I was re-reading the story of Cain and Abel this evening. Maybe it’s because I pastor a church in the agricultural heart of Lehigh County and, as a food trucker, am a near-end user of so much of what our local farms produce, but I noticed something in the text I’d never really thought about before.
I remember from childhood that Cain raised crops and Abel raised meat, and Yahweh accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s. Cain was born first, “and Abel was keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.” Cain brought an offering of fruit, Abel the first of his flock and best potions thereof.
If Cain was a tiller of the ground, and Abel a shepherd, where did Abel get his feed? Were his pastures enough? In all conditions? In all kinds of weather? For all the ewes in their various cycles, and for all the lambs?
Scripture doesn’t say why Yahweh rejected Cain’s offering. The editorial school or tradition most likely to have produced this section of Genesis (the “J” or “Yahwist” source, named for its specification of “Yaweh” as the name of God) is also thought to have given us the story of Adam and Eve. Yahweh fashions Adam (from adamah, essentially a word for earth or soil) from the ground (Genesis 2:7). In Genesis 3:19, Yahweh reminds Adam that from dust, earth, and soil he was made, and to dust, earth and soil he shall return. Yahweh banishes Adam and Eve from Eden after their disobedience, where they are destined to work the land (adamah) for their survival.
Cain, their first born, is as closely connected to the land as they are. But Abel is at least one step removed from the earth-bound toil of his brother and parents. Certainly, successful, stationary animal husbandry requires more feed than the sparse pastures the rocky ground east of Eden provided?
If I were to make an admittedly radical assumption as to why Yahweh rejects Cain’s offering, I’d start by considering family systems. I’d speculate that Cain’s sacrifice reminds Yahweh not only of the failure of Eden, but of Yahweh’s own rash response. Cain, who tilled the soil, reminds Yahweh of his own loving creation of Adam from adamah, and of Yahweh’s outsized reaction to Adam and Eve’s transgression. Adam and Eve disobeyed Yahweh with the eating of a fruit, and it’s fruit Cain brings as an offering. In Abel, Yahweh finds one a bit more removed from this original dysfunction. It’s worth noting that Yahweh does not punish Cain with death, and vows to protect him from those who would slay him. If I were to offer a radical assessment, I’d suggest there are deep pathologies here.
If the bulk of the stories in Genesis are meant to be taken symbolically, we’d be less radical locating these pathologies in the hearts and minds of the people writing the Scriptures, or we might understand Yahweh’s rejection of Cain as a commentary on the tension between settled agrarians and pastoral nomads. We might take it as an indictment of personal property (though we’d need to find a way around Abel’s owning of sheep).
There are no clear answers within the story as to why Yahweh is displeased with Cain and his offering. There are two passing references to Cain in the New Testament (1 John 3:13 and Jude 1:11), both of which speak to the evil of Cain killing Abel. 1 John 3:13 claims Cain was “from the evil one,” and I believe it’s from that understanding that theologians have read evil motives back into Cain’s offering. They suggest he wasn’t giving his best, while it’s clearly stressed in Genesis 4 that Abel gave the best of his flock. That’s certainly what I was taught in Sunday School. You’d think, though, that the Yahwist would make Cain’s attitude, if it were the issue, a key part of the story.
There’s a lot we don’t and can’t know about this story. Here’s what we do: the Bible very clearly reflects the joys and heartbreaks of real family systems. Whatever the motivation behind his offering, Cain’s jealously at Yahweh’s seeming favoritism of Abel probably did not emerge in a vacuum. Maybe Yahweh favored Abel as a pattern, or, more likely, maybe Adam and Eve did.
It’s important to remember that when we study the Scriptures, we’re not simply interpreting a set of neutral or sacrosanct writings. The very act of reading Scripture is an act of encountering a diverse collection of people’s perceived, longed-for, and actual experiences with God. There is incredible richness in such an undertaking. Whatever else they’re meant to do, these stories, poems, parables, and teachings are meant to put us in conversation with ourselves as much as with each other. With our own preconceived notions about God and everything else. Understanding the Scriptures, even a little, requires engagement with other people. That’s incredibly important, especially if you believe or want to believe in a God who’s still speaking, a God who lives beyond story and page, beyond symbol or sacrifice.