I have never heard this passage from the early mythology of Genesis proclaimed and preached at a Reconciliation Liturgy. The tale of Cain and Abel is one of the saddest in the Bible. At least I find it so. In a mere nine chapters of the Bible, Genesis 3 through 11, humankind sinks desperately low. The acceleration picks up with the first murder:
The man had relations with his wife Eve,
and she conceived and bore Cain, saying,
“I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.”
Next she bore his brother Abel.
Abel became a keeper of flocks,
and Cain a tiller of the ground.
In the course of time
Cain brought an offering to the Lord
from the fruit of the soil,
while Abel, for his part,
brought one of the best firstlings of his flock.
The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering,
but on Cain and his offering he did not.
So Cain greatly resented this and was crestfallen.
The various commentaries on farmers versus ranchers do not interest me. Nor what seems to be the arbitrariness of God being pleased with one man’s offering and not the other’s. Likewise the curiosity that an infamous member of the second generation of human beings would need, somehow, to be identified with a mark. Are these the first people, or not?
What I do understand is the perception that God sometimes seems unfair and arbitrary. It seems natural to be angry or resentful. Note also that Cain was crestfallen–the NABRE says “dejected.” His inner tumult was not just directed at another, but consumed him in a particular mood. We can feel this way. God can also intervene then. Do we listen for the questions of life:
So the Lord said to Cain:
Why are you so resentful and crestfallen?
If you do well, you can hold up your head;
but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door:
his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master.
It is a truth that sin lies in wait for us. It’s not some personalized other to blame, at least not all the time. But something to entrap us when we choose not to overcome it. The NABRE passage doesn’t mention a demon, only the impersonal “it” of sin. Make of that edit what you will.
Now comes the sadness: murder and cover-up.
Cain said to his brother Abel,
“Let us go out in the field.”
When they were in the field,
Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Then the Lord asked Cain,
“Where is your brother Abel?”
He answered, “I do not know.
Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The Lord then said: “What have you done!
Listen: your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil!
Therefore you shall be banned from the soil
that opened its mouth to receive
your brother’s blood from your hand.
If you till the soil,
it shall no longer give you its produce.
You shall become a restless wanderer on the earth.
So Cain loses his relationship with his ability, being able to be a productive farmer. Serious sin sometimes results in separating us from not only the people we love, but the work we love to do. This kind of alienation, either as a punishment from a human source, or a loss of internal verve, often accompanies serious sin. How does the Christian community leave a path open for a penitent without creating a situation in which the spiral of sin becomes all too easy? I don’t have the answer to that one.
Cain bargains with God, not unlike other Old Testament figures:
Cain said to the Lord:
“My punishment is too great to bear.
Since you have now banished me from the soil,
and I must avoid your presence
and become a restless wanderer on the earth,
anyone may kill me at sight.”
“Not so!” the Lord said to him.
“If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold. So the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest anyone should kill him at sight.
The Lord’s punishments so often seem magnified, especially if we have been lured into sin from a sense of personal unfairness. As a parent, I have found this extremely difficult. How to exact consequences for bad choices without allowing my child to descend into a deeper resentment and bitterness?
I would applaud any preacher who manages to speak effectively and fruitfully on this point. Any experiences out there with this reading, or in your own personal reflection?