July 9, 2017
1 John 3:11-17
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We 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. Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Genesis 4:1 – 16
Now the man Adam slept with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.” Later she gave birth to Cain’s brother Abel. Abel kept the flocks, and Cain farmed the soil. In the course of time Cain brought to an offering to the Lord of some of the produce of the land, and Abel presented his flock’s first offspring, the choice cuts of meat. The Lord looked favorably on Abel and his offering, but did not look with favor on Cain and his offering. Cain became very angry, and looked dejected. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you so angry, and why do you look so dejected? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door, ready to pounce; it wants to control you, but you must master it.”
Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel, and killed him. The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield crops for you; you will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the land, and from your presence; I’ll be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who finds me will kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “No! Whoever kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who found him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
* * * * *
This is another sad story of our beginnings, another tragic story about sin. Coming right on the heels of the story of Adam and Eve and the fall, it paints a grim picture of the human condition. The beginning of the Bible goes to great pains to explain why the world is the way it is – and how things went so terribly wrong.
In this story the message seems obvious: Brothers are supposed to get along with each other. People aren’t supposed to commit violence. We are our brother’s keeper. That seems straightforward. We all know that. It’s what we teach our children, isn’t it? It kind of makes you wonder why the Bible starts this way, with tragedy, painting such a dark picture, instead of something more positive and inspiring. Something that might reveal our better angels, and not the worst of humanity.
It starts off well enough. Even though Adam and Eve have been expelled from the Garden, and we know evil has been unleashed in the world, they are beginning their new lives. They have a child, Cain, whose name means, “to get, to create” – it’s a good word, a positive, happy, grateful word, a word that implies good things are happening because of God’s blessing. They have a second child, Abel, whose name carries more of a shadow of foreboding – it means, “vapor, nothingness.” But the two boys grow up and each takes his part in tending creation. They each have their job to do. Cain farms the fields, and Abel tends the herds.
Now maybe it’s as simple as that. Some scholars think this story has its roots in the age-old tension between those who want to keep the land open for grazing, and those who build up fences to protect their crops. Lord knows that conflict’s been around for millennia. Just a cautionary tale on how the farmers and the cowherds can’t be friends. It could be all about the land, and territory, and which way of life should take top billing.
But there is nothing in the story that suggests tension between them. Nothing, until God comes into the picture.
God triggers the whole bloody incident when he rejects Cain’s sacrifice – even though Cain is the one who first brings an offering to God. A lot of commentators and preachers try to find a reason for God’s rejection, try to make it Cain’s fault. But there is nothing in this story that says he brings something inferior, or tries to pass off something half-rate. He is a tiller of the soil, that’s his job to do, and he brings what gifts he has. There’s nothing that says he brings them reluctantly, or sparingly, or with a bad attitude. But God rejects his offering, and looks favorably upon Abel.
What kind of God is that? Are we really supposed to believe that God plays favorites? That’s not what we’ve been taught. This comes off as a story about an unfair parent whose favoritism provokes his child into ugly jealousy. God seems to instigate the whole thing.
Now, I know some families are like that; one child’s the favorite, and the others know it. It’s an old meme, “Mom always loved you best.”
And part of that comes from the simple truth that our kids aren’t the same. Most parents I know look at their kids and think, “How can they all be from the same family? They’re all so different.” Some are easier to parent, and some are a handful. But we like to think that we love them all equally, and we try to treat them as fairly as possible, knowing they have very different needs and strengths.
I think it’s hard for any of us to imagine two of our kids coming to us with hand-made gifts and saying, “Susie, I love this!” and “Sammy, I don’t want what you made me.” Who would do that? Who would do such a thing? Is it any wonder Cain is furious?
Now I suppose this could just be a cautionary tale about how life’s not fair, and just suck it up, cupcake. As one scholar put it, “Not every inequity is an iniquity.”[i] Maybe this is about how inequity is simply a fact of life, God’s design for the world, and Cain’s sin is in not accepting the will of God. Maybe God’s way is inscrutable, as some theologians say, and we simply aren’t meant to understand it. Cain should have just recognized that God is God and he is not and it’s God’s prerogative to accept and reject and so be it.
But somehow, I don’t think so. I just don’t think that’s it.
I think God is setting up a choice that Cain must make. I think this story reveals what we have to face every single day. I think this reveals the precarious state we live in, the truth that we seldom want to face: That sin is crouching at our door, ready to pounce; it wants to control us, but we must master it.
The great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described our reality this way:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.[ii]
In his commentary on Genesis, Walter Brueggemann captures the essence of this reality. “Sin,” he says,
Sin is not a breaking of the rules. Rather, sin is an aggressive force ready to ambush Cain. Sin is larger than Cain and takes on a life of its own… Sin is lethal…. [and] the stakes are high.[iii]
Like Cain, we will be provoked to anger and jealousy, perhaps even rage. There will be events in our lives that make us dejected, perhaps bring us to the point of despair. The feelings that come are intense, almost unstoppable. And we all have those places in us where the trigger can be flipped, almost in an instant. We are vulnerable.
We talk about it as if it’s so matter-of-fact. “She pushed my buttons,” we say; “he yanked my chain.” There’s a sore spot within us that gets triggered. An old story of injustice that’s instantly reawakened. The ancient hurt, or fear, from something long ago, that’s reawakened with a fierceness that surprises us. We react with an intensity that surprises us, convinced that the threat is real.
It’s almost as if an old script comes alive again. We all have them. We all do. The stories we tell ourselves…
I don’t know what yours are, but I know some of the most common:
“Life’s so unfair.”
“I’ll never get what I deserve.”
“If it weren’t for those people, my life would be fine.”
“Why do I have to do everything, and no one even notices?”
“Nobody cares about me.”
“Why do I even bother?”
“There’s nothing I can do.”
Those voices in our heads – that’s sin crouching at our door, ready to pounce. Ready to warp our reality again, to fuel the fire in our guts. And we react, without even thinking. It all seems so real.
You know, Abel did nothing to Cain. Nothing at all to deserve Cain’s hatred and violence and rage. That was sin crouching at the door. A life wasted. Cain’s life condemned. It was tragic, just tragic.
It didn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t have been that way. That was God’s warning to Cain. Do not underestimate the power of sin and evil in the world, in your own life. Take it as seriously as death waiting to stalk you. The stakes are that high.
In John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden, he takes this story of Cain and Abel as a model, a framework, for the tensions in families, for the tragedies and possibilities in human life. As his character, Adam, says, “[The] old men… know that these sixteen verses are a history of mankind in any age or culture or race.”[iv]
What happens when sin crouches at our door? In Steinbeck’s telling, it all hinges on one verb in the Hebrew text, timshel. As Adam reads different translations of the story of Cain and Abel, he’s struck by that verb. And he wonders, does God say, “Thou shalt rule over [sin]? Is it a promise? Or does God say, “Do thou rule over him?”[v] Is it a command? He decides that overcoming sin isn’t a given, it isn’t inevitable. It’s a choice. It’s a choice that makes us human.
As Steinbeck writes,
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… You can never lose that. it cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness… 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.”[vi]
Cain makes his choice, a terrible choice. But even he is marked with both guilt and grace. God does not abandon him, to wander aimlessly on this earth at the mercy of those who find him. No, God marks him as his own. As Steinbeck writes, “Can you think that whatever made us – would stop trying?”[vii]
Never. As the Apostle Paul writes, there is nothing that can separate us forever from God – “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Romans 8:38-39]
We are made for love. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We are children of God, brothers and sisters not only of each other but of Christ. And it is through him – who laid down his life for us, 1 John tells us – that we pass from death to life. Able to make that choice, to lay down our lives for one another.
Able, even when sin lurks so closely, able to love one another.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
[i] John D. Levonson, quoted by Christopher M. Leighton, “The Legacy of Cain,” Talking about Genesis: A Resource Guide, Public Affairs Television (New York: Doubleday, 1996) 51.
[ii] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1974), cited in Talking about Genesis, 56.
[iii] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation Bible Series (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982),57.
[iv] John Steinbeck, East of Eden, 304; cited by Brueggemann, 59.
[v] Steinbeck, 301; cited by Brueggemann, 59.
[vi] Steinbeck, 304, cited by Brueggemann, 59.
[vii] Steinbeck, 599. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/East_of_Eden_(novel)