January 14, 2018 “Brothers” – Genesis 4:1-16
January 14, 2017 – Second Sunday after Epiphany
In one of my wife’s favorite moments in opera, the heroine Tosca stabs the evil Baron Scarpia, the Roman chief of police who has captured her and tortured her lover Mario. Scarpia has just agreed to release Mario and give them both safe passage in exchange for Tosca submitting to his amorous advances. But when Scarpia grabs her to claim his first kiss of the agreement, Tosca grabs a knife and plunges it into him, hissing Questo è il bacio di Tosca! “This is Tosca’s kiss!” Beth loves that scene.
But almost anyone loves that sort of scene, whether you like opera or not. Whether it’s Schwarzenegger telling the Terminator “Hasta la vista, baby!” or Darth Vader throwing the evil Emperor to his death in Return of the Jedi or, in High Noon, the marshall’s pacifist Quaker wife Amy picking up a rifle to shoot an outlaw before he can kill her husband, there is something in us that resonates with rough, vicious, deadly justice against those who have wronged others. Keep that feeling in mind as we look at Cain and Abel.
Abel is of course the victim here, but the story is told from Cain’s point of view. It’s much more about what Cain did and what happens to him than about Abel and his fate. It all springs from Cain’s jealousy toward his brother. How many of you have ever experienced that sort of feeling for a sibling? How many of you have had a knock-down, drag-out, scorched-earth encounter with a brother or sister? You don’t have to raise your hand on this one unless you want, but how many of you are still estranged and on bad terms with a sister or brother after years and years have gone by?
As you’ve read this past week, this business of strife between brothers continues in Genesis. Isaac and Ishmael are split up. As we will read this coming week, it reappears in the conflict between Jacob and Esau. Brothers, sisters too, just cannot seem to get along.
So we know this story, don’t we? We may not have struck any blows, certainly not committed murder, but we know the emotions, don’t we? That first family of the human race had all the faults and failings of our own families. Sibling rivalry is as old as human beings are. And it’s still as painful and disastrous for our relationships as it was then.
Verse 1 tells us that Cain is the firstborn, in fact the first human being born into the world! His mother Eve gives God credit for this in the way she names her son. Cain sounds like a Hebrew word that means “acquired” or “gotten,” so literally she says that she has “gotten a man from the Lord.”
The first difference between Cain and Abel, we are told, is that Abel is a shepherd, caring for animals, while Cain is a farmer, growing crops. We might be tempted to read this story as the classic story of agriculture here in the western United States in the 19th century, the conflict between ranchers and farmers, between raising herds on a great open range and raising crops on smaller tracts of land that need protection from grazing animals. But in the world of the Bible, especially in early times with plenty of land, that conflict was small or non-existent.
No, the big difference between Abel and Cain was in the way they worshipped God, in the offerings they brought to the Lord. We read, “Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord,” and “Abel also brought a gift—the best portions of the firstborn lambs of his flock.” Then we read that “The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift.” What we’re not told is why.
When we read the Bible, it is good to notice what is does not say as well as what it does say. It doesn’t say exactly why God preferred Abel’s gift to Cain’s. There has been all sorts of speculation. Growing up, I heard the argument that animal sacrifice is a better offering because that’s what is needed to forgive sin. Hebrews 9:22 says, “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.” But Genesis here does not tell us that these were sin offerings. In fact, it looks like no sin is involved until Cain gets angry and commits murder. It was only then that he needed forgiveness.
What is more, both animal sacrifice and grain offerings are commanded by God later on as we will read in Exodus and the rest of the books of Moses. So it can’t be that Abel’s sacrifice of lambs was somehow right while Cain’s gift of his crops was wrong.
Other interpreters, like Karl Barth, argue that there just is no reason for God’s preference of Abel over Cain. Here, they say, we get the first hint of what they claim Paul teaches in Romans 9, the doctrine of God’s election. God, for no reason except His own divine choice, just accepts Abel and rejects Cain. He is God and that’s that. I’m sorry, but that is not right or fair or just. If, for no reason at all, God just decides to accept and save some people while damning others to hell, then that’s not a God I want to worship.
So God has a reason, something different in Cain and Abel’s attitudes. We just can’t be sure what it is. The best guess I’ve found is that Cain offered just “some” of his crops, while we read that Abel offered the “best portions,” “the firstborn lambs.” Later on, when offerings get specified in the Law through Moses, we hear about offering the “first fruits” of the harvest, the first and finest cuttings of grain or grapes or whatever is being grown.
Every summer Beth waits for the first opening of her favorite blueberry farm because those first berries of the season will be the biggest and the best. That’s what God wants to be given to Him. Some of us still practice that same idea in our giving of financial offerings, setting aside at the beginning of the month what we will offer to God out of our income, instead of giving Him what we have left at the end. That’s the spirit behind the pledge cards we invite you to offer each year. But it looks like Cain did not do that. He just gave God “some” of his crops, not the first, not the best. God did not accept that and Cain did not like not being accepted. He got angry and dejected.
In the next paragraph, God tried to talk to Cain about his attitude. He says, “You will be accepted if you do what is right.” There’s the real truth about God. He does not just capriciously choose one person and not another. No, He gives everyone the opportunity to be accepted, to turn to Him and away from what is wrong, away from sin.
Then God told Cain what we know is true for all of us, “watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you.” It was true. For Cain it all came to a head one day when he invited his brother to go walking with him in the fields. All that anger and resentment had been lurking at his door, festering and eating him up until it finally took control. So we read, simply, “Cain attacked his brother, Abel, and killed him.”
It’s what we all experience every day. No, we don’t commit murder. But you wake up with the best intentions in the world, to be loving toward your spouse and patient with your children and kind toward your neighbor. But then your hair dryer doesn’t work and you spill your coffee and you are running late for work. So before the day has barely started you’ve given your spouse the silent treatment, told that squirmy kid to shut up and sit down, and flipped off the neighbor whose dog pooped in your yard. Sin was right there, lurking at your door, waiting for you to lose control and let it master you.
If that kind of angry attitude and sin is lurking at our own doors, in our own homes and hearts, then we should not be too surprised to find it out there in the world around us. We are shocked and dismayed whenever another mass shooting occurs, but add guns to those feelings already there in us all and what should we expect? I get annoyed with the tech support guy whose accent I can’t understand on the phone. So why should I be surprised when our president says ugly, racist things about immigrants and other countries?
In fact, I discovered something lurking in us just in the way we picture this story of Cain and Abel. While writing my blog, I went looking for an image on-line of a painting of the event. In the process, I found a site that displayed a Cain and Abel painting, but which asked one to consider the skin tones in the image. I had looked at several paintings already, but suddenly I saw what I had completely missed. Over and over, artists gave Cain a darker skin than Abel. With absolutely no basis in the Scripture text, racism crept into the way we portray the world’s first act of violence, making it a dark man killing a white man. The fact that I didn’t notice until someone called it to my attention means I couldn’t see the sin that was lurking there at my own door.
It actually looks pretty hopeless. Sin is lurking at the door and regularly takes control of us all. God’s suggestion to Cain seems just impossible, “But you must subdue it and be its master,” as if we’re just talking about training a pet. No, Cain’s and Abel’s story is told here for us to make us realize how deep and pervasive and ancient our problems are. As Paul says in Romans 5, sin came into the world with Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel show us that it was here to stay, in all the worst ways possible.
Yet God has another answer, not just a “shape up and get it right” kind of answer. First, He is not absent while all this sin and pain and killing happen. We read here how he came to meet Cain, to address his sin, and to acknowledge and mourn the loss of Abel. That first exchange between God and Cain is famous. God gives him a chance to confess, “Where is your brother? Where is Abel?” But Cain refuses that opportunity and offers God some alternative facts, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The answer to Cain’s question is “Yes,” according to our Christian faith, we are the keepers of our brothers and sisters and our neighbors in this world. We have responsibilities toward people in Haiti and El Salvador and Africa. But for right now look at God’s response to Cain. It’s what we read in Psalm 139 this morning and heard Jesus tell Nathaniel in John 1:48. God knows us. He knows what we’ve done and where we are. God knew what Cain had done and He knew where Abel’s body and blood were. God still knows the killers and the victims, the oppressors and the oppressed, the exploiters and the exploited, all over the world, in every country. And God cares.
God said to Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” God had accepted and loved Abel and He heard him crying out even in death. That’s the promise and hope of persecuted and abused and hurting people around the world. God knows, God hears, and God cares. When the time comes, He will do something about it. He will let the truth be spoken and justice be done. He will bring killers and rapists and thieves and traffickers and racists to justice, because God does care. That’s good news.
The incredible thing, and the greatest good news, is that God even cares for those He will bring to justice. He cared for Cain. That’s why He asked Cain where his brother was. It was a chance for Cain to confess and seek forgiveness. But even when Cain refuses that opportunity, even when he stubbornly refuses in all that follows to show any real signs of repentance, God still cares about him, still shows him grace.
There is punishment. For committing the first murder in history, Cain lost his home and his work. He had killed his brother in the fields, so those same fields would no longer be his to cultivate. God would make it impossible for him to grow crops out of ground which had been covered in Abel’s blood. Cain would be forced to wander in order to find food. He found it a harsh punishment with worse punishment to come.
So the first murderer has the gall to complain to God about his punishment and to whine that he will be a marked man, “Anyone who finds me will kill me!” God’s response was to give even Cain His love and protection. He promised to punish even more severely anyone who killed Cain and to make him literally a marked man, to give him a sign that he was under God’s protection.
So I would ask you to read and think about this story again before you decide what the Bible has to say about capital punishment. Yes, you’ve already read this week how God tells Noah that anyone who kills another human being should be killed. But here God chooses not to have the first murder put to death, but instead to let him live, to have an ongoing opportunity to repent and seek forgiveness. As Christians living in the grace of our crucified Savior, whom we all murdered by our sins, we need to be thoughtful and careful about how we want murderers to be punished in our time. God was gracious to Cain and He is gracious to us. Let us seek the path of grace in every area of our society and world.
The world started down an ugly and bloody road with this story we are hearing today. Cain continues to murder Abel all over the world. Sin causes us to hurt our brothers and sisters constantly and in all sorts of ways. When you get angry and abusive with someone in your home, when you step on the gas and pull into a parking space ahead of another driver who wanted it too, when you vote for or against a measure because your vote will help you while it hurts someone else, Cain is killing Abel yet again.
So what are we to do? Our Gospel lesson this morning from John 1 showed us Philip finding Nathaniel and bringing him to Jesus. Just before that reading was the story of a brother doing that same thing for his brother. Andrew brought Peter to Jesus. That’s what we are to do. The only hope for brothers and for sisters in this world is for us to bring each other to Jesus. Only Jesus can set us free and help us master than sin lurking at the door which will makes us hurt and kill each other. Only Jesus can help us live together in peace as brothers and sisters in Him.
Instead of being angry and resentful with our brothers and sisters, let us reach out and bring them to Jesus. It will take some effort. God told Cain he would need to “subdue” his sin. That sounds like a struggle. That sounds like we have a ways to go. We do.
The 1999 movie The Straight Story tells the true story of how 73 year old Alvin Straight wanted to reach out to his brother from whom he had been estranged for years. But Alvin’s brother lived in a different state. Alvin had suffered a stroke and no longer had a driver’s license. So he hitches up a trailer to his John Deere tractor and drives 240 miles at 5 miles per hour from Laurens, Iowa to Mount Zion, Wisconsin.
When Alvin finally got there after his adventures you can see in the film, his brother Lyle looked at him and looked at the tractor and said, “Did you ride that thing all the way out here to see me?” Alvin says, “I did, Lyle.” No more is said. They just sit down together, reconciled.
That is our hope in Jesus Christ. When we reach across anger and hurt, across race and nationality, across the actual miles that separate us from others on earth, then we can sit down together in Christ, in peace with brothers and sisters who may live in our own homes or who may live on the other side of the world. That hope was why God was gracious to Cain and it is why He is still gracious to you and me. Let us accept that grace and accept each other.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2018 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj