This is what we talked about this week
This week's focus was on Genesis 4, the story of Cain & Abel. We opened with reading through the story, taking note of anything that stood out to us, or things that were "missing" that we expected. Here are some of the main points we talked about.
An Introduction to Common Themes
In this story, we are introduced to a lot of themes that run throughout the Old Testament and even into the New Testament. A lot of the scripture has consistent themes that build on Israel's identity as God's people and reveal how God works in the world. One of the themes we are introduced to here is the tension of the primogeniture which is a big word describing the state of being the firstborn child. In scripture, there will be this theme of younger brothers being favored over their older brothers, which is unexpected. In a patriarchal society (like ancient Israel), a lot of importance is placed on being the firstborn son. The firstborn son receives the family blessing and will one day become the head of the family. Time and time again in scripture we see a younger sibling being chosen for something or receiving favor over his older siblings. Abel, Cain's younger brother, receives God's favor over Cain. Jacob receives his family blessing from Isaac instead of his brother Esau. Joseph becomes an advisor to the Pharaoh and is the youngest of Jacob's sons. David is considered so insignificant that he is not even brought out to meet the Samuel until Samuel asks for him.
We also are introduced to the idea of exile to the East. Cain will be left to wander the earth to the east of Eden. We see this theme in other periods of Israel's history. During the Exodus, Israel wanders in the wilderness to the east of Egypt, where they are tested for 40 years. During the Babylonian exile, Israel is taken to the east, away from the promised land, and they are tested for a period of years under Babylonian rule.
Why is this significant?
These common themes set the stage for later stories that become part of Israel's identity. God chooses to work through the younger sons, using those we wouldn't expect. God sends people into exile for a time of testing and strengthening. People's name carries a lot of weight because they tell us something about the person before we even hear their story.
The opening conflict in the story of Cain and Abel centers around their offerings to God. Immediately we are introduced to a worship of God through offerings/sacrifices. In the context of this passage we have not heard anything about an order of worship for God or expectations of our offerings, or how they are presented, instead we are simply introduced to Cain and Abel giving offerings to God.
Why is this significant?
We came up with two possible interpretations for the inclusion of worship into this story.
- The idea of worship and how to conduct worship are a given and the author felt there was no need to explain worship or have God introduce the idea of proper worship/offerings.
- Worship is included as part of the creational context. It is something innate to our relationship with God and a part of who we are as God's creation.
We expanded on the second interpretation by asking the question, "Are we drawn to worship God?" The consensus from the group discussion appeared to be that we are drawn to the idea of something greater than ourselves, whether or not we recognize that as God or humble ourselves to it is up to the individual. Sometimes we are also drawn to worship God for selfish reasons.
However you choose to interpret the inclusion of worship in the passage, this is the first mention of worship we see in the narrative of the Bible and that gives it weight to its place in the story of God and his relationship with people. Part of the relationship between God and humanity is that we worship God.
We also have a description of Abel's offering:
4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.
We are given no description of Cain's offering except that it was fruit (which makes sense because Cain was a farmer). The author does take the time to tell us something more about the type of offering that Abel gives, that it is of fat portions and from the firstborn of his flock. And we are told that God takes favor with Abel's offering. We are given no explanation for why God takes favor with Abel's offering over Cain's, we are left to infer that it is because of the type of offering that Abel gives, and offering of fat portions and from the firstborn of his flock.
Why is this significant?
The author took the time to give us a description of Abel's offering because it is important enough to note. In an agriculture based economy, you sink a lot of money into your crop or livestock in the beginning of the season. You are buying seeds, plowing fields, buying feed, keeping your livestock healthy, and all of these costs add up. You only receive money when you harvest your crops and sell them or sell/butcher your livestock and you are never quite sure how your profits will turn out. You can have a low yield of your crops, your animals can get sick, or the market can be oversaturated and you don't receive enough of a profit when selling.
If you ever drive by large farms this time of year what you will see sometimes is crops rotting in the field. This is because the farmer will harvest until the market turns and the crop is no longer profitable to harvest, the rest of the crop will be left in the field to rot instead of sinking more money into harvesting it.
All of this is to say that when Abel gives fat portions from the first of his flock he is giving his very best, the cuts of meat that would have brought the most profit, and he is doing this before he knows whether or not he can cover his losses. Abel's offering is deemed good because it requires an act of faith on his part. Faith that God has provided him enough to support himself, or faith that God will sustain him in the event that he did not. Abel is giving to God first, and we are left to assume that Cain is giving to God out of what is left over after he has already provided for himself.
This again tells us something about the type of relationship that God wants with us, a relationship where we trust in God fully.
A Warning of Sin & Free Will
After God shows Abel favor for his offering we are told that Cain is unhappy and God confronts him about it. During this confrontation, God warns Cain,
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.”
This is the first time in the story that we are introduced to the word "sin." When God brings it up he simply warns Cain that if he chooses the wrong path he will fall into sin, but he does nothing to stop Cain. Ultimately God allows Cain to choose his response because we are given free will.
Why is this significant?
True relationship requires choice. God invites us into a relationship with him but we must choose it. If we choose to disobey and sin then we also choose to separate ourselves from God and there are consequences to our actions. God gives Cain the choice to be in relationship with his brother and with God, but Cain chooses to kill his brother instead. As a result of his actions Cain is left to be a wanderer.
Other Points Discussed
Cain Kills Abel
There is a lot of information in this chapter but most of it is not about Cain killing Abel. In the entire chapter only one verse is given to describe Cain killing Abel. We are given more information about the offerings, Cain's jealousy, and Cain's response to his punishment than are are about Cain killing Abel. This is because the focus of this story is not on Cain killing his brother, it is a device that drives the plot but the focus instead is on Cain's jealousy, reaction, and the direction that humanity is headed in.
Other People Exist
We are given some insight into the idea that other people exist in the world of Cain & Abel,
14 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.”
17 Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch.
Where are these other people coming from? It could be that they aren't worth mentioning or it could be that the author understood that the scripture account is not a historically accurate account which tells us everything we need to know.
The Trajectory of Humanity
After Cain is banished we are told a lot about his descendents. We are told that they are known for animal husbandry, music, and metal work. These types of developments in human history would have been prescribed to the work of other gods in other religions. In this account we are told of the creative nature of humanity. We are told of seven generations of Cain, paralleling the seven days of creation, and we are told of advancements in culture which fits with the co-creative role of humanity as described in Genesis 2.
While humanity makes great strides in culture they also become more violent. Lamech sings to his wives that he has killed a man simply for injuring him and that if anyone kills Lamech they will be dealt with 77 times over. Violence is escalating as time goes on and it appears that humanity is headed in the wrong direction. This is foreshadowing the need for the flood in later chapters.
And then there is Seth
We are also told that Adam and Eve have another son named Seth. Seth in Hebrew can mean compensation, and that is the role he plays in the story. He is born as compensation for Abel's death, how sad.
Lots of Information
That is a lot of information to cover in one week and all of that is just looking at one chapter. Imagine what else you may be missing when you just read the surface of the text. Maybe you should dive deeper with us next Monday at 7:00pm.