Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.
Cain gets a bad rap: He offered a paltry tithe to God. He killed the first-born child of humanity, making him the world’s first murderer. His name is synonymous with the worst evils. But someone recently made an interesting point: Is Cain really at fault? How would he know that he did anything wrong?
Killing other humans is bad. After the revelation of the Torah and thousands of years of history, we know this. We also know how to avoid killing people. We’ve learned the body’s weaknesses, and God-fearing people abstain from taking advantage of that. But Cain wouldn’t have known any of this. Genesis 4 doesn’t go into detail about how he killed Abel. It simply says he “rose up against his brother.” As I read the text more closely, I find it easy to believe it was an accident.
He had anger issues, certainly. When God rejected his offering, Cain got mad. But God tried to console him, offering a chance of redemption. If only he try harder, he could bring a worthy offering to God like his brother had. Maybe Cain was angry with God, or his brother, or both. Either way, he chose to ignore this divine advice and take out his anger on poor, devout Abel.
He’s definitely punished for his actions. God curses the ground he tills; Cain is forced to wander the earth in exile. This is as much of the story as most of us remember. But in a way… he receives salvation, too. Cain laments his fate, crying out to God that he’ll be murdered in his exile. I’m not sure if he actually repents, but he accepts the punishment. In retrospect, we can look at him and say, “Good, Serves him right.” Luckily, God is not us.
Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him.
The Mark of Cain has been grossly misinterpreted. It’s often seen as a curse, but it’s anything but. Cain is still exiled, but the mark protects him. It’s a barrier that prevents others from harming him the same way he harmed his brother. Isn’t it great how we can royally screw up but still receive His blessing?
What happens to Cain after that? I don’t know. But God does protect him, because he ends up with a wife and kids in a foreign land. The fate of his line is questionable, and he’s certainly not the father of nations. But he’s not the most evil of all evil: he simply didn’t know. Maybe he punched Abel in the face. Maybe he whacked him with a shovel. We don’t get a lot of details, so it’s easy to peg him as “Murderer: bad.” But Cain acted out in anger, and that anger resulted in death. Had anyone even died yet at that point? Would Cain and Abel even know people could die? He was probably scared out of his wits, but still accepted his punishment—even though it was “greater than he could bear.”
You don’t hear much from him after that, besides a few scattered verses about Abel’s death. Maybe Cain repented and lived a simple life. Maybe the rest of his days were happy. At least, I doubt he ever killed someone again.
I registered for a class on the Old Testament, and didn’t know when class started, so I missed the first couple weeks. I’ve been trying desperately to catch up with my reading and weekly assignments, hence my absence here (and neglect of all my other books). But even though I’ve read the Old Testament before, I’ve learned a lot more this time around. God doesn’t just establish a Law and a covenant, He lives by it. It’s constantly taken away (through man’s wickedness) and rebuilt (though His mercy). So here’s a summary of my first assignment, cut down to suitable blog length, on the first two books of the Bible.
The overarching theme of Genesis is creation. Most obviously of the world and humanity itself, but also in God’s covenants with His people: Noah; Abraham; Jacob, who becomes Israel. God continues to break down and recreate after the initial seven days of the first chapters, creating these covenants with His people. Even more than creation, though, it’s a record of God’s love for those made “in His image.”
That love can only be of God, because throughout Genesis we see continued evidence of humanity’s flaws. It begins with Adam and Eve eating of the forbidden fruit, and these flaws are most obvious in the great Flood. But through Noah, God’s great love is seen even in this mass destruction. Noah and his family are saved from the waters, and once they recede receives the same commandment as Adam: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” (Genesis 9:1)
If God’s promises are slowed down or halted, it is humanity’s own fault. God desires to be in union with mankind, despite its continued tendency to betray Him. Even the flood failed to erase these faults, for Noah himself is shown succumbing to drunkenness. But this doesn’t stop God from creating a great nation. Abram is promised this “great nation” (12:2), blessed with a child at an advanced age. And later, Jacob’s descendants become the twelve tribes of this very nation—despite his sons selling the youngest, Joseph, into slavery. The God of the Old Testament is often viewed as one of wrath and punishment, but Genesis shows otherwise: The patriarchs fall again and again, but God continually renews His covenants with them. It’s not a story of wrath, but of love.
In Exodus, God—and His divine love—seem absent at first glance. The Hebrews now live in slavery and oppression in Egypt. But despite this initial perspective, Exodus’s main theme is still a covenant, and one greater than before. This is shown not only in the Israelite’s eventual freedom, but how they are established as the chosen people with great responsibility.
Moses bears the weight of this responsibility at first, being a prime example of both man’s faults and his loyalty to God. Though Moses accepted his divine calling, he never ceased complaining: of a speech impediment, his inability to lead, and of Pharaoh’s stubbornness, to name a few. But God continues to guide him (sometimes sternly) and is unchanging in His promises.
But God also provides more than the Hebrews think they need—a moral code to live by, beginning with the Ten Commandments. Here, God’s promises are accelerated in this culmination of a covenant that builds the foundation of modern society. Now, the people are expected to live by God’s expectations in this new Law.
But with great responsibility comes greater judgement for disobeying. Though God is patient, He remains a God of justice. While Moses receives the divine Law, the people grow impatient and create their own god in the golden calf. God’s answer to this is similar to that of a wicked earth prior to the Flood—the calf (the people’s sin) is destroyed, and those that worshipped it (the wicked) are put to death. His promises continue to be put “on hold” as He cleans up mankind’s mess.
But the remaining loyal are blessed. They have a greater responsibility in building the tabernacle and the establishment of the priesthood. Here, their journey toward a settled land can begin with God as their guide.
I’d spent most of my adult life single, an anomaly to my semi-rural Baptist church. As I got older, the offers to set me up grew more frequent and I was more stubborn in my refusals. Maybe I just won’t get married, I thought. I’d gotten used to the single life, which was fine, even if it felt empty sometimes. But, I’d garnered a fairly one-dimensional view of marriage from my Evangelical perspective, which definitely wasn’t for me—a stay-at-home wife, a quaint life of child-rearing and quilting parties. A life where, when I once expressed an uncertainty at bearing children, the response was simply, “God says ‘be fruitful and multiply.’” Over time, I believed my differing opinion didn’t matter. My fate as a woman was already sealed.
This is unsurprising, given St. Paul’s words of wisdom to the Ephesians (5:22): “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord,” and (v. 27) “present [her] without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Why would I depend on a man for my spiritual purity? I can do that myself.
When I was discerning Catholicism, I vividly remember the moment I learned I didn’t have to be submissive to mere mortals. I was sitting in a pub, listening to a loud, overweight woman talk about her love for Jesus. She was a normal person, living a non-cloistered life, and was a consecrated single. What is that? I marveled. I researched as soon as I got home.
I’d started to understand more about Jesus’s love in those few months of discernment than I had in the decades prior, so consecration seemed a pretty nice gig—dedication not to a human being, but to the ever-present, unchanging Creator of everything. I was proud of the silently-observant consecrated, making a bold decision to love Christ as other women loved husbands. This seemed the better (and more productive) option than quilting parties, but somethig felt off for me. It was ideal in that moment at the pub, but the more I thought about it, the more it felt like taking the easy way out. What if this wasn’t God’s plan for me? There isn’t exactly a large pool of eligible bachelors in their mid-thirties, but what if I did meet an actual nice guy one day?
That nagging “be subject to your husbands” mindset was still lingering. But if the consecrated life is a marriage to the Spirit, shouldn’t human marriage be equally holy? Over time, I learned there are a lot of literal interpretations of these verses without the spiritual back-up. Ladies are taught to remain obedient and silent, and us independent women reject St. Paul’s seemingly archaic rules. Like, he was a single guy, so what does he know about marriage? Or, it was just the culture at the time. Or, he’s a misogynist so nothing he says can be true, anyway.
But I went back to read the rest of Ephesians 5, which isn’t exactly secretive about the rest of St. Paul’s advice (v. 25): “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Emphasis mine.) To understand human relationships, we have to understand… Jesus Christ. If I were to proofread St. Paul’s letters, I would’ve put this part first. Because without this spiritual context—Jesus—the rest doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
So I began to dig into that, too. And what I learned about Jesus’s love for the the Church, and His people, will take up an entire blog post of its own.