The prayer of Cain

Reading: Genesis 4

The story of Cain and Abel is one of the ‘Sunday school’ stories that I remember the best.  I remember speculating on why Cain’s sacrifice was rejected, and I remember the phrase: “am I my brother’s” keeper quite well.  Thinking back on the guidance I received in interpreting this passage, I realize that I was very lucky to have such thoughtful adults who read the text carefully.

I remember the suggestion that Cain did not give his best.  This could have come from two places:  It could have come from observing that the passage describes the quality of Abel’s gift while it only describes the source of Cain’s.  This suggestion could have also come because my teacher was aware of this tradition of interpretation, which comes out of reading the Septuagint, where Cain is accused of ‘wrongfully dividing’ his gift (i.e. not carefully selecting a worthy gift.)

Whatever the reason was that God rejected Cain’s gift, the narrative has God approaching Cain about his attitude, and trying to correct him.  Even though God reaches out to Cain, Cain continues in sin and jealousy and this ends with the death of his brother.

What is remarkable is that God and Cain have a conversation after the murder of Abel.  God asks Cain, “where is your brother.”  Cain responds in a way that implies that he does not know — and God tells Cain where Abel is, and that he will be cursed.  Cain’s response is that the punishment is unbearable, and points out that he just opened up the possiblity that somebody might just kill him.  God then somehow marks Cain to show that he is not to be killed.

The prayer of Cain is remarkably like the prayer of Adam in that God approached Cain in his sinfulness.  God appeared as a judge passing sentence.  What is also remarkable is that when God passed sentence, God listened to the prayer of the guilty, and God mercifully gave the guilty what he needed.  Just as God gave clothing to Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness, God marked Cain as somebody who was protected — giving him the safety that he needed.

In the first chapters of Genesis, God is shown as a merciful judge, and as a provider that gives according to a person’s needs rather than a person’s merit.  God gives the sinner what is needed, even in the face of condemnation.  While God does not allow Cain to get away with murder, he hears the prayer of Cain, and grants his request.

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