193) Cain and Abel (part two)

     (continued…)  We do not know much about Cain, but you do know quite a bit about yourself, and so now apply this lesson to your own life.  Do you think you would be qualified to make such a comparison between you and any other person on earth, no matter how well you know them, and decide who was more favored by God and more blessed?  You might see somebody with more money, but you may know nothing of their battle with depression.  You might see somebody with all kinds of friends, but you may know nothing of their family troubles.  You might see somebody that is younger than you are and already retired, but you may know nothing of the health problems they are facing.  You might see someone that really does have it all, but having it all is sometimes the very worst thing that can happen to a person.  Jealousy is such an foolish position to take on anything because one never has enough information to make a valid comparison.  Never.  You might be glad to trade places with someone’s savings account, but you would not want to have to take their bad heart along in on the deal.  You might want to have the athletic ability of your friend at school, but you would not want their home life with their abusive parents.  You might envy someone down the street who has a house in Florida and a cabin on Lake Superior, but you might not know that they have a grandchild dying of cancer.  If you could bag up all of your troubles and all of your blessings, and could trade the whole bag with anyone else’s bag of everything, you may very well look far and wide before giving up and being content with your own bag woes and joys. 

     In the story of Cain and Abel we have to pay close attention to what the Bible doesn’t say, because if we look only at what it does say, we might be tempted to accuse God of favoritism.  But we don’t have nearly enough information about Cain and Abel, just as we don’t have enough information to judge even our own lives, or make a valid comparison with anyone else’s.

     Cain did not have the wisdom to do that.  Cain quickly jumped to some ignorant conclusions about God’s fairness and became jealous.  God warned Cain to not let his anger get the best of him, even promising future favor and acceptance.  But Cain was too angry to hear God, and in a jealous rage went out and killed his brother.  Usually jealousy does not lead to murder; but it never does us any good, and it can lead to the loss of joy and even faith.  Jealousy can be defined as looking at someone else’s blessings instead of your own, and if you do that too much, you will begin to forget the many ways that God has blessed you, and then, perhaps, even forget all about God.

     There is one more thing that the Bible doesn’t say in this story that we need to consider.  God speaks to Cain with a warning and with a promise.  But God never does explain anything to Cain.  God says nothing about why his offering was not accepted.  And God isn’t going to tell you either why you have the troubles that you have, and why someone else seems to always have it better.  We never get such explanations.  But isn’t it interesting that we wonder about these things only in the negative?  We often ask during our troubles, ‘why is this happening to me?,’ but we seldom ask that question when all is well.  For example, you may well ask why someone else is able to afford more nice things than you, but you are far less likely to ask why you are in better health than most people your age.  And either way, we are never given the answer.  There is much in life that we are not told, but in this as in all areas, we are told enough, and we are then expected to trust in God for the rest.  That is what it means to have faith.  We can ask the unanswerable questions like ‘why do I have all these health troubles, family troubles, and financial troubles?,’ and ‘why can’t I have enough money and the good health to do what I want to do?’  Or, instead asking the unanswerable questions, we can go with what the Bible has told us and what we do know– God has given us this life with whatever blessings we have, and he has promised us an eternal life without any of the afflictions that we have here, and he has done this all freely and without any earning or deserving on our part.  There is so much more to be grateful for than to be jealous over.  Sometimes, in order to understand what a story means, we have to pay attention to what the Bible doesn’t say.  But even then, it is still most important to hear what the Bible does say, and the Bible says to give thanks unto the Lord, for the Lord is good, and his mercy endures forever (Psalm 106:1). 

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Proverbs 14:30  —  A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.

Exodus 20:17  —  You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.  You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Psalm 25:4, 5 —  Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths.  Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.

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Almighty God, give us a measure of true religion and thereby set us free from vain and disappointing hopes, from lawless and excessive appetites, from frothy and empty joys, from anxious, self-devouring cares, from an eating envy and swelling pride; so that we may possess that peace which passeth all understanding, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  

–Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683), English philosopher

192) Cain and Abel (part one)

     It is always a good idea to pay close attention to what the Bible says.  Sometimes, however, you have to pay attention to what the Bible does not say.  Take for example the story of Cain and Abel.  We will first consider what the story says, and then we will look at what it doesn’t say.  The story of Cain and Abel is told in Genesis 4:2-12:

     Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.  In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.  But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.  The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.  So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

     Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry?  Why is your face downcast?  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 master it.”

     Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.”  And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

     Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

     “I don’t know,” he replied.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

     The Lord said, “What have you done?  Listen!  Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.  Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.  When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you.  You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

"Cain kills Abel", a fratricide illu...

“Cain kills Abel” illustrated by Gustave Doré

     First of all look at what the story says.  Both boys were farmers.  Abel went into livestock and Cain was a cash cropper.  Both young men brought what they had for a sacrifice to the Lord.  Cain probably brought some of his best corn and soy beans.  Abel brings the best portions of the firstborn of his flock.  So far, so good.  But then things go wrong.  The Lord looks with favor upon Abel’s offering, but does not receive Cain’s offering with favor.  We are not told how this favor or lack of favor is shown, but the Bible does make it clear that one was favored and one was not.  Cain got angry about this, so angry that the Lord had a talk with him and warned him against doing something wrong.  Cain ignored the warning and went out and killed his brother.  And so, the first child born in this newly created world became the murderer of his own brother.  The Lord then questioned Cain on the whereabouts of his brother, and Cain said he did not know anything.  But the Lord, who knows everything, punished Cain, making him a restless wanderer on the earth for the remainder of his days.

     There is something very disturbing about this text.  Certainly Cain responded wickedly to the situation, but why did God create the situation?  Why in the first place did God not accept Cain’s sacrifice?  Both boys were performing their religious duties.  Both boys brought the best of what they had.  And there was no word of Cain doing anything wrong before this.  Why then did God respond the way he did, favoring one and not the other?  Doesn’t God share at least a bit of the blame by creating the opportunity for this jealousy?

     What the Bible says gives us no help in answering this question, so it is here that we have to begin to look at what the Bible doesn’t say.  And first of all, the Bible doesn’t say anything about any other sacrifices.  People in the Old Testament were often making such sacrifices, and so why should Cain get all upset about how just one of those sacrifices is received?  As I said, we know very little about this particular sacrifice and what was required by God, and how God showed his favor or disfavor– but we do know that it concerned only this one sacrifice.  And figuring out what God is or is not doing in this world is a hard enough business without trying to figure it out on the basis of just one event.  The Spirit moves when and where it pleases, said Jesus in the Gospel of John, and you cannot force or insist on God’s favor and blessings on your terms.  In fact, God even guaranteed Cain such future blessings, saying, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?”  The story tells us about only one sacrifice, and that is not nearly enough to go on, not for us and not for Cain himself, either.

     Furthermore, there are many aspects to life, many ways that God blesses us (or does not bless us); so how can God’s favor be judged on the basis of just one event in one area?  Here again, the Bible tells us nothing about the other aspects of the lives of Cain and Abel; but if they were like any other two random human beings who ever lived, we can well imagine that both had their own mixed bag of blessings and woes.  Certainly there would have been areas where Cain had the edge over Abel.  Perhaps Cain was healthier than Abel, perhaps he had better eyesight.  Perhaps the weather was good that year and he had a bumper crop; and maybe livestock prices were down, so Abel had to borrow some cash from Cain.  Perhaps Cain was more intelligent, stronger, better looking, more articulate, or whatever.  Even if the story was fifty pages long, and we knew much more about Cain and Abel, even then we would not be able to say which one was more favored.  The Bible doesn’t tell us any of this, and so here we have to pay close attention to what the Bible does not say and what we do not know.  All we know is about one sacrifice, and from that it may seem like God favored Abel.  But there is too much we don’t know, and too much that Cain didn’t know– so who are we, or Cain, to be sitting in judgment of God?  (continued…)

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Thanks be to you, Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have won for us, and for all the pains and insults which you have endured for us.  O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day.  Amen.  –Richard, bishop of Chichester  (13th century)