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September 14, 2008

Our Family Tree:  Cain and Abel

Genesis 4


            I call your attention to the fourth chapter of the book of Genesis, beginning at Verse 1.  Hear now the Word of God.


Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.”  Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.  In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD.  But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

                        Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.  Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.  When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is more than I can bear.  Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

But the LORD said to him, “Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.  So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.


I want to comment on some of the meanings of the names that appear in this passage.  Adam means “earth.”  Eve or Hava means “life.”  Cain means “spear.”  Abel means “futility.”  Nod means “wandering.”

            Perhaps you remember the nursery rhyme, “‘Pussy cat, Pussy cat, where have you been?’  ‘I have been to London to see the queen.’  ‘Pussy cat, Pussy cat, what did you there?’  ‘I chased the little mouse under her chair.’”

            If you go to London to see the queen, it is a bad idea to be distracted by a mouse.  If you come to a passage as rich as the one before us, it is easy to be distracted by questions we cannot answer.  So often when we consider the story of Cain and Abel, we are like cats chasing mice.  We wonder, Where did Cain get his wife?  Does God not regard one offering as favorably as another?  Where is the land of Nod?  Is there any indication geographically that Nod was ever such a place?  When we come to this passage, it is very easy for us to be distracted by questions and trivia that cannot be answered.  We must stay focused on the meaning of this passage.

            In the story of Adam and Eve, found in Genesis 3, a man and a woman, a husband and wife, are tempted to do wrong.  They yield to that temptation, committing a sinful act.  God interrogates the pair and responses with divine punishment.  He expels Adam and Eve to the east of the Garden of Eden, into the land of Nod.  Genesis 4 presents exactly the same pattern.  A man is tempted to do wrong, and he commits a sinful act.  God interrogates the individual and metes out punishment by expelling the person to the east.  This similarity is important because the pattern has followed through the generations. 

Remember the title of this series:  Our Family Tree.  When we read these stories, we might wish that we could claim no relationship to Adam and Eve or to Cain and Abel.  These pairs, to be sure, are part of our heritage.  Most of us would like to distance ourselves from them.  We do not want this legacy, but this is human history.  The sin of the Garden of Eden now manifests itself in the next generation.  As the people of Israel would later learn, the sins of the fathers and mothers really are visited on children for several generations.  We see it immediately in this passage.  The dysfunctional relationship of Adam and Eve, especially in their blaming each other and in the blaming of the serpent for the sin that had been committed, and their dysfunctional relationship to God leads to a more serious dysfunction in the lives of their children.  Now, jealous envy erupts into violence; and violence enters the world.

            Our prisons are filled with many criminals who were abused as children.  They learned growing up that life is to be lived in violence.  This notion is perpetuated from one generation to another.  Prisoners who are violent have children who become violent.  Eve is the first person in the Bible to speak God’s name.  She does so after the birth of her son Cain.  She credits God with helping her have a child:  “With the Lord’s help, I have been given a man.  I have had a man.”  The phrase sounds almost like a pun.  It sounds similar to Cain.  While the name Cain actually means “spear,” the name sounds like “I have been given a child.”

Many of the most important stories of the Bible and many of the saddest begin with words like, “A certain man had two sons.”  You see these words throughout the Scriptures.  Consider the relationship between Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau.  Consider the relationships among Joseph’s sons, and of course the relationships in the story Jesus told of the prodigal son.  It is odd that in the history of Israel, the younger son seems always to be the one blessed.  Do not forget that I am the oldest of eight.  Older brothers come off looking pretty badly in the Scriptures, maybe much to the delight of my younger siblings.

It is not difficult to imagine the kind of relationship that these brothers might have had when they were young.  Think about how brothers relate to brothers.  I imagine a lot of tousling between them.  I imagine that sibling rivalry was present in their relationship from the very beginning.  At least that has been true in my family life, both in my family of origin and in the family Clare and I have had.  The relationship between siblings is often like calves butting heads in a pasture, trying to learn how to dominate each other.  It is just what siblings do.  It is what brothers do.  It is what these brothers do.

The Scriptures bring this battle to a head.  What is odd is that an act of worship causes an intensification of their sibling rivalry.  Consider that for a minute.  Think about how many times conflict has come to a head over religious issues.  It is the history of the world.  It is certainly the history of world religions.  Here it is in the very first chapters of the Bible.  Each brother decides independently of the other to make a sacrifice.  You will notice that God does not ask them or demand them to make a sacrifice.  It seems that these offerings are motivated simply by gratitude.  Cain, a farmer, has done well.  Abel, a shepherd, has also done well. Both want to make an offering.  Cain presents produce from the soil to God, while Abel brings an animal, the fat of the first-born, we are told. 

Everything seems to be in order.  In fact, if you look further into the history of Israel, you will see that both kinds of offerings become a part of the religious practice of the people of Israel.  Both grain offerings and animal sacrifices are presented to God.  He acknowledges both favorably.  The surprise comes when God accepts Abel’s animal sacrifice but rejects Cain’s gift of grain. 

To Cain and to those of us who read the story, this response on God’s part seems random, arbitrary.  God’s favoritism does not help His reputation very much.  We wonder why He would make such a choice.  Why would He accept the offering of one brother but not the other?  God’s way of working in this world can sometimes seem very indiscriminate to us. 

This week, Clare and I will go to a funeral.  One of her dearest cousin’s sons, a second cousin, died suddenly.  I challenge you to try to explain why a young man of thirty-five would die suddenly with no rhyme or reason.  God has a problem: events or situations happen in this world for which He gets unjustly blamed.  Those events do not make sense to us, and they make God seem lackadaisical and erratic. 

Hurricane Ike, for example, is the third hurricane of the summer to hit the island of Haiti.  One of the poorest countries in the world has been devastated three times over by these tremendous storms.  Numerous people who lived in Caribbean countries died.  By the time the storm reached the Texas coast, most of us were more concerned about the cancellation of sporting events and the increase in the price of gasoline than we were about the many deaths.  The failure may not be God’s at all.  This bad reputation may be our perception, our struggle to understand what is sometimes called the mysterious ways of God. 

Certainly Cain must have felt perplexed.  Why would God accept the offering of a shepherd and not the offering of a farmer?  God looks deeper than the offering.  God looks beyond the altar.  God looks into the soul of the giver.  It is not so much what is given on the altar.  What matters most to God is what is in the heart of the giver.  Later, when Israel built altars, grain and animals were both accepted.  God saw into the heart of Cain.  Some people look at these offerings and point out that Cain did not bring the first fruits.  No, the Bible does not say that he brought the first fruits.  It does say that Abel brought the first gifts.  Maybe that is why God rejected his offering.  It seems like splitting hairs to me.  This issue of God knowing what was in the heart of Cain is most important. 

Cain does not like being rebuffed.  No one likes to be spurned – the boyfriend or girlfriend who is scorned after a breakup, the high school senior who is not accepted by his or her college of choice, the author who works hard on a manuscript and sends it to a publisher only to have it returned with a form rejection letter.  The person who does not get the job, even though he or she needs it so badly, does not like rejection, nor does the spouse who has been married to a long time but is suddenly deselected or betrayed.

The question is, How do we respond?  God sees that Cain is dejected, downcast, angry.  He is in despair.  The literal Hebrew reading says that his “nose is red.”  Can you just picture him in your mind?  God, who cares about Cain, comes to him and proposes two options.  He says, “Cain, you have a choice about how you will respond.”  Verse 6:  “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?  But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door.  It desires to have you, but you must master it.”  Cain certainly has an opportunity to make the relationship with God right.  Maybe he needs to make his heart right and then offer his sacrifice again.  Cain must also set right his relationship, do right by his brother.  God warns him that if he does not do right, he is in danger.  Close at hand is a vicious predator crouching at his door.  Sin is lurking.  This situation is the first time the word sin is used in the Bible.  Sin is ever-present.

Cain does not heed God’s warning.  He invites his brother into an open field and kills him.  This act of murder, as presented in the Scriptures, is almost matter-of-fact.  The description is given with great economy of words and with no real drama.  God, who is the Author and Finisher of life, is not the first to bring death into the world.  The first death comes into the world within the context of the family, brother against brother.  Death comes into the world against God’s will. 

Bobby and Dixie Pinson have had a hard week.  Many of you know that Bob had surgery for a brain tumor.  He came home last week, but he has returned to the hospital.  He is doing better now.  During a visit with him, he said, “Kirk, when you get in that pulpit, I want you to tell people to do the right thing.  I want you to tell them to do God’s will.  Tell them I said so.”  I tell you.  Bob Pinson tells you.  Cain would tell you.  Jesus would tell you.  Do what is right.  Do it God’s way.  If you do it your way, you are going to mess up things.  God’s way is the only way.  To do otherwise carries serious consequences. 

When Cain kills his brother, God comes to him and asks, “Where is your brother Abel?”  Seven times in just a very few verses, the word brother is used.  It is clear that we are supposed to understand the relationship between these two brothers.  “Where is your brother Abel?”  Cain throws it right back on God, asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?  Do you think I am responsible for my brother?”  Cain denies that he has done anything wrong.  Even worse is his statement, “Look.  You are God.  You are supposed to be taking care of him, not me.  Am I my brother’s keeper?”  God would have liked a confession from Cain.  Eventually, He gets it but not at first.  God simply says, “Cain, your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” 

The blood of all God’s children cries out – the victims of injustice, the victims of the Inquisition, the victims of the Holocaust, the victims of genocide in places like Darfur and Rwanda, the victims of 9-11, the victims of war.  What is this cry?  Is it a cry for revenge?  No.  It is a cry for peace.  It is a cry for justice. 

Cain is a marked man.  Literally, he has a divine tattoo, a mark from God.  The intention is to keep this violence from spiraling out of control.  Now that violence has entered the world, God does not want it to continue.  You notice that Cain, the man who murdered his own brother, is now under the protective custody of God.  How amazing!  God says that He is going to mark him so that he will be protected, so that others will not kill him.  The ground is cursed.  God removes Cain from the ground and consigns him to a place called Nod, a place of aimless wandering.  You will notice that God goes with him to protect him.  God protects us. 

Cain and Abel are our ancestors.  This is our family tree.  This is our legacy though it is not exactly what we want to hear. 

Perhaps you have seen the movie Legends of the Fall.  Just in summary, a father and his three sons live on a ranch in beautiful Montana.  We do not know what happened to the mother, but these men are obviously impoverished because of her absence.  She possibly died when the boys were young.  The youngest son dies in the trenches of World War I, leaving now three men whose relationship is only shaped by proximity.  They really are strangers who do not relate to each other.  They live in silence and isolation from the other family members.  The middle son decides he wants adventure in his life, so he leaves the ranch and travels to the Sea of Japan, about as far away as he can go.  He does occasionally write home.  The firstborn son, who is ambitious, seeks success.  He becomes the governor of Montana.  Though he lives only fifty miles from his father, he contacts his father less than the son who is in the Sea of Japan does.  The men simply have no communication. 

The man’s sons are alienated from him for a long, long time; but then the youngest of the brothers comes home and lives with his father for a while.  He visits his brother, but these men really cannot relate to each other and remain estranged.  As the story continues, he becomes involved in bootlegging.  When the law eventually confronts him, he shoots a policeman, resulting in a manhunt.  The older brother, the governor, learns of these events and returns to ranch, only to find three policemen there to arrest his brother.  In a remarkable confrontation, the father steps out on his porch, wearing a big duster jacket commonly worn by ranchers.  He produces a rifle from beneath his coat and shoots two policemen.  As the last officer draws his gun to kill the father, a shot rings out.  The oldest son, who was packing a revolver, kills the third policeman.  Now, the father and the two sons are reunited.  Standing over those three corpses, each having killed an officer, they are reunited, not in love, but in violence. 

The violence of Cain against Abel seems to be hard wired into our genetic makeup.  It is part of our family tree.  All of humanity has this tendency to violence.  The blood of all victims cries out, not for revenge but for peace.  Everyone who dies violently is our brother or our sister: the police officers in Montana, the more than 3,000 people who died in the World Trade Center, those who died on the beaches of Normandy, the six million who died in the gas chambers of the Holocaust, victims of political violence, those buried in Arlington National Cemetery, those who lost their lives in the killing fields of Southeast Asia, those who died in gas chambers, and those who died in abortion clinics.  The blood of our brothers and sisters cries out for peace.  The blood at the place called Calvary, the blood of Jesus, an innocent victim, cries out for peace.  The truth is that all of us bear the mark of Cain.  If we accept Christ, that mark of God’s presence and God’s protection becomes the sign of the cross.  We know that innocent blood, especially the blood of Christ, cries out for reconciliation, reconciliation to our God and to our brothers and sisters everywhere.


©  Kirk H. Neely

September 2008

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