This is part nine of a series called “The Backstory.” Part eight was released earlier as “Trees of Choosing” and is available here. The entire series may be found here. Backstory is a reference to the sequence of events which form the backdrop to “The call of Abram” and the unfolding of God’s mysterious plan of redemption.
Before we get to the story of these two brothers, take a moment and consider how Adam and Eve may have felt when leaving the garden, never to return. Did they look back one final time to see the cherubim with flaming sword? Could they see YHVH Elohim in the distance behind the cherub? Were they crying; was God crying?
They were evicted from their home, the home they shared with YHVH. There was no family they could run to, no homeless shelter, no mental health counseling services available. After losing everything through trickery and their own foolishness, they now had to endure the curse of YHVH. And they had to build a life outside the garden, a life of exile apart from their created purpose. It would be hard to survive in this new place, especially with the newly discovered trust issues in their marriage. The trauma was more than they could bear.
In this dysfunction, Cain and Abel were born and raised. We know the story; Abel became a shepherd and Cain a farmer. At some point they both made offerings to the Lord, but Cain’s offering was not respected. Much has been written about why one was accepted and the other rejected, so I will not address those theories here. Rather, I want to focus on something more human, more personal and something common to us all.
The Lord really surprised me with this study. I was thinking that there’s nothing new here to share; everyone with a cursory Bible background knows the Cain and Abel story, right? After wrestling with this for the better part of a week, I felt him gently chide me, “You don’t think there’s much here?” I knew I was in trouble, in a good way. Let me explain.
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.
Why did the Lord include this story in the opening pages of Genesis? Until recently, I thought the point was to demonstrate that God required a blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin. Abel provided the appropriate sacrifice, Cain did not, case closed. As much as I like the neat packaging and formulaic answer that provides, I believe there’s a bit more under the surface. The story has very little to do with the sacrifice and everything to do with the righteousness or lack thereof of these brothers. The sacrifice just exposed what was boiling underneath.
Did you notice in the scripture above that God tried to arrest Cain’s attention by calling out his anger, his countenance, and his behavior. Look at the verse, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well . . .”
A Pleasing Aroma in Heaven
But what did God mean when he said to Cain, “If you do well . . .” Apparently, Cain had not been doing well and when he presented an offering it was rejected which led to Cain’s anger. Did Cain think there was no connection between how he lived and how he worshipped? Is it ok to live like a snake during the week and play the part of a saint on Sunday?
For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brothers righteous.
1 John 3:11-12
God rejects this kind of sacrifice; he is looking for a people with hearts inclined after him. We cannot pursue lives of corrupted desire and then perform spiritual penance to make everything better. God takes no pleasure in sacrifice when our heart is not also on the altar. This is as true today as it was four thousand years ago.
If you were an animal . . . ?
Jude, in speaking about false teachers, compares them to Cain in this regard.
But these people scoff at things they do not understand. Like unthinking animals, they do whatever their instincts tell them, and so they bring about their own destruction. What sorrow awaits them! For they follow in the footsteps of Cain, who killed his brother. Like Balaam, they deceive people for money. And like Korah, they perish in their rebellion.
Jude clarifies the issue even further. Cain was like an unthinking animal, ruled by instinct. He lived according to his corrupted desires. What a tragic life; Cain, son of Adam, who was called to rule over the beasts, has now become like one of them, ruled by his own sinful passion, desires, and instincts.
The Lord warned Cain of the danger at his door and told him what to do about it.
The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?”
And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
Transformation of the Soul
The field of psychology informs us that anger is a surface emotion. It may be fed by a host of feelings. Cain’s anger may have been fueled by jealousy, shame, or rejection. God invited him into a world of self-awareness, “Why are you angry . . .?” The question was designed to invite Cain to look inside himself and identify or name whatever it was that was driving his anger.
To experience transformation of the human soul, it’s important to identify or name those inner forces which drive our behavior. Identification is the first step on the road to change. For Cain the sin to master may have been jealousy or shame; but the real question is what sin is warring against my soul and yours? When God told Cain that he must “rule over it”, can you hear echoes of the dominion mandate in Gen. 1:28?
. . . and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Rejecting the Ways of Darkness
We learned in the creation stories that man was to rule over the earth and the animal kingdom, but now we understand that authority and dominion extends to our own souls. Earlier we saw that man was created from the ground and the breath of God. Now we understand that we have responsibility to master our own passions and desires.
But how can I begin to rule over my own soul? First comes self-awareness, for Cain the crouching beast was a nameless sin. The Lord tried to press him to self-awareness, but it seems he was unwilling to go there. For the rest of us, just as Adam named all the beasts (see earlier post “Dating or Naming”) we too should begin to name or recognize the emotions and desires that drive our behavior.
But for now, begin by asking some reflective questions of yourself; ask the Lord to help you understand what is driving your negative emotions?
- Why am I so agitated?
- Why am I jealous of so and so?
- What is causing this stress and anxiety that I can’t seem to shake?