Genesis 4: Raising Cain
I should offer a word of explanation to any visitors present this morning. We are in the midst of several sermons on the book of Genesis , source of some of the world’s most formative religious legends. We have looked at the two creation stories, composed centuries apart by separate authors, and seen how remarkably different they are from each other. We have talked about how the mythical First Couple got themselves expelled from their parklike Garden of Innocent Delight. And today we reach the powerful and disturbing myth of the earth’s First Brothers, Cain and Abel, a story which proves that if blood is thicker than water, jealousy can be thicker than blood. Here is a quick summary of what the author obviously considers the world’s first murder.
Adam and Eve, we are told, have two children. Abel becomes a shepherd, Cain becomes a farmer, and by and by they both offer a sacrifice to God: Cain presenting something from his farm, Abel bringing a choice lamb from his flock. (The sacrificial system had not been introduced yet, but anachronisms do not bother this writer!). Without giving us a reason, the author says God liked Abel and his offering, but did not care for Cain and his. Angry and jealous, Cain invites his brother to go for a walk in the field, where he kills him. When God asks, “Where is your brother?” Cain makes one of history’s most famous responses: How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” The author doesn’t have God answer that ambiguous question, so it still muddies the water in human relationships. In one sense it’s obvious that we are not our brother’s keeper; he is a free and independent person with the right of a private life, but in another sense, as the Bible makes abundantly clear, we have some responsibility for those around us. The truth is, and we may as well face it quickly, that this is one of the most tantalizingly incomplete stories in the Bible, raising more questions than it answers. There is a reason for that, and I hope to make it clear as we go along.
But at the moment in this terse and sketchy legend, God sentences Cain to wander the earth as a fugitive. Readers have wondered why the primitive Hebrew God who will wipe out thousands in these early pages of the Old Testament did not impose that ultimate punishment on Cain, but as is the case with so much else in this ancient piece of folklore, there is no answer. When Cain protests, hearing the sentence, that anyone he meets may kill him, the Lord puts a mark on Cain so that no one will take his life. So Cain goes off and settles in what the author calls the land of Nod, east of Eden, where (oddly enough) instead of wandering the earth as a fugitive in fear of his life, as he was sentenced to do, he finds a wife, has a son, and builds a city.
This story bristles with so many problems that Biblical scholars agree it must once have existed as an independent, fullbodied tale somewhere else before it was placed where we now find it in the opening chapters of Genesis. According to the time frame in which it now stands, Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were the only human beings on earth. Abel is now dead, so the population would seem to be reduced to three. Yet suddenly the picture changes to a world in which Cain is afraid that at any moment he may encounter people who will try to kill him….a world in which, as I have mentioned, he finds a wife and enough citizens to create a city. The storyteller who created all these problems has absolutely no interest at all in solving them. He has a single purpose in mind: to show how quickly the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden infected others, so he lifts this story out of another context and inserts it at the very beginnings of human life. He probably recognized how poorly it fit and how many logical questions it raised, but he didn’t care. He wasn’t writing history as we understand the word; he was sermonizing — and what he did found a way into our collection of sacred literature not because it was good journalism but beause it was powerful poetry about the human condition.
The man who wrote about Adam and Eve, and then Cain and Abel, hardly seems to qualify as one of the world’s great optimists. We have barely met the First Couple before they disobey the law and are kicked out of their home. We no sooner learn the names of their two sons than the older boy murders his brother. Not only does the author pre-suppose a world in which formal sacrifice has already been made a religious ritual, but he has no interest in explaining what was wrong with Cain and his offering, so we have to search for some kind of meaning that will connect with life as we know it — and at least this much is clear: we have in this story the first case of sibling rivalry — of jealousy so intense it leads to murder by a man convinced that life is just not fair.
Let the story fly off the page and perch on the shoulder of your own life for a moment. If you had brothers and sisters, weren’t there a few times when you wondered down in some dark corner of your heart who the favorite child was? I think if you were willing to dredge up a few less-than-noble moments, the two of us could swap some true confessions, but to spare us both I’ll illustrate childhood jealousy in someone else who is not present. My first grandson was the center of adoring attention for three years before his sister came along. His mother and father then had to divide their energy and attention, and he was noticeably jealous. One day, roughhousing with another little boy, he scratched the baby’s face as she lay in her crib. It was a move that might have seemed to a stranger like an accident, but this little guy managed a lot of accidents on purpose, and his parents were both positive that the scratching was an act of frustration and anger at the source of his displacement: “Take that, you little usurper!”
It would be pleasant to think that jealousy is always juvenile, but you and I both know better. I have been present at weddings when sibling rivalry threatened to make a total mess of things. I have been present at funerals when brothers and sisters were still harboring the gnawing jealousies of a lifetime. Whether the favoritism was real or imagined doesn’t seem to make much difference. Just as Cain’s face fell in this archetypal story when Abel came out ahead, we are forever tempted to gnaw at our own hearts because someone else is better, richer, more beautiful or more talented than we are. And depending on the kind of religion we’ve been taught, we may be tempted to blame God for ways in which life has mistreated us.
Perhaps it’s not strange at all that this ancient storyteller would have the seeds of murder planted in a moment when a religious offering is being presented. Someone said once that people never do evil to one another so cheerfully as when they do it for religious reasons. I can understand the animosity between Arab and Jew, both of whom are positive they enjoy the special favor of God, because I grew up among a group of Christians who were equally positive that of all people on earth they were God’s Chosen. It should come as no surprise that we may have killed more people over religion than over anything else.
Our tangled, difficult text this morning is not just about sibling rivalry, but about the disastrous consequences of feeling unworthy. In a wonderfully vivid phrase, at the moment of Cain’s rejection, his “face fell.” That’s why it is so vital for parents to make it clear to their children that they separate the unworthiness of their actions from their worth as human beings. We may be terribly annoyed by some of the things our child does, and say so, just so long as we make it clear that we do not hate the child. It sounds simple, but a surprising number of parents forget to make it clear. Or, in moments of anger and frustration, they utter the most devastating words a child can hear: “I wish you had never been born.” I have talked to enough messed-up souls over a lifetime to know that more children have heard those words than we would like to think. Some of them develop a non-violent inferiority complex that cripples them for life. But some of them develop a self-loathing so intense they cannot bear it and have to project it on others….in rape, in physical abuse of a partner in marriage, sometimes in single or serial murders.
But there is another interesting idea suggested by the story. The author has God say to Cain that his murderous thoughts are like a predatory animal eager to pounce on him, but that Cain has it in his power to resist and save himself. The idea of excusing ourselves as victims of bad parents or social injustice is foreign to the Bible. It repeatedly insists that we ultimately have control over what we become. John Steinbeck got interested in this story and built the major theme of his novel East of Eden (1952) around God’s remark that Cain had the power to resist temptation.
A scholar who knew Hebrew told Steinbeck that the words spokento Cain —
“You must triumph over temptation” — can quite literally be translated, “Just do it!” — a compliment to human potential that excited Steinbeck long before Nike found it. So the novelist says of God’s challenge in this ancient story that it “is a ladder to climb to the stars….It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardice 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 [the word is: You can do it ! ]
I have mentioned already that this brief narrative is as famous for its gaps, for what it does not say, as it is for what it does say…..and into those gaps have come some strange, and sometimes tragic interpretations. None has been more disastrous than that of the great Augustine, Bishop of Hioppo in the fourth century. He did an allegorical interpretation in which the story became a bizarre foreshadowing, with Abel standing for the Christ to come centuries later, and Cain standing for the Jews who would kill him. The Bishop reasoned that just as Cain feigned ignorance when questioned by God, so the Jews practiced deceit in their refusal to accept Christ, and that just as Abel’s blood cried out for justice, so the Jews stand accused both for the death of Christ and their failure to heed the voice of God in their own sacred scripture. He summed it all up in these terrible words: “The Church admits and avows the Jewish people to be cursed.”
It would have been bad enough if he had been a nobody, but this was one of the most influential Christian scholars of all time, and that made his comment the deadliest blow ever struck in the long, sad history of the church’s anti-Semitism. It was language like his that caused Pope Innocent III, in 1215, to pass legislation requiring Jews to wear distinctive clothing or badges that would separate them from Christians. So you see, it is no small matter how we interpret the Bible, and how careful we must be that we do not import our own prejudices into it.
But we are surely on certain ground when we read it as a denunciation of violence and our infatuation with it as a way of solving problems. Think about Cain’s anger for a moment as you hear the words of psychologist Rollo May….and you can be pardoned if you suddenly think, as I did, about how they also bring a man named O. J. to mind. Listen: “In its typical and simple form, violence is an eruption of pent-up passion. When a person has been denied over a period of time what he feels are his legitimate rights….violence is the predictable result. Violence is an explosion of the drive to destroy that which is interpreted as the barrier to one’s self-esteem….This desire to destroy may so completely take over the person that any object that gets in the way is destroyed. Hence the person strikes out blindly, often destroying those for whom he cares and even himself in the process.”
And we dare not forget that this story holds one of the most poignant questions ever posed by human beings about their relationship to other human beings: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” There it stands, echoing down the corridors of time, as fresh as the first day it was spoken — a question upon whose answer rests the whole human enterprise. What is my relationship to others? Do I have a basic God-given responsibility toward my family and neighbors and people I meet at work and at play? Or have I only to take care of myself, doing whatever is required to protect and advance myself? Here is the whole of human ethics hanging on a simple question: do I owe anything to others, or is it every man for himself?
There have always been different answers to the question. When William Taft was governor of the Philippine Islands he made a public reference one day to “our Filipino brothers,” and some cynic who thought himself better than any Filipino became one more of the many descendants of Cain when he sang back: “He may be a brother of William H. Taft,/ But he ain’t no brother of mine!” But we’ve always had better people. Desmond Tuto said it perfectly: “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” Mark Twain, with his brutal wit, said it a little more ironically: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors and also love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.” And we still hear the eloquent song of a murdered black man: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Cain, of course, knew how to make those sentiments sound foolish: “Do you expect me to keep tabs on where my brother goes and what he does — have him on some kind of leash?” His question was not worthy of an answer, but we know what the answer is: “You are not your brother’s keeper; you are your brother’s brother!”
May I remind you of one more thing: that even when we do not physically kill, we may kill mind and spirit — leave by our words and actions some part of another person’s happiness lying dead. We might well ask this morning, Where are the victims of some clumsy word I spoke, some careless indifference I showed, some self-centered egotism by which I treated people hungry for a moment’s notice and affection as if they were only an inconvenience? The other day, as I worked on this sermon about Cain and Abel, somebody said, “You know, I’m not much into those Old Testament stories. I prefer my reading to be relevant….you know, about life as it really is.” And all I said was: “Me, too.”