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The First Violent Act

Genesis 4

The man, “Adam” (from adamah, meaning “earth”), and his wife Eve have two children, Cain and Abel. Abel is a shepherd, while Cain is a farmer.

One day they each decide to bring an offering to the Lord. Cain brings some of his fruit, while Abel brings the choicest animals from his flock.

The Lord accepts Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. What does this mean? That God is no vegetarian? The meaning is certainly not clear. The Hebrew word sha’ah means to gaze steadily, or in this context, to look upon with favor. Why does God regard one and not the other?

We have only two clues. First we are told that while Cain simply made an offering, Abel took from the best of what he had. Perhaps his gift was heartfelt, while Cain’s was perfunctory. But we also have Cain’s reaction to the event, which gives the clearest indication he was not in a spiritual frame of mind.

Cain tricks his brother, inviting him for a friendly walk in the field, then turns on him and kills him. This is the next in the series of great separations: the estrangement between man and woman is followed by the estrangement between brother and brother, leading even to violence and death.

God calls Cain to account and condemns him to a life of wandering. The ground upon which he shed his brother’s blood will no longer yield to him its produce. Nevertheless, God sets upon Cain a special mark to protect him from retaliation.

A curious question will surely occur to the reader: If Cain and Abel were the only children of Adam and Eve, and Abel is dead, then who is Cain afraid of? Soon we also read that Cain got married - yet no female offspring of Adam and Eve was ever mentioned. Clearly Cain and Abel are more than just two individual human beings. They are archetypes, symbols of human nature and passion. They have much to do with all of us.

Now Cain had many descendants, and one in particular is worthy of note. His name was Lemekh, and he represents a further increase in the growing estrangement between human beings. His ancestor Cain was frightened by the consequences of his violent act. But Lemekh, who kills a man himself, brags about it to his two wives. If Cain is to be avenged seven times, surely he, Lemekh, will be avenged seventy-seven! We have now reached the separation between strangers. Those who are not a member of one’s own clan are often naturally considered enemies.

We have moved a long way from the perfect creation of Genesis 1. Humanity has become at odds with itself and has descended into barbarism. There is no longer any sense that God is near. And so we read that at this time “people began to call upon the name of the Lord.” People now experience themselves so far away from God that they must try to reach God through prayer.

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