Who Was Cain?

Henri Vidal’s Cain via wikipedia.org

The last couple days I’ve been reading the first few chapters of Genesis.  I had come across the idea in Peter Enns‘s The Evolution of Adam that perhaps the Eden narrative was meant to serve as a prologue to the story of Israel that begins, essentially, in chapter 12.  Think about it: God’s chosen son (and daughter) are given a land of abundance, but the son rejects God and is subsequently exiled from the land.  It’s Israel in miniature.

Anyway, this morning I read Cain’s story in chapter 4 and was struck by a similar motif (but it’s not the first time).

Central to the set up of the narrative is worship.  As you know, Abel, the good one, brings the best of his flocks to sacrifice to the Lord (v. 4), but Cain’s offering was only so-so (v. 5).  God is not happy with Cain’s worship.

It doesn’t take an exceptionally deep reading of the Old Testament to realize that proper worship is a central theme.  After all, there’s the second half of Exodus, pretty much all of Leviticus, portions of Numbers, and the bulk of Deuteronomy (you know, all the parts you skip when reading the OT) that deal with the nature of Israel’s worship.  Then, of course, there’s Solomon’s temple, which everyone essentially hails as the pinnacle of his reign.  And there’s the prophets, who have plenty to say about good worship, not least, the only part of Micah anyone remembers:

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?  Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  He has sowed you, O man, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6-8).

Israel’s worship, in all its forms, matters to the Lord.

Anyway, that’s the set up in Genesis 4.  The critical question, however, comes from God in v. 7, and it touches on another preeminent theme in the Old Testament, namely the choice between righteousness and death.  Look: “If you do what is right, 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.”

It’s the same classic A/B choice that faced Adam in the garden and the same choice that stands before Israel at all times.  Follow the Lord or abandon Him.

Of course, we know the unfortunate choice Cain makes, and it’s the same choice that Israel would ultimately make.  For both, the consequence is the same: exile.  Hear Cain’s anguish in v. 14a: “Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence.”  The prophet Ezekiel, writing in the midst of Israel’s own banishment from the land, catches a vision that represented their reality.  God’s presence had departed the temple.  The people were distant from their Lord (Ezk 10).  It is likely no coincidence, further, that Cain’s exile takes place to the east of Eden (v. 16), just as Israel was hauled to Babylon, well east of Jerusalem.

Through it all, however, Cain never ceases to be a part of God’s family.  He is given a special status, even in the midst of his punishment (v. 15).  This is not unlike the special treatment of Jehoiachin, the last surviving king of Judah, while in exile in Babylon (2 Kgs 25:27-30).

Who was Cain?  From a literary perspective, at least, he is Israel.  He is the reminder of what happens when God’s people do not do what is right and allow sin to master them instead of the other way around.

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