Sunday, April 28, 2024

Murder and Mercy

Court is back in session. In case you missed the last episode, it began – doesn't it always? – with a crime. Abel Adamsson falls, hitting the dusty earth. Some pattern of blood spatter is knocked beside it by each crack of the rock that bludgeons and batters his body. There he lay, his wounds open and flowing as his heart uses up its final beats. It's a gruesome scene, one that takes a strong stomach to bear beholding. This was no accident of grisly nature. A homicide has happened; crime is created (Genesis 4:8). The suspect pool is as shallow as it's ever been. The victim's brother, one Cain Adamsson, is brought in for questioning. The lights in the interview room – an interview room the size of the world – grow hot on his face. “Where is Abel your brother?” (Genesis 4:9).  So goes the sum of the interrogation.

Now, the beauty of this scene is that a plea deal is on the table, beyond all reason. It always is, isn't it? When it comes to God, that is. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Not only that, but he'll unite us to his Supreme Goodness, let us abide in him. This plea deal is even better than outright acquittal. Only plead guilty before the trial, and the sentence will be life and sanctification by the love of the Lord. Cain, though, overlooks his chance for a plea bargain. So the case is brought to trial. How do you plead? It's important, Cain. St. Ambrose reminds you, “admission of guilt placates the judge.”1 But Cain ignores him.  Cain admits no guilt: “I don't know; am I my brother's keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).  Cain pleads not guilty.

The prosecution's first witness is none other than Prosecution Exhibit 1: the splattered blood of the victim. But this blood speaks, it has a voice! It isn't just entered into evidence, it takes the stand in its own right. “The voice of your brother's bloods cries out!” (Genesis 4:10). In this, we know, “the murder victim himself has testified.”2 All through this tale so far, we hadn't heard a voice cross Abel's lips. Not one of his flashbacks has an audio recording; not one thing Abel said in all his life on earth was written down for us. But now that Abel's soul has fled for happier shores, his blood left behind won't shut up, won't quit demanding justice, won't quiet its accusation. “There, at the defendant's table: that's the man that killed me – my own brother!” His spilled blood presses its charge relentlessly.3 It's the voice of Cain's bloodguilt, his responsibility.4

Next to take the stand is the prosecution's second witness, a surprise witness, an unindicted co-conspirator turned state's evidence. For “the earth which received the blood also stands as a witness of the deed.”5 The ground had for so long been Cain's closest partner and dearest friend: it's the soil he tills, the source of his livelihood, the strength of his days. So naturally, Cain had coaxed it into being, effectively, an accessory after the fact to his murderous crime, though not quite a full accomplice.6 “The ground... opened its mouth to take your brother's bloods,” God narrates (Genesis 4:11). Having tasted innocent blood, having consumed Cain's violence, the ground is poisoned against him. From complicity in crime and cover-up, it's chosen its Maker over its former friend, and has become a fearsome accuser of the killer.7 “Yes, Your Infinite Honor, it was that hand,” – let the record show that the witness is identifying Exhibit 2, the hands attached to Cain – “that hand there that fed me the blood of the victim as he died; I was there, I gobbled it all up, and I know what I saw. Cain did it!”

Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15). So reads the Law. Two witnesses have given evidence to the court: they “cry out to me,” says the LORD (Genesis 4:10). God, the Righteous Judge of All, has now considered the evidence in the case of Kingdom of Heaven v. Cain Adamsson. Cain couldn't have imagined that there'd even be any evidence, any witnesses, any trial at all. And so often, when we sin, neither can we. We think ourselves so covert, so clever, so careful in craft. But all must stand before “the Judge of all their deeds, whom nothing deceives, to whom all deeds cry out.”8  There are always witnesses to all we do; our words and works shall testify.

The testimonies of the blood and the ground are sufficient witnesses to establish Cain's actus reus, the legal principle of a guilty act. Cain did just what he's accused of. He killed another human being, his own brother, in a legally indefensible homicide, an especially heinous crime. Moreover, Cain's smarmy question (“What, like I'm my brother's keeper?”), combined with his premeditation by isolating Abel before killing him, go to establish Cain's mens rea, his guilty mind. By law, actus reus plus mens rea point to legal culpability. Not only did Cain kill his own brother; in the process, he murdered his own soul. The verdict is obvious. In fact, we blinked and missed the trial; we've just been hearing the transcript read back.9 For God first said, “What have you done?!” (Genesis 4:10). Roughly translated, we hear what the Judge is saying: “On the charge of aggravated murder in the first degree, I find the defendant, Cain Adamsson, guilty.”

The gavel slams down in judgment, and God “does not... postpone punishment indefinitely.”10 The very next verse opens the sentencing hearing, where “God declares Cain's fate.”11 Now, if we're good Israelite boys and girls watching this episode the first time, we're pretty confident what's coming next. After all, we've heard the Law of the LORD, haven't we? “If anyone kills a person, on the testimony of witnesses shall the murderer surely die” (Numbers 35:30). “If he struck him down with a stone tool..., and he died, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely die” (Numbers 35:17). “Your eye shall not pity! It shall be life for life...” (Deuteronomy 19:21).

So we expect that God the Judge, the Lord of Law and Order, is going to send Cain the Convict to the gallows, the firing squad, to the flaming fire that smites from heaven. Isn't this the God who, as Isaiah preaches, will “punish the inhabitants of the land for their iniquity, and the land will disclose the blood shed on it” (Isaiah 26:21)? Isn't this the God who, Moses sings, “avenges the blood of his servants” (Deuteronomy 32:43)? Isn't this the God who, Ezekiel reminds us, “poured out his wrath upon them for the blood they had shed in the land” (Ezekiel 36:18)? What could that ever mean, if not that he will do as his Law says, and lawfully take the life of Cain who unlawfully took a life?

On the other hand... maybe our good Israelite boys and girls know another story. It's a parable told to a grief-mad king by a woman sent to see him. For David had watched a tragedy when David's son Absalom slew David's son Amnon – with better reason than Cain killed Abel, mind you – and then Absalom fled to the shelter of his grandfather Talmai (2 Samuel 13:28-38). David was both furious and brokenhearted, his soul tormented three years with a deep conflict between justice and mercy. Can he love his red-handed son without failing in justice to his buried son? How can there be harmony between the Father's Law and this father's heart? Torn betwixt the two, David was a perfect model of inaction. His conniving nephew Joab fetched a clever woman, sending her to the king disguised as a widow in mourning; and she told him that, having lost her husband, her family had been ripped apart at the seams when, while quarreling in the field, one of her two sons fatally struck the other a lethal blow (2 Samuel 14:5-6). Now, she knows the Law sounds unambiguous: her surviving son is a murderer. The entire clan to which her husband belonged is the voice of vengeance: Stop sheltering your son, turn him in, let him get what justice has for him: death unsparing. But what they ask is not only one young man's life, but also his late father's legacy and his grieving mother's heart (2 Samuel 14:7).

So the woman presses King David again and again: he agrees first to think it over, second to protect her in sheltering him, and only at her third petition does he royally decree an exemption for her son from the vengeance of his brother's blood (2 Samuel 14:8-11). David's come around to her point, that in the story she's telling, “the original aim of blood vengeance – protecting life – becomes meaningless.”12 Now she springs her trap: “In giving this decision, the king convicts himself, inasmuch as the king does not bring his banished one home again” (2 Samuel 14:13). She argues that death and estrangement are inevitable, “but God will not take away life, and he devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast” (2 Samuel 14:14).  Whether David or we are right to be persuaded is a question for another day.

But the truly great mystery is that, while being the Consuming Fire of Justice, God takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” no matter how guilty (Ezekiel 33:11). Therefore, now “God sovereignly set aside the requirement for [Cain's] death.”13 That divine decision, though, might rub us the wrong way.  To many readers old and new, “the resulting punishment seems less than just,” not if it doesn't do unto Cain as he did unto Abel.14 But, however light it is compared to the capital punishment he justly merited, Cain is nevertheless sentenced to be “altogether subject to a curse,” to “undergo the punishment for his profane actions.”15 As one scholar put it, “His sentence involves his sustenance and settlement.”16 What Cain gets is like Adam's penalty in the garden, but on steroids.  But is it enough to do justice where it counts?

In chapter 3, only two things were directly cursed: the serpent and the ground. Now, the same phrase spoken by God to the Serpent is said to the confirmed seed of the Serpent: “Cursed are you” (Genesis 4:11). What a sad and sorry precedent Cain sets, that God's image should hear God's curse! And where the serpent was “cursed... from [or above]... all beasts of the field” (Genesis 3:14), Cain is cursed 'from' or 'above' the already-cursed ground (Genesis 4:11).17 He's separated by divine force from communion with the ground.18 As a proud farmer, Cain had “sought security in settlement and possession of a portion of the earth.”19 So this curse hits where he's pinned his sense of identity.

When you work the ground,” God explains, “it shall no longer yield to you its strength” (Genesis 4:12). And so if he persists in trying to be a farmer, “he would sweat in vain tilling the earth, since no abundance of fruits would answer his labors.”20 Once Cain de-fertilized the soil with innocent blood, how could he ever expect it to be the womb of life for him? To Cain, farming will be failing and famine, for the ground refuses to cooperate with his hopes and dreams.21 Cain will have to pay the bills and stuff his face some other way.22 He'll likely be a hunter-gatherer, a forager, a scavenger of scraps. And so “Cain's way of life is irreversibly changed.”23

God concludes the curse by declaring, “You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). Both words are from Hebrew verbs which can mean to shake around, to stagger, to move, to run. Old translations assume they're small-scale movements, like a shiver or a seizure (cf. Exodus 20:18). But these are also used for nomads and others who have to move from place to place a lot (Amos 4:8).24 Unable to live off the meager resources of one spot for long before depleting it, Cain will be tossed to and fro by compulsion and confusion. One commentator glosses this phrase as “a vagrant and a vagabond,”25 while another dubs Cain a “homeless hobo.”26

Taken all together, the terms of Cain's sentence are designed “to deny him the benefits of his act,” to make sure that he draws no profit from Abel's absence in any way.27 In more ways than one, Cain is rendered rootless: his veggies can't put down roots (says the ground), neither can Cain (says the land).28 God's punishment isn't final, but it is fitting: the ground Cain polluted becomes unresponsive, the family roots he betrayed welcome him no more, the open wilds where he lured his brother to death are now the limits of his life.29

As if making up for lost time, Cain answers God, and what he says could grammatically go two opposite ways. See, the Hebrew word for 'iniquity' or guilt can also mean its punishment, and the Hebrew verb for 'lifting up' could mean carrying or lifting off. If you lift up your punishment, you're bearing it on your shoulders, carrying it, laboring under it. But if your guilt is lifted off of you, it's removed, forgiven. So some have read Cain here as saying, “My punishment is heavier than I can carry!” – a gripe about the severity of the sentence. Others read Cain as saying, “My iniquity is too great to be forgiven!” – a belated word of hopeless admission of guilt (Genesis 4:13).30 These chapters of Genesis are deeply indulgent in double meanings. See, Cain should admit his sin – confess it, not to the point of despairing, but to the point of repenting. As guilty as Cain is, this burden could be lifted from him, his load could be lightened, if he'd only run toward the Coming Savior who promises his burden is light, light, light (Matthew 11:30). But what Cain does do is the other meaning: object. “He felt that God was overreacting.”31 He's filled, not with repentance, but with petulant self-pity.32  Everything about his reaction privileges self over order, person over principle.

Before, God told Cain that if he just did what was good and right, there'd be a 'lifting up' – of his face, of his identity – and that would include the 'lifting up off' of his sins (Genesis 4:7). But now Cain's done a great evil, and he whines he can't lift the heavy weight of all his well-earned consequences. He insists his punishment is excessive, is unreasonable, is unbearable, impossible for him to accept it as just or to humble himself under it.33 And so he submits an appeal. He demonstrates. He protests. He complains. But the prophet would ask him and us: “Why should a living man complain – a man! – about the punishment of his sins?” (Lamentations 3:39).

Cain believes that, even though he's been spared the death penalty despite his crime and his impenitence, even though his whole life has been filled with gifts he could never have earned, he nonetheless is in a position to complain, despite all this mercy he refuses to see. And in drafting his appeal, he outlines his grounds for despair. “You have driven me out today from the face of the ground..., and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:14). His fate comes with “exclusion from the tribal and family unit,”34 with Cain “removed from belonging and community.”35 Cain will be “the perpetual outsider,”36 like a leper who has to keep his distance, unsafe to come near.37 It's a cutting irony: this whole thing spiraled out from Cain being upset he once wasn't accepted, and now he'll never be accepted anywhere.38

The verb Cain uses – not one God used – is the same one used last chapter for Adam and Eve being evicted from the garden (Genesis 3:24). Just so, Cain is evicted, expelled, exorcised from the face of the ground. It's also the Hebrew word for a divorce, which gives a sense of the deep pain Cain is venting here: as a farmer, he'd treated the soil as like his bride, giving the earth his heart; but now she's divorced him, kicking him out in the cold, refusing to take his calls, and the sight of her face is nothing but a taunt.39

And from your face I shall be hidden,” Cain adds (Genesis 4:14). Again, that's Cain's inference, but it's got merit: Isaiah challenged Judah by telling them, “Your sins have hidden his face from you” (Isaiah 59:4). Here it isn't God's face that's hidden to Cain, but Cain that's hidden from God's face, the radiant spring of grace. And so at both ends, earth and heaven, Cain is cut off from a 'face.'40 He's excluded, cast away, rejected, unwatchable – that's what Cain says is happening. St. Ambrose sums up what's so distressing in this picture: “There is nothing more grievous than to be a wanderer and to be irrevocably bereft of God.”41

But Cain thinks there is something still more grievous: “It will come to pass that anyone who meets me will slay me!” (Genesis 4:14). Between claiming he's removed from God's face and this threat he sees from... who, exactly?... we begin to wonder if maybe “Cain's fears lead him to exaggerate the punishment.”42 Cain is utterly “shaken by the fear of death, lest anyone should do to him what he had done to his brother.”43 Oh Cain, thou hypocrite!  Cain is chained captive to the dreadful thought of being treated as he'd treated others, of being trapped in a replay of his crime but in the wrong shoes. Cain recognizes that the point of God's judgment is for Cain to walk in Abel's shoes – to have to live like a vapor passing through the world, to face disdain and vulnerability, to “see life through that brother's eyes” – and “as Cain begins to consider his life as Abel, the worthlessness of his own existence is terrifying.”44

Mere moments earlier, Cain espoused a worldview which denied man's responsibility to man. Why should Cain be his brother's keeper, he wanted to know? Why should Cain care about Abel? Why not prey on his brother; what else are brothers for? Now, Cain is panicking at the prospect of living under his own philosophy. Cain quakes at the idea he might meet himself out on the lonely road – someone who asks, “What, as if I'm supposed to be Cain's keeper?”, before bashing and slashing Cain to the dust, his guilty blood staining the face of a ground that simply doesn't requite his love anymore.

What Cain is appealing against is the sentence that will make him an outlaw.45 In the original sense of the word, an 'outlaw' was a person the law refused to recognize, a person outside of legal society and its protections and promises. Nothing done to an outlaw could be considered a crime, because he was no longer a legal person; he was a beast who could be put down on sight for the public good or pure sport. In those old societies that used it, outlawry was a serious penalty, capital punishment's next-door neighbor. Cain fears to be an outlaw, at the mercy of a merciless world of potential Cains who fear not God nor man.

But here God steps in with a promise: “Therefore, whoever slays Cain, sevenfold vengeance will be taken on him” (Genesis 4:15). By this solemn oath, this royal proclamation, this definite decree of the highest order, Cain hears something that contradicts his fears.46 “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” the Bible whispers (James 2:13). In a way, “God in grace lessens the sentence.”47 Now, God “adds no promise of a protector,” gives Cain no absolute assurance against death.48 After all, Abel the Righteous had no such guarantee, either. If someone should choose to attack Cain, God says nothing about stepping in to stop it, any more than he stopped Cain's crime.49 But by this legal ruling vowing drastic vengeance for Cain's killing after the fact, God brings Cain back within the world of law and of order.

In ancient Israel, the way the justice system worked was, someone guilty of homicide would be chased down by an 'avenger of blood,' a kinsman-redeemer for the victim's blood, someone who – as the family's representative – was charged with exacting a life for a life. Cain, cast out of his family circle, has no one in the Adam family to consider him kin; instead, they'd all bray for his blood, aiming to avenge Abel. Lacking a kinsman-redeemer for his blood is why Cain would be rendered an outlaw: there's no threat of deterrence, no one to step in and punish whatever will be done to him. Or, at least, so he thinks.

But God chooses something radical. All Cain's “sniveling complaints cannot deter God from his pursuit of his fallen human creatures.”50 The LORD says, in effect: “Cain, you will have an avenger of blood to stick up for you. You aren't out of family yet. I will be your family. I will take you for my own. I will be your avenger of blood, I will be the kinsman-redeemer of your life.” When Cain is at his most fearful and despairing, the LORD overlooks his impenitence and adopts Cain as his blood-brother, to show him mercy and rebuild his hope.51 He could not have asked for a more awesome gesture of loving entry into his plight, this peril of his own choosing.  James warns us that judgment will be without mercy to one who has shown no mercy (James 2:13).  But Moses chants back, astonished by the fact, that, though Cain had shown his own brother not an ounce of mercy, the LORD God judged Cain with astounding mercy still.  Oh, the mysterious and matchless love of God, the Judge of All!

And so “the LORD laid a sign on Cain” (Genesis 4:15). Cain had heard the word, but would Cain otherwise believe? Cain was an earthy man, a worldly man; he craved “an omen, something he could fix his gaze on, something he could sense.”52 Here was something he could see. What kind of sign it was, Genesis doesn't tell us, which led to lots of guesses among the ancients, some saner and some stranger. It was imagined to be a sunshine spotlight that wouldn't leave him alone, or a horn growing out of his head, or the first ever outbreak of leprosy, or a pet dog to follow and protect him, or a disability or tremor, or some kind of mark on his forehead, maybe some or all of God's name written there to declare him a true homo sacer, 'sacred man,' devoted to God by God's will over against his own.53

The sign was there to warn others not to mess with a man under God's personal protection, no matter what he'd done. It was put there as a deterrent, informing any who saw Cain that killing him had overkill consequences. But it also was a sign to Cain. It reminded him he was under God's merciful eye wherever he went – that he wasn't rejected or devoid of care, that he'd received both “a word of divine promise and an act of divine protection.”54 On the other hand, it reminded Cain of what he'd done, that he was in the shadow of a crime which stained him heart-deep, that he'd be working out the consequences all his days. It was, as one reader put it, “the original 'mark of the beast.'”55 So early Christians anointed people with a cross on their foreheads, they said, “to rid you of the shame which the first human transgressor bore about with him everywhere.”56

As the episode closes and the credits will soon roll, Cain has exhausted his appeals and prepares to go and serve his sentence. God has married justice and mercy, accomplishing both in a way we couldn't've guessed, a way calculated to Cain's good if only he'll see it that way. But “Cain went out from the face of the LORD, and he dwelt in the Land of Wandering east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16). He takes a further step away from paradise, walking off as surely as the prodigal son left his father's lands. Even in the Land of Wandering, “in the midst of fears... and in fruitless labors,”57 it'll be up to Cain now what to make of his life, what to do with the mercy he's been shown. Can he even recognize it for what it is? 

That he “went out from the face of the LORD might imply he's turning his back on God, refusing to look to God any longer. Yet even as he wanders restless in the world, he's branded as God's, he's under God's watch, and he's got the prospect, however distant, of repentance. If so, might he turn back around someday? Could it perhaps even be, as the woman of Tekoa hoped, that God “devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast” (2 Samuel 14:14)?  Has Cain still hope?  Can he now do good?  Might Cain yet make the most of mercy?

So long as yet he lives in the body, Cain may have faced a judgment, but he has not yet faced the judgment, the final judgment. And so, out east of Eden, it will still be up to Cain whether, as one old bishop minced no words about it, “the hell of fire and all the other undying torments will receive him as a victim for endless ages.”58 We, too, know “the righteous judgment of God,” when – the Apostle Paul says it – “the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus: they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the face of the Lord (2 Thessalonians 1:5-9).

For those who will not obey the gospel, Cain's road lies open wide and easy (Matthew 7:13). But we do not need to despair! For if the Lord of Law and Order so loves Cain that he heard his appeal, will the same Father of Love not hear ours? Before all fiery vengeance, this Love came first as our kinsman-redeemer, in our flesh and in our blood, to show us mercy unearned and overflowing. “God shows his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” – for Abel and Cain alike, and for me and for you (Romans 5:8). So “keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life; and have mercy..., snatching others out of the fire” (Jude 21-23). Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

My Brother's Keeper

In one fateful moment, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, violence invaded the human condition. That's where we were last Sunday. Cain rose in rage; Abel fell in blood. As succinctly as that, the Bible's given us our first murderer – and our first martyr. Now, of the two brothers who for decades had grown together, lived together, feasted together, one lies dead in body on the unforgiving earth, the other stands with a dead soul and bloody hands. The deed is done. There's no taking it back now, no healing or reversal, no holding out hope to wake from the nightmare. Cain's hope instead is that, when “someone is found slain, fallen in the field,” then often “it is not known who killed him” (Deuteronomy 21:1). Perhaps he tries to cover his tracks further, digging up the dirt to bury the body underneath, or letting a river wash it away downstream; maybe he convinces his parents Abel was just so good he moved back to the garden.1 Whatever measures he takes, Cain has handled death; he's unclean (Numbers 19:16). Yet he has no fear of the danger posed in the land by “innocent blood” (Deuteronomy 21:9).

It's unclear how much time passes from verse 8 to verse 9. After all, a shepherd could be away from his family for quite a while – not unlike a trucker today. But at some point, Abel's absence has to become conspicuous. At that point, God renews his attempted dialogue with Cain. And that's pretty remarkable, come to think of it. In the midst of Cain's death-impurity and the guilt of his monumental sin, the reaction of God is not to drop him like a hot potato. It's not to instantly pour out fire from heaven, or open up the mouth of hell beneath his feet, or send a whirlwind to sweep him away. God's reaction is to move in personally and engage Cain.2

And the LORD said to Cain: 'Where is Abel, your brother?'” (Genesis 4:9). God opens the dialogue, just like a couple verses before (Genesis 4:6), with a question. It's not a question God asks because he's mystified, as if he just can't piece together the puzzle and needs Cain's help. God is asking the question to get Cain to respond. And as we eavesdrop on this conversation, we should keep in front of our eyes a conversation from the chapter before it.3 There, too, a sin was committed – in that case, theft and consumption of forbidden fruit. And in the wake of the sin, God asked a question: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). It's not that God didn't know Adam's coordinates. The question meant, why isn't Adam where he's supposed to be, rejoicing unashamed before the LORD? What has happened to put Adam out of his joyful and rightful place? Now, after another misdeed, God asks Cain not where he is but where his victim is. Why isn't Abel here where he belongs, Cain? What explains his absence from his rightful place? What, Cain, is preventing Abel from standing in the flesh before his Lord? What can you say?4

And in asking, God doesn't content himself to say, “Where is Abel?” He adds that cutting extra word: “your brother.” God highlights, by this word that's the climax of the question, the family ties that bind Cain and Abel as one flesh, one blood, one house.5 And with that simple word, barely two syllables, God effectively “presents him with the enormity of the crime, that he has killed a brother.”6 Over and over again in this chapter, Genesis hammers it home.7 Scarcely can Abel's name be heard without an immediate reminder that he's Cain's brother. Seven times overall is the word 'brother' attached to their relationship. What's happened between them is meant to horrify us. But Genesis is saying that this horror, Cain's fratricidal bloodshed, is the natural consequence of Adam and Eve's gluttonous gaffe in the garden: from wrongly bit to wrongly hit, 'til Abel's kicked the bucket.8

So God asks Cain the piercing question, the natural question: “Where is Abel, your brother?” Why does he ask it? Because “God, who is merciful..., desired to provide for Cain, as he had for Adam, an opportunity for repentance and confession,”9 to “give him an occasion to repent and explain.”10 For “if he repented, the sin of murder that his fingers had committed might be effaced by the compunction of his lips.”11 That is always how Christians have read this moment. Nothing Cain can do or say can give Abel his life on earth back. But Cain is not beyond the reach of forgiveness. If Cain confesses, he can be made clean. That's not to say there won't still be consequences for what he's done. Forgiveness doesn't mean no consequences. But it does mean there's hope for reconciliation, and for a day when those consequences fall away. Cain can be free from bloodguilt, today and alway.

It's not so much the crime, then, that matters; it's the response. When we're caught in our sin, how do we deal with what we've done? How do we regard it: as something to hide, or as something to own and expose? In this case, one saintly bishop of old said that God's sensitive questioning “should have brought [Cain] to his senses and to a cessation of his folly, admitting what had happened, showing his ulcer to the physician and accepting the remedies he had to give. But for his part, he aggravates the wound and renders the spread of the ulcer more serious.”12 Cain chooses, you see, the wrong path of response, making his wound of sin all the worse.

We remember, as we listen in, the response Adam gave when God asked him where he was: “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10). It was, at the very least, an explanation – one which Adam bungled further by trying to shift blame onto his wife (Genesis 3:12). What we find here is that Cain, on every score, manages to be worse than his parents. If Adam merely evaded and dodged, Cain is deliberately dishonest.13 “He said: 'I do not know.'” (Genesis 4:9). Cain claims to have no knowledge of Abel's whereabouts. He claims he's as mystified as anybody why Abel isn't where he belongs – as if Cain were no part of that explanation. It's an answer “at once foolish and arrogant,”14 “doubling his sin, as though he could render God ignorant.”15 The very man who murdered Abel, the one who could with ease lead a search party to the body, now blatantly and knowingly lies to God's face, “as if he had a mind to controvert the point and maintain his guilty cause against the great Searcher of Hearts.”16

Cain lies, he lies with an attitude of defiance and arrogance and selfishness, he lies in the face of whatever scrap or tatter may be left of his putrid conscience.17 But isn't that sort of denial under questioning just “so typical of an offender who knows very well what he has done and is attempting to evade punishment?”18 It's common in any court, in any jail, in any nation, in any home; and apart from these individual cases, light or heavy as they be, “all kinds of ideologies try to justify and disguise the most atrocious crimes against human beings.”19 We think that, through insistent denial, we can deceive and elude the justice of earth. But, as Philo put it, “everyone who thinks that anything escapes the eye of God is an outlaw and an outcast.”20 That's the mark of a wicked person, to sin and even murder and say in one's heart, “The LORD does not see” (Psalm 94:7). But “he who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see?” (Psalm 94:9). “Do you suppose, O man..., that you will escape the judgment of God?” (Romans 2:3). “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). There is no deceiving the justice of heaven; there is no hoodwinking God, who not only foreknew the crime but has now taken a witness statement from Abel's blood (Genesis 4:10).

All the more foolish, then, that Cain refuses to speak to God with any sense of honor and decorum. Here many readers have seen a further hardening of his heart in sin, given how grave it is “so audaciously and irreverently to answer the omniscient God.”21 But Cain isn't done making a mess of things. How could he be? To further deflect from the contrast between his guilty truth and his convenient lie, he pushes back with a question of his own, the first question the Bible pictures a creature asking the Creator. His tone is mocking and defensive, “an arrogant retort that shows utter contempt for God and complete indifference to the crime that has taken place.”22

Am I my brother's keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). That's what Cain asks, the sarcasm spilling from his lips. Here, for the first time, Cain openly acknowledges Abel as his brother. But he admits their brotherhood as a physical fact only in the process of denying its social and moral relevance for establishing a relationship between them. Cain thinks that a brother is just a born rival, a chief competitor smuggled within hearth and home.23 Just because the womb they started in is the same, just because they about half their DNA in common, just because they've known each other so long, why – Cain asks – should that make him Abel's keeper?

That word, 'keeper,' is an interesting choice on Cain's part. It's a common one in the Bible, and literally has the sense of being a 'watcher' or 'observer.' It's used in Judges to refer to spies sent out on a reconnaissance mission, sent to just observe and report back what they see (Judges 1:24). A military camp would post 'keepers' in the sense of watchmen, lookouts, to observe the camp and its surroundings (Judges 7:19). But from there, the word takes on a sense of someone who watches over something to guard it, protect it, defend it from trespass or harm. A city had 'keepers,' roving watchmen during night patrol who stood on the walls or strolled the streets, who not only observed what went on but personally intervened to set it right (Isaiah 62:6; Song of Songs 5:7). Similarly, the Levites “keep guard over the tabernacle of the LORD (Numbers 31:30); palaces likewise had 'keepers,' security personnel who prevent unauthorized trespass (1 Kings 14:27). And an Old Testament phrase for a bodyguard was “the keeper of my head” (1 Samuel 28:2), and every “shepherd keeps his flock” (Jeremiah 31:10). To be a 'keeper' means “watching over someone or something, providing sustenance and security.”24

In the beginning, Adam was put in the garden “to work it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). But now they live outside the garden, where Cain is “a worker of the ground” (Genesis 4:2). Is there anything for him to 'keep' outside the garden? Cain seems awfully certain what he's not on this earth to keep: his brother.25 So Cain “said that he was not his brother's guardian to keep watch over his person and his actions.”26 In Cain's rhetoric, being Abel's keeper would mean putting Abel under 24/7 surveillance, investing all his energies in Abel's protection, feeding Abel like a little baby and not a grown man.27 Cain's a farmer, not a shepherd, so how much less should he be a shepherd's shepherd?28 It's ludicrous to Cain that he should be Abel's babysitter, Abel's full-time keeper, so he treats it as absurd of God to ask him to explain Abel's absence. Through the rhetorical power of the false dichotomy, Cain reasons that since he can't take full custody of Abel, he therefore has no responsibilities to or for Abel at all.29 So Cain “declares that the care of his brother is a matter of no concern to him.”30

In all this, Cain illustrates our own “intuitive desire to repudiate responsibility for others..., the desire to live, to some extent, aloof, alone, regardless of others, indifferent to their claims,” as one English preacher put it.31 We excuse that desire in all sorts of ways. We appeal to our liberties, refusing to be shackled by someone else's needs or wants. We blame others for their misfortunes, saying they'll have to learn at the school of hard knocks. We dismiss their sufferings as a brute fact of life, an unalterable law of nature in which it would be pointless or wrong to intervene. We make up somebody supposedly more important who'd be hurt if we help those we already dislike. We claim it isn't our place to care, that we have no right to concern ourselves in what our brother does or endures. So maybe we shake our head or shed a tear, but we cross the road, keep to ourselves.

That old preacher said that “so many individuals... do nothing, repudiate their responsibilities, and take sides with Cain the murderer, as they self-protectingly ask, 'Am I my brother's keeper?'”32 And still as this last century closed, it was said that in hearing Cain's words, “we cannot but think of today's tendency for people to refuse to accept responsibility for their brothers and sisters.”33 Cain sounds as modern and timely as we could fear. He also sounds, if I dare say it, American. A hundred years ago this week, an Australian paper lamented that “no country [other] than the United States... has... so consistently adopted the 'Am I my brother's keeper?' attitude.”34 Whether you hear Cain as a plain conservative – “If Abel wants to be here, then he'll just have to pull himself up by his bootstraps and tough it out” – or in a more liberal accent – “Oh, it's not for me to judge Abel, Abel can be where he wants, let's be tolerant, it's really no business of mine” – Cain sounds too familiar.

The heart of Cain's question, as St. Ambrose saw, was that “Cain shirks his duty to be his brother's keeper as if this were beyond the bounds of nature's laws.”35 But in spite of his best efforts, Cain actually does raise a real question. By the bounds of nature's laws, how are we supposed to relate to each other? What do we owe each other? What does it mean to be a brother? And who is our brother, anyway?36

But Cain's question also has a darker sense still, one which becomes more visible as we read more of the Bible. Later in the Bible, we start to hear about God as the 'Keeper' of his people. “Your Keeper will not slumber!” promises the psalmist. “Behold, He-Who-Keeps-Israel will neither slumber nor sleep! The LORD is your Keeper!” (Psalm 121:3-5). “Lest anyone punish it, I keep it night and day,” he says (Isaiah 27:3). We hear that “the LORD keeps the simple,” that is, he preserves them and takes care of them (Psalm 116:6), and similarly that “the LORD keeps the sojourners” (Psalm 146:9), that “he will keep the feet of his faithful ones” (1 Samuel 2:9), that “the LORD keeps all who love him” (Psalm 145:20). In that hope, Israel's priests said constantly, “the LORD bless you and keep you” (Numbers 6:24). After all, “unless the LORD keeps the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Psalm 127:1) – human keeping avails nothing without divine keeping.

So when Cain asks God, “Am I my brother's keeper?” (Genesis 4:9), hear the question he's insinuating: Isn't that your job?37 “You interrogate me,” says Cain, “as if I were Abel's keeper. But I call God to the stand! Aren't you supposed to be Abel's keeper? Don't you, God, owe an account to me for my brother? As his keeper, weren't you watching him? As his keeper, why weren't you defending him, protecting him, guarding him from all harm? Where were you, God, when a hand lifted itself up against him? Where were you, God, when Abel yelped in pain? Where were you, God, when Abel was bleeding? And where were you, God, when the lights went out? If you could've stopped Abel from dying but didn't, then shouldn't I conclude his death was simply your unavoidable will – that, at the very least, you didn't care to keep him? And if you don't care, why should anyone? Where are you in the suffering and the senselessness and the sorrow, in the agonies and the crises, in the darkness and violence of a nature red in tooth and claw? Where are you, God, in the waywardness and woe of man? Oh, in the face of evil, evil everywhere, where is God in this silent heaven and this blackened earth?”38

People talk a lot about the 'problem of evil.' And sometimes, in our suffering, we have something to say. Other times, we readily manufacture the problem of evil as a diversion, an attempt to distract attention from our own derelictions of duty, by pointing the finger at God. But if God picks up on Cain's confrontational charge, Cain's insinuation that God must render an account to man, God doesn't dignify that claim, no more than he explains himself to the lamentations of Jeremiah or the oozing tears of Job. For God is not obliged to sit as defendant in any court of human esteem. God owes no explanation; in the gracious dark of night, he simply sends salvation. Here, conversing with the Cain who's at last found something to say, God responds with a cutting outcry of horror, a question that refocuses things back where they belong: “What have you done?” (Genesis 4:10).39 “In the face of evil, evil everywhere, where are you, O man? Where are you, man, in the waywardness and woe of your brother? Where are you, man, in his suffering and in his sorrow? Are not your hands guilty? Are not you the one red in tooth and claw? What is it you've done? And where does that, O man, now put your brother?”

The error of Cain is at once called to account – in him and in us. Who, exactly, is our brother? The Law of Moses is clear that brotherhood is more than the literal children of your mom and pop. In the Law, given to a nation which acted like a loose federation of tribes at best, every Israelite is treated as a brother to all the others. God refers to “your brothers, the whole house of Israel” (Leviticus 10:6), with no regard for tribal boundaries, for privilege of office, for any other consideration. Carrying this forward, Christians are defined, from the very first moment, as simply “the brothers” (Acts 1:15). Paul constantly writes to various churches as “my beloved brothers” (1 Corinthians 15:58), and Peter reminds Christians about “your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9). Every Christian is a brother or sister to every other Christian who was or is or will be, thanks to the grace of God.

But that grace is completing what's naturally there already. Paul reminds us also that God “made from one every nation of mankind to live on the face of all the earth” (Acts 17:26). Only those born again in Christ are brothers and sisters in Christ by grace, but all people are brothers and sisters in Adam by nature. It's not just those nearest in your family tree, or the people of your state or color or country. It's just a scientific fact that all people belong to “our interconnected human family.”40 The Adam family may be billions big these days, but, however distant, in it we find every man our brother, every woman our sister.

And that makes every person relevant to you and to me. Four centuries ago this year, there was an English poet who was very sick. And as he lay in bed, he was close enough to the neighborhood church that, every time they rang the bells for a funeral, he could hear it clear as day. Even unsure which neighbor had died, he felt it deeply. He wrote meditations from his sickbed, explaining why he couldn't ignore the message of those bells.

All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume... No man is an island, entire of himself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thy own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.41

Think about that: if mankind is one family, one book, one natural body, then what happens to any member has an impact on all. Killing Abel doesn't make Cain bigger; it makes Cain smaller, because Cain – whether he likes it or not – is involved in mankind, same as Abel. And that's why our brothers and sisters – every human, of whatever age, whatever race or nation, whatever belief or persuasion or habit – cannot help but be our concern. We are natural members of the body of humanity, where “if one member suffers, all suffer together,” whether we know it or not (1 Corinthians 12:26). To that end, it's been said that we must be “placed here on earth to be keepers of each other. Is it not one of the laws of nature that we look to each other for counsel and protection? And is there not a monitor within which tells us, 'Watch over thy brother for his good?'”42

What do we, then, owe to our brothers? We owe them whatever's for the common good. We owe them what they need in order to get to where they ought to be in life. And where, then, ought our brother be? Flourishing, alive, in community with us, before the face of the Lord, that's where.

What we owe our brothers is to do no injustice to them, no harm to them. If “you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor,” as the Law says (Leviticus 19:16), how much less may we stand against the life of a brother! And yet how often brothers in Adam harm each other to death! Israelis and Palestinians, Russians and Ukrainians, to say nothing of the bitter battles within so many countries – and so many neighborhoods. So far should we be from harming a brother that we should defend a brother: stick up for, speak out for, stand in the gap for our brother under threat, whoever he may be, for “a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).

What we owe our brothers is to never exploit them in their hardships. God's people were warned seriously that if their brother fell on hard times, they could not buy his labor at unfair wages, could not treat him like a slave (Leviticus 25:39), could not charge him interest on loans (Leviticus 25:36-37; Deuteronomy 23:19), in general that they could not treat their brother's loss as a source of gain. Would that someone would preach this to our nation, which so loathes to forgive, which cannot dream of a day without profit, which institutionalizes the exploitation of brother by brother! So far should we be from exploiting a brother that we should provide for a brother. “You shall not see your brother's ox or his sheep going astray and ignore them; you shall take them back to your brother” (Deuteronomy 22:1). The New Testament takes it a step further: “If anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). “We ought to lay down our lives for the brothers!” (1 John 3:16).

What we owe our brothers is to not divide them from our unity, to not drive them away, to not mislead them or abandon them. Paul tells us that “it is good not to... do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (Romans 14:21) – something that pressures or persuades your brother to turn toward sin. “Sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak,” the Apostle says, “you sin against Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:12). So, he says, “decide never to put a scandal or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Romans 14:13). So far should we be from scandalizing a brother that we should appeal to our brother. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1). “Whoever brings a sinner back from his wandering will save his soul from death” (James 5:20). So “exhort one another every day... that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).

And in this, Cain's question is resolved. God is our Keeper, and he chooses to keep us through our watchful and protective and provident love of one another. For in the sense of helping, defending, providing, seeking good for them, “every human is every other human's keeper, to the extent our own circumstances and abilities will allow.”43 How much more for us who claim to know the grace of the God Who Is Love? A hundred years ago, a preacher lamented: “We, we Christians, ought to be aflame with the desire for righteousness, consumed with a passion to recover the fallen, to save the slipping, to bind up the broken, to save souls alive; and yet constantly we confine our spiritual and our physical energies just to ourselves and to an immediate circle, and when the claims of the outcasts, the outsiders, the fallen, the down-and-outs are pressed upon us, we cry, 'Am I my brother's keeper?'”44 How often all our excuses and rationalizations and self-justifications boil down to that question. But St. Augustine reminds us that “one who keeps Christ in his heart does not say what Cain says.”45

For Christ, God the Son, eternally the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, elected in time to adopt himself into the human family, and “that is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers” (Hebrews 2:11). The Bible says it: Jesus looks at you and sees his little brother, his little sister. And “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect,” sharing our flesh and blood, “so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). Christ could not be any less like Cain. Not only did he choose humans as his brothers and sisters, he became our royal-priestly-prophetic keeper, insisting that he “lay down his life for his friends,” for his whole human family in each of its members (John 15:13).  That's just what the heart of Christ is: love that knows no limit, neither life nor death.  If you would simply keep Christ in your heart and in your life, “concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love... all the brothers,” all your brothers in all the world (1 Thessalonians 4:9). Amen.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Murderer and the Martyr

The firstborn son, alas! he scarcely grew
to man's estate, ere he his brother slew;
and that first crime of murder, done by Cain
before the altar! There was Abel slain!
Thus man, vain man, born of woman, began
his bloody ritual: – slew his fellow man.
Oh, why for other witness should we call,
to prove the wretchedness of Adam's fall?
No wicked deed e'er wrought by thing with life,
so wondrous wicked as this primal strife.
The crime initial of the race; – for then
began the illustrative acts of men;
and since, their record is one bloody line –
one breach continuous of the Law Divine.1

When we last left Cain, he was walking through the valley of decision. He and his little brother Abel had each brought an offering to God from the results of their labors, but Abel brought the best in righteousness while Cain brought the average in unrighteousness. God had welcomed Abel and his offering with favor, but seemed to snub Cain and his offering, humiliating him. Cain had fallen into sorrow and anger, so God spoke with him, correcting his reaction and warning that he was where two pathways diverged. One pathway, that of doing good with his passions, would lead to an uplifting result. Taking the other pathway ran the risk of being bitten by a voracious beast called sin, which he needed to master by taking dominion over it, dominion over himself. But the choice was Cain's to make. God swiftly wrapped up his speech, yielding space to answer (Genesis 4:3-7).

After that, we'd expect to read, “Cain said to the LORD” something or other. We expect a dialogue to continue. But we're disappointed. Cain still has nothing he wants to say to God, even when knowingly at the crisis point. Instead, the next words we read are: “And Cain said to Abel...” – that's where we pick up, with an abandonment of the divine conversation for a human one (Genesis 4:8).2 How long that switch takes could be immediate, or it could (as some pictured) involve Cain “biding his time” for days, weeks, months, before verse 8 picks up.3

And Cain said to Abel...” – everywhere else in the Bible, that phrase introduces what's said. But here, at least in our surviving Hebrew text, there's just a suspicious blank.4 Needless to say, lots of people have tried to fill in the blank! Some filled it in with Cain telling Abel about his conversation with God.5 Some filled it in with some kind of personal argument – maybe a quarrel over authority,6 or maybe a quarrel over land ownership.7 Some filled it in with a theology debate, Cain denying mercy and judgment in the world while Abel defends the ways of God and the hope of things to come.8 All the ancient translations have Cain inviting Abel to go out to the field together, and it could be that that's how the original text read and our Hebrew copies just got messed up along the way.9 Part of me, though, wonders if this gap in the text isn't a clever ploy on purpose.10 Cain's made his decision, but without getting to hear what he says, we're on the edge of our seat to watch what he does. His actions will speak so much louder than any words, revealing his heart if we read on with bated breath.

Whatever he says, what we find next is that “they were in the field” (Genesis 4:8). This is the wild country, an isolated flat expanse where animals roam. It's also the kind of place you'd take a flock out to pasture (Genesis 31:4), so it's likely Abel's workplace as a shepherd, somewhere familiar to him.11 But a field could become cultivated as farmland (Exodus 22:5), if it were seized and privatized. And where have we met the field before? From meeting the most cunning of all “beasts of the field,” the serpent (Genesis 3:1). Cain, now seed of the serpent, naturally goes out where the wild things are. There, Cain wants Abel unsupported and unsuspecting.12

The trouble is that God's word to Cain – the same word that summoned stars and makes Cain's crops grow – has fallen silent on Cain's petrifying heart.13 And so, in the field, “what he pondered, he also did.”14 “Cain rose up against his brother Abel” (Genesis 4:8). That expression, to 'rise up against' someone, might have the sense of a sneak attack, an abrupt outburst of hostility (Judges 20:5). No wonder ancient readers described Cain here as “full of treachery.”15 And when Cain attacked, “in the field, there was no one to separate them” (2 Samuel 14:6), no one on the earthly scene to intervene against Cain the brutal brawler's brawn.16 The result was that “Cain... slew him” (Genesis 4:8). It's the general word for 'killing' or 'slaying' – here it's plainly intentional, not accidental, as when “a man presumes against his neighbor to slay him by cunning” (Exodus 21:14).17 We hear this combo later from Moses, “a man rising up against his neighbor and slaying him” (Deuteronomy 22:26).

Before, in Genesis 3, we saw Adam and Eve commit a wrong against God; now, in Genesis 4, we're introduced to social sin, whereby both is God offended and are others also harmed.18 As the Bible unfolds, this verse shows us “the first cardinal transgression by man against man.”19 There's no deep mystery what these words mean in this verse. Out of nowhere, once Cain and Abel were together in the open field away from prying human eyes, Cain gave vent to his anger, his envy, his hate. He turned on Abel, striking perhaps with a stick or a stone or a tool carved of bone. He bludgeoned or stabbed at Abel. Maybe Abel raised his hands, maybe he tried to urge Cain to stop; or maybe Abel had little time to react, his head battered, his skull dented, his bones cracking. The event was no doubt fast once it started. Before that minute, Abel was walking around, breathing the air of God's green earth. After that fatal minute, Abel's lungs lapsed in their labors, his heart's thumping arrested, his brain's synapses wound down their electric pulsating, his eyes glazed over. All the while, the seething Cain stood over his very own flesh and blood and watched said blood drain into the soil and said flesh cut loose its spirit.20

This, this minute of his choice bearing poisoned fruit, is what we all know Cain for. In what he's done, Cain has not just killed Abel; Cain has killed the soul of Cain, extinguishing his inner life, plunging his soul into dark death.21 Cain's course shows us how “departure from the one true God inevitably leads to injustice, and indeed to bloodshed, in human society.”22 Violence has now entered the human world through Cain, “the first murderer.”23 What Cain has done is unspeakably serious: “homicide... involves the greatest injury to one's neighbor,”24 and so is “the most heinous violation of the social bond between human beings.”25 And by what he's done, Cain has “instructed humanity in the way to commit murder.”26 His horrifying work will echo.

Already in the earlier stretches of the Stone Age, archaeologists find human skulls with head wounds that might have been inflicted through intentional violence.27 In north Iraq, they've found a skeleton showing a knife wound that penetrated the rib and lung, leaving damage that led to death about two months later;28 in Russia, they found a burial of a man killed by a thrown spear.29 From the Middle Stone Age, we've found graveyards full of skulls with blunt-force trauma and arms with defensive wounds.30 By the time we reach a world in the Late Stone Age where farming is a regular human practice alongside mass graves testifying to beheadings, we can plainly see the fruits of prehistoric human society being remade in Cain's image.31

Recorded history has hardly been any better than prehistory. Settle anywhere you please along the riverbank of time, and you'll find the ground wetted by blood and tears. The millennia bring brawlings and beatings and battles, mass shootings and massacres, gangs and genocides, abortions and holocausts – a woeful litany of man's inhumanity to man. And our own area has hardly been exempt. The other night, I watched a performance of Shakespeare's Hamlet, itself a tale of the aftermath of one brother's murder of another. I was there to see a good friend of mine, whose fourth-great-grandfather was hanged in Lebanon in 1880 for having drowned an old man in an insurance scheme.32 Six years later, in Reading, an argument over some misplaced money led a youth to fire four shots from his revolver into his big brother's body, then two more into himself; the victim lingered long enough to marry his fiancée before swiftly leaving her a widow.33

A week and 126 years ago, the president of a Lancaster bank was blown away by a tenant he was evicting, inches in front of a deeply traumatized constable.34 In Schuylkill County, 1903, a grown man in a rage turned his repeating rifle against two brothers, gunning both down; finally caught, all he could say was, “I am bewitched!”35 And in the 1930s, one of the families now tied to our own church nearly took Cain's dark road: while feasting and drinking after a hunt, two brothers fought over a cigarette, and the father intervened, striking and evicting one of the quarreling sons; that son, minutes later, returned to fire a 12-gauge shotgun into the family shack, injuring his father and two other brothers.36

This very past Wednesday, as a crowd gathered in a West Philadelphia park to mark an Islamic holiday, two groups of young men got into a shootout, ripping the event to pieces.37 Thursday night, in North Carolina, a two-hour window brought multiple shootings across the city of Durham, leaving a 16-year-old high school student dead; according to his mother, he and his little brother had both survived being shot just last Sunday.38 On Friday in Australia, a man carried out a mass stabbing at a shopping mall, killing six and wounding seven others, including a mama and her baby.39 That night in Pakistan, gunmen held up a bus, abducting and fatally shooting nine men from the 'wrong' province.40 Meanwhile, in the West Bank, an Israeli shepherd boy's sheep wandered home without him; his body turned up yesterday, by which time Israeli rioters had beat and burned and shot their way through several Palestinian villages.41 Cain has his fingers in so very many pies. Cain is active in every nation. Open the news, and you're seeing Cain-world in operation. Sometimes that world unfolds in the mirror, too. Talk about “one breach continuous of the Law Divine!”42

Faced with it, what does the Bible tell us? Listen: “We should not be like Cain, who was of the Evil One and murdered his brother. … Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:12, 15). Make no excuses for Cain. Watch out for Cain. Refuse room for Cain in your hands, in your head, in your heart. But realize that those who have walked the way of Cain have still a prospect for redemption, for forgiveness, for recovery, for victory over the sin that has mastered them.

Here, though, is another layer to the story we mustn't miss. We've spoken so much of Cain, Cain, Cain. What set this all in motion? What was the spark? Worship. Abel was a righteous man and a true worshipper of God. It was because Abel worshipped God truly and effectively that Cain envied and hated him. Cain was bitterly opposed to Abel's worship and its fruit. Cain couldn't stand the thought that Abel's worship pleased God. Cain himself was acting out of his own perverted worship, a corrupted religious sensibility that sought to win favor through bloodshed,43 as though offering Abel as a human sacrifice.44 Cain wasn't just any type of murderer; his attack on Abel, “the first religious war,” was an act of religious persecution.45 So Abel wasn't just any type of victim. He died precisely for his worship, for his religion, for his love of the LORD.

Blessed Abel is persecuted for righteousness' sake (Matthew 5:10). Abel “suffered evil for a good cause,” and so, “by dying patiently for the sake of righteousness, he made good use of that evil” that Cain did to him.46 During a violent persecution in the third century, one Christian leader pointed to Abel as “the first one to inaugurate and dedicate martyrdom,” since Abel “didn't resist or struggle against his brother... but, in humble and gentle patience, allowed himself to be killed” for the Lord.47

That's what martyrdom means: “It is essential to the nature of martyrdom,” said one great theologian, “that a man [or woman] stands steadfastly in truth and justice against the assaults of persecutors.”48 That's precisely what Abel did, what he was first to do; and that act certified “holy Abel,” in the eyes of some, as the very first member of the Church which “has been present on earth since the dawn of humanity,”49 which “began with Abel and extends to all who... will believe in Christ to the very end.”50 Even Martin Luther thought of Abel as “the first among all the saints..., the first to be freed from sin and from the misfortunes of this world, and throughout the entire later church, he shines like a brilliant star.”51

Israel, at her best, was a national Abel: “For your sake,” they lamented to God, “we are slain all day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (Psalm 44:22). When seven Jewish brothers laid their lives on the line for God and his Law (2 Maccabees 7:1-40), their mother urged them to stay steadfast, reminding them how their late father “used to read to you about Abel, slain by Cain” (4 Maccabees 18:11). And Jesus himself recounted history as “all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel” on down (Matthew 23:35); and he warned that when he sent out “prophets and apostles,” some would be subjected to violence and even killed (Luke 11:49). Stephen was stoned to death by an angry mob (Acts 7:54-60). One James was executed by the sword (Acts 12:1-2), while James the Just, leader of the church in Jerusalem, was shoved off a platform, stoned, and finally clubbed over the head in the temple court.52 Paul, having survived whippings and stonings, was at last beheaded in Rome, while Peter was crucified there.53 The same emperor who ordered their deaths scapegoated Christians, having them ripped apart by dogs or else crucified and lit on fire.54 Many other apostles were ultimately killed in their mission: Andrew crucified in Greece, Thomas speared in India, and so on.55

As persecutions ran on, we hear of the martyrs' “nobility, endurance, and love of the Master” when, “clinging to the gracious gift of Christ, they despised the torments of the world.”56 Shepherds urged their Christian flocks, in such times, to “imitate... the just Abel, who initiated martyrdoms since he was the first to be killed for justice.”57 And martyrdom is by no means a thing of the past; more Christians have been killed for their faith in the past hundred years than in any before it. These aren't passive participants or simple victims. Looking backward and forward from the Middle Ages, wise Christians observed that “of all acts of virtue, martyrdom exhibits most completely the perfection of charity,” and so “of all human actions, martyrdom is the most perfect in kind, being the mark of the greatest love.”58 It's not for nothing that the earliest Christians said things like, “We love the martyrs as disciples and imitators of the Lord,” and hoped all Christians could be “partners and fellow disciples with them.”59 The Church therefore chose to celebrate those martyrs by name and day, embracing them with love as friends gone to heaven in daring triumph. And to the extent we're their fellow disciples, Abel represents us, standing in this text for every “Christian who cleaves to God” in the face of the world's dark disdain.60

God testifies of martyred Abel that “the voice of [his] blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10), “crying out the wrongs which he has suffered at the hands of a wicked brother.”61 Jewish reflections on those words imagined Abel's spirit loudly complaining about Cain until Cain's legacy should crumble to dust.62 Even the New Testament testifies of Abel that “through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4) – still speaks, untold millennia after Cain and all his seed are dead and gone, because Abel's blood can't be satisfied until the works of Cain are gone, until “final justice” is rendered to Cain-world.63 Nor is Abel's alone. John says, “I saw under the altar” – where the sacrificial blood would run down – “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice: 'O Sovereign Lord, holy and true! How long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?'” (Revelation 6:9-10). “These souls of the saints cry out, not with hatred of enemies, but with the love of justice” and with a yearning for resurrection.64 As they wait, they receive reward in heaven (Revelation 6:11), which is why Luther says that after Abel dies, “he is in a better state than if he possessed a thousand worlds with all their goods.”65

And that's fitting, because Abel symbolizes more than just martyrdom. Early Christians explicitly said that “Abel who is likewise slain” was a foreshadowing of “the mystery of the Lord.”66 Abel the shepherd was a window onto the coming “Good Shepherd” (John 10:11), “the Great Shepherd of the Sheep” (Hebrews 13:20). Both were objects of hatred from their brethren: Abel by Cain, Jesus by all brothers Jew and Gentile. So Abel died to “symbolize the One,” Christ, “who was killed... by an evil brother according to the flesh,”67 “slain in witness to the blood that would one day be shed by the Mediator.”68 Not only was Abel “the first to show us martyrdom,” but in giving his life, he “inaugurated the Lord's Passion through the glory of his blood.”69  In Abel begins the cross!

We've heard how Abel's “blood cried out from earth to heaven, making accusation because [Cain] killed him.”70 Abel's blood wants to be avenged, wants to bring judgment, wants justice against Cain and all those down the halls of time who let Cain live on through them. But the New Testament introduces us now to “the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24). The blood Christ sprinkled onto heaven's altar has more gracious aims than the blood of Abel spattered in earth's dust. Christ shed his blood “in order to sanctify the people through his own blood..., the blood of the eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:12, 20). “Now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off,” as far east of Eden as you could be, “have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). The grace his blood speaks is “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). Though we were guilty as Cain, “the blood of Jesus... cleanses us from all sins” (1 John 1:7). “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God!” (Romans 5:9).

In those days, there were Jews who wrote that God had seated “Abel, whom Cain the wicked killed,” on a throne in heaven “to judge the entire creation, examining both righteous and sinners.”71 The thought was, every human would be judged first by a human son of Adam (one who had himself suffered violent injustice), and then, only later, would each person receive final judgment from God himself.72 To this end, they pictured the exalted Abel as “a wondrous man, bright as the sun, like unto a son of God.”73 You see where this is ending up! What they ascribed to Abel, the Gospels announce is true of the One to whom Abel pointed: “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father” (John 5:22-23). And so God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a Man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

Jesus Christ is the Man who, displayed in the martyrs from Abel on, judges all things. And to that end, Paul has promised that “if we endure” the challenges of this life, all the way up to martyrdom if it's asked of us, then “we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12). “Do you not know that we are to judge angels? … Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). Thanks be to God: Cain-world is due to die away that day! How much better to suffer like Abel for a crown than to live like Cain for any of the goods of this passing world! So let us hurry, brothers and sisters, to put off Cain and to embrace Abel as ably as we can, for the sake of Christ who died, who lives, who judges, who reigns, who longs to raise us up with him! Amen.