For me this story has always raised so many more questions than it answers. I can almost retell the story simply through my many questions (sometimes my brain just starts spinning!):
- Should the story be read as the beginning of tension between roaming shepherds (keepers of the sheep) and agrarian society (workers of the ground)?
- Why did God have no regard for Cain’s offering? Part of me imagines the grain offering turning to ashes, but Abel’s offering going up in a spectacular flame! But I wonder: Both grain and animal offerings are part of the priestly tradition? Was it a quality difference? Was it the person? Was it the faith in which the offering was made? Jesus lists Abel as among the righteous (Matthew 23:35). Paul suggests it was Abel’s faith that made this difference (Hebrews 11:4).
- When Cain gets angry, God gives him this warning: “Why are you angry and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” What are we to make of this beastly description of sin?
- How did Cain kill Abel? Why? Was he jealous of God’s favoritism?
- How could Cain be so bold and sarcastic toward God? How could he respond to God’s question about Abel’s location: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” after what he had done?
- How does Abel’s blood cry out to God? It makes me ponder this: Abel’s blood is a witness against Cain, but the promise of Christianity is that the blood of Jesus Christ will cleanse us from our sin if we confess (unlike Cain!). I had in mind St. Paul’s words in Hebrews 12:24: “to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” A friend suggested another interpretation altogether: Abel’s blood crying out to God is a sign that God hears our sorrows and our pain—even if it can’t explain why God lets these things happen.
- Cain’s punishment was simply that he should be cursed from the ground and that he should be a fugitive and wanderer. Why was Cain allowed to live?
- Who was Cain afraid of when he said “whoever finds me shall kill me?” Why did God offer Cain protection? What was the mark of Cain?
- Where does Cain find a wife?
- How does a wanderer and fugitive build the first city? What are we to make of this dichotomy: Cain commits the first murder, but he builds a city and his descendants bring us music and metalworking? Is this just Cain’s attempt to “do well”? Does Cain’s crime and his accomplishments represent both the horror and possibility of humanity? Can his accomplishments overcome the wrong that he has done? Can any of these things return him to God’s presence? I keep thinking of a quote from Augustine: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.”
- How did Adam and Eve react? What was it like for Eve to be the first mother to lose a son? I imagine the death of her son, was worse than facing her own impending death.
- Why is the most brutal violence often between those who are most close? Within families? Within countries? Within people who share essentially the same faith who fight over relatively minor differences? My heart turns to the civil war taking place in Syria, the very place where tradition says Cain killed Abel.
- Why does God showering approval on one brother make the other brother want to kill him? Is this a warning to God’s chosen people? Or to Jesus when God declares “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased”? Why is there religious persecution? Was Abel the first martyr?
- Is there a relationship between the brotherly tensions between Cain and Abel and the brothers to come in the Genesis narrative: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers? Isaac and Ishmael, despite their differences are able to come together to bury their father. Jacob and Esau share a loving embrace after their troubles. Joseph forgives his brothers. Can we find hope in this progression?
It’s a puzzling story. I can’t recall any memorable sermons about this Biblical passage. Unlike the story of Adam and Eve, it’s not as frequently woven into the theology of my particular faith tradition, other than as a further piece of evidence regarding our fallen human nature. Most often I’ve heard the “Sin is crouching at the door” reference, but there is so much food for thought in this story!!! The most memorable statement that I’ve ever heard about this passage came from a Rabbi in a show that I watched on the History Channel many, many years ago: What if the entire Bible is God’s response to Cain’s sarcastic question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Isn’t this a fundamental human question for us all to answer?
I happily found this video again on Youtube. Watching it again, I was most touched by Rabbi David F. Wolpe’s final comment in the video. Discussing the birth of Seth, Adam and Cain’s youngest brother, he says:
“When Adam and Eve go ahead and conceive another child, it rather reminds me of population studies that show how the birthrate booms after a war. It’s a way of saying that despite there’s been this terrible destruction we still essentially believe in the goodness of life and the worthiness of God’s world. In that sense, it’s one of the first statements of faith in the Bible and one of the deepest.”
Here’s what found its way into my margins…