Reflections on Cain & Abel
“Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain…” ~ Jude 11
One way to make the Bible come alive is to place yourself inside the characters of Scripture. The Bible’s narratives are not simply stories to teach us lessons, like Aesop’s fables. They are actual accounts of men and women like you and me, wrestling with real situations, uncertain of outcomes, anxious and insecure, striving to be faithful to that which had been revealed to them… or struggling to understand those things which were still mysteries. Like ourselves, they had personalities. Each was unique, but shared certain timeless universals that all of us have in common, for we are each made in God’s image, with a mind, will and emotions, conscience, and a capacity to know God.
If you have never done it, it is a great way to get to know the many individuals whose stories have been passed on to us in the Scriptures. Whether it be the major characters whose exploits and activities are recounted extensively -- such as David or Moses or Paul – or minor characters such as Rahab, Samson or Barnabas, each has a story. Each is a person about whom we can discover new insights by placing ourselves in their sandals.
In the next few paragraphs I would like us to think about Cain. In particular I’d like us to imagine what it felt like to be Cain in those moments after he killed his brother Abel. I don’t know why, but I’ve repeatedly found this to be an exceedingly compelling and tragic story. It’s found in Genesis 4:1-16.
Cain was the firstborn son of Adam and Eve, Abel his younger brother. Genesis states that Abel kept flocks and Cain worked the soil Over the course of time Cain brought a portion of his labors to the Lord. Abel likewise brought fat portions from his flocks. For reasons not entirely spelled out, but which can be surmised from the whole of Scripture, Cain’s offering was not pleasing to God whereas Abel found favor with God through his offering. The net result: Cain became angry and it showed on his face.
What are some reasons we sometimes get angry? I remember an article I once read called “What Made You Cross?” in which the writer showed how situations that make us angry are often due to our will being at cross purposes with God’s will.
In Cain’s situation, I can picture unresolved sibling rivalry. I can also imagine hurt feelings. He worked hard to gather his offering, had a certain amount of emotional attachment to what he was doing, and felt hurt and confusion when his offering was rejected. This reaction shows that Cain must have not been paying attention to what God expected of him.
Abel’s offering was pleasing to God. Was it a lucky guess? No, Abel had an understanding about what pleases the Lord.
At this point God’s compassion reached out to Cain. The Lord tried to warn Cain that he was in danger. At the same time the Lord gave Cain a basis for hope if he would do what is right.
This is where the story breaks my heart. Think about it. No one had ever killed anyone before. No one had ever even died. When Cain released his anger upon his brother, did he understand what the outcome would be? How could he? This was a historical first.
I once wrote in my journal, “When we get what we want, we always get more than we bargained for.” This was certainly so with Cain. How could he know that anger fully vented can result in death?
Here it was, a bloodied brother out in a field, and Cain all alone. At first, he must have experienced denial. That is the typical reaction to death even today. “This can’t be. No, this just can’t be happening.” Shock, confusion, an aching fatigue and weakness – these are all common first reactions to the unexpected death of a loved one.
Then the Lord drew near with this probing question, “Where is your brother Abel?”
But it was too late. “I don’t know,” he said. I can picture Cain stewing in his juices, frustrated and powerless, but still trying to maintain as he snapped out, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Such famous and heartless words. Yes, Cain, you were to care for your brother, not kill him.
According to Elisabeth Kuybler-Ross and others who have studied grief, we tend to withdraw from family and friends, to retreat socially. As we read Genesis we find that very thing. Cain indeed left his homeland and went away, carrying this burden of grief and shame.
While there are many lessons in this very short passage, I would like to highlight two. First, that actions have consequences that we often cannot anticipate. I doubt that Cain imagined that his brother was going to die. The law of unintended consequences kicked in. Violence unchecked is a surprisingly destructive force.
Second, that many people whose paths we cross in the course of a lifetime are to some extent much like Cain. They carry a pain in their hearts. They have been marked by a terrible tragedy. They are alienated from their homeland or their families. And they desperately need a touch of God’s kindness.
Think about this: Cain killed his brother; millions of Americans have killed their unborn children. Some still deny it means anything, but many are carrying a burden of grief and shame. They long for acceptance but are afraid. Will the church be a safe harbor where healing can be found?
Failure in love is likewise often devastating. Some choose bitterness and do not know how to reach out to life because of their secret sadness. These people are all around us.
The story of Cain and Abel is a relatively short passage, but you can see there is a lot more to it and that I have only briefly scratched the surface. Hopefully, however, I have stirred in you a desire to re-visit these “old familiar stories” from Sunday school days, to discover them anew with fresh eyes and to plumb their depths, for it is in this manner that the bread of life (God’s Word) nourishes our souls.
“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna…” ~ Deut. 8:3
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