These, and other synonyms, are part of our global conversation today. So, let’s take a look at a story surrounding the very first family, community, relationship and brotherhood. There are a number of firsts in this story. For example, Cain is the first born human on the planet. Also, he and his brother, Abel, were the first to sport belly buttons. Although the list of careers was fairly limited at the time, they were still the first career professionals to specialize. Cain, the elder brother, decided to become a farmer and his younger brother Abel chose to focus his talents on shepherding. On paper, this arrangement should have worked out well. Steak is always best when paired with potatoes. And, who orders a burger without fries? It seemed to be a match made in heaven. Brothers working side-by-side for the betterment of society and well-rounded dinners.
Unfortunately, there is another first attributed to these brothers; something that has continued to be passed down through the generations and across the continents. I don’t have to tell you what it is. You will know its sinister trademark when you see it.
One tragic day, after tending to their crops and herds, the brothers decided to thank God by offerings gifts from their flocks and fields. This was also the first act of worship recorded in the Bible. According to the story recounted in Genesis 4, Cain brought an offering from his fields and Abel offered God the firstborn of his flock, specifically the fat portions.
Why does the author specifically mention the fat portions? If you are a fan of a tender filet, you already know the answer. The fat portions are simply the best! And, if you add a little butter, the best of the best.
Abel and his offering caught God’s attention. Abel brought God his best, and God noticed. When God turned to Cain’s offering, the reaction was not as favorable. But, before we can ask about the specifics or learn any details about why God was not as pleased with Cain’s offering, Cain is already fuming. The Hebrew phrase used here tells us that Cain’s anger burned red hot inside of him, like a raging fire.
Now anger, like fire, cannot exist in a vacuum. Fire needs fuel, and anger needs an object. So, where is Cain’s fiery anger directed? Our first guess might be God. After all, it was God who rejected his offering. Maybe God simply doesn’t like vegetables. That would explain it. However, God designed and created vegetables, so that argument doesn’t fit well. The problem is not in the produce.
Our second guess might be Cain himself. He is the one who picked and packaged the offering. Cain made the choice of what to bring to God. And, when we take a closer look at the description of the offering Abel prepared, we can see why the fat portions made a difference. The description of Abel’s offering makes it clear that he brought the very best of his flock and the very best portions from his flock to God. He brought the fat portions, the beautifully marbled filet mignon, the best of the best. The hours he spent shepherding, feeding, cleaning, and protecting his flock was offered with thankfulness to God. Conversely, Genesis points out that Cain, brought...some. Cain was saving the best of his crops for himself and giving God just some of his harvest. After all, Cain did the work. He was the one who planted the seeds (that God designed) in the ground (that God created), watered them (with water God provided), and harvested the grain (which grew according to God’s intricate engineering plans). So, why should God get the best of his crops?
The difference between the offerings made by Cain and Abel was not in the type of offering presented, but in their underlying attitudes. Abel’s offering was a tangible reflection of his gratitude for the blessing of the work he was able to do. Abel saw his work, and the benefits of that work, as blessings from God. Cain, it seems, had separated God from his work, and by extension, from a major part of his life. Cain’s work, and the produce harvested from his efforts, was fundamentally his. Cain’s offering was a mirror which reflected how he viewed his relationship with God. And, like many of us, when our self-serving motives are exposed, anger is a dangerous byproduct.
Like a flame exposed to oxygen, Cain’s anger quickly and aggressively spreads.
“Shouldn’t God just be grateful that I brought Him anything?”
“Plus, what is my little brother trying to prove?”
“Does Abel think he is better than me now?”
God knows Cain is upset and angry. But, rather than turning His back on Cain and his leftover veggies, God offers Cain a warning. God tells Cain that he needs to ask himself why he is angry, because anger is just the beginning of a deadly journey. Anger, if left unchecked, leads to a place that no one should ever want to go. God knows that anger is a fire that can suddenly burn out of control. So, despite being the One who was wronged, God takes the initiative to help Cain.
But, God can only warn Cain. Only Cain can decide how he will deal with his anger.
• • •
The real problem is not getting angry. No matter how hard we try to avoid anger, we will fail, repeatedly. We all get angry from time to time. However, what we decide to do with our anger, and when we decide to do it, is the real test. Anger, like a slow, kindling fire, or an unanticipated spark, must be dealt with immediately before it consumes the entire forest. In his letter to the earliest Christians living in the city of Ephesus, Paul offers two simple insights regarding anger. First, anger is not a sin, but a path that leads directly to sin. Second, anger is so dangerous and sinister that you need to deal with it today, literally, before the sun sets. Anger’s ticking clock is measured in minutes and hours, not days or weeks. If we fail to deal with our anger immediately, anger has a way of dealing with us, and those around us, in unimaginable ways.
• • •
Despite God’s warning, Cain allows his anger to grow and burn deep inside of him. And soon, that raging fire searches for more innocent kindling to consume. Cain’s anger turns into jealously and hatred for his brother, Abel. And that anger, jealousy and hatred leads the brothers into a field, where with one swift blow, Cain waters the ground with the blood of his own brother.
The first brothers.
The first family.
The first community.
The first murder.
Up to this point in the story, Cain has not spoken a word to God. God has spoken to Cain. God has warned Cain. God has reached out to Cain. But, Cain has not uttered a single word to God. Then, God asks him to locate his brother. “Cain, where is Abel? You know....your brother?” Cain’s response and his first words to God are a lie. “I don’t know? How is that my problem? Isn’t that your job, God? You created him! And, I saw how much You liked his offering! If you wanted to protect him, YOU should have watched out for him! It is your job to watch him, not mine!” (Paraphrasing Genesis 4:9-10).
God’s response to Cain is chilling…
“Can you hear that Cain? I can. It is the sound of your brother’s blood, my creation, crying out to me from the ground! Listen, can you hear it reverberating throughout history. Listen to what you have done!” Cain’s anger is burning out of control and consuming everything in its path. In Genesis 4:10, the Hebrew word that is translated into English as, “blood,” is actually plural. Abel’s “bloods” are crying out to God from the ground. While this might sound a bit strange, it captures the real impact of Cain’s sin. With the death of Abel, all of his potential, his future, his children and children's children have also died.
• • •
Today, we search for ways to quell the violence, end oppression, stop hatred, eliminate jealousy, and so on. However, in our search, we often forget, or perhaps chose to discard, one foundational truth: how we see God and how we see others can never be separated. If we do not see others as our brothers and sisters in the great human family created by God, we are choosing to ignore our core, fundamental identity. We are, and always have been, created in the image of God. (Genesis 1:27) Therefore, our life’s journey should explore how we can best honor that image in ourselves and others. If we don’t, the consequences are catastrophic.
Jesus told us that loving God and loving others are the two greatest commandments we have been given. (Matthew 22:37-40) As we tragically see in the story of Cain and Abel, how we honor God and how we act toward others are not independent. The further God is pushed out of our social discourse and communities, the hotter the sinister flames of anger and hatred will grow.
In his anger, Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
I think he knew the answer, and so do I.