Adam and Eve have sons, Cain and Abel. The older, Cain, is a tiller of the ground. His work expresses a son walking close alongside his father – God’s words to Adam just a few verses before still ringing in our ears. And his work also expresses the closeness between the human and the soil, however compromised that relationship has become.
Abel is a keeper of sheep. His work expresses that charge to ‘rule over’ creation by setting it free, creating and protecting environments for life to flourish. Leading animals to where they might find food and water.
Each brother brings an offering to God. Cain brings the fruit of the earth, and Abel brings the first lambs. God has not asked for either, or indeed for anything. This is a human response, a recognition of God, perhaps the expression that just as their parents have been friends of God so they too would like to be friends of God. And as the story unfolds, God will take up offerings of vegetable and animal origin to represent different things.
But for now, God has regard for Abel’s offering and not for Cain’s. Why? Why not? We are not given any reason – no explanation that, for example, Abel’s offering was accepted because his heart was pure and Cain’s was rejected because his heart wasn’t. When my sons come to me, each offering me something, I must make a decision: at this moment, do I want to watch Despicable Me 2 or Shrek 2?
God does not choose Abel over Cain. But Cain takes perceived rejection hard. And God comes to him, as a loving parent, and tells him that in this moment of anger, sin desires to consume him, but that he must – and can – master it. That water threatens to overwhelm the land, again; that stirred-up dust clouds threaten to blot out the sun. Cain has the opportunity to respond by opposing the flood, or by succumbing to it. And God is willing for human beings to choose to resist chaos, to master sin.
Genesis 3 is often described as the Fall, from a state of grace. But the story mentions no fall from anything. But here in chapter 4, there is a fall: Cain’s expression falls. He sulks. Very human behaviour. But not something, as far as God is concerned, that Cain can do nothing about. His essential nature is as complex as it has been from chapter 2, not chapter 3. Sin is the trespassing over boundaries – in this instance, the threat of Cain’s boundaries being breached – but the human shares in God’s work as boundary-keeper.
Cain, however, chooses to kill his brother. Abel is received by the earth from where he came, and from the earth his blood cries out to God. From the ground, Abel’s blood curses Cain. That is, it speaks constraint on his life: limitations placed upon misused freedom, just as God had spoken over the serpent. The blood cries out not for revenge, but ‘Lord, have mercy on my brother! Protect him from the unconstrained consequences of his action’ – consequences Cain fears, and God, in response to the cry of Abel’s blood, tells him that he need not fear. A curse is a particular form of blessing. Cain rejects the idea that he is his brother’s keeper; but Abel is shown to be his brother’s keeper, even from beyond death.
This is the first prayer in the Bible. And it is not articulated by the mind and the lips. It is no more and no less than the deepest longing of the human, the creature taken from sea-soaked land in order to maintain the shore.
The fruit of Abel’s curse/blessing is civilisation – which is as complex as the persons who compose it.
As the story continues to unfold, any time we come across bloodshed – liquid bursting its banks; something good in its rightful place becoming bad in a wrong context – we should be reminded of Abel’s prayer [Spoiler: one day this prayer will be articulated by a man nailed to an execution scaffold, his blood running free: Father, forgive them – they don’t know what it is that they are doing’].
As the story continues to unfold, any time we come across a city, we should be reminded of God’s response to Abel’s prayer [Spoiler: the story ends with a city].
The story of Cain and Abel is not a story to tell us that some religious practices are acceptable to God and others are not, or that some people are accepted by God and others are not. It is a story that introduces what it means to be chosen by God; and how not being chosen does not mean not being accepted; and what happens to those God chooses, and doesn’t choose, in the world.
Those who are chosen, are chosen to be keepers, to intercede for their brothers and sisters. In this way, those who are not chosen are kept within God’s mercy. Those who are chosen might expect to live, but can expect to suffer and die. Those who are not chosen might expect to die, but can expect to have their life kept safe.
These plot lines are introduced here because they will be regularly recurring plot lines as the story unfolds and God chooses persons, families, and people, in order to enable all persons, families, and peoples to become more fully human.