What will we do when it all goes wrong?

Genesis 4:1-16

Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’ 2Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’

8 Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ 10And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ 13Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.’ 15Then the Lordsaid to him, ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16Then Cain went away from the presence of theLord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.


Both brothers do what is appropriate. Both bring their best. Both had reason to anticipate acceptance. There is nothing to indicate that God must discriminate or prefer one to the other. There is no hint of rivalry or hostility. This is simply a family at worship.

     The trouble comes not from Cain, but from Yahweh, the strange God of Israel. Inexplicably, Yahweh chooses—accepts and rejects. Conventional interpretation is too hard on Cain and too easy on Yahweh. It is Yahweh who transforms a normal report into a life/death story for us and about us. Essential to the plot is the capricious freedom of Yahweh. Like the narrator, we must resist every effort to explain it. There is nothing here of Yahweh preferring cowboys to farmers. There is nothing here to disqualify Cain. Calvin and others after him malign Cain and give reason for his rejection, thus introducing a moral dimension into the incident. But when Calvin does so, he knows more than the text. The rejection of Cain is not reasoned but is a necessary premise for the story. Life is unfair. God is free. There is ample ground here for the deathly urgings that move among us. (Walter Brueggemann Genesis pp56)

The Apostle Paul's great insight was that nothing can separate us from the love of God. (Romans 8) Yet in this insight we often domesticate God. We almost define God as an indulgent grandparent rather than the parent whose discipline we do not understand, much less appreciate. In Genesis 4, God is free, and beyond our defining. This is especially discomforting for us westerners whose affluence insulates us from much of the pain of life.

God's failure to regard Cain's offering cannot be attributed to Cain's intention, to improper matter for the sacrifice, or to an incorrect way of offering it. What the language of the ancient narrative expresses is that the one experienced success in his occupation while the other did not. The experience of being accepted or rejected by God is identical to being or not being blessed, to success or failure. The narrator is saying that Cain is not to blame for the fact that his work was not blessed; that must remain unexplained. It is part of the primal experience of humanity that success and failure cannot be rationally explained; God regards the one offering and does not regard the other. Cain perceives this because his work did not prosper… (Claus Westermann Genesis pp32)

 The story is brutally honest: life is not fair; it is ambiguous at best, and God is at the centre of  that ambiguity. Much of what we say about the ambiguity and injustice of life seems to me to try to get God of the hook; to keep God "nice." This is why  so much commentary across the ages blames Cain for the rejection of his offering.

It's easy to blame Cain; after all, he murders his brother. But the story give us no hint of this at the time of the offering. So when Rashi, for example, says Cain's fruit was "of the most inferior… whatever came to hand, not the best and not the choicest…" he is reading back into the text: What would you expect from man who murders his brother?

Such an approach disarms the text. It blunts the question: how will you live when it all goes wrong and it is not your fault? How will you live when it seems even God is unjust toward you? Cain does not come to the story as a murderer. He comes as an ordinary person like you and me, and life treats him badly.

So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.

God is not sympathetic:  6The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7If you do well, will you not be accepted?  God blames Cain! — it's your fault you did not do well.

How often have we done our best before God yet been done over by others, or sacrificed much and reaped little harvest? And those who are watching give us no credit; they admit nothing of the capricious nature of existence; perhaps deny their own part in our lack of success, and simply blame us.

God is, however, wise.

And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it

Westermann correctly contradicts the tradition that Cain was a wicked man from the beginning.

… in the narrative itself Cain is not a priori wicked; his resentment of his rejection is seen as legitimate and human. Cain's sin begins with his decision to eliminate his brother. (Westermann Genesis pp35)

We are all Cain. We all live in a unjust world in which God often chooses not to intervene, or is unable to intervene. If this seems outrageous, look at Aleppo and stop making excuses for God! In some ways, the text is able to be more honest than much Christian theology which often seeks to absolve God of the shadow side of the reality in which we are placed.

All through the Genesis narratives, Yahweh is there to disrupt, to create tensions, and to evoke the shadowy side of reality. Here the interpreter may pause to acknowledge that our lives are filled with disruptions, tensions, and shadows. And we must either credit the abrasion to God, as does this story, or offer an alternative account. Either way, it causes our face to fall (v. 5). We respond either with the urge to kill or in deep depression. (Brueggemann Genesis pp57)

Will we respond like Cain? Cain did not act in self-defence. Abel does him no harm and offers no threat. Cain does not master sin. He gives in to it.

We had two cats in our house. If the chief cat was in trouble from us; for example, if she had been scolded for being up on the table trying to steal food, she would immediately go and beat up the other cat. Cain acts like an animal. He routes his anger at God through Abel, by killing Abel, as though that would harm God. 

The anger is deadly to all concerned, not just Abel. Jesus says,

21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5)

His warning is followed by the word on adultery where to lust is already to commit adultery in the heart, the centre of our be-ing. To remain angry is to begin the murder.

Cain is called to account by the earth itself.

9Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ 10And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ 

You are cursed from the ground… This is not simply Yahweh choosing to punish him. Made from the earth, Cain has betrayed his very origins, his very being; he has somehow done violence to his self. His sin is a denial and contradiction of who and what he is. So he loses his connection with earth. Like Adam and Eve before him, he is alienated from his beginnings and from God. It says

Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, (the land of Wandering) east of Eden.

Yet this need not be. In the post on Genesis 2 and 3, I suggested the story might be titled The Cost of Being Human.  Brueggemann says

The stakes are high in our handling of disorders among siblings. Whereas we are inclined to justify rage and depression in subjective psychological categories, this story-teller lets them be objective enough to portray their awesome power (cf. Eph. 6:12).

Sibling rivalry is the close-at-home manifestation of all our human discords: they all have 'awesome power." And Brueggemann's description of the story is perhaps a description of all our stories.

In 4:1–16, everything is exploitation which has taken on a power of its own. In the world of Cain and Yahweh, there is an animal yearning for destructiveness that will destroy both the victim and the perpetrator. Freud may have first named it “id.” But he did not first discern it. This story-teller already knows about the power of sin that drives, even to death. Led by the metaphor of the ambushing animal, we know we may be torn apart by that power at work in our lives.

This is the cost of being human. If we will not master this power we remain an animal.

Part of the cost in all this is to embrace the ambiguity that comes from growing, from becoming, from slowly working out the freedom that was granted Adam in the garden to eat of all the trees but one. This freedom remains because Adam was not sentenced to death.

So Christian hope means to live in the world of Gungor:

All this pain
I wonder if I'll ever find my way?
I wonder if my life could really change at all?
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found?
Could a garden come up from this ground at all?

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in You
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

Yet to be made beautiful means to confront Yahweh; to deal with the ambiguity and pain of life, rather than flee to some self-focussed domesticated God made in our own image and interest.

By his seemingly capricious rejection of Cain, Yahweh has created a crisis. He poses the crisis to Cain and insists that Cain resolve it…. Yahweh threatens and tantalizes. And yet, having clarified the danger, there is this marvelously positive assurance. The animal lusting for death need not have its way. It can be ruled! These early chapters of Genesis offer a degenerative play on the theme of “rule.” In Gen. 1:28, the human pair is to have dominion over plants and creation, even as the great lights are to govern (1:16–18). In the disordered, oppressive world of 3:16, it was the man ruling the woman. Now, it is this pitifully rejected man taking responsibility for himself. He has the capacity to tame the beast at the door. [My emphasis.]

And Cain is all of us. This is our capacity!

There is glory here. Brueggemann quotes lines from Steinbeck's East of Eden:

It was the “thou shalt” that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin. . . . Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says. “Do thou rule over him.” Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been. . . . (p. 301)

     . . . It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself onto the lap of the deity, saying, “I couldn’t help it; the way was set.” But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now. . . .

     . . . These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of mankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. . . .—this is a ladder to climb to the stars. . . . You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness. . . . I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent towards gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed—because “Thou mayest.” (pp. 301, 304, chapter 24, 2).

But Cain walks away from this, away from God, wandering alone.

Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.

Except… although there is no escaping who we are, and who we have become— the scars remain upon us, for the Lord put a mark on Cain—  there is promise. Even walking away from God, Cain lives under God's protection.  His life did not end. What we have learned is that we are not "hidden from God's face." We may still choose to master sin.

But if we keep choosing to walk away, what then? Will there come a time when we have practised not choosing for so long that we cannot choose?

Brueggemann draws stunning parallels between the story of these two brothers and the brothers and sisters of 1 John.

For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. (1 John 3)

He says

… 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 neighbor. So close at hand but so resisted.

To become human, to live in the image of God, is to love our neighbour as ourselves.  The temptation to be like Cain and go off and live on our own, for ourselves, is deadly. It ceases to love God. It is to fail to trust that the enigmatic mysterious source of all things wants good for us, and is making beautiful things out of the dust.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Genesis Claus Westerman
Genesis Walter Brueggemann
Genesis Gerhard von Rad
Peter J. Leithart  Girard v. Genesis Is Sacrifice Savage?
Jack P. Lewis  The Offering of Abel



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