Genesis: Folklore of Faith: Lesson 8: Religion and Violence (Genesis 4). Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on Nov. 6, 2005
Introduction: Monday, October 31 was Reformation Day. It was on October 31 that a young theologian nailed ninety-five theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, calling for a public debate on the sale of indulgences. As a theologian, Luther wanted free and open discussion of church doctrine. As a pastor, he wanted the church and state to stop using the threat of divine punishment to abuse, oppress, and pillage the people. This week I showed my religion class at Wake Forest the film Luther, starring Joseph Fiennes. Watching Alfred Molinos as the indulgence seller Tetzel in the movie is rather chilling. In our day we still have people who use religion merely to enrich themselves and stir up dissent. We Moravians should not forget that our church was founded on the witness of the reformer Jan Hus, who tried to free the gospel from the corruptions of money.
Dialog and Tension in Interpretation: It is appropriate that we remember Luther’s effort to reform the church this week because our study of the book of Genesis brings us to the first story in the Bible specifically about religion. Genesis 4 is the familiar story of Cain and Abel. Though it is very short, it raises profound questions about human nature, divine justice, and human society outside of paradise. Genesis 4 is the story of families and civilization itself, with all of the pain and conflict we experience. Those who don’t read the Bible often make the false assumption that the Bible is a simple book of morality rather than a book filled with dramatic tension and competing voices. Even the worship of God is fraught with conflict.
This is more than just a story that mothers tell their children to try to keep them from killing annoying younger siblings. In reading through Bill Moyers’ book Genesis: A Living Conversation (Doubleday, 1996) last week, I was struck by how many pages are devoted to this one chapter. Many of the issues discussed by the scholars and artists in Moyers’ book remind me of the questions we raised many years ago in my Sunday School classes at Hope Moravian church. Somehow the answers given in our quarterly were not satisfying to us. We wrestled with this story, and I still wrestle with it. I learned a lot in that church, and I am grateful that I grew up in a congregation that allowed us to think and ask questions.
Overview: Before reading the story, I have a couple of comments about its origin and placement in the Scripture. You may recall from an earlier lesson that the “J” source was (theoretically) a narrative of Israel’s history in which the name for the LORD is used from the beginning. We see that clearly in Genesis 4 where Eve is the first person to speak the name of the Lord. The story of Adam, Eve, and their offspring is part of the “J” material, and I have finally been persuaded that the “J” material in Genesis was written during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile. One reason for dating it so late is that it one of the recurring themes of “J” is exile.
Genesis 4 begins with Adam and Eve in exile from Eden, just as the writer of “J” had experienced exile in Babylon. In these stories in Genesis we glimpse the struggle that the theologians and priests of Judah faced in trying to make sense of their expulsion from the Promised Land and the destruction of the Temple. The burning questions of the day were whether the LORD is just, why do the innocent suffer, and is there hope for redemption for those in exile. The story of Cain and Abel is a metaphorical story that addresses such questions. But it goes beyond just the experience of the kingdom of Judah to universal human experience.
As you read Genesis 4, listen to the conflicts within the story. Please note that Stephen Mitchell’s translation (the translation used in the class) omits some verses, so if you are following along with your Bibles, we’re skipping some parts.
The Family of Adam: The story opens with the birth of Cain, which is the first human birth in the Bible. Eve declares that she has created a human being, like the LORD did. The name “Cain” is related to the word for produced or acquired, and Eve’s statement is a pun on Adam’s earlier statement that the woman was brought out of the man. Eve claims her role as a co-creator with God. In this sense, she has become like God because she can give life, with God’s help.
Eve was less pleased, apparently, with her second son since she named him Abel, which means futile. The storyteller knows that Abel is going to have a short life. He is like the grass of the field, soon to wither and be cast away. Abel does not even get to speak in this text. It is hard for us today to come to grips with the fact that before modern times, most people born on this earth did not live past their tenth year. In the past, parents could expect to bury more than half of their children, many of them before the age of one year. Futility is a brutally honest name for a child.
In this story, of course, the death of the child is not caused by disease or accident, but by murder. This story sets up the repeated biblical theme of conflict between older and younger siblings. The oldest son is preferred by the parents and society, but somehow it is always the youngest son who is specially blessed by God.
Sacrifices: Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. A century ago, scholars were convinced that this was a very ancient story that represented the conflict between the nomadic shepherding tribes of Israel and the settled agricultural societies of Canaan and Egypt. The Chosen People kept flocks, like Abel, but their enemies had large farms and complex societies. Read this way, Genesis 4 becomes a story of the conflict between the Israelites and the Canaanites, but modern scholars generally see this as reading a way too much into the story. This is a story about people, not nations.
Religion plays a major role in the story though. Cain is the first character in the Bible to engage in religious activities by offering a sacrifice to the LORD. We aren’t told why Cain thought this was a good idea, but it was consistent with Israelite practice. He was offering the first fruits of the harvest, which was later called the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost. It is unlikely that Cain’s offering was unacceptable simply because it was fruits and vegetables. Abel also offered the first fruits of his “crop,” namely the fat portions the first born lamb of the spring. This would correspond to the Passover festival. After killing the lamb, you burned off the fat as an offering to God, who “ate” the smoke. Animal sacrifice in the ancient world was much like a modern barbeque.
Rejection: Cain and Abel offered their sacrifices to the LORD, but the LORD did not accept Cain’s offering. The story does not tell how Cain knew that his gift was rejected, nor does it tell us why God rejected it. This is the part of the story that offends many readers. We know that it is unfair that one gift is approved and the other rejected. We want an answer from God for what he has done here. Is this justice? But the Bible gives no reply. This is part of the mystery of life and of faith. We don’t have answers to all of our questions.
People have speculated about these questions for centuries. The general theory is that Cain gave his gift with insincere intentions. It wasn’t the gift, it was the attitude. Others have seen this story as one of the many stories of testing and temptation. God rejected the gift in order to test Cain, just as later in Genesis God tests Abraham. Either may be true, but I think the reason for the rejection probably doesn’t matter to the story. What is important is what comes after Cain was rejected: Cain was depressed.
The LORD asks Cain why he is angry and depressed. We can only imagine Cain’s response. Do we have the words to explain what it feels like to be rejected by someone we hoped to please? Do we even understand why it makes us sad to see another person loved and praised instead of us? How do we say to a parent or to God, “I want all of your love. I want you to love me and only me.” Cain shares a lot in common with another older brother, one Jesus spoke of in Luke 15. In families, as in our religion, we are afraid that we will lose something if someone else is loved too.
What is most important to the story is not why God rejected Cain’s gift, but how Cain responds. Will his anger destroy him? In verses omitted by Mitchell, God warns Cain that he must master sin before he is consumed by it, but Cain does not heed the warning. Instead he invites his brother for a walk. When he has him alone, he kills him.
Fratricide: We are so familiar with this story that we often miss the horror of this simple statement. According to Genesis, there was murder from the very beginning of the human family. Murder in families is particularly horrifying because families are supposed to be based on love and trust. Families are where you should be allowed to be vulnerable; where you are protected. Families are dedicated to raising the next generation, and they are entrusted with the task of teaching morality. Cain was able to murder his brother precisely because his brother trusted him. It is chilling, but it is true.
The Bible acknowledges one of the most painful facts about human society. Despite our claims to the contrary, families are not always safe places. Much of the crime and violence committed in American society is committed within families. Beatings, rape, and other forms of abuse are all too common in our homes. When there is a murder, police have to suspect family members because so many murders follow the pattern of Cain and Abel. Throughout history society has condemned the murder of family members in the strongest possible terms, but such violence is so common that the Bible has fratricide at the very beginning.
Innocent Abel was killed by his brother, his older brother, who should have protected him. Innocent Abel was killed, just as innocent brothers, sisters, children, and parents are killed each day in America. Innocent Abel was killed, just as innocent children are killed in the fog of every war, no matter how just. Innocent Abel was killed, just as innocent Jews were led into the gas chambers, just as innocent Cambodians were led to the killing fields, just as innocent Tutsis were butchered by their Hutus brothers and sisters.
Violence and Religion: If we take the Bible seriously, we must acknowledge that every murder is fratricide, because we are children of the one God. Every act of violence, no matter the cause, tears the fabric of the entire human family. Every victim of violence is our sister, our brother, our child, our parent. This is the reality of the world today: the innocent do indeed suffer at the hands of the angry, the jealous, the greedy, and the frightened. Innocent Abel was killed because Cain was jealous.
Isn’t it interesting that the first story of murder in the Bible is connected with religion? We do not know the mind of God or why Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable, but we do know that the mind of Cain was distorted by jealousy, by the desire to be honored by God at the expense of his brother. We do know that religious conflict continues to lead men and women to murder the innocent, and even to kill themselves in their zeal to murder others in the name of God.
John Amos Comenius noted this fact in his call for the reformation of the church. He wrote: “Therefore we should discontinue the religion of Cain, which offers its accomplished works to God without humble faith in His compassion, and is jealous of the grace of God to man, and establishes sects, and starts persecutions because of disagreement in religion, and causes bloodshed, and seeks earth instead of heaven. We should install the religion of Abel, humble faith, active charity, and hope directed towards heaven and eternity.” (Panorthosia, 201)
Where is your Brother? If Cain thought that murder was the solution to his problem, he was wrong. The LORD comes looking for Abel and asks Cain, “Where is your brother?” Cain, unlike Adam, does not confess to God what he has done. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asks like a sarcastic teen-ager.
Of course, the answer is yes. Yes, family should look after family. Yes, a brother should protect and care for his brother. But then again, the answer is also “no.” Cain was not his brother’s keeper. Cain polluted the ground with human blood. Here is the great perversity of Cain’s actions. Had he been his brother’s keeper, he would have known the joy of the Lord. Instead, his actions have destroyed all that he thought he loved and valued. Even the ground cries out against Cain.
Think how the ground must cry out to the Lord today. Think of all the innocent blood shed on this earth, shed by those who were supposed to be their brothers’ keepers, their sisters’ keepers. Think of all the blood shed by those who claimed they loved Christ but hated their brother or sister. Think of the lives lost because we turn our backs on our brothers and sisters dying from lack of food, medicine, and justice. What will you say when the LORD asks you, “Where is your brother, and where is your sister?”
Cain’s Punishment: What was the result of Cain’s decisions and his actions? Did his gift become more acceptable to the LORD because his brother was not competing with him? Did Cain’s jealousy and anger bring him fulfillment, happiness, and peace?
No. He became a restless wanderer on the earth. His alienation is such that no land can be home. He will dwell in the land of Nod, which means restlessness. Like modern humans who build great cities but cannot find a home in them, Cain is left in restlessness, anxiety, and discontent. His exile is complete, but he brought it on himself.
Cain drops the sarcasm and cries to the LORD that his punishment is too severe. Some translators render this phrase as “my iniquity is too heavy.” It may be that Cain is remorseful; that he has become aware of the reality of his sin. You may know this remorse. You did something, perhaps out of passion or anger. You were not thinking clearly, perhaps. But you made a decision. You crossed a line that should not be crossed, and then you realized the full consequences of your action. Someone you loved no longer loved you. Someone who trusted you will never trust again. Your relationships were torn and people suffered because of you.
It may be more than you can bear. Remorse is the greatest punishment. You are left without protection in a hostile world. There is no rest. Cain fears that others will do to him exactly what he did to his younger brother. He now knows what others are capable of, and he lives in fear. This part of the story reminds us that we should not get too tied up trying to read these stories in Genesis literally. Who does Cain fear? There’s no point in working too hard to figure out where the other people came from. Genesis 4 is not a story about how the earth was populated; it is about murder and alienation. It is about sin, fear, and death. Don’t worry so much about where Cain found a wife. Just stick to the inner meaning of the story, and then you may discover that this story about fratricide is your story too. It is the story of the human race. It is the story of religious violence, family violence, jealousy, and sin. It is a story of injustice and justice.
Looking Ahead: More so than Eve, Cain deserved the punishment promised by God in the garden. But once again, God had mercy where we expect punishment. In the next lesson we’ll explore the story of Cain.