Chapter & verse: Genesis 4:1-16
Francis Brienen takes a fresh look at the story of Cain and Abel
Well known stories run the risk of being routine. The Cain and Abel story is no exception. Centuries of interpretation, from the New Testament through to Calvin and beyond, has described Cain as evil and Abel as a man of faith. What do you remember from the story? Probably this: Cain killed his brother and when God asks him where his brother is he pretends not to know and says: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
There is much to this story of two brothers: Cain the firstborn, brought into the world with the help of the Lord; and Abel whose name is not explained but which means fleeting breath, vapour, nothingness. (What’s in a name, indeed!)
‘Am I my brother’s or sister’s keeper?’ is of course an important question, but surely we know the answer to that. The questions this passage leaves us with are perhaps more difficult to answer: who is God? Can the one who calls us on a journey be trusted to keep us safe?
This first encounter with God outside of Eden may well leave us wondering, for at the basis of Cain’s murderous deed lies an arbitrary act of God. Both brothers bring an offering. Both bring something that is fitting for what they do – one is a farmer, the other tends the flock. One’s gift is accepted and the other’s is not. Where some English translations seem to suggest that Abel’s sacrifice is of higher quality, the original text does not say so. Both brothers could expect that their offering would be accepted, but Abel finds favour and Cain is snubbed. No wonder his face falls. Life is unfair, God is arbitrary…
This is an extract from the November 2016 edition of Reform.