RePicture: Cain and Abel

So, I have random thoughts that are quite speculative when it comes to understanding the Bible. Today is one of those thoughts. My thoughts today turn to the book of Genesis and the account of Cain and Abel. After thinking about the passage, I feel that the account is not so much a scene of religious rite, but a scene where God is the king and his subjects come before Him. To get there, we must first take a little digression.

God Walked with Man

During creation, God made man: “in his image.”[1] Many people have wondered about this phrase and have attempted to explain its meaning. Much of the explanations focus on the spiritual aspects of man, but part of me wonders if God made man after Him in a physical sense too. Now, God is a Spirit and knows no boundaries of physical limitations. But, whenever a Biblical author sees God—Isaiah, Ezekiel, John—God always has a human form and He always is Jesus. Maybe humans are modeled after the shape that the pre-incarnate Jesus took on. Do I know this for sure? No.[2] But I still think that it is possible.

If this idea is true, then when God is said to walk on earth, it may be referring to a pre-incarnate Jesus physically walking on the dirt. In the garden, the Bible says that Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.”[3] That is, God was coming toward them moving through the trees, crunching the grass and splashing through the streams. Later, we read about Enoch who “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.”[4] Noah also “was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.”[5] After the flood, these phrases end.

 

No more does God walk among men, until Jesus came thousands of years later.

 

I understand, these bits and pieces of information do not prove that God walked physically among men, but I think assuming this position can help us make sense out of the account of Cain.

God, Cain and Able

Genesis four opens a new account in the Bible. After the fall, we immediately jump almost 130 years into the future. Life has begun on this broken planet and people begin to multiply. The first recorded birth in the Bible is that of Cain. Apparently, Eve names him Cain because “I have acquired a man by Yahweh.”[6] The name Cain mean “Acquired”, and so Eve must have thought that Cain would be the son promised in Genesis 3:15.

She also had another son named Able. Now, his birth is not mentioned and his name means “Vapor” or “Vanity.” He just appears in the text. No explanation for his name is given, as opposed to the names given to Cain or Seth. This raises an interesting question, why is his name Vapor? My guess is that the name was an epitaph given to him after his death. His murder was famous as the story of his death echoed throughout the coming generations, perhaps affixing the name Vapor after his death.

As you have probably read the story, Cain and Able came before God to present their sacrifices. Now, as far as we know, there was no temple, no priesthood, or sanctuary to offer sacrifices. In the text, there isn’t even an altar mentioned, much less smoke or fire. So what is going on? If we think about it, God is still physically walking on earth, there would be no need for any of those things. Man could come straight to God with the offering.

I also want to point out that this word for “sacrifice” can also mean words like gift, alliance, homage, and tribute. It is that last word that I believe is being used in this passage. Cain and Able were not doing religious duties to God in a temple, they were bringing their tribute to Him as their King.

I picture the scene like this: God appoints a time every year for his creation to come to Him and present a tribute—showing their love and devotion to Him. The day is approaching for Cain and Able to come to God, so they both take what they have—Cain a Farmer, so he brings crops; Able is a Shepherd, so he brings rams—to give to the King.

The day comes, and they both enter the presence of God (maybe near the garden?). Cain lays the produce at the feet of the King. Vapor (Able) leads the best of his flock to lay before the King. But get this next part, “Yahweh looked favorably to Able and to his tribute. But, to Cain and to his tribute, he did not look favorably.”

Why did God look favorably on one and not the other? Did Cain do something wrong? Was he in sin? At this point, it is critical to stick with the text as far as we can go. Many people begin to read into this text that God required a blood sacrifice and that Cain sinned because he did not bring an animal. However, this event is way before God mandated blood sacrifices. Besides, even when God did mandate blood sacrifice, God also mandated grain/cereal offerings as well, so what would be wrong with Cain bringing a grain offering here? Also, there is no Biblical commentary on this text that would lead us to arrive at this conclusion.

Rather, I think what is going on here is not that God rejects Cain’s tribute, but that he looks more favorably upon Abel’s tribute. Thus, it is not a matter of being sin that Cain did, but the fact that Abel’s tribute was better than Cain’s. The text confirms this when it says, “Abel himself brought in also the best of his flock and their fat.”[7]

Standing with his brother in the presence of God, when God looked favorably on Abel’s offering, Cain got jealous: “it caused Cain to be very angry and his face fell.” And it is as if God looked over at Cain, noticed his anger and said, “Why is it angering you? And why is your face fallen? If you do better, will you not be exalted? But if you do not do better, at the entrance the sin is crouching and it desires you, but you must master it.”[8] It is as if God is saying, “Cain, if you bring a better offering, you will be exalted just like your brother. But if you do not, sin—this jealous rage—is ready to destroy you. But you must conquer that jealous rage.”

Then, the two of them left the presence of God and on their way home, then Cain rose up and slew his brother. And because of his actions, God cursed him. He is driven away from God and his people into the Land of Wandering on the other side of Eden. In the end, Eve gives birth to another son, and named him Seth—which means, “In the Place of,” “because God granted to me another descendant in the place of Vapor (Abel) because Acquired (Cain) killed him.”[9]

Big Picture

Why is this account significant? What difference does it make to you and me? The greater purpose of the account is not to describe the proper way to approach God, although we can glean some truth there. The account is not about not getting angry or jealous—though those truths are evident.

The point of the account is to tell you why Seth became the selected descendent and not Cain. God had promised, about 130 years earlier, that he would raise up a descendant of Eve who would destroy the Devil. So, she believed it would be her immediate son who would destroy him. Yet, when Cain killed Abel, both lost the ability to be that descendant—one because of death, the other because of a curse from God. So, when Seth was born, Eve hoped that he would be able to conquer the Devil.

We know, however, from later revelation, that Seth did not conquer the Devil, but his descendant—who is Jesus—was the one who won that battle. He is the designated one whom God promised to Eve.

Your Picture

On an everyday level, this account teaches us about faith. When Abel presented his tribute, he did it by faith. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks.”[10] The simple matter is, Abel trusted God, so that he gave his very best to God. Thus, part of your expression of faith should be to include doing your best for God.

 

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Ge 1:27.

[2] I haven’t thought through all the ramifications of this idea, so if it leads to heresy, someone tell me and I can change my thoughts.

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Ge 3:8.

[4] Ibid., Ge 5:24.

[5] Ibid., Ge 6:9.

[6] Free Translation

[7] Free translation.

[8] Free translation.

[9] Free translation.

[10] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Heb 11:4–5.

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