Our adult Sunday school class was discussing the story of Cain and Abel recently. Overall, I was pleased with how it went. There were new ideas that I hadn’t thought of before which with such a familiar story is not a small achievement.
A large part of the discussion was centered on why Cain’s offering wasn’t accepted, the consensus being that his lack of faith was more important than the kind or quality of his offering (though we also discussed the need for a blood sacrifice, which Cain’s was not). And similarly, that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted because of his faith (we are told this in the New Testament).
But I don’t think we went far enough back. Yes, faith makes one’s worship acceptable and another’s not. But faith itself, we are told, is a gift from God. Then the question becomes why did Abel have faith and not Cain? And the answer cannot be found in the men themselves but only in the will of God. The truth is we are all Cains. The real question should be why did Abel have faith? It’s not Cain’s situation which should surprise us; if anything, it should hit too close to home. It is Abel’s position that should make us stop in our tracks.
Genesis one shows is how the world was created. Genesis two shows us creation again, and particularly our place in it. Genesis three shows how it all went wrong. But in Genesis four we begin to see the solution. Only, it is an unsatisfying solution, because we want to be able to guarantee that we will be Abels and not Cains. But all Scripture tells us on the issue may be summed up when it speaks of another pair of fighting brothers: “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”
The way we usually approach Genesis 4 reminds me of what happens when we hear someone else’s child is very ill or even dies. I see this in the diabetes community. When a child passes away from type 1 diabetes, we all want to be able to say that the parents were lax somehow. Maybe they didn’t get up three times a night to check their child’s blood sugar. Or maybe their teen was not compliant. We want to be able to point fingers and say “they went wrong here” because secretly inside we are scared that will be us some day and we want to be able to say “that will never happen to me because I will never do X.” So likewise when we read Genesis 4, we want to be able to point to Cain and say, “I will never be him because . . . ” But that is not where we are in this story. I think the whole point of Genesis 4 is that we are (or at least were) all Cain. There is nothing unusual about Cain that we should point at him and say “here is where he went wrong.” What should surprise us is that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted at all. After all, the blood of sheep an goats does not take away sin. But God still chose to look with favor on it because He chose first to look with favor upon Abel and to implant faith within him. That is the real surprise of Genesis 4.