Notes from Genesis 4: Cain and Abel

In Genesis 4 we find the first human brothers holding the first religious service, after which the first religious split occurred, resulting in the first human violence. If Genesis 1-11 is trying to lay out the human condition, this chapter has a lot to say about how deeply human violence runs. Worse, it even suggests that  religion, which ideally is a force to unite, can become the source of radical  division.

The first religious service, which significantly comes after the Fall, is invented by Cain, who brings some produce as his offering to God. His little brother Abel, a shepherd, follows suit, but with a lamb of his flock.

God prefers Abel’s offering. No explanation is offered, leaving room for centuries of speculation. The essential point is that Cain, like many a first born, can’t stand the thought that little brother can shine at something he initiated.

Sibling rivalry is something most of us can understand, even if we’ve managed to grow out of its worst symptoms. It assumes that love is a limited commodity and any attention or praise given to someone else cheats me out of just that much. My gain is predicated on someone else’s loss. Such thinking infects us with envy, resentment, and fear of rejection.

God assures Cain, “If you do well [perhaps ‘by your brother’], you will be accepted too.” Religion is not a contest with only one winner. Then God warns Cain, “Pouting about this makes you vulnerable. Sin is crouching at your doorstep ready trap you.” But Cain invites his trusting brother Abel into the fields for the first interfaith dialog and kills him.

The first differences in religious practice became the motive for first murder. Not that humans would be less violent without religion. Most any philosophy, however lofty, has proven that it can, in human hands, become totalitarian and fatal.

God reconnects worship and ethics with the pregnant questions, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain answers tartly, “Am my brother’s keeper? Am I the shepherd’s shepherd? Is my brother any of my business?” Maybe Cain is darkly insinuating that its is God’s business to look out for other people. God should protect the innocent if it is important to God.

The freedom God gives humans in regard to our brothers and sisters may sometimes be terrible, but God gives it nonetheless.

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden echoes this ancient story throughout. In the middle of the novel the Chinese servant Lee tells his table companions his long quest to understand Cain and Abel came from pondering a difference in the translations of God’s warning to Cain. The King James, he says, reads “Thou shalt rule over him,” a promise that Cain would conquer the evil urge. The American Standard translated it “Do thou rule over him.” a command. Lee had enlisted Confucian elders to explore the text, who in turn brought in rabbis to master Hebrew. At last they decide the Hebrew timsel means “Thou mayest.”

“Now there are millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou Shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he still has a great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” (East of Eden)

Differences do not have to terminate relationships or end in violence. There is another choice.

As if to demonstrate the alternative there is a haunting echo of Cain and Abel at the end of Genesis which concludes with a note of hope. Jacob’s sons are jealous of the love their father has lavished on their little brother Joseph, as Cain had been of God’s favor to Abel. When Joseph is sent one day to the field to check on his brothers, they decide to eliminate him and his competition for pride of place. Rather than killing him, they sell the young man into slavery and lie to their father that wild animals must have killed his beloved son.

Years pass. Joseph, now miraculously the second most powerful figure in Egypt, encounters his brothers, who have come to buy grain during the great famine. Before their return, Joseph has loot planted in the Benjamin’s grain, then sends soldiers to uncover it and bring the family back. Joseph demands the young brother be imprisoned for robbery. The eldest brother Judah, still not recognizing Joseph, confesses that once he and the others had devised a way to be rid of a brother. He tells how it had broken their father’s heart. And then revealing how much he had changed, Judah begs that his life be exchanged for Joseph’s younger brother. “How could we see our old father’s heart break again?”

Seeing their remorse, Joseph steps out of the room to weep. When he regains his composure he comes back. He has the power to retaliate. Abel can do unto Cain what Cain has done unto Abel. He has the opportunity to pay the victimizer back. But stories of rivalry, violence and desire for revenge can break through to a different ending. “I am your brother, Joseph” And Joseph proceeds to become his brothers’ keeper during the famine. Joseph gives God the credit for converting intended harm into this blessed possibility, but Joseph deserves credit for following through and stepping beyond retaliation to forgiveness. “Thou mayest.”

We say “Thou art my God”, though sometimes at disputed altars. In Genesis we find that whether we ever solve disputes over religion, God would have us say “I am thy brother.” As the elder John said, “Whoever says they love God and hates their fellow human is a liar.”


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