Genesis 4:1-17: Cain and Abel

Reading: Genesis 4:1-17

Today our Sunday school lesson considered the events from Cain and Abel to God telling Noah there would be a flood. Last week, we talked about creation, and the Fall and somebody pointed out that Cain killing Abel must have been quite the shock to everybody; it would be the first human death, and evidence that humanity, left to decide what is right and wrong might make some seriously bad choices.

On the other hand, it is not so shocking to us. People kill other people, including close family members, every day. I would go so far as to point out that the story of Cain and Abel would not be so shocking to the original audience of Genesis. Think of how those who had survived slavery, and were threatened with genocide as the king ordered the midwives to kill the babies as soon as they were born.

When I compare the experiences of those who read the account of Cain and Abel to the narrative that describes how bad things were before the flood, that period of people whose hearts were focused on evil all the time sounds like a time of innocence. One murder, one assault, and two people killed in self-defense over a period of centuries isn’t exactly a description of a great evil filling the earth to a people who survived a genocide.

It also stands out to me that the story of Cain and Abel is not the story of ancestors. Noah and his family were of Seth’s line, so there are no descendants of Cain and Abel. This isn’t a family story, it does not give us a sense of a word that is much more evil than the one that we live in, nor would it give the nation of Israel a sense that the world before the flood was more evil than their own country. This makes me wonder why tell this story at all? There are so few stories chosen over a period of over a thousand years, so there must be a reason for the stories that are told.

Marcus Dobbs offered the explanation that this is significant because it is the first death, and therefore is the direct result of the fall. For Dobbs, the first death coming from sin going all the way from attitudes to murder, rather than from aging or accident, communicates the seriousness of sin. This would be constant with the idea that the “knowledge of good and evil” is not simply knowing the difference between right and wrong, but doing what is right in one’s own eyes; even if one manages to decide that murder is right.

I asked Karla what she thought of this story, and what stood out to her was that Cain and Abel are brothers; she observed that the first murder was about a conflict within family and that this passage is a reminder that when we harm others, we are most likely to harm those who are closest to us. If there is going to be a murder, it is most likely to be somebody close — by far the most common sort of violence in our world is domestic violence.

As a student back at Friends University, I had a teacher who was an Old Testament scholar who loved Archaeology, and he saw this as a story of the same conflict that Abraham’s family faced through the last half of Genesis — namely, that Abraham and his family were nomadic herdsmen and the great powers of the world, such as Egypt, fed themselves with grain from their farms.

While Abraham is using stone knives, Egypt is possibly the most developed nation on Earth. Egypt grows grains, they make tools out of metal, they have an irrigation system, a powerful military, and a trade network that includes the Assyrian and Hittite empires. Working metal is the key to Egypt’s power; without Bronze, there are no blades to cut wheels; so there is no pottery, no wagons, and no chariots. There is no metal to put a blade on a plow, nor to make a blade for a shovel. Widespread farming, extensive trade, imperial warfare, and I might add cities, cannot exist without metal.

Between the most ancient method of foraging and hunting for food and depending on farms for the bulk of the food, people started to domesticate animals. It proved easier to keep relatively gentle animals around and to make sure they were able to graze than to chase herds as they went from grazing area to grazing area. Life moved from chasing the herds to leading them, and nomad herdsmen developed a wealth of livestock that was passed down for generations. Just because people started plowing fields didn’t mean people stopped raising cattle; Without cattle, there is neither milk nor meat. We need fields for bread, and cattle for beef and cheese otherwise we have no cheeseburger.

If there was one thing Bronze age farmers hated though, it was migrant herdsmen bringing their animals anywhere close to fields. Farmers, as you know, are tied to the land. Farmers work the same land year after year and they live and die based on whether or not the land produces. Migrant herdsmen live by their livestock, but they have no attachment to the land. The herdsmen move on to fresh land once they used the old.

This fight, of course, didn’t exactly go away in the bronze age. When people talk about the history of the west, that history includes cattle drives that were very destructive to homesteaders who found crops destroyed as cowboys moved cattle across country to where they would be sold. Being from the old west, I grew up with the idea that one of the worst crimes that could be committed was cutting fences so that cattle could go onto a farmer’s field. The hostility was such that in 19th century Kansas, a number of cities forbid cowboys to enter the city.

These days, we use trains and trucks to drive cattle, and ranchers either own or lease the land their cattle live on so that the modern equivalent of cowboys drive trucks. The old fight between cowboys and farmers is a thing of the past; that being said if your cows get in your neighbor’s corn it is likely to strain your relationship with that neighbor.

Perhaps Moses felt it important to tell the story of Cain and Abel, because his ancestors settled in Egypt, and Egyptians, being farmers, hate herdsmen. Egypt was, at first, hospitable — they offered a place for Joseph’s family away from the Nile Valley where they farmed, but as Jacob’s family grew larger and more wealthy Pharaoh ordered every male child of Israel killed. Egypt attempted to kill Israel, just as the farmer Cain killed his brother Abel… but God favored Israel. Egypt turned the power of its emperor on nomadic herdsmen turned slaves, and neither the bureaucracy nor the armies of Egypt could defeat Israel.

Unfortunately, I can’t go back in time four thousand years and sit down and talk with somebody about what we read in Genesis. Any commentary that I can find on this passage written long after the Bronze Age was forgotten. The oldest commentary I read asks questions such as why did God reject Cain’s offering? Early Christians felt that it was either because Cain sorted his offering, and offered God what was substandard while Abel gave what was precious; Augustine offered an alternative to this view, suggesting that Cain’s heart was in the wrong place, and as God cares about the heart first this made the gift unacceptable.

What I do know is when God asks: “where is Abel”, Cain answers: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain communicates the idea that he has no responsibility for his brother, and no interest in his brother’s well being. When I was a child, my parents taught me that this question is central in interpretation — because the correct answer is “yes, you are your brother’s keeper.” You see, if Cain had no personal interest in his brother’s well being, then it would not be necessary to kill him; it might be easier to just let him die easily.

You see if we believe that humanity is created in God’s image then we should value humanity. Refraining from the act of killing somebody else is not enough. One example of this truth is David, who was guilty of murdering his friend Uriah. Uriah, as you know died in battle at the hands of the enemy, but he died because he was abandoned where the enemy would kill him. Because we value the image of God, we don’t leave the image where it will be destroyed easily. We are our brother’s keeper. You see, once we move on to what Jesus says, and what we read in places such as the book of James — we don’t just care whether our actions harm another; we care about the needs of the other. We are called to love, we are called to care, we are called to do the work of Christ, to bring life and restoration.


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Pastor at Raysville Friends Church

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