For most Christians, Genesis 4 is a familiar passage of scripture. The story of Cain and Abel is recognized as the first incidence of murder recorded in the Bible. The story has intrigued Christians forever, because it raises an enormous number of questions—such as “What was the mark that was placed upon Cain?” or “Who were all the people that would supposedly kill him, and where did they come from?” or “Where did his wife come from?”—questions without immediate Biblical answers.
Another example: Why was Cain’s offering not pleasing, while Abel’s was? We can again offer speculative answers—such as the answer that Abel’s offering was acceptable because it involved an animal sacrifice while Cain’s did not, an unsatisfying answer in my mind because we know from Old Testament Law that both animal and vegetable offerings were given to the Lord. Another answer is that Abel’s offering was acceptable because it was from the best of the flock while Cain’s was not of the “first fruit.” This is possible, but scripture simply says that “Cain brought some of the fruit of the ground.” Thus, to say that it was necessarily second best is inserting information that is not in the text.
The point of these speculative answers is to try and help us make sense of the story. But what if making sense of it is missing the point?
In life, things happen that don’t seem to make sense. There’s a certain amount of randomness to events in life. And sometimes those events have very painful consequences. Just this week, my wife, Becky, and I heard from one of her oldest friends that her 16-year-old nephew had been killed in an ATV accident. I looked up statistics of ATV accidents in the US and discovered there are between 300 and 400 ATV-related deaths every year, but over 44,000 ATVs were sold in the U.S. over the last 4 years. There are literally thousands upon thousands of teenagers and adults riding ATVs in the U.S. every day without incident. Why did Traci’s nephew have to be killed on one? I think it’s clear that a certain level of randomness seems to be a part of this world.
Some believers do not want to accept this. They prefer to believe that everything happens for a purpose. Just like the stories of Job and Joseph from the OT, they want to believe that at the end of every suffering story there is a reversal and a happy ending. But that does not seem to be the case. What we are left to deal with is what looks like randomness that has no meaning. Perhaps this is the point of the Cain and Abel story. Perhaps God is trying to teach us very early in the scriptures that the world we live in may seem capricious: two offerings are given, and one is accepted, one is not.
But the critical part of the story comes after God addresses Cain, saying, “if you do what is right, you will be fine.” Some have again speculated that God was addressing the way that Cain had sacrificed—that there was a “right” way and a “wrong” way to do it. I think this is the wrong interpretation. If the story is about how apparently random events affect our lives, the “do what is right” exhortation is really addressing how to handle these events.
Obviously, Cain did not do what was right, because he let his anger overcome him, spurring him to kill his brother. So God was correct: sin was “crouching at Cain’s door.” What was the “right” way that Cain should have taken? What is the “right” way for us when life seems capricious and unfair? From the beginning to the end, the Bible has the central theme of faith. From Abraham through the Apostles, there stories all revolve around the practice of having faith in God. In fact, Hebrews 11:6 says that it is impossible to please God without faith. Perhaps this is the “right” way that God was referring to. We can again go back to the Old Testament stories of Job and Joseph to see that they seem to do it “right.” Throughout their trials, which appear to have been thrust upon them unfairly, (especially Job), they still held on tight to their faith in God. Question God? Yes. Cry out to God? Absolutely. But, give up on God? Never.
Perhaps the stories of Job and Joseph are in the scriptures to help us with our faith. Through these stories we get to peer through the curtain and see beyond the randomness of this world. To see that God is working and moving in ways we can’t understand. For every Job, there are millions of people who have suffered incredible loss without restoration. For every Joseph, there are millions who have been mistreated, abandoned and enslaved and have died in their slavery and abuse. I think this passage is addressing the doubt that comes upon us when this random, capricious world shoves us down a path we would never have chosen for ourselves. In those times, God is asking us all the question, “Are you going to do what is right, or will you allow crouching sin to dominate you?”
You can reach Dr. Tim Wakefield at TWakefie@jbu.edu