Blogging Through the Bible with an Eye Toward Life

Chapter 4 begins with the first pregnancy, the first birth, the first-born man. Adam and Eve exist as special creations, but the first product of procreation is Cain. The first man born of a woman, the first child, the first family, the first brothers, and the first murderer. There is a reason a massive gap of time exists between my last post in this series and this one. This chapter, this story, overwhelmed me. There is more depth, more firsts, more elements to it than I ever considered.

In his book The Beginning of Wisdom, Lean Kass warns from the outset we have challenges we must overcome as the audience. We grew up in a world with the Bible’s moral instruction, the Commandments, the teachings of Jesus, and a million Sunday school lessons about Cain and Abel. The people living within this story, the primordial family, enjoys none of those privileges. Everything about human relationships begins here with these people and this family. They exist as a new thing, new beings in new relationships with each other and with God. Nowhere is this clearer than with Eve’s declarations at giving birth for the first time in verse 1:

“With the help of the Lord, I have brought forth a man.” (NIV)

Most of the translations available online read similarly to this one. Eve, ‘ishah – a woman, brings forth ‘ish – a man with the help of Adonai, the Lord. Commonly, this is understood as gratitude. Kass rejects that understanding seeing Eve’s proclamation as a prideful boast translating the Hebrew as “I have gotten [or created] a man [equally] with God.” Whichever understanding is correct, the result for our consideration is the same. Woman is the mother of mankind. She holds special creative powers, a reproductive role that separates her from man. Life grows within her, is birthed through her, and the process is something like the creative work of God or reliant on the blessing and aid of God or all the above. To put it in the simplest terms possible, and borrowing language from comedian Tom Papa, making your own people is cool.

Verse 2 mentions the birth of Abel with less fanfare. Cain’s name has meaning according to scholars. Brought forth, acquired, possessed, his name gives purpose and substance to the cultivator of the land and the only brother to have a speaking part. The story is about Cain. His brother is Abel, born without further comment, given a name without clear meaning, who never speaks. We know about Abel because of his relationship to Cain. The first distinction between the two is made in the same verse as Abel’s birth:

“Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.” (v 2)

I resist the temptation to delve into discussions on birth order, God’s vocational preferences, the symbolism of their choice in work, and all the other diversions smarter people than me have spilled ink to discuss in relation to the first brothers. We have a focus, life. One thing worth mentioning, Adam and Eve, the first man and the first woman, represent the first human relationship. That relationship was a marital relationship of two beings whose natures complement each other. God creates them, they wed, and they immediately begin to build the institution of the family, the first human institution to exist. The next relationship we have is the parent child relationship characterized by Eve celebrating the birth of her first child and the wonder of that process. Now we have a new relationship, we have brothers. They are not complimentary, but naturally at odds with each other. They are different men doing different jobs and on a different course from the complimentary relationship and the parental relationship which preceded theirs.

A brief side note, reading books about human history and the important role both cultivating the land and domesticating animals played in the growth of society helps highlight that both jobs these men worked were important to advancing the creation of stable human societies. If we want to live in a community with larger than a small wandering clan it will be necessary to reliably produce caloric resources. The first brothers lay the groundwork for larger communities to follow.

The Offering

Cain brings an offering of “some of the fruits of his soil” to the Lord. Abel brought “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” God favors Abel’s offering over Cain’s. “So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.” (v 5)

God did not ask for a sacrifice. God did not define his preferred sacrifice. At the time of this story the concept of sacrifice to God is new. Cain, on his own, decided to seek favor with God or to thank God through offering back some of the fruits of his labor. Cain sets this series of events into motion by deciding on his own to do something nice for God. That is all we can know for certain. We also know, in the eyes of God, Abel gave a better offering. Little brother stepped in and stole Cain’s favor, and Cain is not happy. In fact, he is murderously angry. This fact is not lost on God:

“Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (v 6-7)

This passage haunts me. God knows what Cain contemplates. He warns Cain that sin seeks to devour him. Anyone who ever warned someone on the verge of making a terrible mistake to turn back knows this is an act of love from God. Cain only feels the rebuke of his offering and fails to notice the concern God shows for Cain’s life. God tells him, do right and be accepted. Cain fixates on his embarrassment, the rejection of an offering God never asked to receive. He is angry and jealous.

It is fitting the first murder is for a trivial reason. It has been my experience we most often hurt each other over trivial things. Jealousy, anger, resentment, bitterness, rejection, all powerful negative emotions that when dwelt upon make us miserable. They eat us from the inside and erode our humanity. The first man becomes the first murderer over feeling jilted by God, and he commits the first murder in the immediate wake of a direct appeal from God to fight the impulse to sin in Cain’s anger.

“And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.” (v 8)

The sparing description is chilling. He spills the blood of his brother in a field, as if that could hide his act from God and the world.

The Question

There is far too much detail in this short passage to cover in this space. We could mine it for years, a lifetime. Let’s focus on the two questions from God. When an omniscient being asks a question, the purpose of the questions cannot be to attain information. I am not omniscient, but find my iPhone makes me feel like it sometimes. I remember once, when my son was in the house, I opened it and noticed his AirPods were last seen at the QuickTrip near our house several days before. I called him into the room and asked him a question, “Where are your AirPods?” The question was somewhat loaded. I knew something was wrong, but I asked the question because I wanted to know something about Paden. How my son handled the next few moments was important to me. Sometimes a question is not a question. It is an opportunity to be honest with ourselves and others.

“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’

‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?” (v 9)

Oh, Cain. Again, fitting the first murderer looks to obfuscate his guilt by making a philosophical point about his obligations and responsibilities to his brother. God will have none of it.

“The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (v 10)

What have you done? That question penetrates the fog of Cain’s evasive response. Abel’s innocent blood cries out to God over the sound of Cain’s cleverness. Whether Cain is his brother’s keeper is irrelevant. God knows Cain is his brother’s murderer.

This is why pro-life advocates and activists use abortion victim imagery. It is easy to turn pointed questions about how we treat other human beings into a PhD thesis about whether we have obligations to others at all. The question isn’t what we are allowed to do in an abstract consideration. The question is, “Why are we allowed to do WHAT WE ARE DOING?” There is blood. There is violence. There must be a reckoning for what has been done. The spilling of innocent blood and the sin of man call out to God over all our justifications.

The rest of this chapter contains a fascinating story about the birth of arts and society through Cain’s lineage, but none of it is directly relevant to our focus. I do think the final verses reflecting on Adam and Eve moving on by having another son are beautiful.

“Adam lay with 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.” (v 25)

Contrast this to the first verse of the chapter. She celebrated her first born, Cain. Now she gives birth to another in the wake of the loss of Abel at the hands of Cain, the first born of us all. I can’t help but reflect on Job, and the children he had after enduring his trials. No parent forgets their lost children. No subsequent children replace those who came before them. God gives new joy, but that new joy will always be understood through the lens of our past suffering. Eve lost two sons in the murder of Abel. Abel who did right by God, who met his brother in the field in good faith, who died at the hands of his brother. She also lost Cain. How different this birth is, how different the parents must be.

Jordan Peterson made a pointed observation about this story in his online lecture. The first two men born of a woman kill each other, and the better of the two is the victim. The Bible offers a clear judgment on the hearts of men. We were made in the image of God and then almost immediately proved capable of the worst imaginable behavior towards our own brothers for petty and trivial offenses. All the while, the blood of the innocent cries out to God.