Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Genesis 4: Cain's Sacrifice

In the beginning, as you all know, God creates the heavens and the earth. Over a brief seven days, the Lord of the universe builds the world and populates it with plants, animals, and, well, us. If only all of my weeks were so productive.

And God is pleased with his work. A humble but concise self-promoter, he deems his creation "very good" (1:31) upon finishing the job, and sits down for a nice foamy latte. With whole milk. He's earned it.

But it takes fewer than three chapters for this above-average planet to play host to the first murder, as the third earthling, Cain, kills the fourth, his brother Abel.

How does something so "very good" go so very wrong, so very quickly?

And what, in this fledgling utopia, could drive Cain to homicide with such startling speed? The answer to this question has something to do with sacrifice, but that answer is not so simple as some would have you believe.

The Genesis author introduces both brothers by their occupations: "Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground" (4:2). Simply, Abel is the meat guy and Cain handles the crops. Hosting dinners, they can deliver nutritious, low-carb meals. And they'll cater your wedding for a very reasonable price.

When it comes time to give gifts to the Lord, each brother delivers the products of his labor--Cain "an offering of the fruit of the ground" (4:3) and Abel "the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions" (4:4). The Bible does not explain why the brothers feel the need to bring gifts to God; indeed, no such command has been given. And I always want to give both men credit for their politeness.

But politeness aside, the Lord only looks with favor on one of these gifts: "And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard" (4:4-5). Now, God does not punish Cain for his "regardless" offering, but Cain is angry nonetheless, and this anger--most believe--drives him to murder his brother, alone in the field.

But why does God prefer "firstlings" to "fruit"? It's a real mystery, but a consensus interpretation suggests that the Lord's choice is related to the early Israelites' vocation.

The first Hebrews--or so the theory goes--were themselves pastoralists. They, like Abel, were "keepers of sheep." Hence, God's "regard" for Abel's gift not only confirms the rightness of the Israelites' own sacrifices, but it also sanctifies the very practice of herding.

For many years, this explanation has made sense to me. But over the holiday break, I've been reading Jon Levenson's The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son--an innovative, accessible account of Biblical sonship and sacrifice. Levenson argues, cogently, that this standard reading of the unacceptability of Cain's sacrifice is wrong.

The early chapters of Genesis, he argues, seem to show a preference for agriculturalists like Cain. Indeed, in chapter 2, God asks Adam to "till" and "keep" Eden, effectively making him the first farmer. And as I've suggested earlier, both Adam and Eve--and presumably Cain and Abel--are vegetarians. So God's preference for Abel's meat is a bit idiosyncratic given its narrative context.

But for Levenson, this idiosyncrasy is both inexplicable and totally beside the point. We, like Cain, are not supposed to dwell on God's motivations--which must necessarily remain beyond our understanding. We will never know--indeed, we cannot know--why God likes prime rib and not eggplant. We can only remember to prepare short ribs the next time Yahweh comes for dinner.

What we can worry about is the only thing we can control--our reactions to God's action. Said more simply, Cain's sin is not giving a second-rate sacrifice. Cain's sin is killing his brother. Heck, God says it better than I can, so maybe I'll let Him have the last word:

"Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it" (4:7).

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