularly sinful. So, it is all the more interesting that John, in the Revelation, uses a city, not a garden, as the image of God’s new creation (Revelation 20-21). In our preparation for Easter, we moved through the seven signs in John’s gospel and noticed, among other things, the many echoes of Genesis in John. Despite that, or perhaps in full understanding of that, John chooses a city as the manifestation of new creation, of the coming kingdom, of the people of God.
What is the root of the favoritism shown to the younger brother – especially in a culture in which the oldest brother received extensive privileges? The story of favored younger brothers repeats throughout Genesis: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Ephraim and Manasseh.
What was at the root of God’s favor? What made Abel’s offering more acceptable than Cain’s? The story doesn’t tell us, and though a number of suggestions have been made, the unanswered question keeps us in the tension of moral ambiguity.
Why does Cain refuse to take responsibility for his brother? “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Does he just take after his parents? At the original sin, neither of them took responsibility. Adam blamed Eve, and Eve the snake – the environment – both of them, by implication, blaming God, the same God who had given them everything. Yes, they worked the garden, but from another perspective they had everything handed to them on a platter. How do you learn responsibility like that? (See Edwin H. Freidman, Rabbi and family therapist, “Raising Cain”, 1990, in Friedman’s Fables, New York: Guilford Press, pp. 45-49.)
What is it about religion that leads to so much violence? It is an act of worship that sets off the entire chain of events! Even Christians have gotten in on the religious violence in ways that all of us should condemn – the crusades pitting Christian against Muslim (and the language some echo today as we are engaged in prolonged conflict against terrorism), bombing abortion clinics, condemning Jews. In fact, one of the early Christian readings of this very text read Jews into Cain’s role and Christ into Abel . . . and served as the basis of anti-Semitic church law requiring Jews to wear distinctive marks on their clothing in the year 1215 – long before Hitler’s Aryan supremacy (Moyers, et al). While we need to recognize the pride, the prejudice, the violence in our own heritage – and repent of it – at the same time, we have to say that religion has done incredible good in the world. Christianity, the story with which I am familiar, has been active in the abolition of slavery, establishment of schools, ending child labor, opening hospitals and providing health care to the poor, providing care for those dying of plague. And plenty of violence has been done for purely secular or actively anti-religious reasons.
What is this mark of Cain? For so much of history, it has been treated as a curse. The story, however, makes it a mercy ... something that prevents vengeance, something that keeps Cain alive. So, is Cain as rejected as he thinks he is?
What is the heritage of these stories? Five generations after Cain comes Lamech. Lamech murders a man and boasts of it to his wives saying, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:24). Cain is “a bad seed”; the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Adam and Eve have another son, Seth. Seven generations after Seth comes a different Lamech. This Lamech is father of Noah the ark builder, another man who finds favor in the sight of the LORD (Genesis 5:28-29, 6:8) ... though his righteousness is not exactly pristine (Genesis 9:20-27). (See Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, 2002, How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, p. 29.)
Two stories have haunted us and followed us from our beginning. We carry them along with us like invisible tails – the stories of original sin and the story of Cain and Abel . . . I don’t understand them at all but I feel them. John Steinbeck, East of Eden, cited in, Moyers et al, p 50.Favor, jealousy, violence, vengeance, responsibility, creation and destruction . . . handed down from generation to generation. There’s plenty of my own story that I recognize in this one. And, it haunts me. Particularly what God says to Cain: “If you do well, you will be accepted. But if you do not do well . . . sin is crouching at the door. It’s desire is you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7). We all have something that crouches at the door of our souls, something that – if we give in – will master us. We have a choice, Cain had a choice – to master or be mastered.
But there is also a kernel of grace, a mercy that goes much further than the possibility of acceptance or the mark of Cain. To find it, we start with the blood of Abel, his blood crying out to God from the ground, his blood speaking. What does it say? Does it speak of guilt and shame, of forsaken responsibility for keeping our brothers or sisters? We’re not given the text, but Cain hears its voice too and does not dispute it. Most of us have heard the same voice crying out against us. But there is another blood that speaks:
Hebrews 12:22-24 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.And, when Jesus’ blood speaks over us, we are forgiven.