(This year, I am intentionally working my way systematically (again) through Holy Scripture. As a part of that I am writing short rough notes as I journey through Scripture. These are random, fluid thoughts. These are not formal essays or written sermons. There are no citations and I often convey the thoughts of others that I have read or encountered. These have become a part of my own theology and clearly I stand on the shoulders of others to see more clearly.)
Genesis 4:6–7 (RSVCE): The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Genesis 4:10 (RSVCE): Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground
There is so much going on in the story of Cain and Abel. There is the jealousy of one sibling over another, which seems benign if you ask me (the youngest of five children, so I get the giving and receiving end of that one). But it doesn't stop with the ebbs and flows of childhood blessings and the emotions they produce. It culminates in fratricide. A shocking violation of the familial bond and the bond of humanity.
It all starts with a gift to God (the first example of a corruption of religion leading to death).
There are many guesses as to why Cain was so upset over the gifts he and his brother gave God. Some point to the sacrificial structure of ancient Judaism that seemed to favor animal sacrifices in the Temple and beyond and Cain being upset because his fruit of the ground would never measure up. But evidence abounds of grain and fruit offerings to God. Others point to God's favor and Israel's emphasis on the nomad instead of the farmer. We will soon see in Abram (Abraham) that God chose a sojourner. His descendants would do the same (Deuteronomy 26:5 (RSVCE): 5 "And you shall make response before the Lord your God, 'A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. ). And yet, agriculture in the Garden of Eden was seen as man's original occupation, and Cain was following in his father's footsteps as a tiller of soil.
One of the most plausible reasons for Cain's distress over the gifts for me comes in the description of the gifts themselves. Abel brought "the firstlings of his flock and the fat portions" while Cain simply brought "an offering of fruit from the ground." (Genesis 4:3-4). The gift of Abel was the first thing he did and the best he had, while Cain's seems more of an afterthought. One seems open hearted while the other seems like an afterthought or one that was at least given somewhat grudgingly.
We live in a world of self-reference. It's easy to make it all about us. We can even fool ourselves into thinking that we don't make it all about us, but if the layers get peeled back, the same selfish center is there. David Brooks says that the world is filled with vulnerable narcissists. "Vulnerable narcissists are the more common figures in our day—people who are also addicted to thinking about themselves, but who often feel anxious, insecure, avoidant. Intensely sensitive to rejection, they scan for hints of disrespect. Their self-esteem is wildly in flux. Their uncertainty about their inner worth triggers cycles of distrust, shame, and hostility."
God warns about this "hostility." God tells Cain that he should not engage in the comparisons that lead to jealousy and bitterness. Cain needs to focus on doing what he can and doing it well. "And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it." Genesis 4:7–8 (RSVCE). It takes action on our part.
Worship is not just checking the boxes or dialing it in. The story of Cain and Abel shows us that the worship of God and the relatioship we have with God is one that should contain a devotion of heart. We continue this today as we are asked to examine our hearts before coming to the Table for Eucharist. This also shows that God wants the best of us. Providing God the leftovers or the things we don't really want or need is not sacrificial. It doesn't show a heart inclined to recognizing God as, well ...God. Are we giving God the first fruits of our lives and day? Do we stop to pray or even give thanks first, or do we scroll our social media accounts to check out the latest pictures or number of likes our last post received? This says something about our hearts and priorities.
It's easy to get defensive when we feel convicted in some way by how we spend our time or what we ultimately offer to God. We become masters of justification. "Well, I may not pray, worship, tithe or other things God asks, but I do this or that which must count for something!" We begin to lean on God's nature without even trying.
Jealousy and envy of any kind will eat away at us. Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice called it "green-eyed." It clouds and even changes our vision. We begin to see others in a harsh light. It turns us in on ourselves, our worlds and what we think we deserve. We can become bitter and bitterness ultimately poisons us against God and our brother/sister. If we are not careful, it will result in death. Hopefully not death by murder, but a painful death nonetheless. The death of relationship and connection. A spiritual decay that casts out gratitude and replaces it with the loneliness born of self-reference.
I think this story from Holy Scripture also answers Cain's question: "am I my brother's keeper?" Yes. Yes you are your brother's keeper. We are called to relationship, not just with our families or those like us. The Scrpiture telling the story mentioned seven times that Abel was Cain's brother. It is stressing relationship and the importance of it. Cain violated a sanctity of the "good" life God created and suffered the punishment of being cast from society for a crime against society. And any crime against society is one against God. There is a moral principal that many commentators point out and it is the moral imperative that we are to care for society and "any homicide is fratricide."