The first homicide in the Bible happens on page 3! With a handgun you can instantly destroy another life by accident, without even thinking. But beating someone to death with your fists….? And the killer not only gets away with it, but he literally receives a divine tattoo warning others not to harm him! We don’t talk about that part of Cain and Abel’s mysterious story. Why doesn’t the One God make an example of this heartless first felon and impose capital punishment?
According to Genesis, Adam and Eve are not far from Eden, settled by God somewhere to the east, when the man goes into his wife and she conceives. You can trace the arc of their dashed hopes. They call their first son Cain, an ancient adjective that denotes powerful. Life is still good. Eden is forfeit along with the nourishing presence of God, but maybe the serpent will show up again, this time with a better offer! Surely life can move forward, get better. By the time their second child is born, the optimism has faded They name him Abel, meaning emptiness, nothingness. In the aftermath of Adam’s downfall, life has suddenly taken a sharp detour south! Things have not worked out well, nor will they.
Cain grows up with his father’s interests, gardening, becoming a farmer. Abel is different: he raises livestock. Even after all their parents have done, the two men still hope for the favor of God. But as their story unfolds, they seek that divine blessing in different ways. When God esteems the meat offerings of Abel over the grain offerings of Cain, we generally try to explain it away as a result of sincerity: Cain is apparently less sincere. But there is a deeper truth at work here: don’t hurry past it.
Only three chapters later, Noah and his family will be directed by God to load up the ark with seven pairs of each species of clean animals, and one pair of unclean beasts. What’s more, Noah and his family already know the difference. This is not about food supplies because the diet on the ark is apparently vegetarian. And when the flood survivors are finally given permission to eat meat (9:3) they are told that all animals are acceptable for food- not just ritually clean ones. The additional clean animals are necessary for sacrifice- long before the Law is delivered in Exodus and sacrifices are ordained for the Tabernacle. The offerings that bring peace with God are about blood sacrifice- a life being offered up to Him. Truth is timeless for God; changeless. Adam and Eve may have stumbled onto this truth inadvertently when they realized leaves could not conceal their guilt and shame, so animals had to be killed.
Making an offering worthy of the Creator will require that Cain must go to his brother and exchange some grain for an animal. The world is small and the barter economy is second-nature. But Cain is convinced that should not be necessary- no matter what the One God might prescribe or prefer. He is offended by divine standards, convinced that his produce is just a precious as his brother’s livestock. This divine preference for meat is unfair. Why is he being penalized because of arbitrary rules set up by someone else before he was born? Today we call it victim psychology.
Don’t miss this: we’ve only come to the second generation of the human race, but we can already detect the cruel metastasis of sin as well as the origins of our 21st Century self-delusion. “Life is unfair unless I write my own rules.” Cain indulges his frustration until it morphs into resentment and animus.
The Creator God is not portrayed here as the Eternal Chess Master, coldly moving his human pawns from one strategic space to another. No, he seems more like an attentive parent here. “Is this anger thing working out for you?” he asks Cain. “This sin may feel like a kitten lounging by your doorway, but it’s actually a beast poised to devour you unless you deal with it!” When the rage finally pounces, Cain unleashes his fury on his brother, eventually pummeling him to death.
With the first murder comes the first hint that life and consciousness are more durable, more complex, than we have imagined. Abel’s heart is no longer beating, but his blood is still communicating. “Your brother’s blood cries out from the earth!” From the Father’s viewpoint, “the life of the flesh is in the blood.”1 Before Cain’s attack, Abel’s faithful life was in sync with God. After the crime, nothing has changed. When God poses that initial question, “Where is your brother,” the answer is not as glib as one might have imagined.
The Creator does make an example of the first homicidal maniac. Human beings find joy and identity in presence and place: the presence of God and community, and a place we can call home and find rest. But Cain will be banished from presence and place. In the original Hebrew language, he will spend the rest of his life anxiously roaming back and forth. Henceforth, the region where he will spend the rest of his life is the Land of Nod, literally the land of wandering. It’s where self-worship and victimology always lead human beings. And if this kind of existence initially sounds romantic or exotic, consider how it strikes Cain when the sentence is imposed. “Your punishment is heavier than I can bear!”2
Even in divine judgment, there is mercy. Cain will have years to be haunted by his crime, but he will also have space to look again and recognize a bitter heart and a hopeless life. Life everlasting can be found even in the opening chapters of Genesis. Second-chances are embedded there as well.
Lift up the Cross!