Throughout this series I’ve been making reference at times to a hypothetical person reading through the Bible and coming upon these awkward, difficult to understand, or boring passages and having different reactions to them. I’ve actually been basing that visual on an actual experience I had when I was doing youth ministry, one of my students came to me in January and said he wanted to try to read through the Bible in the year. Good kid. Sweet kid. Not a big reader though. So I’m talking to him and I say “that’s great, let’s start with Genesis and see how it goes,” because that’s a smaller goal and if he is enjoying it and getting something from it we’ll go from there. We made a plan, I was going to read alongside him so that we could talk about as he’s going through. He gets through the first three chapters of Genesis pretty well, but when we were talking about chapter 4 I could tell something was up. So I asked him, “you’ve obvious got something on your mind, what’s up?” And he got quiet for a second and then finally he said “it seems like He’s just making it up as he goes along.” “He” of course meaning God. Because reading this story had left my friend with the same feeling that maybe a lot of us are left with when we read through the account of Cain and Able, that confusion, that question: what exactly did Cain do wrong?
Not when we get to the murder obviously, God’s reaction to that makes sense. The question is about what sparked Cain towards murder, what caused his offering to be rejected while Able’s was accepted? And buried deep down in that question is a bigger one, “what do we with the times that God’s will seems arbitrary? What do we do when it seems like God is making it up as he goes along?” There are million questions that can come out of that one, why does God seem to act in some cases and not the other. Why are some blessed and others suffer? Why are some miraculously saved from disease and others not? Why does there not seem to be rhyme or reason to it all?
Let’s start with Cain and Able, that one seems a little easier. The story is fairly straight forward, after being banished from Eden, Adam and Eve settle down and start a family. Initially they have two sons: Cain who grows up to be a farmer, and Able who becomes a shepherd. One day both brothers come to present a sacrifice to God, which might give us pause because no one has told them that they need to do that, but doesn’t seem to phase the author of Genesis. Quick, good reminder to us that we’re reading something that wasn’t necessarily written with us in mind. For a culture that regularly offers sacrifices its obvious that Cain and Able would also do so, we don’t offer regular sacrifices so we wonder how they knew to do it. Cain brings fruit from the soil, maybe literal fruit, maybe vegetables of some kind, maybe both, and Able brings the fat of some of the firstborn of the flock. God looks favorably on Able’s offering and rejects Cain’s, setting off the series of events that leads to Cain being consumed by rage and murdering his brother. So what was wrong with Cain’s offering? The answer is we can’t know for sure, the text doesn’t say, but we can speculate a little.
One theory is that God hates farmers. We’re starting with the most out there ideas and working our way back. We know that by the time of the New Testament shepherds were looked down on but some folks think that for much of the Old Testament that wasn’t the case, that the people of Israel were predominantly shepherds before they began to farm extensively. The terrain backs that up, there’s only so much land suited for farming in Israel, and we also know that David was a shepherd before becoming king, showing that the profession wasn’t looked down on like it would later be. The idea is that God specifically prefers the offering of meat to produce, and by extension prefers shepherds to farmers. After all, the Lord is my…what? Shepherd, not farmer.
Maybe that works for you, but if not there’s another theory that kind of follows a similar logic, this one argues was that the problem with Cain’s offering is that it was bloodless. This one is a little more mainstream, you may have heard it before, blood is necessary in sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin in Jewish tradition, and of course Christianity keeps some of that blood language when we talk about Jesus’ sacrifice. The issue with that idea is we’re never told that they’re making a sin offering. There are a lot of different types of offerings and for many of them produce is deemed acceptable. So that one leaves something wanting as well.
Another argument deals with the quality of the sacrifice. English translations say that Able brought the fat portions from the first of his flock while Cain brought “some” fruit. And there’s a good lesson there right? That sermon writes itself pretty well – God doesn’t just ask “some” fruit from us God asks for our best. If we just give God the leftovers, if we just offer God “some” fruit, that offering isn’t going to be accepted. Good lesson, important lesson. Except that distinction is probably being overstated in our translations. It’s not really said specifically that Cain’s offering is of a lower quality, at least not in the physical attributes of the fruit itself. There’s no reason to assume that Cain is bringing rotten apples or something like that.
That word “some” doesn’t necessarily tell us about the quality of the fruit but it does give us some insight into Cain’s attitude. Able brings the fatty portions of one of the firstborn of his flock. Cain brings some fruit. Able had to set that specific lamb aside the moment it was born. Cain picked some fruit. Able prepared the offering ahead of time, selecting the best parts, working to make sure it was ready to be presented to God. Maybe Cain picked out a nice basket. There may not have been a physical difference between the two quality of the two offerings but it sure seems like there was a difference in attitude. It sure seems like there was a difference in effort. It sure seems like this was something Able sought to do and Cain felt obligated to do. Something that Able put effort into while Cain attempted the bare minimum.
It is a recurring theme throughout scripture, the heart of the offer-er matters more than the specifics of the offering. It seems, and we can’t know for sure, but it seems like Able’s heart was in a better place than Cain’s when he brought this offering. It definitely was afterwards. It seems like Able took more seriously the call to give back to God. It seems like Cain was looking to check something off and be done, and because of that his offering was found wanting.
Which maybe answers that specific question of Cain and Able, but it doesn’t deal with that other one, does it? We still haven’t wrestled with what it means when God seems arbitrary, when some prayers are answered and some are not. Some folks simply handwave those questions away and say “God’s ways aren’t ours.” Some people say that God is less involved than we might think at that it’s the world that is arbitrary, not God. But I think there’s a third way of looking at it that might give us some hope in the midst of the seemingly random world we live in.
In the beginning was God. And only God. And when God created, God created things that weren’t God. You with me so far? And so with every act of creation, God is giving up ground. Where once there was only God now there are all these things that aren’t God. Where once there was just God now there are creatures with free will. And for those creatures, for us, to live up to our potential, God has to let us go a little. God has to limit God’s self so that we can have space to be ourselves. And so it seems to us that God is arbitrary, because there are moment when we feel God very close and others where God seems far away. But God wants to know us and understand us, and so God enters the world and experiences that arbitrariness first hand. Jesus has moments when God is very close, his Baptism, the transfiguration. Jesus has moments when God seems far away, on the cross when he calls out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And so wherever we are on that spectrum, God can still be there with us. However we feel about God in the moment, God can still understand us. Whether we recognize it or not, God can still love us. And, like with Cain, God can call us to not let the dark times get the best of us. To trust then too. God can still move us out of those arbitrary moments.