Inheritance

“Like father, like son; like mother, like daughter.”

Thomas Draxe, Bibliotheca (1616)

Have you ever wondered where, exactly, your genes came from? How often do people ask the parents, of their children, “Where did your child get that gorgeous red hair?” or “Does athleticism run in your family?”

On the other hand, how often has someone wondered why they are as different as can be from the family they were born into, or raised up in? Ancestry.com has a robust trade in processing clients’ DNA, and giving them background information on what people groups and geographical areas are represented in their genes. Sometimes there a big surprises.

And what about personality, character traits, gender, all the differences and similarities found in families, and among people groups? How much can be attributed to nature? How much to nurture? To date, research in neither the biological nor the social sciences has been able to resolve the nature/nurture question regarding those kinds of differences. The greatest single factor for this is our cerebral cortex—we are amazingly able to learn, grow, mimic, adapt, and adopt.

Which brings us to the matter of faith.

The ancient Hebrews did not always intend their genealogies to be used as a chronology.  Often, names were left out of a genealogy in order to produce symmetry, a neat and clean pattern. The primary purpose of the genealogy was to establish a person’s family identity, a person’s roots. Often, only the most well-known names were chosen. Because there is symmetry in both Cain’s and Seth’s genealogies, part of what you and I can gain from these passages is in comparing them.

Seth’s genealogy and Cain’s are remarkably different. Cain’s included no ages, no gravestones, and no mention of God, just accomplishments and perversions. Seth’s, on the other hand, has no accomplishments at all, plenty of gravestones, and amazingly long life spans. The most noteworthy thing you could say about any of the people in Seth’s line is that they were people of faith, and a people of long life. It’s as though nothing else counted to them but their relationship with God, and how life-giving that relationship was.

Some commentaries have sought to explain the unusually long life spans by suggesting the years are really months, but that would mean Enoch was 5 years old when he fathered Methuselah, so that doesn’t really work.

Others have noted the easiest, if somewhat unscientific, approach is to accept the simplest reading of the text as true, they just lived a long time. This argument suggests that perhaps sin progressively corrupted the natural, physical world. Our physical environment today, the argument continues, is not like the purer, life-sustaining world Adam and Eve first brought their children and grandchildren into.

These scholars would contend scripture indicates God numbers the days of each person; therefore, perhaps God permitted a very long age for early humankind, and has numbered the days of humankind today to a much shorter life span. To help support this contention, a cryptic saying of God’s is pointed out in Genesis 6:3, which seems to indicate God established an outer limit to human aging.

In a third category fall several commentators who propose the names listed here are actually clans, or family groups, instead of individuals, even though scripture does talk about these people as being actual people. It is still certainly possible to take this view, as even today we see those we love live on in the memories, traits, and habits of their children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren.

However way we understand these unusually long lifespans, whether as actual lengths of life, ages counted in units other than years, or representing clans fathered by each name, the underlying truth of longevity comes through. These were a people whose lives, centered around God, were lived in stability and peace, in health and good care.

Cain’s culture exalted the self and devalued others.

Seth’s line exalted God and viewed the frailty and mortality of humankind with a sense of compassion, having been made in God’s image, as the beginning of Genesis chapter 5 indicates, “This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created humankind, He made them in the likeness of God.” Remember that “adam” in Hebrew is a neutral word meaning human or “person.”

Together, women and men make up what in Hebrew is called “adam,” which the writer of Genesis elucidated, “[God] created them male and female and blessed them. And He named them “Humankind” when they were created.” Then the man, Adam, “…had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.” There is a link between these two verses. Though Seth, Adam’s son, had received the imprint of God’s image, the likeness God put on all people when He created them and called them “very good” … he also received the imprint of his father’s image — whether by nature, or by nurture — that everyone to this day ends up with.

It’s a mixed nature, one of dignity and depravity, and we see the struggle in all humankind from Seth’s and Cain’s day to this day today.

[Seth’s Geneology, Drnhawkins [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

The Way of Seth

“At that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord”

Genesis 4:24

The way Cain’s story unfolds, it seems as though he was pretty self-absorbed. He felt entitled to God’s approval, he resented his brother’s success, and he didn’t deal well at all with his own failures. Bitterness, seething under the surface, along with jealousy, injured pride, and dark desires so corrupted Cain, from the inside out, that one day he brutally butchered his gentle brother Abel, and poured Abel’s blood out onto the ground.

What happened, then, when a family member stumbled across Abel’s body, the first recorded death in scripture? What happened when Eve, and Adam, had to identify their dead son? God’s warning and terrible prophecy had come to pass. “You will surely die,” He had cautioned. But had Eve, or Adam, ever imagined they would not be the first to die? That their son would instead be the first to pay sin’s penalty?

They didn’t just lose Abel on that awful day. They also lost Cain. Now the scales fell from their eyes and perhaps for the first time Eve, especially, saw with stark reality that Cain was not the promised Savior. In Genesis 3:15 God had said there would be two main streams of humanity, one line would descend from the woman and the other from the serpent. Cain turned out not to be the promised one who would crush the serpent’s head. Instead he was in league with the serpent. Cain was the serpent’s seed.

What a heart-wrenching tragedy! One son murdered, and the other turned against God and his family. Cain went to the place of wandering where others like him had gathered, in rejection of God, and they settled there, each new generation a little more sophisticated and a little more degenerate than the one that had come before, with Lamech as the example of their spiritual decay.

In my mind’s eye, Adam stares with numb shock and sorrow as God’s mark appears on Cain. Perhaps automatically he lifts his arm to draw Eve close, and she shudders with horror as the reality sinks farther in. Her firstborn, brought forth into their harsh world with cries of agony and wonder, with such eager hope, was now leaving them forever. And her other frail, beautiful son, lost forever to the ground they had come from, “…for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Sometime after that day of devastation, at the end of Genesis chapter 4, Eve found herself once again pregnant. Great suffering had matured Eve by the time this little boy was born, for now she understood, “Adam made love to his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth, saying, “God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.

Look back to when Cain was born, when Eve told herself, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.” Eve had come to realize that deliverance was not going to come from her own effort. Instead of saying “I have brought forth a man, even the deliverer” she thanked God for granting the gift of Seth, knowing he had been appointed by God to replace Abel.

The_Phillip_Medhurst_Picture_Torah_43._Adam's_descendants._Genesis_cap_5._Schenck

Through Seth, God’s promise would one day be fulfilled. Seth represented the spiritual seed that would be born of God. Jesus taught that He was Life and whoever put their faith in Him would be born again of the Holy Spirit. All people come physically from Adam and Eve. But spiritually, there are two lines, the Way of Cain, the serpent’s spiritual offspring; and the Way of Seth, who would one day lead to the the Lord Jesus Christ, the promised Savior, “…son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.

[Seth’s Family Tree, Phillip Medhurst [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org /licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Genesis 4…So What?

“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights”

James 1:17 (NRSV)

Genesis chapter 4 is kind of a depressing chapter, really. It begins with murder and it ends with murder. In between is a lot of living that, at first glance, seems pretty impressive. But on second glance reveals a growing trend towards debasement and debauchery. What can the church gain from this dark chapter?

Well, for one thing, Jesus is no stranger to darkness. He knows what it’s like to be wounded by others’ sin, to wrestle with terrible temptation, to live in this broken world. He suffered ruptured relationships, found Himself unsupported in His darkest hour,  loved people and got rejected in return.  He knows what it’s like to be murdered. The writer of Hebrews reassures us that, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” Jesus “learned obedience” through suffering, and through His suffering, our own spiritual formation (or sanctification, depending on your dialect) is made possible. Jesus’ blood cries out for a better word than Abel’s. Abel cried out for justice, but Jesus cries out for mercy.

As the church, we are to cry out that better word, too, to long for mercy, to give mercy, to err on the side of grace and mercy—since we know we’re going to make mistakes, and get it wrong, at least a few times. On that great and glorious day, may it be that we say, “We got that one event wrong, We see that now, we erred on the side of love, grace, and mercy,” rather than, “We see it now, we erred on the side of judgment, condemnation, and punishment.”

And, as individuals we need to recognize our own dark tendencies. I find myself asking what grievance, or offense, or jealousy, or entitlement I might be harboring that I need to deal with before it corrodes the inside of me…

  • What thoughts have I been unmindfully thinking, that have been shaping the way I see other people, the way I interpret the world, my experiences, my relationships?
  • What desires have I allowed to grow inside me that are now motivating me in ways I am uncomfortable with admitting?
  • What coping mechanisms have I become accustomed to, that are really widening the gap between me and God, and me and others?
  • What have I allowed to block intimacy with God, and intimacy with the people I love?
  • What strategies have I been unmindfully developing to get what I want, or to manipulate others into doing what I want, or to try to prevent what I don’t want?

The church, though a living organism in ourself, is also the individuals who comprise the body. Who I am, what I think and feel, what I say and do, vitally matters in the organism of the church. If I hurt, whether we realize it or not, the whole church hurts. If I harm, the whole church is harmed, and, in a mysterious way, also becomes a part of the harm I perpetrate.

In every way, the church must be distinct from the culture which surrounds us. As the Body of Christ, one such distinctive is to be the longing for righteousness. When any in the church—and in particular, leaders—are found to have done wrong, or been wrong, conviction from God is to be gratefully welcomed, for it brings the healing of His forgiveness and restoration. As a distinctive, believers are to be known for asking forgiveness of those they have wronged, and for seeking to make restitution whenever possible.

It does not enhance the church’s reputation when we seek to cover over the wrongdoings of our leaders, and of ourselves, and to ask the victims of wrongdoing to keep silence. Of all the ears we most long to listen to us, God’s are the most important, and He hears the cries of those who have been wronged. Whenever we find ourselves seeking to hide what is unseemly, thinking the shadows are best, we must resist.

The world’s laurels go to those who distinguish themselves with great achievements. But, for the church, character, the fruit of the Spirit, and the perseverance and endurance gained from living by faith, are to be most prized. As we raise our children, in the community of Christ, what do we dream for them, what do we hope for them, how do we form their spirits, and their character? In what order do we rank the importance of their schooling, their sports, their art and music accomplishments, their appointments, concerts, games, prizes and ribbons, and their spiritual growth?

Every people group is deeply imprinted with the culture around it, the culture in which these people were born, the culture they propagate by speaking the language, and by living by the tenets and values of their culture.

Yet, the apostle Paul urged believers to resist the pull of human cultures. “Do not be conformed to this world,” he wrote, in his letter to all the churches in Rome, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Paul explained the danger of living unthinkingly in the culture that surrounds us. We will hope for our children what the culture tells us to hope. It will not occur to us that what we expect of and for our children is anything but godly, for are we not of God? Do we not study the scriptures? Have we not made it our priority to live rightly? And yet, without an intentional move to reject our enculturation, we actually make ourselves incapable of truly discerningwhat is the will of God,” what Paul explained “is good and acceptable and perfect.”

In just this way, we can unconsciously saddle our daughters, and our sons, with the notion of Adah, and of Zillah, who existed solely for the pleasure of and in the shadow of, those in power, those who are privileged.

Instead, we must give our sons  and daughters better dreams, better hopes, for God’s glory, for each other’s equality in God’s eyes, for the humility of Jesus, the Lord of the universe, Who came to serve, and, not to be served. Women and men are both called, together, to exalt God, and to honor and respect each other as equal in value, equal in ability, equal in calling.

[Image courtesy of Pexels, scriptural paraphrase added by author]

Avenged Sevenfold

“Nothing hurts my world

Just affects the ones around me

When sin’s deep in my blood

You’ll be the one to fall.”

Avenged Sevenfold, “Unholy Confessions”

“How do you do it?” he asked Lamech, appreciation in his voice. Lamech preened, ” Yeah, not bad, huh? I liked Adah, she’s a pretty girl, but…” and he glanced sideways at his young admirer, “A man’s got appetite, you know?” Oh yes, all the guys nodded, they knew. But Lamech, wow, he’d actually gone out and done something about it. No one had gotten themselves two wives, it was unheard of. Until now.

“Yeah, and that’s not all,” Lamech went on, laughing with his signature hearty baritone, “Nobody messes with me or my women.” Taking a long pull on his drink, Lamech smacked his lips and grabbed Zillah by the arm, dragging her through the group till she was pressed up against him. Adah, his first wife, never far off, shouldered her way through as well, marking her turf. Seeing her, Lamech smiled wide and said, “Listen to what I say.” His voice got low and deep as he looked around the room, his head lowered, “I have killed a man for wounding me.” That’s right, his smirk said. I did that. He flexed the muscles of his left arm, then held his now empty cup over his head like a club, “I killed a young man for striking me.

The group shuddered and sighed, awed by Lamech’s display. You all remember well the story about Cain, he continued. Well, I’ve got something to say about that. “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.

Methushael’s son Lamech set the tone for the generations to come. He appears to have been the first person to depart from the divine ideal for marriage as described in the second chapter of Genesis. One wife was not enough for him, so he took two, Adah and Zillah, showing the first signs of sexual excess.

And what of the two women Lamech chose to marry? Adah’s name meant “adornment” or “ornament,” and Zillah’s meant the “tingling of things that ring” or a “shadow.” Think of their mothers and fathers, greeting their daughters’ births. What birthright did these women and men wish to give to their little girls? What hopes did they have for their daughters’ futures? How were these little girls raised? What was expected of them, as they passed from childhood into womanhood?

It seems women, in Cain’s culture, were seen as ornaments to adorn the arms of the men they kept company with. They were to be the pleasant background music of windchimes, a shadow whose presence was felt, perhaps, but who knew better than to speak, to make her needs known, to interfere in the sphere of men. Or, perhaps, “shadow” implied her ability to follow her man everywhere, intuiting his every thought and need, his own personal shadow who would serve him without ever having to be asked or thanked, or even tended to.

You would think nothing good could come from such a man, but it is from Lamech’s offspring that great cultural and scientific contributions came.

One son became the father of nomadic herdsmen, another was the first in a line of musicians, and another was the first of the great metal workers. Lamech himself penned the world’s oldest song. Lamech’s name means “Strong and Powerful,” and of his sons, Jabal means “Traveler,” Jubal means “Trumpeter” and Tubalcain means “Metalworker,” with a special emphasis on jewelry and ornaments. All these extraordinary names, exalting the achievements of humankind, yet significantly, none of them gave honor to the Lord. Only men.

What does a civilization without God look like? Activity, growth, progress, technological advancement, wealth, sophistication, an appreciation for towering intellect, and powerful art. All stem from God’s grace to humankind, yet without God, civilization degenerates.

Lamech bragged to his wives of killing a young man who had just assaulted him; he had a brutal spirit, vengeful, looking out for himself alone. Worst of all, Lamech showed a total disdain and disregard for God’s word. “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold,” he crowed, of himself. The Lord had spoken these words to assure Cain he would not be killed by the hands of humankind. God also warned all the people of the seriousness of such an act. These words were spoken to reveal how the Lord valued human life. Lamech twisted and distorted God’s words to become a boast to Lamech’s own violence and aggressive hostility toward humankind, and toward God.

Now picture civilization: Technical brilliance, producing comforts and luxuries; the trend toward human construction over living in harmony with the earth; the increasing tolerance of sexual excess; and increasing, even random, acts of violence. In the end, all of Cain’s civilization would be destroyed in a vast tsunami of water, welling up from the bowels of the earth itself, falling in great sheets from the sky, cleansing the pollution of what Cain had wrought in his offspring. For all its sophistication, inventions, and beauty, none of Cain’s legacy was salvageable.

Sin is what separates humankind from God. The kind of unbelief talked about in the Bible has several characteristics: it is jealous, it resists warnings, it repudiates responsibility for sin, and it protests punishment. Understanding how totally wicked and depraved sin really is gives us a depth of appreciation and gratitude for God’s grace transforming you and me — if we let Him — from within our inner being.

Cain’s true legacy was godless accomplishment and descendants that degenerated into total, depraved corruption. Cain didn’t want to listen to God, he didn’t care about doing right and he didn’t want to master sin, he wanted to be significant on his own terms.

[Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D%5D

[1] Genesis 4:24 (NRSV)

God is Dead

“But today you have rejected your God”

1 Samuel 10:19 (NRSV)

Time passed.

The Bible does not say how many days, or weeks, or months, or even years went by. Perhaps Cain did spend some time thinking through the trauma of murdering his brother. Perhaps he tried to continue farming, to wrench back something of what God said He would take. In the end, Cain left the presence of God in a way that spoke of something final. Cain would not return.

An ever-resourceful man, Cain turned from farming to construction. He married, he sired sons and daughters, he created for himself a new community, a new family and clan, with those who presumably either did not know his full story, or, more likely, knew of and approved his ways. He settled in the land of Nod, far from the villages of his youth. Still hungry for a personal sense of significance, Cain determined to build something that would be a lasting monument to himself, a city named after the first fruit of his own flesh, his son Enoch. In the ancient area of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the oldest inhabited cities known to humankind were called enoch, which is the earliest word for city in any human language.

Where did those other people in Nod come from? It is a difficult question to answer. Even without the Bible’s guidance, we cannot say with certainty who our direct ancestors are, in that dim recess of time. The Smithsonian Institute of Natural History has hundreds of skulls, and bones, from nearly every branch, and even root, of humanity’s family tree. But, who were the Mother and the Father of us all? According to the scriptures, Adam and Eve. The Bible ties all humanity to one father and one mother, ishah, and ish, from whom even ishah came … that first man, and that first woman, through whom we all are said to inherit a sin nature.

If we are to stay within the account as given to us, from that distant dawn of time, then the narrator of this chronicle leads us to surmise that, beginning with perfect bodies and a life span that reached nearly a thousand years, Adam and Eve began filling the earth with their offspring, and the children of their offspring. Just a hundred years ago it was not uncommon for families to reach 12 and 15 children. So we, hearing this story as ancient Israelites, were to imagine generations of children being born, to Adam and Eve, and to their generations more generations. Then, Cain would have married either a sister or a niece, because in the early centuries of human history, intra-marrying among families was permissible.

Staying within the confines of the account given us, remembering the perfection of the bodies God created for the first human, and for the Mother of All Living, understanding that God did not institute bans on close family members marrying each other until Moses’ day, millennia later, we, hearing as ancient Israelites, would not have worried there would be congenital defects running the human race to ground.

In fact, quite the opposite, it seems. The technical brilliance of humankind is highlighted in Cain’s descendants. Here were all the ingredients of modern life—travel, music and the arts, the use of metals, organized social life, and the domestication of animals. It is all admirable and progressive, the comforts, luxuries, and advances listed here, but that is not why this passage is in the Bible.

To the godless, the line of Cain was the source of much that is praiseworthy. But look more carefully, pay closer attention to the achievements of Cain’s descendants.

Cain’s grandson, Irad, founded a city named after himself, a name which means “city of witness,” that is to say, witness to the glory of humanity.

Cain’s great grandson was called Mehujael, meaning “smitten of God.” The tenor of his name spoke of bravado, the bravado of Cain. God can smite me but He can’t stop me from being a success.

As each new generation forged ahead with brilliance, and accomplishments, all away from the “presence of God” which Cain had left far behind him, the sense of God waned until finally, a generation was born into a time where even the thought of God was gone.

Cain’s great great grandson, Methushael, represented this generation, for his name meant “God is dead.”

[A. Sobkowski [Public domain]]

Grace

“No one who conceals transgressions will prosper, but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”

Proverbs 28:13 (NRSV)

Later—much later—God would tell Noah that a new covenant was being instituted, one in which life must be given for life taken. He said, “Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.

Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
for in his own image
God made humankind.”

But in these early, antediluvian beginnings, God did not take Cain’s life. What God took was Cain’s means of livelihood, for even against the cursed earth, Cain had proven himself an able farmer, a man of the soil, who found great pride and satisfaction in his work. But now, now that he had poured the blood of his brother out in his field, Cain had polluted forever the very place where before he had found life.

God cursed him in the area of his strength, which now had become the arena of his sin. The ground had already been cursed on account of Adam; now Cain was cursed from the ground, and the dark circle was made complete. The earth would no longer release its fruitfulness to him. For Adam farming was difficult; for Cain it would be impossible. He would be forced to wander from place to place as the crops failed wherever he went, unable to bring forth life.

The penalty for sin is far reaching. Sin can rupture every relationship, becoming the source of untold harm both to ourselves and to others, between ourselves and God, with the power to wrench every good thing within us into ruin.

The extent to which sin had already consumed Cain is seen in how self-centered his response was to God’s justice – complaining, maybe even blaming God for the whole situation. In a spirit of bitterness, he thought God was being overly severe, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”

Of course, it makes sense Cain would be afraid of the very evil he had released into the world. There is no indication Cain felt any reproach, any sorrow, any guilt or shame, for the murder of his brother; only regret that God would now mete out consequences. Cain deserved death for taking a life. But, even though his punishment was less than he deserved, he still moaned bitterly about the suffering he imagined it would bring.

Cain was afraid other people would treat him as he had treated Abel. Either his brothers would take vengeance, a life for a life, or he would be killed for being such an obvious outcast, not favored by God, so odious even the ground would now reject him.

God reassured Cain that while human life meant little to him, God valued it highly, and vengeance belonged solely to the Lord. Note that God did not speak to Cain, but to whoever else was there at that point. It was still a small community. Cain and Abel were notable figures among the brothers and sisters, for they had come first. Cain, especially, was the one Eve seemed always to have honored. As the firstborn, the promised son of her seed, the little man God had enabled her to bring forth, Cain would have held an exalted position. He was the crown prince of all humanity, the one who would lead the next generation.

With Cain and Abel absent for this extended time, it is certain the rest of the family would have noticed them missing. “Where is Cain,” they would have asked. “And Abel! Now that you mention it, where is Abel?” Imagine the extended family beginning to gather, especially at the sound of God’s voice.

First one or two, then those few running to bring back more, until all would have been assembled, listening with a growing sense dread as the sickening tale unfolded. Would they have drawn back in horror, and looked on with repugnance as the mark of God grew dark on Cain’s ashen face? The Bible does not say what form of imprint it was, it could have been a visible stamp, or scar, or it may have been some kind of event that confirmed to Cain, and all those gathered, God would not allow others to harm him.

Either way, God made His point clear: even the guilty belong to God. The Lord drew a circle of protective love around Cain and said “Yes, he is guilty. He’s a murderer ‑‑ but he is still Mine. Do not forget My love for him in your dealings with Cain.

Cain’s mark was not so much the stain of shame, branded in the eyes of others as a terrible murderer. It was more a seal of grace, as one protected by God, a mark of God’s longsuffering love towards him, giving Cain time to think and to repent. While there is life there is hope, God extends mercy and an invitation to everyone, even Cain.

God had first appealed to Cain’s conscience with a question about his feelings. God promised He would accept Cain if only he would do what he already knew was right. God had shown Cain the root of his problem was a sense of entitlement, and jealousy of his brother, that confessing his resentment and envy would set him free from its power. Otherwise, God had told Cain, he would reach a point of no return.

God could have prevented Cain’s crimes, but what God wanted was the development of his character, which only happens when God permits the exercise of human free will, to make moral choices. Conviction is not a pleasant feeling, that unmistakable sense that we have done wrong, but it is a gift from God.

[Image courtesy of Pxhere]

“What Have You Done…”

“The murderer rises at dusk to kill the poor and needy, and in the night is like a thief.”

Job 24:14 (NRSV)

“Sure,” Abel had said, surprised and eager he’d warrented any attention at all from Cain. From a small, delicate boy, he’d grown into a thin, well-proportioned young man, maybe not strong like his brother, but certainly able, anyway, to herd sheep and goats. Often away in the fields, Abel was usually all but forgotten by his family, left out of the inside jokes. But this evening, their work done, Cain had made a special effort to include Abel, and had even suggested spending some time together.

“Come on,” he’d said, “You’ll see how the barley is doing, I think it’s the best field I’ve sown yet.” Abel had always enjoyed the barley loaves Cain made, from his harvests, and though Abel was no farmer, he appreciated his brother’s skill in drawing out sustenance from the unyielding and resistant earth.

I picture them both, strolling together, the larger, bulkier Cain, leaning down a little to listen as Abel spoke, both admiring the sun setting over the swaying grain. Perhaps Cain seemed somewhat preoccupied as he looked around, searching for the right spot, away from people, from witnesses. Maybe it was with a nonchalant movement Cain reached down for the stone. “I have to keep up with it,” he might have said to Abel, “I’m always clearing stones from my fields.” But this stone, this stone had a dark purpose.

And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.[1]

Cain had developed such a habit of self‑centered thinking that he had failed to recognize God’s kindness and love towards him, he had failed to heed God’s warning about his own pride and sin. His is a cautionary tale for us today. Often enough, you and I can also be quick to believe what is not true, quick to listen to voices and messages that are not from God. We will have dark thoughts about who God is, what God wants, God’s motives and God’s activity in our lives; dark thoughts about people and experiences that cause discomfort, and dark thought patterns, dark strategies and methods that immediately kick in under certain conditions – this is what the Bible calls strongholds.

Our God-given capacity to feel, emotions that enhance our knowledge and experience of Him and each other, cover the whole spectrum of life, from ecstasy to horror, from rapture to envy, from sorrow to elation, grief to bliss, serenity to rage. Cain’s smoldering resentment, anger, hurt pride, jealousy, and envy, which he brooded over and nurtured, covered a dark spectrum that drained away his joy and delight.

You and I might think such thoughts are no big deal, look at all the awful things we never actually said, and we never actually did; no one is affected by those thoughts, right? But thoughts are powerful, they are how we see the world, how we interpret life, they provide the meaning to everything we observe and experience, they become labels and biases, trends and motivations. Unminded thoughts still create a perspective, and a framework, from which hang our feelings, and our worldview.

Cain’s worldview, and self view, became ever more warped and darkened, until his smoldering anger made the unthinkable reality.

The apostle John, who as a young man had such an anger problem he was called a son of thunder, wrote at the end of his life that, as far as God is concerned, if you and I hate our brother we have murdered him in God’s sight, just like Cain murdered his brother. In fact, the apostle wrote, “We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.”

The word John used for ‘murder’ means ‘violent death,’ the same word used for when the priests would slaughter an animal at the altar, slitting its throat while it was wide-eyed with terror, and pouring the blood out; but, instead of a lamb, the victim was Abel, and instead of a sacrifice, it was a murder. Even ‘murder’ is not strong enough a translation, it should be more like ‘brutally butchered.’  There is no middle ground between evil and righteousness, or between light and darkness. You and I must choose one side or the other. We cannot remain a little bit jealous, or a little bit resentful, or a little bit selfish and self-centered. Terrible fruit will grow from the trees rooted from even a little bit of that dark seed.

Cain must have felt his hair stand on end when God’s disembodied voice spoke to him, there alone in the field, as the thirsty dirt soaked up his brother’s blood. “Where is Abel, Cain? Where is your brother?” The insolence of Cain’s reply would have been shocking, had Cain not already established himself as self-involved, self-absorbed, self-serving, self-protective, and self-promoting. He lied to God, and there is a hint of sarcasm, a play on words, to the effect of, “I don’t know where Abel is. What?!  You expect me, a farmer, to shepherd the shepherd?!”

How you ‘hear’ what God said in reply, will depend on how you hear God’s voice in your own heart. Did the Lord cry out in anguish? Or was God angry? Is this the voice of a heart-broken father, or the righteous wrath of a just God?

“What have you done?”

Does it not remind you of the conversation God had with Cain’s own father, many years before? “Where are you?” Like father, like son, for as Adam had brought death into the world, so now his son Cain had brought murder. “The sins of the fathers…”

“Listen,” God said. And, I imagine, there was silence for a while. Cain would have begun to notice the sound of the breeze, as it rustled through the grasses and grain, in the field where Cain was standing. He might have heard the tiny, secret sounds of little creatures, scrabbling among the stalks. He might have heard the sound of a distant hawk as it called to its young. And then, closer to hand, the sound of insect wings, whirring, of flies, buzzing over the fresh blood seeping around Cain’s feet, and over the splatters of blood on his arms and the bits of hair and brain on his face.

“Listen.”

God continued, “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” Did a sudden vision of Abel’s wide, gaping mouth suddenly flash before Cain’s view, Abel’s eyes bulging in terror, choked death rattling in Abel’s throat?

Cain thought he had acted in secret, but God had seen it all. The author of Hebrews wrote “the blood of Jesus speaks of better things than the blood of Abel.” The blood of Jesus cried out before God for forgiveness, and continues to cry constantly for mercy, for grace to all who come under it. But the blood of Abel was crying out to God for justice.

[1] Genesis 4:8 (NRSV)

Desire

“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.”

Romans 7:19-21 (NRSV)

Cain had glowered with hatred and seething jealousy as Abel joyfully received God’s favor, the smoke of his sacrifice rising heavenward in rich plumes, as Cain’s sacrifice sputtered and spit, then finally went out. Later, as Abel had cheerfully gathered his things, preparing to return to the clan’s settlement, the darkness in Cain began to grow.

God’s rejection of Cain and Cain’s response showed a bitterness, and sense of entitlement, already rooted deep into Cain’s heart. He was angry that God’s favor and acceptance, which Cain felt should have been given to him, went to “weak, frail, meaningless, nothing” Abel, instead. Cain felt he deserved much better, and yet here he was, getting the kind of poor treatment and disfavor that he certainly didn’t deserve. He resented God, furious that Abel’s offering was accepted over his own.

Cain also seemed to feel sorry for himself. “How could God do a thing like this? Why would God let this happen to me?” Note God’s grace to Cain, and read His words with tenderness in mind, “The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?’”  God knew the answers to these questions, but He was giving Cain a chance to process his thoughts and feelings with God, to understand the root of his anger, and maybe even to understand the root of his sense of entitlement.

Cain knew what God meant when He said “if you do well, will you not be accepted, will not your countenance be lifted up?” In other words, “Cain, I love you as much as I love Abel, I’m ready to show you My favor. If you were doing well, wouldn’t you be lifting your face to Me? Wouldn’t I be showing you My favor?” It is not that Cain did not know how to do well. Rather, he did not want to do it. He wanted God’s approval, but he wanted it on his own terms, not on God’s.

It was not enough for Cain to know God loved him as he was. He wanted God to approve him, as he was.

He had no interest in, or intention of, changing.

No, Cain presented himself to God, and to all others, as already worthy of and entitled to all he felt should be his.

God continued: “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” It’s as though God was telling Cain, “Don’t treat jealousy or resentment lightly, don’t accept your sense of envy and entitlement as healthy, don’t think you are justified, as though this is righteous indignation. If you brood over all this, you will find yourself in the grip of a power far greater than you can handle. The pull of that power on you is insidiously intoxicating, it is much stronger than you are giving it credit. Sooner or later, you will say or do something that you did not initially intend to do or say. You will go farther than you ever thought you would go.

And the truth is, a lurking malice and contempt did grow in Cain. It began as a tendril, curling around Cain’s injured pride. It lengthened, uncoiling enough to embrace Cain’s ambition, his image of himself as special, firstborn, deserving. Like a serpent, writhing and undulating through his soul, it insinuated itself into every shadowed nook and shaded recess of his sense of privilege, until it had grown into a dark monster, filling Cain’s form from the inside out. Finally, only a thin layer of Cain was left, following the contours of his malevolent jealousy and covetousness and loathing within.

He envied Abel receiving God’s favor in such a public way. He was bitter that God had rejected his own sacrifice in such a public way. His whole vision of himself and his destiny had been publicly attacked and wounded. He could not stand to look at Abel or even suffer him to live. Cain ignored God, because he wanted to serve his own interests. He disregarded God’s warning, he refused to repent, he nursed his ravenous abhorrence and sense of his own privilege, until, after a while, he came up with a way to even the score. “Brother, let’s go out into the fields and talk…” There would be no witnesses.

[Image courtesy of Pexels]

[2] Genesis 4:7b (NRSV)

An Offering Acceptable…

“Turn the whole ram into smoke on the altar; it is a burnt offering to the Lord; it is a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the Lord.”

Exodus 29:18 (NRSV)

So, Cain, the little man brought forth into the world with God’s help, and little Abel, the frail boy whose life held no meaning for his parents, and to his brother, grew up side by side. They learned to till the hard and unyielding ground, and to tend the trusting creatures around them; and to kill them at regular intervals, so they might wear their hides. We are to understand the years passed, time continued, life unfolded.

Then, the third sentence in Genesis chapter 4 shifts the scene to a much later time.

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.”[1] Did Adam and Eve tell the boys how wonderful it had been in Eden? But now Adam and Eve had to work by the sweat of their brows, farming and taking care of domesticated stock, since that was God’s command to them back in Genesis 1. When the boys grew up they had to support themselves, Cain went into the agricultural end of the family business, and Abel went into ranching and herding.

It seems there was a third, major, aspect of life Adam and Eve inculcated into their sons: bringing something of their livelihood back to God. Long before there were laws, and rituals, and religious rites, there was an altar and there was a sacrifice. We read that “in the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions.”[2]

There are two things to see here: First, this phrase “in the course of time,” in the Hebrew, actually is “at the end of days,” suggesting there was a prescribed time to make offerings. Maybe it was once a year, “at the end of days,” indicating, for example, at the end of the growing season, when harvest was about to begin.

The phrase “brought to” makes it seem as though Cain and Abel went to a place with their offering – they were to bring it before the Lord, maybe a place where they were to appear in the presence of the Lord. Some have suggested that place might have been where God had set the cherubim and swirling, flaming sword, the very gateway to Eden itself, the beautiful land now forbidden to them, the cradle of their beginnings, the fading memory of all that was beautiful, and pure, and good.

As an interesting aside, depictions of enormous winged creatures were often used to guard the gates of ancient cities and buildings in the middle east, and when God gave the pattern to Moses for the ark of the covenant, on the lid were two cherubim with their wings outstretched, over what God called the mercy seat.

Once a year, at the apex of the Day of Atonement the high priest would bring into the Holy of Holies, to the mercy seat of God, the blood of a lamb sacrificed for all the people. Maybe groundwork had been laid down in the days of Cain and Abel for explaining later about blood sacrifice, and the sprinkling of the mercy seat, with this earliest scene of Adam and Eve and their children coming once a year to the gateway of Eden, with an offering for the Lord.

The offerings Cain and Abel brought to God reveal a significant difference between the two men. Cain’s offering of fruit from his fields was instantly rejected; but Abel’s offering of a lamb was instantly accepted. The Bible doesn’t say how God showed His acceptance of Abel’s offering, but in the book of Judges, when Gideon made an offering up to God, a supernatural fire came from heaven and consumed it instantly; the same thing happened later for the prophet Elijah in a hair-raising story regaled in Israel’s history. Whichever way God showed His favor to Abel and His disfavor to Cain, it was obvious. Cain knew it, and Abel knew it.

The ancient Israelites, who first wrote down these stories, would have immediately recognized the problem with the Cain’s offering. Even though there were grain offerings and wine offerings, they understood that a person could not approach God without the shedding of sacrificial blood. Whether Cain understood this is conjecture. What was really more wrong with Cain was not what he offered, but the condition of his heart when he offered it. God was not pleased with Cain because unrepentant sin was already in his life.

Cain’s character was revealed in his offering. He gave only “some” of what he had, there iss no sense of his offering being from the best of what he had, or that it cost him anything. Instead it seemed like a casual approach to a chore, as though Cain brought what was convenient, so indifferent towards God, that he brought the Lord the leftovers. Cain thought giving God some of his own good deeds would suffice – he didn’t give the best and first of himself.

Untold millennia later, the New Testament author of the book of Hebrews wrote, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks.”

[Andrey Mironov [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

[1] Genesis 4:2b (NRSV)

[2] Genesis 4:3-4 (NRSV)


“frail and meaningless”

“Give justice to the weak”

Psalm 82:3 (NRSV)

And what did Adam think when Eve bore his first child?

For Eve shared daily in the curse of the unrelenting, unresponsive ground. This was not solely Adam’s work, for Eve toiled daily by Adam’s side, as his rescue and his strength. Together they battled the thorns, and wrested their living from the stony earth.

Now Adam would share in Eve’s travail, gripping her hands as she screamed in pain, guiding the head of his infant boy as she used her last reserves to push the baby out, cleaning up her blood and afterbirth. Was it Adam who cut the umbilical cord? Adam who wrapped the baby, and cradled mother and child together? Who else was there? Maybe this scene was in Paul’s mind when he said, “Woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman.” Those might have been Adam’s very words, in that hour.

Testosterone coursed through Adam’s brain and body every day, just as estrogen coursed through Eve. Quick to anger, Adam was easily triggered by the frustrations of laboring in a fallen world, by the every-dayness of sin, increasing all around him; by his own guilt. Adam worked his aggression out in competitiveness, taking command of his fields, of his herds, of his child, and of his wife.

To cope with the bitterness in his life, Adam covered himself…his body, and now, most likely, his heart, because now Adam ruled.

To cope with her own casualties, Eve surely sought to protect her child, and to keep relationships harmonious. Perhaps she overprotected her first son from a competitive and jealous father. After all, just as she came from Adam, so Cain had come from her. Perhaps they both thought that Cain had been made for Eve, with God’s help, just as Eve – in a time that must have felt distant and receding – had once been made for Adam.

Eve seems to have accepted Adam’s rule. It was a price she seemed willing to pay, the loss of her equality, in order that they might have a family, a kind of peace, and the promise of more children.

And certainly more children did come! In the very next sentence, Eve brought forth a second son, “Next she bore his brother Abel.”  I wonder why he was given the name ‘Abel,’ which means, “frail, emptiness, nothingness, meaningless.” Cain, besides obviously being male when he emerged, must have been a robust, shouting little man, shaking his fists with vigor as he screamed his first breaths of air. In contrast, was the tiny Abel fragile-looking? Did he have delicate fingers, and soft lashes? Were his features petite and fine?

Whatever the contrast, Adam and Eve immediately noted the difference in their two boys: Cain was the chosen one; Abel was the also-ran. It would have been natural for them to favor Cain as the firstborn, maybe the one to fulfill God’s great promise. If there was parental favoritism, it would help explain much of what happens in this chapter. It’s an easy temptation to favor one child over another isn’t it? Looks, talent, personality…But it is a sin, and so destructive, it not only can tear a family apart; it can so warp and damage a person’s psyche, that may take them the rest of their lives to recover from.

For, the corruption of Adam and Eve’s sin had changed them, deep down, to the core. Their very natures had become sinful and polluted. They might not have realized it right away, but their sinful natures had also become hereditary, so that their spiritual makeup, the DNA of their inner beings, had become inexorably, indelibly altered. It was the only nature Adam and Eve could pass on to their children.

Both by nature, and by nurture, Adam and Eve passed on to their two boys the onus and the curse of their now lifeless spirits, and decaying bodies. Even as Eve clutched the cursed ground in her birthing agony, the blood and water spilling into the soil, and even as Adam drew forth the writhing form of his firstborn son, and then his second born son, even as life came forth from the woman’s body, so also did death. Tragically, even with his first howling breath, Cain, and then Abel, had begun their journey of aging, and then dying.

Then would Adam and Eve replay the Father’s care in gathering from the trusting animals around them one that would also howl pain into the air as its life was taken from it, and its skin peeled from its lifeless body, so the little baby could be covered, and protected in the harsh world he had been born into.

[Image courtesy of Pixabay]

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