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Cain and Abel

Posted on: March 05, 2017

Category: Theology

Cain and Abel

When someone first learns to study the Bible critically, the moment is often described as a great awakening that begins with a shock. I still remember the first time my childhood belief in the creation narratives of Genesis fell apart. I would have several more "falling apart" events to come, but the first was learning about evolution in grade six. I had to admit even at a young age that evolution made sense and the Bible did not. I know I am not alone in being able to relay such stories.

With the critical study of the Bible, what often happens is that stories, once accepted as history, transform into stories now regarded as epics. It even becomes clear that the ancient writers of the stories were not concerned about critical history, as we are today. They too were concerned about the epic. The nature of the Bible is epic story telling.

I was questioned recently about the Genesis account of Cain and Abel. They are two hard working brothers. One plants crops, and the other raises sheep. They both make a sacrifice to God. Abel's offering is of flesh, and God accepts it. Cain offers the fruit of his harvest, but God pays no attention. Cain, filled with rage, invites his brother out to the field and there murders him.

Through history, this story has been interpreted in a thousand different ways. Many Christian preachers will say how God needs a flesh offering for the satisfaction of sin and that this is why the crucifixion of Jesus was necessary. But that's the problem with an "epic." It's not history. It is a story. It opens itself to multiple and misleading interpretations.

An epic makes us think about life in dramatic ways. To be sure, in this story, God gets upset with Cain, and Cain is banished from his land, but there is no "eye for an eye" justice leveled here. Cain is not put to death. Neither does the epic suggest that God prefers flesh. We cannot assume, for we have no literary evidence, that Abel was more righteous than Cain. It just so happened, on this day, that God had a preference for the sheep. No reason is given.

In place of trying to determine the deep symbolic meaning of this story, and to avoid the obvious misreading involved in relating it to the crucifixion, we can note what God says to Cain. At Genesis 4:7, after the murder of Abel, God says to Cain, "Why despair just because I liked Abel's offering? You know, sin crouches behind your tent flap and is waiting to pounce on you. But you can overrule it."

Many people place emphasis on the different offerings of Cain and Abel, flesh and cereal, or place emphasis on the level of righteousness in the two characters. Some scholars point out how Cain took up a role only God can hold, which is the role of deciding over life and death. But these elements are not in the story. They are in our minds because we don't always know how to interpret an epic. If we focus on what God says, it's almost a comical situation. God actually warns that "sin" is always lurking around (behind the tent flap) but that we are quite able to ignore (the Hebrew is "rule over") it. To the writer of this story, it seems that the murder is of less significance than the question about self-governance. It is as if the writer is saying, "You can act like an adult if you want to." And that might be the challenge. Why act out of rage or on the basis of a perceived insult. Why not practice self-control and recognize that how we perceive things is not always how things are?

In life, this is an important but difficult lesson. We are used to taking things personally simply because we can only interpret our lives from the point of view of ourselves. Our common future, though, requires more than this. To rise above the immediate instincts of the self, to form communities, is an act of maturity. It is the great option of life. It is the one that the writer of this epic called "ruling over sin." It is more than just a personal choice. It is also the hope for a common future.


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