Yesterday’s post diverted slightly into the story of Cain and Abel, and so I thought I’d look at this in more detail…
It’s a world famous story. The sons of Adam and Eve, one a good and godly man, the other dangerous, arrogant, murderous. Both of them bring offerings to God – Abel the pick of his livestock, Cain the scraps of his harvest. This simple act starts a chain of events that continues the consequences of their parents’ actions.
Maybe we should have guessed what was coming the moment we find out their jobs. Abel was a herdsman; Cain was a farmer. Although the quality of their offerings wasn’t to do with meat vs vegetables, there may be something deeper going on – a herdsman is mobile, nomadic, a farmer is settled. That contrast continues through their descendents – the people who chose (willingly or otherwise) to be mobile go on to become the fathers of Israel; those who settle in cities tend to find themselves drawn into compromise, like Lot. Maybe staying in one place is an attempt to recapture the Eden they’ve lost, and as such is denying their need for God. Themes weave their way through these early chapters, and we glimpse a world long gone, with reactions and beliefs that we can’t even process.
But despite this ambiguity about settlement, the core of the dispute is in their attitudes towards God – Abel gives the best of labours, Cain gives grudgingly (I suspect God got small, comedy-shaped vegetables, which isn’t exactly showing respect to the creator of the universe), and yet Cain is still annoyed when God rejects his offering. “What more do you want?!” you can imagine him saying, deluding himself about his holiness.
And yet God’s fairly chilled about it all – “Look, get your attitude sorted and you’ll be okay. If not, sin is always waiting to pounce.” Which is fair enough, but it just seems to anger Cain more. He asks Abel to go out into the fields with him, and there Cain murders his brother.
It’s the first murder, but it’s also part of a process that began with the Fall – if Adam and Eve eating the fruit drove a wedge between humanity and God, then Cain killing Abel creates a faultline in human relationships and the burgeoning society. The whole story of these first few chapters of Genesis is how a brand new world progressively gets screwed up, with relationships between humans, and between humans and God, breaking down. In this sense, these chapters are the prologue to God’s salvation story that unfolds throughout the rest of the Bible, culminating first in Jesus and the Cross, and then in the restoration of heaven and earth in Revelation.
That’s why Abel’s murder has a hold on the writer of Hebrews – Abel’s righteousness and offering to God were things to be respected as expressions of faith, but his death – the first death – is bigger than one murder. His blood speaks cries out against the consequences of the Fall, against violence, anger, rejection of God and death itself. The writer returns to this in Hebrews 12 – Abel’s blood represents one state of affairs between God and humanity, the blood of Jesus represents something greater than that, the moment things are put right.
Not that this immediately helps Cain. He’s already denied responsibility for his family (“Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asks, but the unspoken answer to that should be “Yes, you are.”), now he’s banished from them – his settled life is over and he becomes a “restless wanderer on the earth”. Of course, he’s more worried that someone will kill him (that genie’s out of the bottle – he’s realised that what he did to Abel could just as easily be done to him) than in expressing remorse over his crime, but here’s the interesting thing.
God protects him.
The Bible doesn’t say exactly what ‘mark’ God placed on him, but whatever it was, it prevented anyone from hunting him down and taking vengeance. God is showing grace. It’s in his nature.
(Random speculation time – if God places a mark on Cain to protect him, maybe that’s twisted by the actions of the antichrist in Revelation, where a ‘mark’ places people under the protection of the embodiment of evil…? And is there a link between these two passages and Ezekiel 9?)
Anyway, despite Cain complaining that he’ll be a restless wanderer (and if there is a tension between wandering and settlement, maybe this nomadic lifestyle could have lead to his redemption somehow – random speculation time again!), he eventually has a son and builds a city. Did he ever repent? We don’t know. He walks away from the blood-soaked earth, his motivations and his intentions a mystery. His crime still scars the earth, and while we know from the Bible’s bigger, glorious story that redemption and healing are available, the first step towards that still has to be taken.
Sometimes that’s the longest step of all.