Sunday, 5 February 2012

Cain and Abel

Sandwiched between the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden and the story of Noah and the flood is a very different kind of fall story - the story of Cain and Abel.  Here's the story as it appears in Genesis 4.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. 4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

6 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

10 The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

13 Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is more than I can bear. 14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

15 But the LORD said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. 16 So Cain went out from the LORD’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

This scene contains some similarities to the Adam and Eve story, but there are also some obvious differences.  The LORD is still the same person-like figure who appears in the Garden of Eden, "walking in the garden in the cool of the evening", but the human race is more extensive, allowing Cain to both fear retribution and find a wife. 

We generally think of this as the story of the first murder.  However, murder is not Cain's original sin, it is a consequence of it.  His original sin is to offer the LORD the wrong kind of sacrifice.  While his brother Abel offers "fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock", Cain offers some of his crops and is rejected. 

What's going on here?  At first sight it seems unfair.  Cain is an agriculturalist, Abel is a pastoralist, both bring the LORD some of their produce.  Nor is this simply a foreshadowing of later Levitical regulations - the Israelite sacrifical system included grain offerings alongside animal sacrifice.

I think perhaps we can see this story in the light of what Finkelstein and Silberman tell as about life in Bronze Age Palestine.  They tell the story of small, subsistence-oriented agricultural villages sharing the land with semi-nomadic groups of pastoralists.  We don't know a lot about these two groups, but they must have interacted, at least to trade crops for animals, perhaps also for mutual protection.  How distinct were these two groups?  Were they ethnically different?  Did they have differences in language and customs?

This story seems to point to the primacy of pastoralism in this relationship.  Even though it is acceptable to grow crops, it is not acceptable to offer them to the LORD.

After his original failure, Cain is offered not one but two chances at redemption.  First of all, the LORD assures him that his mistake is not terminal.  "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it."  He is not to be cast out for his mistake, he is simply warned - do better next time.

However, it is not that simple for Cain.  Perhaps it is simply sibling rivalry but more seems at stake than that.  Cain is being put into a situation of dependence on, and subjugation to, his brother Abel.  Abel can offer his own produce to the LORD.  Cain must obtain an animal from Abel - no doubt in exchange for the produce of his garden. 

Cain finds this intolerable.  Perhaps it's symbolic that Abel is lured into the field, the subject of the dispute, in order to be killed, and ironic that Cain subsequently disclaims all knowledge by asking "am I my brother's keeper?"  What would his nomadic pastoralist brother be doing in the field?  How would Cain know where he has wandered to now?  Yet as in the Garden, nothing can be hidden from the LORD.  It is also perhaps ironic that now it is is Cain who is turned into a wanderer, unable to till the earth.  After killing Abel, it is almost as if he takes his place.

Yet even now, Cain does not receive the full penalty for his crime.  He is cast out from the LORD's presence to wander in the wide world.  Yet he is also offered the LORD's protection.  The famous "mark of Cain" is not a mark of his shame, so much as a mark of his favour.  "Whoever kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over".   Cain suffers the consequences of his sin, but is not robbed of God's care.  This is not the harsh, vengeful God of the Deluge, but much closer to the patient, persevering God of the Garden and of later Jewish and Christian tradition.  The tension between these two views is played out throughout the Old and New Testaments and is already here in the earliest stories of the Torah.

And perhaps like Adam and Eve, Cain is also us.  Condemned to wander, struggling to wrench our living from an uncaring earth, fearful of our fellow humans, we can still rely on God's protection and care wherever we wander.

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