Like many at this time of year, my Bible reading has brought me to the opening chapters of Genesis. This is my first full year using the Book of Common Prayer, and the lectionary travels more slowly through these ancient events than many reading plans I’ve used in the past. So I found myself this morning dwelling on the birth of the first sons, Cain and Abel, on Cain’s murder of his brother, and on the consequences of Cain’s sin.
Cain was a “worker of the ground” and Abel, his younger brother, was a “keeper of sheep.” In the course of their labors, both brought offerings to the Lord, but while the Lord looked with favor on Abel’s offering of the fat portions and the best of his flock, He did not look with favor on Cain’s offering. Because of this, Cain was angry with his brother, and though he had been warned against sin, he lured his brother into the field and there killed him under a sky that had never before seen human blood spilled.
The consequence of Cain’s sin was in keeping with the curse given after the fall: sin alienates Cain from God, from other people, and ultimately from creation itself. Note that the curse that God places on Cain, the worker of the ground, is that the ground itself shall no longer yield to him its strength. Where before he could work the ground and receive from it the fruit of his labor; now, because he has spilled his own brother’s blood on the ground, the ground will no longer receive him. Cain becomes then, in his own words, “A fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”
The bitter curse of sin makes creation--the place where we were to dwell in communion with God--a place in which we have no permanent home. Eden was a place of dwelling and rest for Adam and Eve, but in the Fall they were cast out from it. This alienation from creation becomes a theme threaded throughout the scriptures, and part of God’s redemption is taking alienated humans and creating a home and a land for them--one that anticipates the renewed creation, the lasting city in which God’s people dwell with Him forever.
I think the story of Cain and Abel offers us two ways of responding to the alienation caused by sin. Like each of us, Cain and Abel were born into the world after the Fall--a world still of incredible beauty, a creation that still proclaims the glory of God, and yet a creation now marred by sin and terribly ruined by evil. Cain responded to the curse of sin and his lack of a permanent home by attempting to make the land his home. He worked the land (no sin in itself) but made the land and its provision his idol, so he was angered when God insulted his idol by rejecting his offering. Abel, by contrast, made no home in the land, but kept sheep, wandering as he did and offering the best of his flocks to the Lord. The difference between Cain’s unbelief and Abel’s faith was where they sought a home. Cain sought a home in the land and did not find it, but Abel desired a “better country”--a heavenly country, and because of the faith with which he anticipated this country, “though he died, he still speaks.” Abel did not offer a better sacrifice because God prefers mutton over grain--he offered a better sacrifice by faith, looking for the promises of God, while Cain had no faith, but sought his own promises.
This is why Cain is so obviously ruined by the curse given him--the Lord saw that Cain’s god was the land and his produce, and so he destroyed Cain’s idol. Cain was cursed to wander, but his wandering was never a wandering in faith. He wandered only until he could build a city of his own, a place to settle away from the presence of the Lord.
Cain had many sons. By the biblical account, his was a powerful and accomplished line--his sons invented tools and musical instruments and built cities. But they always sought a city and a home on the earth, and the line of Cain was marked by increasing violence and depravity. The sons of Abel, by contrast, are still alive today. Abel still speaks, and all those who live in faith, looking for a city “whose designer and builder is God”, are his sons.
These then are the two ways to live in the world after Genesis 3: the way of seeking to make our own home without faith, of loving the works of our hands overmuch so that we are destroyed when they are taken away or threatened; or the way of pilgrimage in faith, looking for the home that God promises while taking as a gift the temporary home He provides.