open book on a table

“Thinking Ahead”

A sermon drawn from Genesis 4:2b-16

This is a famous and familiar story, about the children of Adam and Eve, the first brothers: Cain and Abel. I don’t know whether I need to include a trigger warning – that this story has some violence in it. Because maybe everyone knows this story – although probably NOT from hearing it in church, because curiously, it’s not IN the lectionary, that is, our list of texts for reading in church. But it’s the story that comes right after the story we usually read on the first Sunday of Lent every three years, and it’s indispensable context and background for the gospel this morning, so it seemed like a good idea to read it in church at least once.

There’s a lot to notice in this story. There’s no way we can go into all of it here this morning. But here are a couple of things …

First off, this is the first story in the Bible that’s explicitly about sin. When God, the Holy One, says to Cain “sin is stretched out at the doorway, the entrance, and it wants you, and you have to master it …” that is the first we readers have heard about such a thing as “sin.”

And if that’s hard to believe – if anyone’s thinking “but, there’s that story that comes before this one …” I encourage those people to go reread those first three chapters of Genesis and convince themselves that I’m telling the truth about this.

This truth probably matters, too, for our theology. Because while that first story is about disobedience and the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and how all that is connected to truth and wisdom and life and death, about who to listen to and whose guidance we ought to follow to walk in the way of life, and whose way is easy and whose way is really hard … all that … the first story about sin, and wrong, and its capture of the human mind and heart and will, and its intrinsic connection to death, is this primal story of violence, and the wellsprings of violence.

And the massive aftermath of this first act of violence, which snowballs out of control – and if we keep on reading the Bible, we will see that, too – is definitely what Jesus and the Devil are contending over in the gospel we read this morning. When the Devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, he is offering him, implicitly, everything people can have and secure by violence. Because any political scientist will tell you that the defining feature of a kingdom, of a state, is that a state is an organization that asserts the exclusive right to violence in a place, whatever that place is.

And the Devil – for once – seems to be telling the truth … not the whole truth, but something true – when he says that these things are in his gift, and that gift depends on worshipping – on valuing above all else – the source of that power.

It is not a coincidence at all that one of the things we ask when we baptize adults, on their own profession of faith, is whether they renounce Evil and its power in the world. Because we are well aware, at least officially, that evil does have power in this world. For now. Not forever, but for now.

And Jesus zeroes right in on what matters most there, and says, God is the one to worship. All that power and glory that depend on violence amount to nothing, in the context of the God whom alone we are meant to worship and serve.

Jesus sees right through to the heart of the matter there.

But … back to the beginning, to this first story about violence, one of the things that is amazing about it is the way it shows us the way this whole boondoggle of sin works. Shows us more than tells us, in fact.

Because it all seems to start with Cain’s refusal to accept reality for what it is.

We don’t know what the reality is. We don’t know, because the story doesn’t tell us, what the difference is between the offering Cain brings and the offering Abel brings … people have been coming up with explanations of that for thousands of years, as if, if we just knew the answer to that question, that would fix things for us …

Maybe Cain’s attitude was the problem. Maybe he wasn’t whole-hearted enough or willing enough. Although the story says that he goes first, so I’m not so sure …

Maybe it’s what he brings – the rabbis have suggested that he didn’t bring the very best he had.

We do get the impression from what God says to him that something about that offering or the way he made it did not sit well with God, that Cain had not “done well” in God’s eyes.

And honestly, I have to wonder whether it has something to do with the fact that Cain made that first offering separately, instead of coming together with his brother, as a brother.

Whatever it was, I think we get to assume that Cain could have known it, or could at least have asked about it … that God wasn’t just being capricious, but had a good reason for regarding Abel’s offering and disregarding Cain’s, and also that God wants Cain to do well. That the door to relationship is not closed here.

But instead, Cain gets angry …

And preaching about anger has sure given rise to all kinds of problems! So I want to make clear here that I am not going to try to undo anyone’s therapy, or suggest that people need to suppress their honest emotions to be accepted by God.

Eugene Petersen says this better than I will, so I’ll quote him here:

Anger is a most useful diagnostic tool. When anger erupts in us it is a signal that something is wrong. Something isn’t working right. There is evil or incompetence or stupidity lurking about. Anger is our sixth sense for sniffing out wrong in the neighborhood. What anger fails to do, though, is to tell us whether the wrong is outside or inside us. We usually begin by assuming that the wrong is outside us – our spouse, or our child, or God has done something wrong, and we are angry. But when we track the anger carefully, we often find it leads to wrong within us – wrong information, inadequate understanding, underdeveloped heart.

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992, quoted in William G. Britton, Wisdom From the Margins – Daily Readings, Resource Publications, 2018.

And it does seem like Cain blames Abel for his disappointment. We get that impression.

So there we are again, with the tangled connections at the very roots of the problem: the connection of sin to lying, or at least, not telling the truth, and to denying responsibility, and to trying to make things go our way. To get our way. By force. Disregarding the reality of the situation.

And what really seems to be going on even more deeply, if the text gives us a clue here, is that Cain doesn’t acknowledge his relationship to his brother. The text reiterates over and over “his brother,” “your brother,” … but the only time Cain says “my brother” is when he’s rejecting the very idea that his brother means anything to him. “How would I know where he is? Am I my brother’s keeper?” That is, am I my brother’s protector? My brother’s guard? The word is not the same word that’s used for “keeping” sheep. It’s the word that’s used for keeping God’s commandments, for keeping the sabbath, for keeping Passover, for taking care of and preserving something or someone precious.

I think we know out here in the audience, what the answer is supposed to be! It’s like one of those movie moments, when the actor says the line, and everyone shouts “yes!!” Yes, you are your brother’s keeper – or, you were supposed to be.

You were supposed to see him, for the temporary but precious person he was. You were supposed to make things right with him, not make things wrong. You were, yes, supposed to take care of his life, the way you would take care of your own.

And the horrible irony of sin – and it’s really laid out in the aftermath of this first act of violence – is that it’s completely irrational and self-defeating. Whatever Cain might have thought he was achieving – power, his way, relief of his bad feelings, we don’t know – he didn’t get any of it. He lost all of that. He loses his occupation and his relationship with the earth that he is, evidently, good at growing things from; he loses his connection with his parents and his family, with human society; he seems to lose his relationship with God, or at least he feels like that; he has no settled place, he has to live now in a state of “wandering” – that’s the meaning of the term “Nod.” He’s homeless, in a deep sense of that term; his connections with others are all cut.

This is what violence – treating people like they don’t matter to us, like they’re disposable, like they’re problems to be got rid of – does to us, to our humanity.

And with due allowance for this being the first time this has ever happened in the history of human beings, still, all of this was probably foreseeable. IF Cain had stopped to think ahead … if he had asked himself “what do I really care about here?” “what do I really value?” and “what do I need to do to get that …” … This is what his name means, btw, it’s related to “getting.” But he doesn’t think through all the way what he really wants and needs to get – wisdom, God’s wisdom; relationship; God’s regard; love …

So everything worth having is destroyed and lost in Cain’s refusal, or failure, to tackle the problem of sin head on, and master it. In this refusal, or failure, to listen to God’s wisdom …

And sadly, this is exactly how sin still works in the world, and in our own lives. If we’ve learned this lesson once, we have individually and even more collectively learned it times beyond count. Learned that we lose what we really want, what we most want, lose the true good, when we get distracted by half-truths, when we give in to violence in all its forms, when we try to snatch “our way” as if it is something we have to take away from our brothers and sisters, instead of something we can only really pursue together with them, in love.

Although someone may be thinking … yeah, love and togetherness is all well and good … but sometimes we have brothers like Cain …

That’s a fair point. We do live in a world like that …

As Jesus did.

Which is why it is very good thing for us that, even though our first human ancestors did NOT think ahead, according to these primal stories, and have bequeathed to us a legacy of woe and wrong, God was thinking ahead even when we humans were not. And was making a way out of no way even when we didn’t think we were going to need that. And was planning for how to rescue us from the abyss of sin and death that was stretched out at humanity’s door just itching for people to take that first step …

And why it is an especially good thing for us that Jesus did listen to the wisdom of God, and did take it fully seriously, and did see through half-truths and enticements of the devil, who kept trying to distract him with lesser goods, and thought ahead to the ultimate victory, the victory of Good over Evil and of Life over Death, and in that utter faithfulness to God, prevailed …

That victory, God’s victory, the victory of a plan laid before the beginning of time, according to Ephesians, so, the ultimate thinking ahead … is the victory over sin and death that we rely on even now, especially as we head into Lent and our annual celebration of Jesus’ grappling with the reality of the sinful violence and disregard of humanity in our world – which hasn’t changed as much from the ancient one as we might like to think, even after a couple of thousand years of knowing better and of having Christ’s example before us.

Because we are still living in a world in which states exert their right to violate borders and use deadly force on their brothers and sisters, supposedly to achieve “objectives” – which, if we are thinking ahead, we know can never justify the annihilation of human life. [Having just passed the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, we’re really aware of that.]

We are still living in a world in which people think owning the means of violence makes them safe in a violent world; we see the consequences of that almost daily in the United States. [On a personal note, I graduated from Michigan State University, so the shooting there two weeks ago was particularly close for me, and what was especially poignant was learning that students there had been a survivors of other – more than one, different – mass shootings earlier in their lives. What ought to have been a once-in-a-lifetime horror has become a recurrent one.]

We’re even living in a world where some people on social media evidently tried to make yesterday a “National Day of Hate” …

We know getting “even” or getting “angry” is not the solution to the problems of our world; neither is trying to force people to “be reasonable.” Any action we take has to be wiser, although just as determined.

And we don’t kid ourselves that we will achieve a complete and permanent victory over sin in a world of limited sight and constant distraction.

But we also know that it doesn’t hurt to work at it, to follow Jesus and look up to Jesus in looking ahead, acknowledging the costs of living a life that renounces evil and its power in the world, but also the far greater good that awaits commitment to Christ’s cause.

If renewing that commitment as we head into Lent can be a fruit of reflecting on the story of Cain and Abel – then it is probably good to read that story in church, every so often.

painting, figure seated on rocks, sky

Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “The Temptation in the Wilderness,” Briton Rivière, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

5 responses to ““Thinking Ahead””

  1. HAT,

    I have been chewing on your post here for several days. As always happens when someone opens the Bible and simply reads it, I learn something. Even the most terrible teachers and preachers, when they do this, teach me. And I try to be sensitive to that.

    Beyond the mere reading and exploring of sheer text, a teacher asks me to THINK with them, and I begin diverging. With some teachers, I diverge strongly, profoundly, starkly. With others very little, but some with practically all of them.

    I became an NT Wright enthusiast shortly after I left school. I had only heard of him/read his work in my last year, and even then, the book I read was one of many on a required reading list. There was no lecture on his specific ideas, but I had to be prepared to answer questions from his book on the final.

    So, I read it thoroughly.

    And I hated it.

    Well, hate is a strong word, but he obviously was disrupting and turning over ideas I had nailed down before hand, and my reaction was very negative. However, I was aiming for grad-school/law school at the time, and I needed to score an A for the class, so I read it again. In fact, I read it three times before the final.

    Then I took the test, and walked away thinking I was done with Wright.

    But he wasn’t done with me.

    I kept tripping over some of his thoughts in other conversations, in other books, in other lectures, and finally in my own thinking. But I had dreaded his book before that, and so I was reluctant when I returned to it yet again a few months later.

    I bet I read and reread What St. Paul Really Said almost a dozen times. I was unlearning so much and only finally beginning to grasp his point(s). And he revolutionized me.

    I say all that to demonstrate that I take teachers seriously, or I certainly try to. I don’t know it all, and I am almost certainly wrong about some stuff. And those teachers who actually go TO THE BIBLE to explore the words there, the phrases, the historical context and so forth, illuminate things for me, and I get jazzed for that. Even those who botch everything, if they actually read a text aloud, generally cue me up to something new – even if minor.

    Your blog challenges me, and I want to respect your teaching.

    That said, I wrestle with it. And this wrestling, though I highlight it in this comment, in no way demeans you or your teaching. I hope I have stated that clearly and demonstrated a bit of how that works with me personally.

    So… I have been wrestling with your post. (I think I have learned some things too), but the chief thing, I think, that I am struggling with is this statement:

    “The word is not the same word that’s used for “keeping” sheep. It’s the word that’s used for keeping God’s commandments, for keeping the sabbath, for keeping Passover, for taking care of and preserving something or someone precious.”

    Please pardon my lack of Hebrew. I managed to sidestep that course in school. And so I had to research this from an English only perspective. And I determined there are two different Hebrew terms for “keeper” in this passage, and I determined that one specifically refers to shepherds and the other is a bit broader, however, as best I can tell, the second word can refer to shepherds, and anyway, guarding and watching over is very shepherd like.

    Your sentence here suggests, to my understanding, that it cannot mean that. That there is an important distinction here, and I am not getting it.

    That said, the mere fact the author chooses to change terms does seem to have a rhetorical force of some kind. I wish you would unpack this thought more.



    Liked by 1 person

    • X, first, wow, thanks for your comment, and implicitly putting me in the same class as NT Wright, who is far more famous – anyway, I appreciate it – asking questions and thinking seems like the whole point, or practically the whole point, of teaching in the first place, so I’m glad to hear I have that effect on someone!

      To the specific question, yes, in Hebrew there are two different verbs that both get translated into English as “keeper” (when they are participles) in some contexts. The reason I always stumble across this is that in Genesis 4 in particular, they are both translated “keeper” very close together. So, in v2, in the NRSV, Abel is called “a keeper of sheep” while Cain is a “tiller of the ground” (the adamah, by the way, the word from which we get the name Adam). And then in v9, Cain says “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And every time I read it, seriously every time, I think “he is talking like his brother is not a sheep and he is not a shepherd …” Even though I could know better, because I have looked this up before.

      In v2, the verb is specifically ra’ah (more or less, in English letters), which means “to pasture, to set to grazing, to feed” etc. Just glancing at the concordance, in fact, it seems like it is fairly specific to flocks of sheep and goats – that is, not even really used that much for cattle. It’s a pretty common verb, as there is a lot of shepherding in the Bible. It’s the word translated “shepherd” in Psalm 23:1.

      Then, in v9, the verb is “shmr”, which is an even more common verb, that gets translated “keep, guard, observe, watch, …” etc. depending on context. You CAN shmr sheep (see Genesis 30:31), also cattle (see Exodus 21:29, where it’s translated “restrained”), even the earth (Genesis 2:15), but you are more likely to shmr other things, like “words” or “ways” or a covenant, Passover, etc. God shmr‘s “you” (singular) in Numbers 6:24 (“The Holy One bless you and keep you”).

      So – I think that word play is intentional there, and important. Cain COULD have meant “am I my brother’s keeper” more or less as a “he’s not a sheep, is he” but because he uses shmr rather than ra’ah, it becomes a deeper question, at least for me.

      Liked by 1 person

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