The Story of Cain and Abel
Genesis 4:1-14 Commentary
This is a story about the other side of Eden, a story about life and death, a story about brothers, a story about God.
An introduction to this text could highlight current stories of life and death – stories that make it clear that we are for life and against death. When I preached on this text in 2010, I said: “When you place side by side the jubilant Claudio Yanez [one of the survivors of the mine disaster in Chile] and the haunting eyes of a beautiful, young woman, killed by the Taliban – the contrast is clear. We are for life, we are for rescue – and we are against death – against murder.”
However, matters of life and death are not always so clear-cut. Many hot-button issues in our churches circle around life and death: capital punishment, war, abortion, euthanasia. Christians are all over the map on what ‘supporting life’ means with regard to these issues. The story of Cain and Abel introduces us to the complexities of life and death, judgment and grace.
Adam and Eve’s firstborn son was the first child on earth to be conceived through the husband’s will, when he lay with his wife. He was the first to be born through Eve’s labor pains. But this child was born! Adam and Eve found that on the other side of banishment from the garden – there was love and lovemaking – there was life. Eve named her first-born, Cain, which means ‘to create.’ He was the child of promise – the child of possibility. The child of life. I wonder why Eve named her second child, Abel. Abel comes from a word that means ‘vapor and nothingness.’ Perhaps she and Adam wanted to leave the legacy of both sides of their existence: blessed by God with life and creation, yet living under the shadow of death and nothingness. Cain and Abel – life and vapor – grew up side by side, playing and fighting as brothers do.
The New Testament gives us a more definitive analysis of Cain and Abel’s actions than we see in Genesis 4. “By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings” (Hebrews 11:4). “Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous” (1 John 3:12). In order to really wrestle with the text of Genesis, I tried to pay the closest attention to what was there. The fact is that both brothers brought their best. And though we assume that Cain’s heart was somehow tainted in his giving, the text doesn’t go there. The Lord’s pleasure with Abel’s offering and displeasure with Cain’s offering has an arbitrariness that we should pay attention to. In other words, Cain’s anger has a ring of truth and justification in it.
“You tell me to master the sin that is crouching at my door? I’ll show you who the master is. I’ll show you who the creator is! I’ll show you who holds the keys to life and death!” And he took his brother out to field and he took his life – he turned Abel’s life into true nothingness, to vapor, to death.
The text records a series of questions – one after the other: “Where is your brother, Abel?” “Am I my brother’s keeper?” “What have you done?” All of these questions echo God’s original post-fall question: “Adam, where are you” (Genesis 3:9)?
When Cain is asked where his brother is, he lies. He says that he does not know where Abel is. And the ground receives a double curse… It was already cursed for Adam – and even more so, for Cain.
A move to the lives of the congregants could travel the path that we take from feeling like we got a raw deal to taking matters into our own hands. Sometimes life is unfair. Through (what feels like or what actually may be) no fault or disobedience of our own, we’re faced with disappointments and tensions and difficult decisions. It sometimes seems like God is looking with favor on our brother and not looking with favor upon us. And we feel so out of control, so helpless to change the outcome. God holds out the choice to us to be strong and do what is right or to be weak and give in to the sin that is crouching at our door. And when he holds out that option, it feels exactly backwards. Doing what is right feels weak. Submitting to the whims of the seemingly arbitrary deity seems spineless and vaporous. The stronger option would be to side with the sin crouching at our door. And so we take our lives into our own hands and we lash out in hatred, in anger, in power – by taking the life of another, literally and figuratively.
We take the lives of those people who are a threat to us – and there are all kinds of the threatening people. Sometimes the most threatening person is the person for whom everything seems to be going well (like Abel was to Cain) – and we envy them and we just want to get rid of them. But often we’re threatened (or our society is threatened) by people who are a burden to us – by those people who stand in the way of our rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of individual happiness. And so we take the lives of the voiceless unborn or we take the lives of the oldest among us by shutting them away and wishing they’d die sooner. Or we take the lives of the murderers and terrorists without a blink. And we take the lives of the poor by ignoring their cries for help – telling them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Or we take our own lives because we are so depressed by how out of control we are that we kill ourselves in our final act/show of control. Like Cain, when we feel out of control, we take lives. One could insert any litany of currently relevant ways that we ‘take matters into our own hands’ – that we take life.
Like Cain, when we feel out of control, we take lives. And our murders (literal and figurative) lead to lies and our lies lead to double curses – and we find at the end of the day that when we thought we were most in control, sin was controlling us.
So – what does Cain deserve? Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood by shed.” Exodus 21 gives this command: “But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” This story in Genesis 4 introduces us to a God who does not want Cain to die. What did the Lord do to Cain? Did the Lord kill him? Did the Lord get rid of the murderer? Did the Lord allow man to shed the blood of the man who shed blood? No. When Cain cried out for mercy, the Lord took Cain’s life in his gracious hand and placed a mark on him, so that in his restless wandering, he would be protected. I remember watching a film on the story of the Bible when I was a child. The mark placed on Cain was an ugly mark. It haunted my dreams. It looked like God had pressed his finger into Cain’s skull. But what if this mark was a mark of beauty? It was certainly a mark of grace, no matter what it looked like. It was a mark of protection. So, not only did the Lord not deliver retributive justice to Cain, he prevented anyone else from doing so. Here at the very beginning of the story, the Lord says, ‘no.’ I am stepping in to this cycle of murder and death and I am taking Cain’s life and putting my mark on it, so that this will not happen – so that he will not be killed.
We can ‘take life’ with evil intent, or we can, like God, ‘take life’ with grace and care and responsibility – protecting life, causing our life and the lives around us to flourish.
One could make a good Christological shift at this point: God took the life of his son, Jesus, as a sacrifice for our life-taking sins – and then God raised him from the dead, showing us all, once again, that he is a God of life and life to the full.
And does not God take our lives with grace? Doesn’t he also place his mark on us – the mark of baptism? We died and our lives our now hidden in Christ with God (Colossians 3:3). We are protected from the eternal consequences of the sins that we have given in to – because all of the punishment has landed on Christ’s shoulders.
An emphasis on the sixth commandment – with a responsive reading of Q&A 105-107 of The Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 40).
Hymn: “Take My Life and Let It Be”
Miller, Patrick D. The Ten Commandments, 2009.
Smedes, Lewis B. Mere Morality, 1989.
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 2010.
Rev. Heidi De Jonge is the pastor of Westside Fellowship Christian Reformed Church, Kingston, Ontario.
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