Brother's keeper

Not Being Your Brother's Keeper (Genesis 4:9)

We’ve heard the story: Cain killed his brother Abel. But the massive amounts of details missing from the story have made for centuries of diverse interpretations. What’s missing you ask?

Answer the following:

  • Why did Cain and Abel feel the need to present offerings to God in the first place?
  • How did God communicate his level of pleasure with the offerings received?
  • What exactly happened between Cain and Abel that led to the killing?    [Note: The majority of English translations do no justice to the lacuna (the missing information) present in the Hebrew of 4:8. It alternately reads, Cain spoke to his brother Abel. [full stop] And when they were in the field . . .”   andCain said to his brother Abel, ‘ . . .’[speech missing]. And when they were in the field …”  Many translations have placed the words “let’s go into the field/wilderness” into Cain’s mouth, but this is not present in the Hebrew text. Compare translations].
  • What happened to Abel’s body? [Note: The text never says Cain buried him. God’s words about Abel’s blood crying out from the ground {min-ha’adamah} could mean Cain buried him or left his body where he was slain.]
  • Who did Cain think would kill him? His parents? [Note: That would suck for them.]
  • (And a favorite of Sunday School teachers everywhere) Where did Cain’s wife come from?

But let’s put aside these questions and their various interpretations for a moment; 

Let’s also put aside notions that this text is about the struggle between stable subsistence farmers and nomadic herdsman, as neither the text nor the Hebrew Bible as a whole seem to actually actively value one profession over the other;

Put aside preachers and commentators who often go too far in psychoanalyzing Cain’s character to determine the content of his offering;

And put aside trite homilies about caring for our biological and adopted family, as if we were unaware that this was a moral requirement on our lives.

Instead we would like to highlight the four saddest and often overlooked features of this story:


1. This all began with an act of worship

Before his younger brother tagged along with the best crops, won God’s affection, and was subsequently slain, Cain commenced an unsolicited act of worship. Nothing in the tale or recorded history of the time says that there was a concept of sacrificial offerings to God. While scholars may debate the writing of the text showing a later editor’s hand, it is worth noting that said editors were silent in regards to Cain’s motive for the act, suggesting that worship is engrained in the human soul, is part of being made in the image of God. The best of actions from the best of intentions can be warped into something evil. Including depression, hatred, and murder.



2. Adam and Eve are still alive.

Imagine being those parents. Your youngest child is dead at the hands of your oldest. You blame yourself. How you raised them. Where you raised them. This would never have happened in Eden.

You hear the parallel between your conversation with God and your boy’s. You also hear the questions asked, as if omniscience were not at play. But you also hear your boy’s reply, absent of the deference and shame you brought before your creator.

Like both your boys, you now understand death. And on that note . . .



3. Cain had no way of knowing Abel would die

Think about it: Adam and Eve were the first exposed to the concept of “death,” whose meaning is debated by everyone who has ever read this text. Was God speaking of physical death, spiritual death, or both when he gave them the warning in Eden?

In any event, as the narrative progresses no one had ever physically died before Cain killed Abel. Often we speak of this as the first murder: it is also the first death recorded in the Bible. How was Cain to know that his actions would lead to his brother ceasing to exist in the land of the living?

This is made more poignant by the text’s repetition of their relationship: seven times it repeats that Abel is Cain’s brother. A thought clawing through Cain’s mind as he stands over the life-less body whose shared blood is upon his hands. When God asks, “where is your brother?” Cain’s reply can be read another way:

I don’t know where he is. Am I the guard, the savior, of my brother’s life?

Cain honestly had no idea what he had done.



4. Cain thinks he must avoid God from now on

In Genesis 4:14 Cain makes a bad situation worse. Like his parents he acts on something God never said [Note: God never said they couldn’t touch the fruit].

Cain’s curse was two-fold: 1) the ground which received his brother’s blood from his hand was cursed to him, and 2) and he will be a restless wanderer on the earth. He travels to the a “land of Nod”— the land of “wandering”—, but he also flees the presences of the Lord: something God never asked for.

Unlike his parents, Cain was not kicked out of the area. The curse upon his father was made worse indeed, but Cain was not asked to leave God’s presence.  And as God wrapped his parents in clothing, Cain fails to realize that his mark is one of protection. His curse, the restless wandering, did not mean he had to travel away from God forever. That was Cain’s choice.


Perhaps we do not do the work we have been given to do as parents, as siblings of all humanity.

Perhaps we make impulsive decisions we can’t take back, that have unimagined consequences beyond our immediate ability to process.

But we do not have to wander too far afield. May we not choose to stay away too long.

And we may be going to Hell for making this game, but we know that’s true.


2015-01-16 20.11.04.jpg