The story of Cain and Abel is a well-known story because it tells about the violence of a man against his brother. The homicide occurred when Cain and Abel offered a sacrifice to God. When they came to present their offering, “Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground” (Genesis 4:3) and Abel “brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions” (Genesis 4:4).
The Story of Cain and Abel
In the story, God decided to accept one offering and reject the other. God accepted Abel’s offering: “the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering” (Genesis 4:4). However, God rejected Cain’s offering: “but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Genesis 4:5).
In Chapter 4 of his book, The God of the Old Testament, R. W. L. Moberly discusses the reason God rejected Cain’s offering. In “The Inscrutable God: Divine Differentials and Human Choosing in Genesis 4,” Moberly said that God was the cause of Cain’s anger which eventually led to Cain’s murder of his brother.
The issue of what Cain did wrong when presenting his offering to God has been an issue of debate for centuries. Moberly begins his study of the story of Cain and Abel by relating an exchange of ideas between John Colet and Erasmus that occurred at a dinner in 1499. In their discussion about Cain, Colet said that Cain doubted God’s goodness. Erasmus said that Cain stole some seeds from the Garden of Eden and that provoked God’s anger.
Moberly says that both Colet and Erasmus assumed that “Cain must have done something wrong, and that the real puzzle in the story is what that was, since the text does not say” (p. 126). But Moberly believes that the real issue in Cain’s story is not about Cain, but about God. Moberly asks: “Is God unfair?”
Moberly discusses the context of the narrative. He writes, “The narrative context is the beginning of human life on earth, in which there appears to be only a handful of people. Yet the internal features of the story presuppose the regular conditions of life in a populated earth” (p. 126). Moberly believes that the story was moved from its original context to its present location to explain “how things were before regular life on earth” (p. 127).
According to Moberly, this recontextualization of the text was done in order to explain events that happened much later. Also, Moberly believes that the story of Cain is a lens by which we can understand the story of humanity. Cain represents every person who lives in this world.
Rereading Cain’s Story
The text says that both Cain and Abel presented a sacrifice to the Lord. Cain, as a farmer, presented an offering from his crop, Abel, as a shepherd brought the best parts of a firstborn animal from his flock. When the brothers brought their offering to God, “a surprise comes in the differential response of the LORD to the sacrifices: one is accepted, the other is not” (p. 130). The surprise is the text’s silence “about why the LORD accepted one sacrifice and not the other” (p. 130).
Since the text is silent on the reason God rejected Cain’s offering, the reader must find a reason why Cain’s offering was not accepted. The traditional response is that something was wrong with Cain’s offering. This conclusion is generally taken from the text: Abel “brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock” (Genesis 4:4) while Cain brought “an offering of the fruit of the ground” (Gen 4:3). Abel brought the best, but Cain just brought an offering.
Moberly, however, believes that the assumption that Cain did something wrong when he offered his sacrifice or that there was a reason why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s, must be reevaluated. Moberly believes that putting the blame on Cain is not the only or the best way to understand the reason God rejected Cain’s offering.
Moberly concludes that maybe there is no explanation for God’s decision to reject Cain’s offering. He says that this view will be difficult for many people to accept because “it seems to imply that God acts arbitrarily” (p.132-33).
Moberly’s view is based on the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:21-26), a story which he studies at length in this chapter. In the story of Jacob and Esau, the younger brother is favored over the older brother, “God made a differential decision that favored Jacob over Esau while they are still in their mother’s womb” (p. 133).
To Moberly “the issue at the heart of the story of Cain and Abel is not the avoidance of being half-hearted or only giving the second best to God, meaningful and important though that is. Rather, the issue is how to handle life in a world where some are more favored than others and, especially, how to cope with being, in a way or another, the one who is unfavored” (p. 135).
It is difficult to accept the fact that God acted arbitrarily in rejecting Cain’s offering. Moberly says that Christians “need to recognize that some things have no explanation.” In light of fact that something may have no explanation, Moberly says that Christians must ask, “what best might be made of this?” (p. 136).
According to Moberly, the words of God in Genesis 4:7 are key to interpret the text: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
In the text, sin is portrayed as an animal lying in wait. It is at the door, waiting for something that will happen in the near future. The enemy is ready to attack and failure to handle the issue will escalate into danger for oneself and for others. In Cain’s case, sin is the malice which aims at hurting the most favored.
The danger posed by personified sin is not final, “its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Cain will have to fight the enemy and he can conquer it. God is telling Cain that he can conquer the enemy. Some English translations of the text, however, seem to imply that Cain will be unable to “conquer it.” The New English Bible translates Genesis 4:7 as follows, “sin is a demon crouching at the door. It shall be eager for you, and you will be mastered by it.” The NEB reverses the intent of the text. Moberly calls the NEB’s translation, “a good example on unimaginative logic trumping a hopeful paradox” (p. 139).
The Inscrutable God
Moberly compares the story of Cain and Abel with the story of Jacob and Esau. In the first story, Abel is the favored, Cain is the unfavored. In the second story, Jacob is the favored and Esau is the unfavored, But in Jacob’s story Jacob is favored undeservedly because he used deception to receive the blessing from his father Isaac.
The Bible says that God is a God of justice, “justice is definitional and constitutive of the reality of the true God” (p. 152). If God is a God of justice, “how does this aspect of God’s character relate to God’s differential decision to choose one person over the other?”
From a human perfective, favoring one brother over the other is not fair, but “how can a just God do that which is considered unfair?” To Moberly, the case of Cain is not about an arbitrary decision unworthy of a God of justice, but it is about decisions most people face in life, it is the challenge of being the unfavored. Moberly says that the experience of Cain represents “a life situation in which people have to face how to handle their being unfavored” (p. 154).
According to Moberly, God is teaching Cain how to live in a world in which he is unfavored, how to live in a world of inequalities, “those inequalities for which God’s differential decisions are responsible” (p. 154). Moberly believes that “God’s differential decisions are not to be explained.” God’s instruction to Cain on how to live as the unfavored one is a lesson applicable to people today.
Understanding Divine Decisions
Moberly concludes his chapter by focusing on the issue of “how best to understand and speak of divine decisions and actions in the world.” He writes,
I propose, therefore, that the Hebrew idiom of the Lord “looking on” Abel and “not looking on” Cain is to be taken seriously without being taken woodenly. It points toward a particular understanding of life in this world as God’s world—that is, when this world is understood in relation to God as active creator and sustainer. In God’s world, differences between people’s characteristics, abilities, situations, and outcomes are part of the way the world is, such that certain kinds on inequity are intrinsic and inevitable. This is the pattern that God has given in His creation. The human challenge is to how to live well with God and with other people. This challenge is in many ways sharper and more difficult for those who are in some way “less favored.”
One strength of Moberly’s study of the Cain and Abel story is his emphasis that there are inequalities in the world. Some people are more favored than others and this creates conflicts and enmity among people.
But the fact is, that a society in which social inequality is completely eliminated “transcends what is sociologically possible and has a place only in the sphere of poetic imagination.” Social inequality is a fact which is present in every society, such as inequality of rank, or social position or educational level. Societies have had kings and servants, masters and slaves, generals and soldiers throughout history.
These inequalities are part of every society. This is the reason that, Cain, as the unfavored, may address contemporary situations and may serve as a paradigm for those people who consider themselves less favored.
It is also true that sometimes God acts in ways that, from a human perspective, seems unfair and unjust. Why favor Jacob, the younger brother over Esau, the older brother? We may not have an explanation for God’s decision, but Augustine’s explanation that God chooses some to be saved and some to be lost is not an acceptable interpretation.
I have written a post, “Cain and His Offering,” in which I also say that we do not know why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but rejected Cain’s sacrifice. I wrote, “To say that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice by fire but not Cain’s, is an interpretation not based on the text. The Bible does not say how God expressed his favor and his disfavor for the sacrifices. For this reason, we should avoid any speculation on what happened when the two brothers presented their offerings to God.”
In my forthcoming book, Divine Violence and the Character of God, I have an extended discussion on the relationship between God and Cain. I focus my study on God’s reaction to Cain’s violence. Cain’s violence is the first act of violence in the Old Testament and serves as a paradigm for understanding human violence in the world. God’s true nature and character is revealed in his treatment of Cain’s violence.
You can get a 40% discount on the book if you order before January 31, 2022. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and on the subject line write: Divine Violence.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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