Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Cain and Abel: The Growth of Religion and Sin Following the Fall (Genesis 4:1-16)

This story raises a whole slew of questions for which we have no answer. Once again, it is a case of a story told for a singular purpose, unconcerned with giving us all the details. And yet, the little hints of detail it teases us with support the idea that this is history, not mere fable. Among the frustrating questions we have: Who are the people Cain refers to? Where will Cain get his wife in the next section? Why did God regard Abel’s offering and not Cain’s? And, what is the mark of Cain?

Even though we don’t have definitive answers, some of these questions can be dismissed with a careful reading of the text. For instance, the presence of other people, and a source for Cain’s wife need not concern us. There is no real indication that Cain and Abel are Adam and Eve’s first two children. We have there story because this is the first case of sin leading to murder, not because these are the first children. For all we know, Adam and Eve could have been having kids for quite some time now. In a few more verses we will read that Seth—the child born after Abel is killed—was born when Adam was already 130. If those years are like today’s years, Adam and Eve could conceivably have had 100 years of child-bearing, with multiple generations already being born to their children, grandchildren, and great-grand-children. Cain and Abel could come on the scene with a human population of 100s of people.

What is more interesting here is the purpose of the story. We see here the advance and progression of sin in the world. Sin began with the breaking of God’s one rule, but it is now an ever present reality for humanity. Now that they have been cast out of the garden, they are no longer following God’s perfect plan. They have to try to come up with their own way in the world, and do the wrong thing all the time, whether it be out of ignorance, failing, or outright rebellion. And, while every person after the first sin goes against God’s plan, we see here that sin has progressed and reaches here a climax of one person taking another’s life.

There is also another intriguing development in the fall of humanity. Here we see religion for the first time. In the garden, humanity had a relationship with the Creator. Now that that has been broken, we see mankind trying to reach back to God in other ways. Sacrifice has been established. This is not something God demanded or invented. It is a human invention. Later on, God will establish guidelines for a sacrificial system that He will endorse, but here we simply have religion like any religion where man tries to please God in his own power.

Why does God regard Abel’s offering? What does that even mean? We are not given an answer to either of those questions. One can assume that Abel had success in his endeavors following his sacrifice while Cain didn’t. That could be interpreted as blessing. It could have been real blessing. The Bible repeatedly teaches that God’s choices and blessings are not made through any merit on man’s part. God’s reasons are His own. The religious person and the legalist will try to give you any number of reasons why Abel deserved to be blessed and Cain didn’t. But that is a misreading of the Biblical text.

What is important to see here, regardless of God’s blessing, is that God still pursues sinful man. Before Cain ever acts on his anger and jealousy towards Cain, God warns him against allowing sin to rule him. In this passage, sin is almost personified and demonic. And yet it is still simply humanity’s nature. Cain makes a choice to sin exactly as every other human since does day in and day out. This is not a case of an outside force working on Cain. Just as in the garden, the devil didn’t make mankind sin. Tempt maybe, but the choice to sin is Cain’s. And, while God tells him he needs to master his choice, sinful man is ultimately incapable of avoiding sin. We are helpless on our own. We need to respond to God’s pursuit and approach. We need to allow Him to help us.

Here Cain is even worse than Adam was following his choice to sin. God again approaches the sinner with an opportunity to come clean. And, whereas Adam confessed but passed the blame, Cain denies any wrong doing. But God knows already what has happened, and again He punishes sin. Like He did with the serpent, God curses Cain. Adam was sent out of the perfect garden to the hard earth to live. Cain is denied even the earth. He must wander and never really find good sustenance. He is not only cut off from God like all the rest of sinful humanity, he is cut off from human fellowship. People here begin to become scary to each other. We have here “the other.”

What is the mark of Cain? No one knows. What is clear, though, is that just as God condemned murder, He also condemns the killing of “the other.” Somehow, people have always tried to draw distinctions between killing their own kind as being murder, but have tried to justify killing outsiders as real threats. It is all sin in God’s eyes.

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