Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

                        Genesis 4.9 

(A little longer than usual, but hopefully a rewarding read.)


We don’t know the age difference between Cain and Abel or how old they are when The Incident takes place. They might be 18 and 16, respectively, or 30 and 21. The little we’re told, however, provides telling clues about their home life and personal characters. Cain is Adam and Eve’s firstborn—the first child ever conceived by humans. They name him for the Hebrew word meaning “acquired,” a gift, in other words, leading us to suspect they prize him as a miracle baby, which he is. Abel’s name supports this. When he comes along, they label him with the word for “vaporous breath,” a rough equivalent of “candle in the wind,” i.e., worthless. Although Abel’s name ends up ironically apt for one whose life is snuffed out, it’s hard to imagine a brother called “Gift” and another called “Worthless” getting along very well.

The disparity in names helps explain why Abel becomes a rancher and Cain a farmer. It also hints at why God honors Abel’s meat sacrifices above Cain’s vegetable offerings. Ranching removes Abel from constantly hearing he’s useless, while farming keeps Cain at home where he’s adored. God accepts Abel’s offerings because his family is less accepting; He grants him favor He withholds from Adam and Eve’s favorite son. This drives Cain crazy. Years of coddling leave him stunted, too immature to recognize God’s justice in offsetting Abel’s deficits at home with rewards at the altar. God challenges Cain to see his jealous anger only wedges him further from the acceptance and favor he envies. “If you do what is right,” God asks, “will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4.7) So how does Cain master his sinful urges? He kills Abel. When God comes looking for Abel, Cain—whether 18 or 80—answers like a snotty adolescent. “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Genetic Wars and Survival Strategies

Before we posse up to avenge Abel, however, let’s step back to see the situation through Cain’s eyes, because as vicious as his crime is, we can empathize with the weaknesses that prompt it. Cain’s greatest mistake is not mastering the urges crouched at his door. Having been told in the plainest possible way to control his resentment, why does he ignore the warning and succumb to it? The answer comes by asking another question. Why do we ignore what we’re told and yield to our harmful natures? Now the whole can of worms opens. If we’re willing to dig down to the bottom of the can, we’ll pull up a surprising answer.

We’re no different than Cain. We enter the world genetically predisposed to sin and every day thereafter we’re socially conditioned to sin. Paul writes in Romans 5.12: “Sin entered the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” As beings handmade to reflect God, we arrive in perfect shape. As mortals conceived by mortals, however, we carry the recessive gene of human will. Cain first inherited it and it’s been passed down to every generation since. That’s the bad news. Here’s the good: we also carry the dominant gene of obedience, which Romans 2.14-15 describes as inherent capacity to “do by nature things required of the law… written on [our] hearts” according to our beings’ conscience.

Our minds and bodies are battlegrounds for genetic wars between unconscious willfulness and conscientious obedience. Paul’s examination of this conflict reads like a front-line report: “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind… What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7.21-24) Referring to “this body of death” nails our struggles, because mortal fear and human will are natural allies. They marshal their forces in an overwhelming show of weakness determined to conquer the strengths of obedience.

After Adam and Eve get bellies full of knowledge, they learn something they were never meant to know: death. Immediately, they couple fear of death with ill-gotten knowledge to devise survival strategies. Ability to discern between good and bad creates social conditioning. Do this, think that, and you’ll live long and prosper; avoid this, forget that, or you’ll never survive. The problem comes when survival skills based on imperfect understanding and fear overpower our desire to obey God. This is precisely what happens to Cain. He’s been conditioned by name and nurture to expect preferential treatment. When God honors Abel over him, instead of conscientiously obeying, he yields to his own will. Predatory instincts take over and when he’s called on his actions, he cites survival of the fittest. “I don’t know where Abel is,” he tells God. “He’s not my responsibility.”

Created to Live, Born to Rise

We are created to live. God shapes us in His image and brings us to life with His breath for one reason only—to embody His presence in the world. Whatever we’re called, what we’re conditioned to believe, and how we relate to one another has no bearing on our collective purpose as God’s physical expression. Our commitment to Him obligates us to be our brother and sister’s keepers. It’s not ours to understand, let alone judge, their lives or compete with them for survival. God does with each of us as He wills. He compensates for deficits and favors people others regard as useless and unworthy. Resenting those who get more than we’re conditioned to think they deserve brings sin to our doors. Striking out because we receive less than we’re conditioned to expect ends with answering to God. And a survival-of-the-fittest defense doesn’t hold up in His court. In Matthew 25.45, Jesus says neglecting others will be held as a personal offense against Him: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Our will to survive and succeed is moot now that Christ revoked Adam’s death sentence. In Romans 5.17 we read, “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” Despite our predisposition to sin and conditioning to survive at all costs, we are not born to die. We’re born to rise. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Paul taunts in 1 Corinthians 15.55. Attacking our brothers, abandoning our sisters, is rooted in an absurd idea that caring for them threatens our survival. Once we’re convinced we’re created to live and born to rise, fear and willfulness vanish. We promote life for all. We live for resurrection.

In need of keeping—a California tent city for dispossessed families.

(Tomorrow: A Better Country)

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