God’s a bad parent: Cain, Abel and the First Murder

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Although Adam and Eve – and through them the entire human project – has not gone as planned, God continues to observe and interact with humans, hoping to establish a relationship with them.

Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel. Abel was a shepherd and kept flocks, while Cain tilled the soil. When Cain and Abel brought offerings to God, Abel’s was “looked on with favor”. Cain’s was not. Why? Nobody knows. Maybe God was in the mood for lamb rather than wheat. Maybe he preferred the “hunter-gatherer lifestyle” to that of agriculture. The text does not tell us that Abel was in any way superior to Cain other than through the choice of occupation and their offerings to God. Both sought God’s favor, and Cain was severely disappointed when his offering was refused – he was “angry and downcast”. Cain wanted to be good. He wanted to be close to God. He had taken the first step and was refused.

Now a Christian reading of the story would tell us that “God is a mystery” – that his ways cannot be understood by men, and that he must be obeyed blindly, without understanding. This is also God’s own point of view on the subject; a fallacy he repeats throughout the Bible. “I am God. I don’t need to be fair or just. If I want to eat meat instead of bread, that’s my choice. I don’t have to explain myself to anyone.” But we are within reason to ask, how is Abel any better than Cain – only Cain was challenged with God’s unfounded disfavor.

Rubbing salt in the wound, God sees that Cain is upset and says, “Why are you angry and downcast? If you are doing right, surely you ought to hold your head high! But if you are not doing right, Sin is crouching at the door hungry to get you. You can still master him.” (Genesis 4:6)

This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Cain is upset because he received unfair treatment. If he is going to give his allegiance to a powerful deity, he demands that it be just. He feels instinctively that he deserves to be treated fairly – and he is the first human to recognize this. While he is sulking, God comes to him and says “you better stop pouting and control your emotions.” All he wanted was love, and instead was being told “shut up, crybaby”.

So, Cain takes Abel out in the fields and kills him. It may not have been the wisest choice, but he was perhaps the first human to feel discriminated against and he acted out.  When God confronts him, he says he doesn’t know where his brother is; “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God flexes his muscles and curses Cain to wander the earth. Rather than cringe with fear and grovel with repentance, as Adam and Eve did, Cain begins to bargain. He acts as his own attorney and gets God to alleviate the sentence. “Look, today you drive me from the surface of the earth. I must hide from you, and be restless wanderer on earth. Why, whoever comes across me will kill me!” (Genesis 4:14)

Most Christians would assume that the guilty have no rights before God. God is all-powerful and all-just, and so whatever he decides is fair. In most Biblical stories, however, the characters who wait for God to stop his blustering angry tirade of empty threats and reason with him calmly, can influence his decisions! So it is with Cain. God puts a protective mark on Cain, so that nobody would kill him. “Whoever kills Cain will suffer seven-fold vengeance.” This is a mark of tremendence power – it is a magical, God-given force field. Although Cain is theoretically “Forced to Wander”, in fact he only needs to remove himself from God’s presence. He settles in the land of Nod, East of Eden, and sets up a prosperous family. His lineage becomes powerful but cruel, and God’s “curse” is actually treasured as a mark of distinction. His great-great-great-great grandson boasts, “I killed a man for wounding me, a boy for striking me. Sevenfold vengeance for Cain, but seventy-sevenfold for Lamech.” (Genesis 4:22)

Although I cannot make a hero out of Cain for killing his own brother, as a blasphemer he shows many of the qualities I respect. He has an innate sense of self-worth and demands to be taken seriously and treated fairly. He knows God, but is not afraid to stand up to Him. (Being a Blasphemer takes infinitely more courage than being an Atheist). In the face of God’s wrath, he stays cool-headed and bargains – turning his punishment into a special blessing. Although manipulate may be too strong a word, there are certainly other instances where those who reason openly with God seem to get the upper hand.

The encounter also illuminates God’s attitude towards human transgression. While Adam and Eve had violated a direct order – THOU SHALT NOT EAT FROM THIS TREE – Cain had never been told that murder was prohibited; this was still before the 10 commandments. God was essentially ruling without a rule-book, and handling indiscretions on a case-by-case basis.

The cursing of Cain was an experiment which back-fired. Banishment had little effect on Cain, who seemed happy to go elsewhere and live freely. Worse still, the wandering Cain became a symbol that murderers would go free – under the apparent protection of God. By the time of Lamech, murder was commonplace.