The last couple days I’ve been mulling a different approach to the Adam and Eve narratives, which may very well be akin to an allegorical fable intended to aid a post-exilic Israel in keeping from future apostasy. This thought is not original to me, but I do think it is new to many evangelicals.
We tend to spend a lot of time on Genesis 2-3 (which is funny because the Bible itself doesn’t seem to spend much time there), but we rarely talk much about Genesis 4. This, of course, is the story of Cain and Abel, the sons of the first family. Now, fools like me tend to get caught up in the problems with some of the details of the narrative (such as of whom Cain was afraid). Nevertheless, I’ve begun wondering whether the line of thinking we’ve been exploring surrounding Adam as Israel might similarly apply to Cain and Abel.
The tale is fairly simple. Cain and his younger brother Abel each bring offerings to the Lord. Abel, to his credit, sacrifices the first and best of his flocks. Cain, on the other hand, brings a sampling of his crops, but not the best of what he’s harvested (vv. 3-4). Somehow the two realize that God had approved of Abel’s sacrifice, but not Cain’s, triggering Cain’s anger (vv. 4-5). Ultimately, Cain kills his brother Abel rather than righting his own devotion to the Lord, and Cain is subsequently exiled (vv. 8, 12, 16).
Here again, like the narrative of the Fall, the reader is presented with two options, this time surrounding worship. Offer the Creator the first and best of your sustenance or worship with something substandard. Just as in Adam’s story, Cain chooses not to align himself with God’s standard – not in his initial worship, nor in his response to a prophetic call to correction. Rather, Cain – like Israel, who killed the prophets who came to her (Lk 11:47-48) – chooses blood over repentance. In the end Cain is cast off to a land far to the east, a proto-Babylon, perhaps.
How many times throughout Israel’s history is the nation rebuked for their deficiency in worship? The parallel is not perfect, but Amos 5:21-27 comes to mind as representative:
“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the desert, O house of Israel? You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your god – which you made for yourselves. Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is God Almighty (NIV).
Of course we could also cite the Elijah narrative (1 Kgs 17-18), the indictments of most of the kings of Israel and Judah (see 2 Kgs 21:2-6, for example), the famous Micah 6:6-8, or the entire book of Hosea.
At the center of the dilemma throughout Israel’s history is the question of felicity to their Creator. The central question of the Old Testament is whether Israel will remain faithful to their covenant with the Lord or pursue the affections of the so-called gods of their neighbors. Worship is the heart of Israel’s story, and exile is the consequence of their prostitution.
Reflecting on this history, I wonder if during the exile or perhaps after the return, some theologically minded Jew wrote down the story of Cain as a cautionary tale to set at the beginning of this long narrative of Israel and her God.