Telling the story: Cain & Abel

given on Sunday, January 8, 2012

Telling the Story:  Cain & Abel

 

Background:  We are moving into a calendar time known as the Sundays after Epiphany:  January 6, 12 days after Jesus’ birth, the day the Wise Men arrived.  The Christmas Story now becomes the story of Jesus’ development into the man with a new message. 

         One of the questions that has floated around in the back of my mind is why do we need to study the Old Testament once we have accepted Jesus as savior?  The more I studied the Christmas Story, I found myself thinking about how a tiny infant would be raised.  The Old Testament was the primary teaching tool for those of the Jewish Faith, and Jesus was born into a Jewish household.  He was educated with the Old Testament.

         The priests, who were the teachers, too, relied on the Old Testament stories to teach the young people the proper rules for living within the faith community as well as the secular community.  In the local culture, the secular world was structured around the Jewish faith.  Even though Jesus was God, the physical human form had to be developed and to be accepted within the community; Jesus had to grow up just like the other kids in the community.

         Looking back at the Old Testament Bible Stories understanding the culture and the educational style is the lens through which various Bible stories will be studied.  One goal is to connect the lesson from the Old Testament to a lesson in the New Testament.

Just what lesson does the Cain & Abel story teach?

Based on Genesis 4:1-15

         How can a story of one brother murdering another brother in cold blood have any positive lesson for Christians today?  Surely we do not need to hear another violent story; there is enough murder and mayhem on the nightly news, on the various drama TV episodes, and in the movie theaters.  Why this story?  How can it possibly provide us any value when the Christmas story is one of love?

The answer may lie in a verse from Mark.  As the New Testament reveals the story of Jesus’ life, the lessons in the gospels focus on one overarching theme:  love one another.  In Mark 12:30-31 the connection may provide the key:

29-31Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.”  (the Message)

Cain and Abel were the first two children of Adam and Eve.  They were born after the couple ate the apple and were kicked out of the Garden of Eden.  Regardless of one’s understanding of the creation story or the sequential record of humanity’s development, the Bible stories provide a primary textbook for how to live and how not to live.  In Genesis 3 and 4, the story teaches how sin separates humans from God.

Adam and Eve failed to follow God’s law, and they were forced into the real world.  As they began their family, they experienced all the same battles families do now:  the need for the basics:  food, shelter, and clothing.  To provide for those needs, the men took various roles to work for those needs while the women continued to meet the needs by cooking, making clothing, and maintaining the homes.

Living in community, the personalities of family and non-family members differed and greed gets in the way.  The problem may have a different look in the 21st century, but it is the same problem that has created conflict throughout human history.

Cain worked as a farmer; he tilled the land and raised crops.  Abel was a rancher, so to speak.  He raised livestock rather than till the land.  The products they produced were different so the comparison of their gifts to God seems to be the source of conflict.  Cain provided an offering to God of some of his produce while Abel provided the best meat he raised.

The various interpretations of the offering agree that this is where the conflict begins.  God expected only the best to be offered, not just some of the gleanings.  The fourth verse provides readers the difference in God’s acceptance of the offerings:

Cain brought an offering to God from the produce of his farm. Abel also brought an offering, but from the firstborn animals of his herd, choice cuts of meat. God liked Abel and his offering, but Cain and his offering didn’t get his approval.

The reaction of Cain is the same as a similar experience is for us today:  he became angry.  Whether the trigger for anger is greed—Abel’s offerings were more valuable—or whether it was jealousy because Abel found more favor in God’s eyes than he did, anger took over.

As young children, early Jewish laws were taught from the Old Testament text.  Jesus, just like his peers, went to Temple for teachings and the story was used to teach them the right way to live.  The murder of one brother over the quality of the offering seems petty; yet it demonstrates that sometimes emotions boil up and lead us to make bad decisions.

Today, just like in the beginning with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and other related family members in the Old Testament, violent reactions occur over the same issues:  greed and jealousy are at the top of the list.  This week in our own metro area, the news has reported murders, robberies, and vicious behaviors that echo the Bible stories of conflict.

Have we learned any lessons?  Hopefully we have, but we need to check ourselves against the guidelines or the commandments that Jesus taught and are recorded in the New Testament.  Mark’s inclusion of the greatest commandment:

“The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.

If Cain had provided the best of his labor to God before anything else was done with his harvest, would the story ended differently?  We cannot second-guess the scripture, but we can learn the lesson.

In our lives today, are we offering God our best?  Are we passionate about our love of God?  Are we sincere in our prayers?  Do we put forth our best in using our intelligence and our energy?  Do we come to worship with the zeal that God is the basis of our lives?  Do we come to thank him for his love, his faith, and his guidance?

Cain did not.  Cain freely decided to murder his own brother out of jealousy and/or greed.  Cain sinned.

And what is the rest of the story?  Sin lead Cain to a frustrating, unhappy life.  Not only did he struggle, but also so did his family.  God did not strike Cain down; but when He did talk to Cain, he continued to show unconditional love despite his sin.

God’s punishment is that the land, where Abel’s blood was shed, would no longer produce well for Cain.  The result forced Cain to become a homeless wanderer trying to find a way to provide food, shelter and clothing.  And . . .

13-14 Cain said to God, “My punishment is too much. I can’t take it! You’ve thrown me off the land and I can never again face you. I’m a homeless wanderer on Earth and whoever finds me will kill me.”

God did not follow Cain’s behavior and kill him, no eye for an eye, or tooth for a tooth.  No . . .

15 God told him, “No. Anyone who kills Cain will pay for it seven times over.” God put a mark on Cain to protect him so that no one who met him would kill him.

God demonstrated to Cain what we are to do—he turned away from the sin, punished him, but then protected him.  There is a paradox of sorts in the story, but looking at God’s actions through the New Testament teachings one can see the application of the Greatest Commandment:  ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment  . . .

The story of Cain & Abel might first appear to be one to avoid, but if we look deeply into our personal history and our personal lives, I suspect there is a ‘Cain & Abel’ story hidden within our own lives.  Yet, it is how we deal with our sins that makes Jesus’ story so extremely important.  When we accept God’s grace, work to understand how Jesus was born, lived, and died for us, and then live our faith honestly, then we know that God’s unconditional love will provide us forgiveness and eternal life.

If Jesus can learn from the Old Testament Bible stories, then we can, too.  If we sin as Cain did, we can still turn to God and ask forgiveness.  God loves us.  Jesus loves us.  Do we love God so much that we can follow his example and love those who sin against us?  Remember Jesus’ Greatest Commandment:

29-31Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.”  (the Message)

As we depart today from the safety of our church, let us remember that the stories are there for us to use.  Let us go out and tell the stories so others may understand God’s love.

Dear Loving Father,

Today we hear the Old Testament Bible story

Of Cain murdering his brother Abel.

Let us find the lessons you want us to know,

Let us live the lessons we learn, and

Let us tell the stories to others

So they may also find the joy in Christian living.  –Amen

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