The early chapters of Genesis are foundational
The very name of the book of Genesis implies that it is the beginning of something. It is the genesis of the biblical story. But it is much more than just a beginning, specifically the early chapters of the book. They are not just the start of a story. They serve as a foundation for everything that follows. In chs. 1 and 2 we see God forming creation. With great care he shapes the creation and all of the creatures in it. The relationship between humanity and creation is central, we are responsible for the creation. In ch. 2 God sees the one thing that is not good in his creation, humans should not be alone. And so he creates man and woman as equals and as caretakers. The early chapters of Genesis also contain the foundations of human culture, the building of cities, the making of tools, and musical instruments. But it is also the foundation of the conflict in the biblical story, that is the struggle between humanity and sin. The moment in Genesis 3 when the woman listens to the serpent and eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, while the man watches on in silence. From that moment on the relationship between humans and God changes. The people are no longer allowed to stay in the garden that is God’s sanctuary. But at the same time it also changes the relationship between people. A moment that is often overlooked as if it were an aside is when the man names the woman Eve. Eve means life, and the man says that it is to represent that she is the mother of all living. But the detail that we miss is that, in that time and still today somewhat, you name what you have authority over. Parents name children, people name pets, and the man named the woman. Their relationship is distorted. This also becomes the foundational moment for the introduction of violence in creation. Later in ch. 4 Lamech threatens to kill many people, and by the time of Noah in ch. 6 violence has become the norm. We feel the repercussions of this foundation today. Violence is everywhere we look.
What is the point of the Cain story?
It is within this context of foundational stories that we hear the story of Cain. The story of Cain is likewise a foundational story, but the question of course is, a foundation for what? Put another way, what is the point of the Cain story? This story has intrigued people for centuries and much has been made of it. But for me, I came to understand this story at the end of a movie.
He Never Died
A few years ago, I watched the movie “He Never Died.” It’s a little known indie film, and I found it because the lead actor is Henry Rollins, who was formerly the lead singer of the hardcore band Black Flag. I’m a huge fan of punk music and so naturally I was intrigued. It’s about this guy whose identity for a majority of the movie remains a mystery. He meets this girl at a diner and she decides that they are going to be friends, which is really how any introvert makes friends. As the movie goes on, she gets kidnapped by some gang members who are trying to extort the guy. There are many moments of shocking violence so it is not a family movie. But before she is captured she is at his apartment and starts looking through a trunk at the foot of his bed while he is out of the room. There is tons of old looking stuff it the trunk, artifacts from different time periods, nazi gold, coins from the roman empire. And then she sees some pictures that all have the guy in them. From Vietnam, WWII, and much earlier. She looks at him and says, “How old are you?” To which he responds, “I don’t know, but I'm in the bible if that will help.” “But” he says, “I went by a different name back them. They called me Cain.” The movie is a fictional reimagining of the aftermath of the Cain story. In their version he lives forever and is forced to wander around on the earth. But the moment that is relevant for us comes at the end of the movie. There is the climactic showdown between Cain and the main bad guy, but before they fight, an angel in a trench coat shows up. And he tells Cain that he is not allowed to kill the guy. Cain gets mad and starts yelling at God, questioning his morality, claiming there is an inherent hypocrisy in that demand. But then he comes around to the topic of his unnaturally long life and he says, “Why are you still punishing me for Abel? We were just boys back then.”
Cain is not evil, Cain is human. Cain is us.
Cain is often read as a character who is the personification of evil. This has been a popular interpretation historically. There is a Jewish interpretation, that is also found in some early Christian writings, that says that Cain is the offspring of Eve and the devil. Therefore, he was evil from birth. The story was read in this way to make sense of the rejection of Cain’s offering, and also to some extent, the murder of his brother. The offerings have been one aspect of the story that has caused a great deal of confusion for readers of the story. Cain and Abel both bring offerings, Cain from his crops and Abel from his herd. They offer them before God and God only accepts Abel’s offering. But why? There is no reason God couldn’t accept both. There is no prohibition against grain offerings, in fact later they are commanded. There is no difference in quality indicated in the text. So why is Cain’s offering rejected? This is where interpreters say that it must be that Cain is evil, he is wholly predisposed to doing what is evil. But I would like us to consider for a second something that God says to Cain after the offerings. God says in v. 7, “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 rule over it.” He doesn’t scold Cain for an “evil disposition”, he doesn’t warn Abel against his “evil” brother. Instead, he gives Cain a choice. Cain must choose, like Israel had to choose, between life and death. Between mastering sin and being mastered by sin. Good and evil are not a disposition or a nature, but are a choice. Surely, what Cain chooses to do in v. 8, killing his brother, is an act of evil, but it is nonetheless a choice. Cain chooses to take the anger that he has toward God and directs it towards his brother who is an innocent bystander.
When we strip away the idea that Cain was evil from birth, I am drawn back to the line from the movie I discussed earlier, “We were just boys back then.” Cain, for all the connotations that his name now carries, is just a human character. Earlier we talked about the foundational stories that are found in the early chapters of Genesis, and here is the foundational role that I think Cain plays, he is a mirror to our humanity. When we look at the character of Cain and the choices that he is faced with, we can see ourselves staring back at us. Cain was confronted with a difficult situation, the rejection of his offering. I think we are quick to overlook how traumatizing that would have been. Cain takes the lead as the older brother and decides to offer an offering to God. He takes from his hard work in the field, and offers it on the altar. His brother follows his lead. And there in front of his brother, his offering is rejected. Then to make matters worse, God shows up and speaks to him. God doesn’t offer Cain an explanation, he just tells Cain to do better, and to master the sin that is waiting for him, the anger that is growing inside him. Cain is facing a devastating moment, a moment where he is torn between anger and resentment and accepting and trying again. How often are we in that situation? How often are we rejected? How often are we pulled in the direction of anger?
The story of Cain is a very common and very human story. The choice that he is faced with is one that we are familiar with. And his response is also one we are all too familiar with. He disregards God’s warnings, another very relatable moment, and directs his anger toward Abel and kills him. We may never have killed someone, but I would guess that most of us have acted in great and misguided anger toward someone. We may not have killed someone physically, but have we killed someone by writing them out of our lives? The grudges that we hold and nurture are no better than killing them. We look in the mirror and we see Cain and his anger looking back at us.
The story of Cain is a very common and very human story. The choice that he is faced with is one that we are familiar with.
Cain speaks and receives grace.
Thankfully, that is not the end of the story. After Cain kills his brother, God appears in the story again. The conversation that follows is remarkably similar to the one that God has with Cain’s parents in ch. 3. “Where is your brother Abel? What is this that you have done?” And as we know there are consequences for actions. Cain is cursed from the ground, the ground that was his livelihood will no longer yield crops in the same way. The ground will no longer support his life in the same way that it once did. Cain made a choice to kill his brother and now faces the consequences of that choice. His life will be different now as a result of the choice that he made. We recognize this too as reality. Actions have consequences and they are often not what we would desire.
But there is this beautiful moment that happens at the end of the story. Cain speaks to God in vv. 13-14. He says, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Some suggest that Cain is whining, and some say that Cain is asking for mercy. I don’t think it matters. What matters is that Cain spoke to God. In the garden story the man and the woman eat from the tree, they sin in the same way that Cain did. And they are confronted by God in the same way. God curses the ground and the serpent. And the people, the man and the woman, never speak to God again. They are banished from the garden and go in silence. The only time they speak again is when the woman names Cain. Other than that, in their silence, it is as if they are dead. God appearing to Cain shows that the relationship between God and humanity still exists, but the people chose silence in the face of God.
Cain chooses a different approach, he speaks, he objects or laments the punishment that God is laying on him. When Cain could have chosen silence, he instead chooses to speak to God, to remain in relationship with God. When we are mad, often the last thing that we want to do is talk. And when we are mad at God the last thing we want to do is pray. But the story of Cain encourages us to speak to God even from our place of anger. And we are not alone in this, the psalms are full of songs and prayers by people who are alone, angry, sad, rejected, and they present those honest feelings before God. We hear prayers that start, “God, how long will you forget me?” The story of Cain encourages us to choose life, but to also speak to God from a place of honesty.
And God responds to Cain’s speech. He does so in another perplexing way. Cain is afraid that someone will kill him, which was the punishment for killing someone else. A life for a life. But God says “Not so.” And then in v. 15 it says, “then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.” As people have tried to figure out what was wrong with Cain’s offering, so have people tried to figure out what the mark that God gave to Cain was. And just like why Cain’s offering was rejected, what the mark is doesn’t matter. And in reality it is something that we will never decypher. Instead what is important is how it functions in the story. Cain has spoken to God of his fear of being killed for the murder of his brother and God responds by saying that will not happen and the mark is a symbol of that promise. The consequences of Cain’s choices are mitigated by an act of God. To put it another way, the mark is an act of mercy given to Cain by God as a result of their relationship. Cain receives mercy from God and then leaves God’s presence to live out the rest of his life in peace.
While the first half of the Cain story is like a mirror for our past lives, and the experiences that we have faced, the choices that have confronted us. The ending of the Cain story is a mirror that shows us the possibilities of the future. If God can offer mercy to a character who has done what Cain has, what can leave us outside of that grace? And the answer is, only our reluctance to accept the mercy that God has to offer us. As Cain was given mercy for his actions in the form of the mark, we are offered mercy for our actions in the form of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Like Cain we have a choice to make, are we going to hold on to the anger that we have nurtured and live lives of silent death, or are we going to give it over to God and accept the grace that he is freely offering to each of us.
My hope this morning is that as you reflect on the story of Cain you will see several things. First, that Cain is in many ways our own reflection, we see ourselves in the situation that he is in and in the choices that he makes. Second, that you would be encouraged to speak the truth to God, even if it is uncomfortable. And third, that you would find hope. As there was mercy given to Cain, a sinner, there is mercy available for each of us.