Sunday, April 7, 2024

Counsel for Cain

When we last left the brothers Cain and Abel, the pair had – whether for the first time in all human history, or in the first case the Bible chooses to show us – brought an offering to God, perhaps at some prehistoric religious festival celebrated in their family. Each brought to God out of the results of his labor. Cain, servant of the earth as a farmer, brought some of the fruit of the ground, a portion of the grain harvest no doubt. Abel, shepherd of sheep, brought God a gift from his flock: not only any sheep, but tender lambs; not only lambs, but the firstborn among them; and not only that, but the tastiest ones (Genesis 4:3-4). This just illustrates, though, how Cain and Abel were set apart by their attitudes in worship and by the way they'd been living up to that point: Cain was unrighteous and is being presumptuous and careless, Abel was righteous and is being humble and careful.

So picture the scene. “The LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering” (Genesis 4:4). God had a positive reaction to what Abel gave, in large part because God had a positive reaction to Abel as the giver, looking on his heart. More literally, it says that God gazed on Abel and on his offering, that God paid them attention. Clearly, God accepted them. And God did so in a way that could be known on earth. Unlike a lot of what we do, they got feedback, maybe by fire from heaven. So somehow, it becomes obvious that Abel's offering was accepted by God. Naturally, if this is a social event, if some sort of celestial pyrotechnics made a big display at Abel's altar, all eyes are going to pivot to the ground-up grains and other veggies Cain has piled up, expecting a similar sign to follow shortly. Seconds tick past on the clock. They turn to minutes, and the minutes pile up. Nothing's happening. Heaven has no reaction to this average grain of convenience. Heaven has no reaction to Cain at all. “Cain and his offering he did not regard” (Genesis 4:5). It feels to Cain as though maybe God forgot he exists.

Cain, at this point, is the center of everybody else's attention, but not in a good way. He's feeling more sheepish than any of Abel's lambs. Cain expected to be the leader, expected to be the example. Cain cast himself as the protagonist and is wondering why he's not even in the script, why he's treated like a vagrant who just stumbled onto the set. He deserves, he reckoned, to be honored as the firstborn, as the founder of sacrifice, as the creative genius, as the hard worker worthy of his wages. He thought all his sweat and tears throughout the year would be rewarded in this one moment, his chance to be crowned with favor, his opportunity to secure approbation, his avenue to dispel all doubt, to prove himself, to store up securities.1 But heaven snubs him.

As Cain walks away – cue the slow, soulful music out of a Charlie Brown Christmas special – the Bible keeps the camera on him, zooming in on his face. Unbeknownst to Cain the Forgotten, it's actually time for his close-up, his most deeply focused attention. What is going on in Cain's life, in Cain's mind, in Cain's body, in Cain's heart right now? “It burned to Cain very intensely, and his face fell” (Genesis 4:5). That's what the Bible tells us.

First of all, Cain experiences a wave of embarrassment wash over him. His pride is wounded. His expectations dashed, he feels silly. He went out on a limb and was left high and dry. He's been exposed, in his own eyes and in the public esteem, as defective – at least, that's how he sees it. St. Ephrem imagined that, at least the way Cain saw things, “there was laughter in the eyes of his parents and his sisters when his offering was rejected.”2 Martin Luther similarly described Cain here as “shamefully disgraced in public.”3 This humiliation hits Cain's core sense of self. It leaves him feeling embattled, vulnerable, anxious, afraid of further judgment that may find him wanting, afraid he'll need to hide more and more of himself to disguise his sudden nakedness.

Then, Cain is also made deeply sad. He grieves the loss of honor he suffered. He grieves a wasted opportunity to nab God's blessing. He grieves the course that events took. Cain is wrapped up in sorrow. That's part of why his face has fallen: he's distressed, he's disappointed, he's despondent, he's despairing, he's down in the dumps. Cain's emotional stability, his inner equilibrium, has been disrupted; his walls are breached by advancing gloom.

But more prominent than even the shame and sadness are what they birth together: anger. Anger in the Bible is the natural response to some sort of wrongdoing, real or perceived; and that's true of Cain's anger here.4 It's a hot sensation, something burning like a fire in his nose, reddening his cheeks, boiling his blood. Cain is ignited with anger; you can practically see the steam blowing out his ears. His anger, first of all, targets God. To Cain, God has done something wrong. God has snubbed him. God has dishonored him. God, if Cain tells the story, has done Cain an injustice, an injury. How dare God refuse Cain's gift? How dare God account Cain as a drop in the bucket? How dare God breach Cain's trust and fail to perform on schedule? Cain's anger burns at God; Cain's faith is therefore rocked. He is, in one ancient reader's words, “disenchanted with providence.”5

Cain is also “angry because the offering of his brother had been accepted.”6 Abel's success only throws into relief Cain's failure, underlining it, drawing attention to it. It would've been one thing if both offerings had been rejected. Maybe then it could've been a silly idea they could laugh at later. Or maybe then it could've been a shared injustice that would deepen their bond. Instead, it divides between them, isolating Cain. And this totally upends everything Cain thought about this relationship, in which he'd always been the doted-on firstborn son, the wonder child, while Abel had always been the addition, the appendix, the afterthought. Now, as one Jewish scholar puts it, “for Abel to receive any attention completely disrupts Cain's world; for Abel to receive exclusive attention is utterly devastating.”7 The reason this is so devastating is because Cain believes life is a competition, a zero-sum game, so Abel's advancement must come at Cain's cost.8 So Cain burns passionately to make things right again in his own eyes. He's “very angry,” or, as it's been said, “extremely vexed and terribly agitated.”9

Add all this up, and Cain is “drowning in the waves of his annoyance.”10 (Ever have that feeling?) He's a case study of intense emotion – the natural blossoming of the shame and fear Adam had at the approach of God in the garden. The immediate result of all this sorrow and anger is a pivot toward resentment and bitterness. In his fury, in his depression, in his bitter jealousies, Cain is deeply disaffected with and alienated from everyone and everything, and that bitter taste poisons his moment-to-moment experience, growing as it unfolds.11 Have you ever felt that? I know I have.

And then the LORD said to Cain...” (Genesis 4:6). Let's not breeze past those words. If God said anything at all to Abel, we don't know it. But Cain – the man who counts himself cast off completely, the man convinced he's getting the silent treatment – now hears the word of the Creator.12 Cain isn't forgotten, Cain isn't ignored, Cain isn't left to rot. All this time, God has been trying to communicate with him, not lock him out! “The loving-kindness of the God of All is shown to be unmatched in dealing with the fallen: far from allowing them to reach the depths of sin, he prompts them to come to their senses and be converted to virtue, as happens also in this case with Cain.”13 So said one early Christian who read this story. God is a God who reaches out!

In this case, God's got some questions for Cain: “Why are you angry? And why has your face fallen?” (Genesis 4:6). “What are you so upset about, Cain? What's gotten you this hot under the collar? Where'd you find that frowny face you're wearing?” God interrogates Cain's emotional crisis, prodding him to reflect on it in reason.

Now, it's important for us to hear what God's not saying. God is not saying that emotions like anger or sadness are intrinsically evil, bad, or improper. God created human nature to include emotions – a whole lot of them! That's part of what it means that we're akin to animals and not just to angels. Living in the material world, we have these impulses which naturally and properly react with anger, with sadness, with other feelings, in certain kinds of situations. They're just part of us. As Lactantius put it, “emotions are a sort of natural exuberance of souls.”14 Just because you feel sad, it does not mean you are broken. Just because you feel angry, it does not mean you are damaged or sinful. The mere fact that Cain feels these feelings he feels is not an indictment. Nor is it a categorical indictment on all human embarrassment, fear, sorrow, anger, and so forth.

But just because these types of emotions are natural, that doesn't mean that every token of them is well directed or appropriate. Lactantius added: “It is good to be emotionally moved in the right direction, and bad in the wrong direction.”15 So, for example – pay attention, Cain – “anyone given to anger can exercise his anger on someone he shouldn't or at an inappropriate time.”16 Though even here, our initial emotional reactions to things – even if they're inappropriate – usually aren't immediately under our control. They're movements that get set in motion before you can reason your way through them or make a willful choice about them.17

Okay, so what is God saying to Cain? First, God is hinting that Cain should pay attention to the reason behind his emotions. What is it that set all this off? Who is it that caused Cain grief and pain? Abel has shown zero malice or aggression toward Cain. The offering of a gift imposed no obligation on God whereby God would owe Cain any particular response, so God did nothing unfair. What really causes Cain's pain are Cain's choices.18 One rabbi put it this way: “The core of his problem lay entirely in the choices Cain himself was making, in the nature of the relationship he was building with God.”19 His anger is misdirected at its root.20

Second, Cain's particular anger and particular sadness are inappropriate in his situation, and that's Cain's choice too. “Insofar as the passions are subject to the control of reason and will,” it's been said, “moral judgments do apply to them.”21 When they're willfully out of place, then “feelings which one may correctly exercise become vices.”22 Cain toward Abel, Jonah toward Nineveh – both had anger that was willfully out of place (Jonah 4:4), since “a person's possession of the good is by no means diminished when another comes or continues to share in it.”23 Because Cain doesn't think that, his emotional reaction is misguided. He ought to feel humbled by the correction; he ought to feel charitable toward Abel; he ought to feel happy that, if not by himself then at least by someone, God has been glorified. But Cain chooses to abide elsewhere, wallowing in “unrighteous anger.”24

God wants Cain to realize that his emotional reactions aren't productive. It's doing Cain no good to be sad with a sorrow that does nothing but bring him down. It's doing Cain no good to be angry with a rage that's burning him up inside. It's doing Cain no good to stew in his shame. It's definitely doing Cain no good to be infected with bitterness or to think resentful thoughts. Why build a house in the swamp? Why not just pass through, move along?

Note, by the way, that God didn't show up to monologue all this at Cain. God sits down at the table for a dialogue with Cain. What would be productive, what would maybe help Cain move on, is to talk about it. And God is saying to Cain, “Hey, I'm here. I'm listening. You're not abandoned, you're not forgotten. You are loved in the midst of your pain, of your depression, of your upset. Tell me what you're going through.” If Cain needs a therapist, God has officially applied for the job. Maybe if Cain opens up, he'll realize how silly his feelings are when he has to explain them. Or maybe he'll vent to God and achieve a sense of catharsis from no longer bottling it up inside.25 Or maybe Cain's begrudging dialogue will create space for God to answer back and teach him – if only Cain will just engage. But now Cain is the one who is silent. Cain has nothing to say to God.

What God is trying to get Cain to see – and all of us to see who've ever felt anything like Cain feels – is that Cain's emotional reactions aren't wholly beyond his control. For one, they stem from decisions Cain is free to revise. For another, Cain can consciously interrogate his emotions and work to redirect them: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him” (Psalm 42:5). Cain can cultivate the character, the habits, that will dispose him to a healthier emotional life: “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11).

God wants Cain to realize that, in this very abysmally low and seemingly godforsaken point in his life, actually it's the valley of decision he's walking through. Cain's emotions may have him looking back at that sacrifice debacle, and they may have him looking around at his all-hushing gloom and his loud-clamoring ire, which both enslave the present to the past.26 But God aims to yank Cain's focus out of his funk and onto the futures that fork in front of him. Thoughtfully or thoughtlessly, Cain's next step shapes his fate. This is his standing-before-the-Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil moment.27 So God lays out the two paths and invites him to look down each.

One of the paths, as it happens, would actually resolve Cain's problems.28 “Will there not, if you do good, be a lifting up?” (Genesis 4:7). If you do well, Cain, it'll be swell! Even from within this prison of hurt and sorrow and outrage and heaviness of heart, it's possible to begin the right path, to start batting a thousand from here on out. So what good is Cain capable of? For starters, he can fix what went wrong with his sacrifice, either by repairing it or repeating it. His apparent rejection was a reversible judgment, meant to remind Cain that he's settling for too little in his relationship with God.29 Cain “ought surely to have changed his ways and imitated his good brother” by presenting Cain's own best to God; that would be good.30

Cain could also channel his emotions in a healthy way. The same inner assertiveness that generates such fiery anger could also passionately motivate a changed life and a bettered world. He could steer these emotions to appropriate cases, appropriate outlets, and handle himself well. Then, swallowing his pride, he could cheer for his brother's successes. Suppose Cain could say of Abel, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Suppose Cain could aspire to greatness, not by competing with his brother, but by serving him (Matthew 20:26). Suppose Cain made it his mission to congratulate Abel, rejoice with Abel, encourage Abel to even better things. So, too, it would be good for Cain simply to marvel at the wisdom of God, to make peace with it, to embrace it.

Then, God's saying, there could be a lifting up! His sacrifice would be lifted up to God's presence in acceptance at last.31 Cain's fallen dignity will be lifted up, exalted.32 Cain's past misdeeds will be lifted up off of him in gracious forgiveness.33 Cain's fallen face will be lifted up, because if he just does something good and helpful, it'll break him out of his cycle of self-pity, and that breath of fresh air will gladden his heart.34 And, as the Bible reminds us, “a glad heart makes a cheerful face” (Proverbs 15:13). By lifting up his brother Abel in charity, Cain's relationships will be strengthened, Cain's community will prosper, and they say a rising tide lifts all boats – for St. Augustine pointed out that “goodness is a possession that spreads out more and more widely insofar as those who share in it are united in undivided love.... The more he is able to love the one who shares it with him, the greater he will find that his own possession of it becomes.”35 Plus, Cain will be lifted up within the ways of God himself. “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding” (Proverbs 14:29).

But God also talks about the other path, the one where Cain does not do good. And that, God warns, brings its own dangers. For that's where sin lives – that's the dwelling place of error, misdirection, failure. This verse is so grammatically bonkers in Hebrew that ancient rabbis and modern commentators alike despair of making heads or tails of it.36 The Greek translation has barely anything in common with it. On one reading, sin is “couching at the door,” like some kind of predatory beast lounging right outside your house. Any false move could rouse it suddenly and abruptly into vicious action. On another reading, there's a rabitsu at the door – a demon-like spirit that Israel's neighbors thought lurked in gateways to seize the guilty for judgment.37 These dark-angel deputies or bailiffs, pagans said, were sent out by the gods to whip earthlings into shape; originally good or bad, they were later seen as evil spirits ambushing victims with disaster where they least expected.38

This stretch of Genesis is so fond of double entendres, words that can be read two different ways, that I'd bet both senses are in view.39 There's a predatory beast lounging around like a sleeping lion, a resting snake; there's a demon-deputy sent out to punish wrong, waiting in ambush where you least expect. Whatever's out there, it's active and passive, it's animal and spiritual. There's something dangerous and unsavory, and it has a hankering for Cain. “His desire is for you,” God warns Cain (Genesis 4:7). It looks at Cain the way Eve looks at Adam on the days they'll tell their marriage counselor about later. Behind this image, some suggest, is the Genesis 3 serpent: that's the beast, that's the demon, lying in wait to seduce and snack.40 The Old Serpent wants you, Cain – he aims to slither his way in through any door you're careless to leave open; he longs to grab you by those potent passions of yours, all the better to steer you with; he's ready to bite your heel, to pump into you his venom until you're all poison, until you're just like him.41 Sin wants to master Cain. Sin wants to master us.

To even set out on the road of persisting in inappropriate or untempered anger, to set up a caravan where our passions run free, is a dangerous proposition. That's why Jesus preached that “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22) – the active or passive cultivation of anger opens wide this door to the dark path, and to the companionship of “this indwelling beast that broods on the unfairness of life.”42 The next stop on the dark path is foolishness. “He who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Proverbs 14:29), and “when a man's folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the LORD (Proverbs 19:3).

Next stop: envy, the sick sort of sorrow we aim, not at anything bad that actually happens to us, but at good things happening to others as if it were a bad thing to us.43 Envy in itself is a horrifying thing. St. Cyprian put it like this: “What a plague of one's thoughts, how great a rust of the heart..., to turn the good things of another to one's own evil, to be tormented by the prosperity of illustrious men..., to apply (as it were) hangmen to one's own heart... You are the enemy of no one's well-being more than your own.”44 The Bible says, more succinctly, that “envy makes the bones rot” (Proverbs 14:30). In Cain's case, it'll be even worse than that, “the diabolical envy that the evil feel toward the good simply because they are good while they themselves are evil.”45

Plus, the Bible says, “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16). The next stop on the dark path is hatred, an utter contempt where anger's potential good desire to restore order through justice becomes nothing but pure rejection. Cain's diabolical envy has to lead here, to “hate one who is blameless” (Proverbs 29:10). Hatred of people, in this sense, is never healthy.

The dark path that covers anger and hatred won't stay safe inside. It's written that “a hot-tempered man stirs up strife” (Proverbs 15:18). “Pressing milk produces curds, pressing the nose produces blood, and pressing anger produces strife” (Proverbs 30:33). So too, “hatred stirs up strife” (Proverbs 10:12). Now all that anger and envy and hate become interpersonal, leaking out in words or gestures or other outward signs. Suddenly strife poisons relationships – and that makes everything unpleasant for everybody (Proverbs 17:1). “While there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly and walking according to man?” (1 Corinthians 3:3).

Nor will the dark path necessarily stop there. The Bible warns that this swirl of emotions inside us, stoked by the conflict between what life is and what we think it ought to be, can be a source not just of arguments but of violent outbursts and forceful assaults (James 4:1-2). It's the next horrifying step in the natural course that Cain and his anger will take if burning has no imposed limit. Once Cain gets here, sin will “reign in his mortal body, to make him obey its passions,” to the extent that he'll “present his body parts to sin as instruments for unrighteousness” (Romans 6:12-13). And so the Serpent will be master. If this is where Cain will go, then John's right: “We should not be like Cain” (1 John 3:12), “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:15).

But God's last words to Cain are good news for us, too, even if we feel overwhelmed by passions and tempted to follow this darker path of least resistance. Even before Cain's circumstances or his feelings change, it is genuinely possible for him to gain the upper hand. Sad and bitter as he is, ashamed and angry as he is, Cain is not helpless or hopeless or defenseless. Cain is a human being! Cain is an image of God, made for dominion! “You have it in your power,” God tells Cain and tells us, “to be weaned away from sin.”46

What Cain's got to do is learn how to manage his passions, his emotions – not to surrender control to them, not to obliterate them, but to rule over them (Genesis 4:7). As Aquinas put it, “passion leads one towards sin insofar as it is uncontrolled by reason, but insofar as it is rationally controlled, it is part of the virtuous life.”47 That is, if it can be well-ruled, it's actually what will make Cain a good person with a good life. For “whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit is better than he who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32). Cain may think he'll be great if only he can conquer Abel. Actually, the only way for Cain to be truly great is for Cain to conquer Cain – for Cain to rule his passions. Tame that beast, and it'll be a useful guardian for your heart, assertively protecting you from real injustice and allowing you to fulfill your mission.48

If Cain can do that, then he'll have victory over sin, victory over darkness, victory over the Serpent. And that's very important for Cain to do – to “be angry, and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no place to the devil,” as Paul puts it (Ephesians 4:26-27). “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). Hold strong the mastery over these passions and temptations, and victory awaits the patient.

Now, verse 7 leaves off, and Cain hasn't yet chosen a path. He's neither surrendered to nor mastered this demon beast. As God finishes speaking, the decision remains in Cain's hands. Only in verse 8, which we'll hear next week, will Cain collapse the paradox, determine his direction, seal his destiny, to see whether God's words to him will heal his heart or harden it.49 But God's words to Cain are even better for us to hear. For even though we didn't do good, God's mercy still provided the promised lifting up: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth,” said the Lord, “will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Lifted on the cross and then into heaven, Jesus poured back down the Spirit of “a wisdom that comes from above,” which is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:15-17). If we abide in Christ's grace, then “sin will have no dominion over you” (Romans 6:14). Christ is Master.. So “refrain from anger, forsake wrath..., be still before the LORD, and wait patiently before him” (Psalm 37:7-8). Amen.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Passing Over to Faith

It was their last night in the land of their oppression. The midnight of judgment was nigh. Every house of Israel had, four days earlier, carefully selected a lamb or kid, keeping it near (Exodus 12:3-6). A destroyer was on his way, on his way to rip away every firstborn son in all the land. But in the lamb, Israel would find protection. At twilight on the designated day, every head of household was deputized a priest, sacrificing the lamb (Exodus 12:6). All Hebrew homes used hyssop to paint their entryways with blood like altars (Exodus 12:7). Inside, with feet shod and staff in hand, each family ate the roasted lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8-11). Of each in Israel it would be said, “by faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood so that the destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them” (Hebrews 11:28). In faith, each ransomed their families by the lamb, and this destroying power passed quietly over them as gods, men, and beasts were judged (Exodus 12:12-13).

Stricken in the midnight judgment, the Egyptians were keenly eager to send Israel away, to bribe Israel to leave with whatever it took (Exodus 12:29-35). “The LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians so that they let them have whatever they asked; thus they plundered the Egyptians,” receiving reparations for their generations of forced labor (Exodus 12:36). As Israel and a mixed multitude journeyed under cover of darkness to Egypt's borders (Exodus 12:37-38), Moses declared that every firstborn of this redeemed people was to be consecrated to the LORD (Exodus 13:2). Reaching the sea, threatened by destruction at an Egyptian hand, yet the LORD parted the waters from the waters to create a new way, and the people had no task but to believe – and then to walk through in faith, themselves passing over the seabed to freedom (Exodus 14:21-29). Safe on the far side, they sang a song of sweet salvation, and how every pagan power would tremble “till your people, O LORD, pass by, till the people pass by whom you have purchased” (Exodus 15:16).

Every year, planted in the sanctuary their Lord had established, all Israel would repeat the sacrificial meal that heralded their salvation. And so there came an hour when Israel's Messiah – who had been “foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake” (1 Peter 1:20) – reclined at a table with his disciples in an upper room which had been furnished for their yearly observance of that Passover meal (Luke 22:7-14). For, he told them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). That evening, “he took bread and, when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.' And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, 'This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood'” (Luke 22:19-20).

Less than eighteen tumultuous hours later, as the sun reached its noonday heights overhead, the fists of callous Roman soldiers were smashing nails through his hands and feet, hauling his battered and bloodied body upright on the cross, all while the crowds smugly jeered and mocked him as a failure, as ineffectual to help himself as the Egyptians. How little they understood, though the heavens scowled black and the earth shook in fright. Three hours later, having embraced the depths of suffering and shame, the Messiah offered up his life to his Father: “Christ, our Passover Lamb” – “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” – “has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7; John 1:29). It was an act of perfect divine love, an act of perfect human hope, an act marrying perfect divine faithfulness to perfect human faith.  It was the highest worship ever rendered in heaven above or on earth below, purer than every hymn of cherubim and seraphim.  It was the costliest work ever brought to a conclusion, more taxing than to swat down all the flames of hell barehanded.  It was the culmination by the holiest death of the liveliest life ever lived in all of God's creation.

That next sabbath, so silent on earth, was all uproar below. As the Hebrews had plundered the Egyptians, so he plundered the whole realm of Death of its treasures: the holy souls once imprisoned there. Then came the next morning, the morning which is this morning. Just as Israel began to ascend from Egypt before sunrise, so ere the darkness had fully lifted off the land, the stone had been rolled away by angel hands (Matthew 28:2). There within lay the linen shroud and the face cloth, two relics abandoned to the glorious emptiness. And why was the stone-cold tomb discovered vacant? Why, when God put the sun in the Sunday, did its light not shine in on the corpse of a crucified man? Because, as Simon Peter would testify, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it!” (Acts 2:24). “God... raised him from the dead and gave him glory” (1 Peter 1:21), “and of that,” the apostle preached, “we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32).

For late that afternoon, the deathless Messiah, cloaking his identity and his glory, had walked the miles with two grief-gripped doubters, who only belatedly recognized their Salvation at the parting of bread from bread (Luke 24:30-35), a truth which lit their hearts ablaze and made their “sorrow and sighing flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). That very evening, as disciples quaked in hiding, the risen Jesus invaded their midst – defying all we understand of time and space – and bade them peace (John 20:19), gladdening their hearts with proof that the one they'd seen slaughtered was the very one standing before them in the living flesh, his open wounds of scarring pain transfigured in the radiance of triumphant love's beauty (John 20:20-21).

And so, breathing on them a foreshadowing of his own Holy Spirit (John 20:22), he “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,” including the true meaning of the Passover now fulfilled: “that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:45-47). For “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,” so it was God's will that in Christ “we too, won from every people and tribe, from every nation and tongue, might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

Therefore, the good news one day reached your soul and your body that “you were ransomed from futile ways... with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Through Jesus Christ our Passover Lamb, we've been set free at last from “the passions of our former ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14), liberated from our age-old slavery to sin as surely as Israel was liberated from slavery (Romans 6:17-18). And it is “through him,” through the risen Messiah, that we whose ancestors bowed to idols now “are believers in God,” our hearts and souls infused with a gift of faith we couldn't concoct of our own volition (1 Peter 1:21).

So we no longer live in the house of slavery. We no longer live in the house of sin. We no longer live in the house of disbelief. We no longer live in the house of despair. We no longer live in the house of wrath. We no longer live in the house of death. We live in a house painted with the blood of the Lamb! We live in a house of faith, of hope, of love! We live in a house of Passover! We live in a house where death reigns no more! We live in a house of freedom! We live in a house of resurrection! We live in a house of gladness! For we live as the house of the Lord! Therefore, the Apostle Peter preaches, “your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:21). Having been redeemed, we are consecrated to God through Christ: “having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth” (1 Peter 1:22), “conduct yourselves with fear” (1 Peter 1:17), being “holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). For we are a people who have passed over to faith, to hope, to the love which is greater than victory, to the open door of life eternal!

And what does our risen Savior proclaim to us now? Hear him: “I set free the condemned, I give life to the dead, I raise up the entombed. … I am he who destroys death and triumphs over the enemy and crushes Hades and binds the strong man and bears humanity off to the heavenly heights. … So come, all families of people adulterated with sin, and receive forgiveness of sins. For I am your freedom. I am the Passover of salvation, I am the lamb slaughtered for you, I am your ransom, I am your life, I am your light, I am your salvation, I am your resurrection, I am your King. I shall raise you up by my right hand, I will lead you to the heights of heaven; there shall I show you the everlasting Father.”1  

And so, as the prophet promises to us all: “You shall have a song as in the night when a holy feast is kept, and gladness of heart as when one sets out to the sound of the flute to go to the mountain of the LORD, the Rock of Israel” (Isaiah 30:29).  Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:21)“And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). For in this faith, in this joyous hope, have we “passed from death to life” (John 5:24). Hallelujah!  Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

The Dawn of Sacrifice

The oldest civilization in the known world had a story. In that story the Sumerians told, once upon a time, when humans had no crops or livestock, they lived like mere beasts: they “went about with naked limbs..., ate grass with their mouths, and drank water from the ditches.”1 But then the gods invented sheep and grain, two great blessings, and shared them with humanity, “they gave them to mankind as sustenance.”2 The Bible tells the tale rather differently: in the beginning, yes, humans were naked, but rather than just the grass and the puddles of ditches, we lived in God's own garden, enjoying every herb and every fruit and water pure from the source. Our departure was not so much a rise into civilization and plenty as a fall into hardship, want, and sin. Still, outside the garden, we find ourselves with these same two gifts to hand: sheep and grain. Genesis 4 offers us what one scholar dubs “a mixed subsistence economy of stockbreeding and agriculture” – in short, the world Israel knew.3

That world is a world with division of labor: different things need to be done, and it makes sense to specialize a bit. And so between them, Cain and Abel have divided up the two most basic things there are to do outside the home.4 Cain follows in the footsteps of Father Adam as a worker of the ground (Genesis 2:15; 3:17-18). To Cain belongs the grain. St. Cyril paints a beautiful portrait of Cain's pleasure in the earth's beauty and fertility, in the opportunity to pour his energy and force into the world, how farming was God's calling on his life.5

His little brother Abel does not also put his hand to the ground, like a normal son of Adam. Abel chooses a life that's different but no less rooted than Cain's in the mission which Father Adam was given, to “have dominion over... every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Abel, in God's image, herds flocks of sheep and subdues pastures underfoot. Perhaps, some said, Abel was moved to this work by his delight in the tender lambs, his yearning to be a gentle caregiver.6 The cost is that, where Cain's farmland keeps him tethered close to home, Abel's sheep need to move, thus distancing Abel from the family network and from stability in life.7

So “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground” (Genesis 4:2). Nearly every man in ancient times could relate to one of those jobs.8 But the Sumerians knew they didn't always play well. In that old story, they imagined grain saying to sheep, “Your shepherd on the high plain eyes my produce enviously; when I'm standing in the furrow in my field, my farmer chases away your herdsman with his cudgel.”9 In modern Nigeria this same dynamic lurks behind a lot of the violence, as land that's good for pasture or agriculture is in shorter supply. “Farmers labor by tilling the soil to grow produce; sheep consume and destroy that produce.”10

But that's not what today's passage is really about. It's the backdrop for the real scene. Because here we get the first mention of sacrifice in the Bible. Early Christians marveled that Cain and Abel “show clearly enough just how ancient the practice of worshipping God by sacrifice is.”11 Earlier-still Jews pushed it back even further, assuming that Adam had “offered a sweet-smelling sacrifice” the very day he left the garden.12 By the way God created us, he implanted us with a natural desire for him. We were made to recognize and relate to God from the very depth of our souls. It's simply “natural that human beings recognize the Creator and his gifts.”13 So is it natural that we respond positively to gifts we receive – that's a general rule, but especially for gifts of God.

After all, we ought to be people of justice, which is just “the habit whereby a person, with a lasting and constant will, renders to each his due.”14 But there's no limit to what God deserves as “our unfailing principle and... last end.”15 That's the special kind of justice called 'religion,' and “religion is a virtue because it pays the debt of honor to God.”16 Human nature inclines us to this kind of religion: whenever we're able to recognize that there's a God above us, we're naturally inclined to “tender honor and submission” to him in worship.17

But “since man is made up of soul and body, both must be used for the worship of God.”18 “Therefore, natural reason dictates that man use sensible signs, offering them to God as a sign of due subjection and honor” – some outward tokens of our place in this one creation under God.19 We therefore have “a law of divine knowledge that is innate” which pulls us “to present thank-offerings... to the God who gives us every good thing.”20 In any kind of offering, we “offer in God's honor some of what belonged to him, as if in acknowledgment that they all came from God.”21 But a sacrifice, strictly speaking, is an offering which permanently “becomes sacred and is consumed” in fire.22 That's why sacrifice is the chief act of worship any creature can give its Creator,23 because sacrifice – the translation of our treasure to make it humanly irretrievable, transferred to God's realm on our behalf – is our most radical way of proclaiming God as the First Source and Final End of all things.24 Our heart screams with a natural human “impulse to sacrifice.”25

Paganism would later twist that impulse, making up the idea where the gods actually needed our sacrifices so as not to starve. The Sumerians reckoned that the gods couldn't handle sheep and grain on their own, that they “were not sated,” and so it was “for their own well-being” that they “gave them to mankind.”26 The Bible refuses to abide by such delusions: the real God doesn't literally feed on sacrifices, and even if he could get hungry (which he can't), he sure wouldn't need to rely on us to feed himself (Psalm 50:12-13).27 But graciously God chooses to act as if he hungers and thirsts like us, as a way of giving us a concrete and understandable outlet for this yearning to serve him, because we need such an outlet if our relationship with him is going to get outside our own heads.28 So even before the Law, God initiated or at least accepted a sacrificial system, a way to channel our impulses into an expression of genuine worship.29 And all the “ceremonial precepts” that accrue to it are different tools to turn us toward God “in many different ways and more continuously.”30 God allowed this, even before the Law, to be a sort of patch on original sin.31 But the sacrificial system wasn't actually about sin, not mainly about atonement; that was just one piece in a bigger system about, simply, worship.32

So Cain and Abel, farmer and herdsman, share “a sense of duty,” knowing that they “owed gifts in exchange for God's providing the fecund earth and fertile flocks.”33 So at some unspecified point in their lives – eventually, it says, “at the end of days” – Cain and Abel each bring God an offering, answering that sense of duty (Genesis 4:3). The word Genesis uses for 'offering' here is a Hebrew word for tribute, the kind subjects were supposed to bring their king (1 Kings 4:21) or which ambassadors might carry as a way to curry favor and grease palms (2 Kings 20:12). It was a pledge of loyalty, a way of boosting goodwill relations.34 In the Law of Moses, it's a technical term for the grain offering that accompanied each meat sacrifice (Numbers 15:2-10) and sometimes also could just stand on its own (Leviticus 2:1-16). The point of this offering was “to express one's allegiance to the Lord.”35 But the word could also be used to cover even animal sacrifices (1 Samuel 2:17), and in the Greek Old Testament it usually got translated with the common Greek word for 'sacrifice' in general.

So Cain the farmer and Abel the herdsman each bring God a tribute offering, a sacrifice, derived from their own labors: the results of the work they do in the world.36 One brings animal, the other brings vegetable – both of which will remain valid and necessary once the Law of Moses is given.37 For Cain's part, he toiled in the earth by the sweat of his brow, using stone and wood tools at best, to cultivate his grain; he labored hard for each sheaf, watched as God gave it the growth, pulled it out with his own two hands, and now he's going to give some to God.38 Abel's offering is probably the result of less physical strain; his work is a kind of secondary task, suited for the younger and weaker of the brothers.39 Yet he, too, relied on God's mercy to provide and care for his flock so they could increase and multiply under God's blessing. And now, where Cain's hands are brown with soil, Abel's offering is the harder part: his hands will be red with blood. Both make their offerings, so far as we see, in gratitude for God's gifts and in hope that God's faithfulness will yield even better things ahead.40

We have to imagine they're making these offerings around the same time, probably in the same place, which may mean some sort of prehistoric religious assembly and festival. Some ancient Jewish readers thought it was a foreshadowing of the Feast of Passover.41 Some modern scholars suggest instead a foreshadowing of the Feast of Firstfruits, when both barley sheaves and lambs were offered the same day (Leviticus 23:10-13).42 Whatever the occasion, to it Cain and Abel “both come as priests, worship the same God, and desire God's acceptance.”43

When the time comes, what does Abel give as an offering, what does Abel sacrifice to the LORD? He “brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” (Genesis 4:4). On both counts, Abel is intentionally giving God the most valuable thing to come out of his work: “the fat portions were considered the best meat, and the firstborn animals were the most prized.”44 That's why, when Israel reaches the land of promise, God calls for “the firstborn of your herd and of your flock” (Deuteronomy 12:6). “The firstborn of a sheep... you shall not redeem; they are holy. You shall sprinkle the blood on the altar and shall burn their fat as an offering by fire, a sweet-smelling aroma to the LORD (Numbers 18:7), for “all fat is the LORD's” (Leviticus 4:19). So Abel anticipates the Law in being “willing to part with his choicest possessions” for the sake of God's glory.45

So we expect to read here that Cain brought the firstfruit of his fruit of the ground, or something like that. After all, when Israel enters the land of promise, they're told to “take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground which you harvest” and present it to God in thanksgiving (Deuteronomy 26:2). So we expect to read of Cain anticipating that here. Instead, we read simply that “Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the ground” (Genesis 4:3). Maybe moldy or stale, maybe unripe, or maybe just a random sampling from what he's got, chosen unthinkingly and uncaringly. Whatever it is, we're given no indication that these are his firstfruits.

Abel's offering was the best Abel had, which honored and pleased the LORD. Abel did by nature what the Law would one day require, God having written his will on Abel's heart (Romans 2:15). But Cain's heart didn't pick up the message. Cain “owed to God the firstfruit of his crop.”46 Yet he didn't bring his first or his best, just what was close at hand.47 Perhaps he'd even already gobbled down his firstfruits, saving God only his leftovers.48 Cain's offering suggests no correlation, however remote, to the infinite value of God; it communicates nothing of God's grace, goodness, holiness, honor. The problem isn't that Cain doesn't give what Abel gave; it's that Cain doesn't give Cain's own best, since, like Paul says, an offering is “acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he doesn't have” (2 Corinthians 8:12). If Cain had brought his own best, his firstfruits, then the gift itself, at least, would've been totally pleasing to God.49

For God actually does care deeply what it is we offer him. “We ought to offer something special to God,” a gift that communicates God's supreme worth.50 So Israel was given standards: “You shall not offer anything that has a blemish, for it will not be acceptable for you” (Leviticus 22:20). Such gifts symbolically contradict who Israel knows God to be. Yet they sinned, “offering polluted food on my altar.... When you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil” (Malachi 1:7-8), “an abomination to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 17:1)? So “honor the LORD... with the firstfruits of all your produce” (Proverbs 3:9), “offer right sacrifices” (Deuteronomy 33:19). It matters that we give God the best of what we've done, the best of what we have.51

God also cares how we offer what we offer. Moses gets a truly massive list of instructions of sacrificial details, without which an offering “shall not be accepted” (Leviticus 7:18). For each of the appointed feasts, God sets the menu at his altar down to the prescribed quantities (Numbers 28-29). The point is that not everything in worship is up to us. There are right ways and wrong ways – ask Nadab and Abihu, if you can find their ashes (Leviticus 10:1-2). That's what it means that God is holy. Holiness must be approached carefully, by the book.

And in the Greek version of Genesis, this is the explanation added for what Cain did wrong: he failed to 'divide rightly' his sacrifice, he committed a cultic blunder, he botched the ritual protocols52 – some technique misapplied, some rule overlooked or defied.53 As one early Christian poet put it, “the crude farmer... brought his bungled, unsalted offerings of earth.”54 St. Ambrose says that “in every case where there is disorder, there is room for precision,” so our worship “should follow a precise pattern.”55 “Guard your steps when you go to the House of God: to draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools,” as Cain did (Ecclesiastes 5:1).

So Cain's offering and Abel's offering differed in the quality of the gift, and maybe even the quality of the giving. But these are a window into the two brothers themselves as people, and that's what makes the deeper difference.56 Through his prophets, God tells Israel that he can't enjoy their sacrifices, no matter how plentiful or fine or artfully offered: “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts!” (Isaiah 1:11). “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and tribute offerings, I will not accept them” (Amos 5:22). Why not? Because the sickening nature of unrepented sin spoils the quality of any gift: “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD (Proverbs 15:8). Before sacrifice, “make yourselves clean! Remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good” (Isaiah 1:16-17). “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3).

And herein lies a difference between Cain and Abel. The Apostle John offers a simple summary for why Cain's gift is rejected and Abel's is accepted: “Cain's own deeds were evil, and his brother's were righteous” (1 John 3:12). In some way not spelled out in Genesis, Cain hadn't been living rightly. He'd imitated the worst he found in Father Adam and Mother Eve. Before the fires were ever lit, there was something Cain needed to fix about himself. And until it was, God didn't care how plump Cain's veggies had grown. Cain's works, Cain's life, was distasteful enough to make God lose his appetite just looking at Cain; his deeds were cockroaches in the kitchen. Not so with Abel, though. John and Moses give no hints what Abel had done right: maybe helping Adam and Eve, maybe nursing an injured lamb, maybe some thankless act of kindness for Cain. But Abel's deeds were already righteous. So when he brought his offering, there was nothing unappetizing in the kitchen of his life, nothing there to gross God out.

But if “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination, how much more when he brings it with evil intent!” (Proverbs 21:27). It's not just about who you are outside the altar; it's about who you are in it, about what the worship means to you on the inside. “The sacrifice is effectual,” one commentator writes, “only for those who will offer it with a believing and contrite heart.”57 It calls for the offerer's heart-motive, heart-attitude, to be pure and attentive and sincere. That's because, as St. Augustine put it, every physical act of worship “is the visible sacrament of an invisible sacrifice” we make on the inside.58

Jewish readers of Genesis took Cain to be “thoroughly depraved,” saying he “had an eye only for gain.”59 Cain gives a wrong gift, Cain leads a wrong life, because Cain has a wrong heart. And so his mentality in worship is transactional, just as he was raised to see the world. For Cain, worship is an automated thing, a bribe that will necessarily pay off in favor.60 For him, it's just going through the motions: put the thing on the altar, tick all the boxes, close the deal, then move on with your day. No wonder he presumes on the outcome, no wonder he takes no greater care, no wonder he doesn't expose his heart in what he does. It wasn't just his gift or his ritual or his works that are rejected here; it's his heart, his attitude.61 Cain suffers from a lethal poverty of love.62

On the other hand, the New Testament tells us it was “by faith” that “Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous” (Hebrews 11:4). That faith has to do with what Abel's heart and soul were like. “The exterior sacrifice,” it's said, “signifies an interior sacrifice by which the soul offers itself to God.”63 All the outward actions of worship were supposed to “represent the ordering of the mind to God, stirring up the offerer to this end.”64 Because Cain wasn't giving any interior worship of God, because he refused to allow his heart to be stirred, his outward actions of sacrifice were empty and vain. But Abel's faith did offer God interior worship from the heart and soul, and that faith gave life to his outward acts of sacrifice, investing them with meaning, enriching them with love. And indeed, “anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him,” as Abel was (Acts 10:35). To live rightly and worship God from the heart with reverence for his holiness – that's what is takes to be a person who can be accepted.

For Cain and Abel, for you and me, “both giver and gift were under the scrutiny of God.”65 Cain brings God whatever's cheap; Abel brings whatever's costly. Better said, Cain brings God worship that's convenient; Abel brings God worship that's carefully considered. Cain approaches the altar with proud and careless disregard of his conduct; Abel approaches the altar with a clean conscience. Cain regards worship as an tidy routine, and presumes on his success; Abel regards worship as a daring undertaking, and is humble before God's freedom. Cain takes a lazy and casual approach to worship; Abel takes a thoughtful and serious approach to worship.

At the root, Cain has an “evil and unbelieving heart” (Hebrews 12:2). He professes to know God, but denies him in the way he lives and even the way he worships (Titus 1:16). “To the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their minds and their consciences are defiled” (Titus 1:15). Unsurprisingly, Cain's sacrifice can't be accepted by God; it has to be declined, refused, rejected (Genesis 4:5). Abel, on the other hand, “cleanses himself from what is dishonorable,” making his life “a vessel for honorable use..., ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21). Abel has “a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). “To the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). Wonderfully, Abel's sacrifice is freely accepted by God (Genesis 4:4). In Cain, we have problems with offerer and offering, all the reasons worship might fall short.66 But in Abel, we have a picture of worship unimpeded: the right offerer, the right sacrifice, the right way, the right God.

On Palm Sunday, hailing the Lord by cloaks and branches, the pilgrims to the city of worship sang him their festival hymn (Mark 11:8-10), longing to “give thanks to the LORD (Psalm 118:19). But tomorrow, in outrage, that same Lord will condemn the Cains who plug up the temple courts with their obstructions to worship. He'll remind them what was spoken through the prophet: “The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD..., their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:6-7; cf. Mark 11:17). Then, on Friday, the words of the pilgrims' psalm were fulfilled: the festal sacrifice was bound with cords, up to the horns of the altar – the cross (Psalm 118:27). There, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). All acceptable sacrifices that came before, from Abel's down, “prefigured... the mystery of Christ.”67 “This is the LORD's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23).

There, on that day, is all of Christian worship: Christ the Giver, Christ the Gift. “Every priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this Priest to have something to offer” (Hebrews 8:3), “himself making the offering as well as being the offering.”68 He is “Christ the Firstfruits” (1 Corinthians 15:23), “Firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). And to whatever extent Christian worship is really about Christ giving Christ to the Father, then that worship is infinitely more acceptable than the sacrifice of Abel, which couldn't perfect his conscience but was only a first “shadow of the good things to come” (Hebrews 9:9; 10:1).69

Whatever we add in our worship is accepted by God insofar as we and it are fittingly joined to Christ's sacrifice. In Christ, “the Church (since it is the body of which he is the head) learns to offer its very self through him.”70 Those who belong to the gospel are “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures... through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (James 3:18; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). “Whoever serves Christ” with “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” is “acceptable to God” (Romans 14:18). And the purpose for which we've been saved is, says Peter, “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). That's the point! “Through him, then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Hebrews 13:15). “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1).

And we have every advantage here, brothers and sisters, over rejected Cain and even accepted Abel. In our worship, the central thing is already being done by Christ, because he did it once for all and continually presents it to God. All we have to do is join rightly in who we are, what we do, what we bring, and how we bring it. In who we are – that is, Christians whose hearts have been claimed by faith and changed by the Spirit of Truth. In what we do – that is, Christians whose lives are turned again and again to walk by the Spirit and not according to the flesh. In what we bring – that is, whatever gifts of praise and service and substance are the best we can muster from what we have. In how we bring it – that is, with a sincere care and devotion to the astonishing holiness of the God we approach. So, to close in the words of Scripture: “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a Consuming Fire!” (Hebrews 12:28-29). Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Skins and Sins and Sons; or, Restating the World

Over the course of Genesis 3, we've witnessed the slow-motion downfall of humankind from being God's image to God's exile. It's been a tragic and degrading path that the first sin put the man and the woman on. And now that the garden has vomited us forth, now that cherubim and burning blade firmly bar our way back in, we have little choice but to begin looking at the world from a new perspective – a perspective from outside the garden of God. With today's passage, we begin to consider, in Bede's words, “the deeds of this world and of mortal life.”1

First, though, “the LORD God made for the human and his wife garments” (Genesis 3:21). Earlier, the man and woman had sewn together fig leaves into skimpy girdles to conceal their nakedness, but in neither durability nor size were they up to the task. God generously provides replacement clothing, something larger, “something more durable, more suited to the hard lives they will face outside the garden.”2 The kind of garment pictured here is a long tunic that reaches down at least to the knees, maybe even the ankles.3 Unlike flimsy fig leaves, they're stiffer stuff, able to not only visually obstruct their bodies but also protect them from the elements, from “blazing sun, chilling wind, or pouring rain.”4 Now, God doesn't have to do this. He could just let them spend their whole lives doing little more than stitching leaf to leaf! But generously, before he sends them out to face the consequences of sin, he provides something to ease the harshness of the world. And to that end, having stopped his work of 'making' on the seventh day, God goes back to 'making,' all for the sake of mercy.5

Not only are they a protection, though, they're a privilege. The word for 'garments' here is used by Moses for the 'tunics' that Aaron and his sons will wear as their priestly vestments (Exodus 29:5-9; Leviticus 8:7).6 These vestments given to Adam and Eve are more than just the customary clothes of a caveman; they show that the man and woman go forth invested as priests who maintain a relationship with God. The LORD God stooped down and peeled the fig leaves away, destroying the covering they've tried to make for themselves; he exposed their shamefully bare nature. But then the hand of the LORD gently “clothed them” in what they had no way to get themselves (Genesis 3:21). By God's “caring authority,” he shows his commitment to not give up on us, to cover us when we confess we're naked and poor, to welcome us, to dignify us.7 We're rightly moved when the father runs to the prodigal son and throws a robe over him as he comes home; but this is the Father giving the fine robe as the prodigal son leaves in the first place! These vestments are astonishing symbols of the authority and dominion that the man and woman will still bear in the world beyond the garden as God's images and as God's beloved.8

But this intimacy and power of grace, while free to the man and woman, still has its cost. These are, we're told, “garments of skins” (Genesis 3:21). And to make body-length tunics for two, no animal has that much skin to spare and then just go about its day. God's provision comes at the cost of some animal's life.9 Something had to die in order for the man and woman's shame and vulnerability to be covered, in order for them to be reinvested with status and authority, in order for them to be equipped to still minister to God outside the garden.

Sin is a costly thing that can't merely be papered over or dismissed. To get by in the world will be painful and messy and at least a little bit brutal. For even here, in this dawning moment, some beast has died for our sake. And whatever it was, it won't be the last. The priest who slew a guilt-offering was entitled to its skin (Leviticus 7:8). And so, as they say goodbye to the garden of God, man and woman wear the skins of a dead beast over their own naked skin, a constant reminder of “the profound consequences of their choice for disobedience.”10

Now “the human called his wife's name 'Eve,' because she was the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). Adam and Eve – their names mean 'Human' and 'Make-Alive.'11 And to call her 'Mother of All Living' is a profound gesture Genesis makes; among Israel's pagan neighbors, that kind of title was reserved for mother goddesses.12 He calls her that in advance. But now, in the world outside God's garden, “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived, and she bore” (Genesis 4:1). They were told to “be fruitful and multiply,” and the original blessing remains intact despite the curse (Genesis 1:28). In fact, this conception and labor are carried out “with the LORD (Genesis 4:1). Despite how challenging and uncomfortable Eve finds the process, “with God all things are possible” after all (Matthew 19:26).13 God “makes her the joyous mother of children” (Psalm 113:9).

And so “she bore Cain, and she said: 'I have gotten a man!'” (Genesis 4:1). It's a curious thing for her to say. The verb she uses, qānîtî, is used elsewhere for acquiring wisdom (Proverbs 1:5), owning livestock (Isaiah 1:3), buying a field (Jeremiah 32:44), buying a lamb (2 Samuel 12:3), buying clothing (Jeremiah 13:2), even buying a slave (Exodus 21:2). It's a commercial word, a property word, an ownership word. Eve's claiming what she's conceived and birthed as her purchase, her property, her possession. In more special circumstances, though, this is also the word used for God as the Producer of heaven and earth (Genesis 14:19), as the one who created Israel (Deuteronomy 32:6), as the one who forms our innermost parts before we're born (Psalm 139:13). Eve's laying credit to forming, fashioning, forging, manufacturing a man.14

In Genesis 2, the woman was depicted as derived from the man (Genesis 2:23); now she, as woman, asserts her womanly power as the source of man from henceforth.15 She concedes, at the end, a role for God – “I have gotten a man with the LORD (Genesis 4:1) – but casts herself as his colleague, as though Cain were the fruit of a group project they'd worked on.16 But it's almost like she's his competitor as well: “Now it's not just you who manufacture men, LORD; what you do, I do too!” She “puts herself on par with the Lord as creator,” and so Cain's very name is testimony to the same grasping after godhood that led her to snatch the forbidden fruit.17 It isn't a sign of a healthy attitude: in her son whom she manufactured and owns, she has a man, she thinks, like a new husband, who won't disappoint in the way Adam does; he'll be “the apple of his mother's eye.”18

“And she added to bear his brother Abel” (Genesis 4:2). He comes across as an afterthought. His name gets no comment, because its meaning is obvious to anybody who speaks Hebrew. It's a pretty common word in the Old Testament, often translated 'vanity,' but really meaning 'breath' or 'mist' or 'vapor.' It refers to something so fragile it can easily be blown away, something on the verge of dissipating the moment you see it,19 “something insubstantial and evanescent.”20 It's a pretty odd name for a baby boy; perhaps he was a small and weak child, not expected to last long, the kind for whom Adam might've stayed up late into the night praying for a miracle.21 And, of course, there's no doubt some foreshadowing here: Abel's really won't be a long life on earth.22 “Leave me alone,” Job tells his friends, “for my days are a vapor” (Job 7:16). Abel could've said that just as well.

The fact that Genesis only mentions once that Adam knew his wife or that she conceived, and then narrates two births, has led many to suggest that Cain and Abel might be implied to be twins.23 If so, they make quite the contrast: one born so robust he's portrayed as a full-grown man straight from the womb, and his brother born so frail he was practically named 'Temporary,' 'Don't-Count-on-It,' 'Here-Today-Gone-Tomorrow.' And together they paint a portrait of the world as we find it outside God's garden. Cain shows us the world through the lens of pride and possession. He tells us there's no limit to human potential, nothing to thwart our glory. In Cain's world, the way to get by is to get ahead, to work hard, to put yourself first and achieve all you can imagine. His whole life will be stamped by the dynamic of owning and being owned. His is the world viewed by economists, industrialists, technologists; he's the manufactured man, the quantifiable man. To live in Cain-world is to live for grabbing and getting, a world of invention and production, of seeking salvation on an assembly line. It's a world bought and sold a trillion times a minute, a world we demand to reshape and repair and remortgage, a factory model of markets and might, suffused with objects and efforts, a world we imagine we can master through ingenuity and elbow grease.

But then Abel is born: “Vapor of vapors! Everything is vapor! What profit does an adam have by all the toil which he toils under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3). So says Ecclesiastes, which might as well be called the Book of Abel. Everything Cain represents is unmasked therein as an “ultimate emptiness and fruitlessness.”24 “All toil and all skill in work,” everything Cain was all about, “come from a man's envy of his neighbor: this also is vapor and grasping after wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:4). “So I hated life, because what was done under the sun was grievous to me, for everything is vapor and grasping after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17). “Adam is like a vapor; his days are like a passing shadow” (Psalm 144:4). “Surely every adam stands as entirely vapor” (Psalm 39:5). Human life turns out to be 100% Abel. All we are is dust in the wind. And so are all these nice things that share this Abel-world with us. Things fall apart. If Cain shows us the world through a lens of pride and possession, Abel shows it through a lens of peril and pointlessness. Nothing in life is certain but death and taxes. “Time and chance happen to [us] all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Nothing we can do amounts to more than children building sandcastles on a beach holiday, or a fool trying to shoot down the moon with bow and arrow.25

As one author puts it, “where the name 'Cain' speaks of grasping after divinity, then, the name 'Abel' signifies the transient nature of human existence.”26 The hopes of Cain are thwarted by Abel every time, and Cain will make sure of it. Here we have the world outside the garden: pride raising its own peril, possessiveness proving pointlessness, and the vicious cycle locks us into a desperate combat to secure the impossible. The more we see that nothing lasts, the more anxiously we crave to cobble together something certain; and the more frantically we try, the more we damage the world and hasten its dissipation. Now that's a Cain-and-Abel world we're in.

It wasn't meant to be that way, of course. In the beginning, we were made originally righteous, innocent, by “a definite gift of grace divinely bestowed upon all human nature in the first parent.”27 If Adam and Eve hadn't sinned, then at the moment of our conception God would've given each of us that same added gift of a total rightness inside and out, key to operating human nature the right way.28 In Genesis 3, we watched Adam and Eve lose that innocence, but we might hope that when their children are born, they'll enter even the world outside the garden as innocents who have the same inner health Adam and Eve had.

But it turns out that the answer to that is no. As St. Augustine put it, “the transgression of those two,” of Adam and Eve, “ought to be understood as so great a sin that it could change for the worse the nature of all who are born of man and woman and could bind them with a common guilt.”29 Original righteousness was ripped off human nature violently, leaving human nature itself naked and wounded in all who are born to it, starting here in Genesis 4. In Cain and Abel alike, Adam and Eve “begat sons who still carry with them the original sin of their unfaithful progenitor.”30 Or, to use the Bible's own words, Cain and Abel could both look back and sing in unison the psalm: “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5).

The Apostle Paul explains that “by the one man's disobedience, the many were made sinners” (Romans 5:19). Each one of us can say, “In Adam I fell, in Adam I was cast out of paradise..., in Adam I am guilty of sin.”31 It's right there in the Bible: “the trespass of one led to condemnation for all humans” (Romans 5:18). “As an inheritance, Adam left his children... not freedom but bondage..., not salvation but destruction.”32 Paul says it without mincing words: as Adam's descendants, we are all born “children, by nature, of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).

So the early Christians recognized that “every soul... born in Adam... is unclean,” and “sinful, too, because it is unclean.”33 That includes Cain. It also includes Abel.34 And me, and you, and your great-grandkids. Not only after they grow up, but from the very beginning. “All the children of Adam were in him infected by the contagion of sin,”35 hence why the birth of every child in Israel called for a sin-offering (Leviticus 12:6).36 “No one is without sin, not even an infant one day old, although he never committed a sin” in his own person,37 they said, for a newborn baby “has not sinned at all, except that, born carnally according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the first death from the first nativity.”38 “All souls, even those of infants..., contract original sin.”39 That's because “the human nature in which each of us is born of Adam... is not in good health,” because it has a “defect which darkens and weakens” it.40 This “defect stemming from the origin remains in the offspring to make them guilty.”41 So “no one is born of Adam who is not bound by the chain of sin and condemnation;”42 “absolutely everyone who has been born is held guilty.”43

Those aren't my words; they're the words of Christians from the first four centuries of the faith, before Patrick began to evangelize Ireland. As sons of Adam, as daughters of Eve, “we are invariably fellow-travelers away from God” even as he forms us in our mother's womb.44 We have an obligation to be in a right relationship with God, to be at peace with God, but we are born outside that relationship, born inheriting a fallen state, born as heirs of a war declared on God.45 Even though we didn't choose it, we're born guilty of being on the wrong side of it. From our first infant cry, Adam's generating influence is reaching down through the ages, connecting us to his sinful will.46 Since Adam represented us all before God, human nature itself was declared guilty in him, and so what we inherit is guilty, even before we've had a chance to will anything sinful as newborn individuals.47

It's not just a silly outdated idea, either. John Wesley reminded us that “all men are conceived in sin and shapen in wickedness,”48 so that each person born in descent from Adam and Eve is “justly punishable for it.”49 Our own denomination's articles of faith confess this, too. Each one of us suffers from a “disordered disposition,” a “corrupt habit of sorts” through which “the various powers of the soul strain towards conflicting objectives.”50 That inner disorder we're born with and guilty of explains why “human nature is now defective so that we are all prone to [actual] sin.”51 Original sin doesn't coerce us into putting sin into practice – we have free will – but, living with the effects of original sin, universally we actually sin once we get the chance.52

That might sound like an incredibly gloomy, dreary, and offensive message – that we should look into an infant face and see not only the precious image of God but also the presence of disorder, guilt, sin, judgment. But the reason why the Church came to so strongly insist on this original sin idea is because, if original sin isn't true, then “not all would be in need of redemption through Christ.”53 The Church came to this deep understanding of original sin by reasoning backwards from the beautiful reality of our redemption in Jesus!

It all adds up from one practice and two convictions. First, the practice: the early church baptized babies. We can't find a time when we see Christians unwilling to baptize babies. Our earliest witnesses say the Church got it as “a tradition from the apostles to give baptism even to little children,”54 and the New Testament itself shows us cases of whole households being baptized together, babies and all (Acts 16:33). If “no one is prevented from baptism and grace,” one early bishop said, “how much more should an infant not be prohibited?”55 Second, the first conviction: there are not two different kinds of baptism. They got that straight from the Apostle Paul, who says outright in the Bible: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). Third, the other conviction: baptism is an answer to sin and guilt. They got that from the Apostle Peter, who “baptized... for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38), and from Ananias who baptized Paul to “wash away [his] sins” (Acts 22:16).

So, they reasoned, babies are baptized, and baptism is to wash away the guilt of sin. Could they be baptized for some other reason? No, because then there'd be two different kinds of baptism, but we know there's only one. So if babies are baptized, then “the Church certainly baptizes” them “for a true forgiveness of sins.”56 For “if there were nothing in infants that ought to pertain to forgiveness..., then the grace of baptism would appear superfluous.”57 But what in infants could need forgiving, if they haven't committed any sins of their own? The early church answered: “In the case of little children, original sin is removed by baptism.”58

Whether we accept all their premises or not, that's how the early church reasoned their way there. “The first birth holds human beings under the condemnation from which only the second birth sets them free.”59 That's why Jesus says, “You must be born again!” (John 3:7). “Who will be so bold,” they ask, “to say that Christ is not the Savior and Redeemer of infants? But from what does he save them if they don't have the disease of original sin?”60 So, they concluded, on account of original sin, “it is necessary even for infants to be reborn in Christ,”61 to be “released from the bonds of sin through the grace of Christ the Mediator.”62

This dark doctrine of original sin is actually meant to cast into relief the bigger truth that “every human being, even the littlest, is called to the knowledge and love of Christ.”63 And if that's true of even a baby at her first breath, if it was true of infant Abel and child Cain, then how can any of us ever doubt that we're called to Christ, that salvation is meant for the likes of us? For the Lord's faithful grace “has the same fullness of power... in the action, confession, and forgiveness of sins in every sex, age, and condition of the human race.”64

Just as the sin of Adam and Eve was covered by garments God made, so Cain and Abel, though born naked and poor, need not stay that way. Even out of God's garden, Adam and Eve could knit and sew clothes of cotton and wool and animal skins for their children, and undoubtedly they did. But spiritually, Cain and Abel don't have to stay naked and poor either. They, like every child, like every adult, can be clothed by God. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ” – even if in the very hour you opened your eyes outside the garden – “have put on Christ” as a vestment infinitely nobler than what Adam and Eve wore (Galatians 3:27). And so we can thank God that, though we're out in this world of pride and peril, of possessiveness and pointlessness, although we're born in sin and all we grasp at is only chasing the wind, Christ welcomes us one and all with this same promise, even in our Cain-and-Abel world: “Let the little children come unto me” (Matthew 19:14). Amen.