Rejection and Revenge, A Breath Apart

The Murder of Abel – Gustave Dore

There is a well-known account in Scripture (Gen. 4) that on its face seems simple and straightforward. Yet, the Hebrew writer presents a scenario with enormous ramifications. We must dig deep to understand its meaning for us.

Now Adam had sexual relations with his wife, Eve, and she became pregnant. When she gave birth to Cain, she said, “I have acquired a man with God’s help!”  Later she gave birth to his brother and named him Abel.

When they grew up, Abel became a shepherd, while Cain cultivated the ground.  When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel also brought a gift—the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected.

 “Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected?  You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”

Early in Hebrew Scripture we learn of pairs and contrast: light and dark, human and animals, Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. The pairings and contrast are meant to be instructive, as are the names of Cain and Abel.

Although Cain’s name has the primary meaning of “acquire,” the word that his name comes from (קָנָה kanah) also means “to erect, to found,” and “to create.” In Genesis 14:19 we see various translations describe God as either the “Possessor of heaven and earth” (King James Bible, New American Standard Bible, Webster‘s Bible Translation), or “Creator of heaven and earth (New Living Translation, New International Version). Both words “Possessor” and “Creator” are translations of the same word קֹנֵה konay, a cognate of Cain’s name Kayin. What’s In A Name: A Secret About Cain and Abel

In the context of contrasting the brothers Cain and Abel, “Cain!”, an exclamation from mom and the name for her son, connotes “Possessor” and “Creator”. It’s possible that Eve’s new found God-likeness had gone to her head, perhaps claiming co-creation with God. The name signals Eve’s bending in toward self-divination and for her son to project himself in the same way – as self-sufficient creator and possessor of all before him – in contrast to the “Creator and Possessor of heaven and earth”. The pairing of the two names – Cain and Abel – tends toward this interpretation.

Abel as noun הבל (hebel) means vapor, breath, or something very close to nothing. Abel could have been nicknamed Whiff.

I wonder. Did Eve feel exhausted and out of breath chasing after little Cain? Naming her second son Abel implies a here-one-minute-gone-the-next tracking of a little life. Abel’s name is further contexed in Ecclesiastes: Everything is breath (not “vanity”, a current mistranslation). And, in Ps. 39:5, 144:4; Prov. 31:30.

We get the impression from their names that Cain is a rooted of-the-earth man and that Abel is a reed in the winds of heaven. Their vocations tell us more about them..

We learn from the narrative that both brothers are fulfilling the human vocation given earlier in Genesis: dominion and care of animals and the land. They are doing so successfully under God’s blessing and in communion with God. At the end of the year, harvest time, the brothers bring an offering to God. Cain brought only some of the fruits of the soil. Abel brought the fat portions from the firstborn of his flock.

God makes a distinction between the two offerings. God looks with favor on Abel’s offering – the best of what he has. And, God rejects Cain’s token offering. The prophet Malachi gives us some understanding as to what offering the “Possessor of heaven and earth” – the Landowner – desires:

“When you bring injured, lame or diseased animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” says the Lord. “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the Lord Almighty, “and my name is to be feared among the nations.

-Malachi 1:13-14

God’s response does not go over well with Cain. Farmer Cain, “Possessor” and “Creator” of his own domain, grows an attitude. God notices and issues a warning.

 “Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected?  You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”

God gives Cain a choice. He could repent and do right. Then his fallen countenance would be lifted up. He would know joy. Or, if he refuses to what is right sin will have dominion over him. His fallen countenance will remain. Sin’s chaos will rule his life and the lives of his descendants. We learn that Cain, his own man, chooses pathway number two which takes him away from home and out of God’s sight (does he think this?):

Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. -Gen. 4:8

The advent of civilization (Gen. 4:17-26) is stained by a wrong choice, one made out of anger and of a desire for revenge. The horrific ramifications of the wrong choice are the pollution of the land, blood guilt and curses (as opposed to God’s blessing). The Land Owner had warned the tenant and now asks Cain the same question posed to Adam (Gen. 3: 9):

 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. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden. -Gen. 4:9-16

 Cain lies and evades responsibility for his actions. The sin in his heart is growing rapidly. It is taking dominion over him, the self-made dominionist. Cain’s domain, his farm land, is now working against him and Cain has become more cursed than the land. The once solid self-defined man is to become a wanderer through life– fleeting, ephemeral, mortal, transient, without strength, a passing wind, …a breath.

Cain, beginning to feel the weight of his actions, balks at his punishment. But murder is no small thing. Murder brings about a greater punishment, as we learn in Numbers 35:33:

Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it.

But in the Cain and Abel account God does not take a life for a life. Rather, as an act of mercy, God exiles Cain from his home, from others and from the land, his source of strength. Cain is removed from out of the context of God’s blessing. Exiled, Cain still has a chance to repent and return to the Land Owner.

As Cain finds out, man’s sin affects the land that we are to have dominion over. Hosea wrote about it (Hos. 4: 2-3):

There is only cursing, lying and murder,
stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds,
and bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Because of this the land dries up,
and all who live in it waste away;
the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea are swept away

 

 This early account in Scripture is a study of contrasts. It reveals two ways of being and two distinct personalities. There are the Abels who acknowledge the transient and dependent nature of their being, as in the words of the Psalmist (39:5)

You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
    the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
    even those who seem secure.

And, there are the Cains who deem themselves god-like Creators and Possessors and thereby mocking the One True Creator and Possessor, as described in Prov. 21:24:

The proud and arrogant person— “Mocker” is his name—
    behaves with insolent fury.

There is an offering of the best portion and there is an offering of a token. Clearly from this account and from many more, our offerings reveal what we think about God. Do we view God as Creator and Possessor? Do we view God as the Land Owner under Whom we work as faithful stewards and return the best of our stewardship? Or, do we see God as an obligation that needs to be dealt with on our terms?  (See the Parable of the Ten Talents, Matt. 25: 14-30) (See also the account of Ananias’ and Sapphira’s token offering in Acts chapter 5. It doesn’t end well!)

The Cain and Abel account reveals that there is God’s view of things and man’s. God’s warning to Cain makes His view clear beyond a doubt. And though a victim is entitled to revenge in the Old testament God does not take revenge. Rather, God lets Cain live with the consequences of his actions. “You want to live outside my blessing – Go for it!”

 This account reveals that Biblical ethics are not the same as Biblical Law. God does not take a life for a life. God does not seek monetary compensation (2 Sam. 21). The Law should be read in a larger context. Jesus tried to get the Scribes and Pharisees to understand the bigger context, the Big Picture, of His work of Redemption.

One final contrast. Abel – “breath” or “breeze” – dies in accordance with the transient nature of human existence. Cain, who saw himself as the rooted “Creator” and “Possessor” is to wander the earth like a breeze. As a fugitive he has to keep moving. He’s not tied to the land (a symbol of his strength) as he once was. What Cain had refused to accept of God and of his brother Whiff he now has to accept as his existence “east of Eden”.