Cain or Abel

A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 147:12-20

Genesis 4:1-16

1 John 3:7-14

Beginning on 7th April 1994, and lasting for just 100 days, an estimated five to six hundred thousand people were killed in what is called the Rwandan Genocide. People identifying as Tutsi and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu militia. The international community, which to a large extent stood by and watched the tragedy unfold, was left stunned at the sheer brutality that was unleashed as neighbours turned on neighbours, and even the sanctity of churches was violated. As with any ethnic conflict there is a long, complicated and confusing back-story behind those one hundred days. Nor did it end there, for the fighting and killing spilled over into neighbouring countries including Burundi, Uganda and the Congo.

One school of thought suggests that the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi arose out of different concepts of land usage and ownership – the age-old clash between those who keep flocks and live a semi-nomadic life, and those who plant crops and live a settled life with clearly defined land boundaries. This sort of conflict is not new and can be found in many parts of the world, including Australia. It has been a prominent feature of colonisation in recent centuries and continues to lead to bad feeling, bloodshed and death.

Tonight’s first reading from Genesis 4 speaks into the scenario I have just described. The two brothers each bring some of the fruit of their labours as an offering to God. Abel brings ‘the firstlings of his flock’ while Cain brings ‘the fruit of the ground’. We are not told why one offering was accepted by God and not the other, only that it led to intense jealousy on the part of Cain. Having killed his brother, Cain gave this chilling response to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It’s a complex story packed with a number of different references and inferences, each of which could take a sermon, or even a book, to explain. Sufficient for now to say that this story of Cain and Abel is one of several stories in the introductory chapters of Genesis where humankind is shown to be really bad!

The German Old Testament scholar Herman Gunkel is credited with founding what is called Form Criticism. In the early 1900s, along with other scholars and building on earlier work known as Source Criticism, Gunkel sought to examine the oral sources and influences on the written biblical texts. He it was who first used the term ‘myth’ to describe the stories we find in Genesis chapters 1 – 11. We know that the writers of the Bible drew on the founding stories and explanations of life of their much older neighbours. Peoples right across the world have, for example, a flood story.

Tonight I invite you to consider four stories in these introductory chapters of Genesis and notice a pattern that emerges in the telling. The stories are those of Adam and Eve, the trickery of the serpent and subsequent hiding from God as found in Genesis 3; the story we have heard tonight of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4; the flood stories of Noah and his ark; and the building of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.

The great cultic hymn of Genesis 1 with its repeated refrain that all God made was good, very good, is overturned in each of the first three stories. It is one thing to sing about how good God’s creation is, but when we look around at the world it is clearly not true. Terrible things are done to creation by human beings, and by one person, or group, to another. What went wrong? How can we say creation is good when there is lying and deceit, murder, rape, pillage, exploitation, slavery and all the other terrible things we humans are capable of doing to one another – both on an individual scale and on the scale that comes to be classified as genocide.

In all four of these stories of origin – Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and Babel – God pronounces judgment on the perpetrators. In the first Eve will have pain in childbirth, Adam will have to work hard to make a living, and the serpent will be for ever cursed. In the second, Cain is sent into banishment, to become a wanderer, without tribe and community support necessary to keep him safe. The Noah story comes about because of the wickedness of human beings and the flood is sent to destroy creation. The unity of humankind is shattered, the Tower of Babel is left unfinished, and the people are scattered across the face of the earth. Divine Judgment is pronounced over what God himself had created and intended to be good and beautiful. We are left wondering about the nature of God, the wisdom of God, perhaps even the incompetence of God in getting things so wrong.

But notice something rather beautiful in these primeval stories and the understanding of them by the biblical writers. In each case the judgment, the anger, of God is followed by rescue in some form or another. Yes, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden, but they do not disappear altogether, they have children and their ‘line’ continues. Cain is banished but is given a mark of protection. He too has children and his family continues. This idea of God’s Rescue is found supremely in the story of the only righteous man in the world. Noah is instructed to build an ark and so becomes the agent of rescue, of salvation. Nor is that the end, for the covenant relationship between God and Noah is sealed with the rainbow – a reminder, not only to Noah, but to God, of the conditions of the covenant between them. “When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember the covenant that is between me and you and every living creature …(Genesis 9: 1).

What about the Tower of Babel? Is there an equivalent act of rescue on the part of God? It is not immediately apparent, but it is there in the genealogy of one of Noah’s sons, Shem, recited in the latter verses of Genesis 11. That genealogy ends with Terah and his three sons, Abram, Nahor and Haran – the father of Lot. This introduces the long sagas built around Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The biblical writers begin to trace what we now call Salvation History through these patriarchs, through the stories of Exodus and Moses, Joshua, Judges and into Samuel. It continues through the introduction of kings – Saul, David and Solomon; the arrival of the Prophets and their renewed emphasis on the Covenant. It flows through the disaster of Exile and the almost miraculous rescue from Babylon – the mounting up with wings like eagles which we heard Isaiah speak about in this morning’s reading (Isaiah 40:31). Slowly the expectation grows of a new age under God – the age of the Messiah who, despite the ravages of the nations against Israel, will usher in the reign of the Kingdom of God.

Through all the years of struggle and journey, the age-old questions around God and creation, human beings and sin, rage on. No matter what the kings, the priests, the teachers do; no matter how strict the laws, how careful the observances, the distance between God and human being remains as great as ever. In a sense, humankind continues to hide behind the proverbial fig leaf, continues to spill a brother’s blood. Despite the testing of faith as illustrated in the horrible and challenging story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac, or even the faithful living of a Daniel or Ruth – the gulf between God and humans remains. Nothing, no one, is able to bridge that. No one can get it right. And then, finally, the Gospel writers appear with the idea that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God.

It is their conviction that Jesus, through his life, death and resurrection, finally brings to an end the alienation from God, and opens the possibility of life with God in the Garden. This is the conviction that John would write about in tonight’s 2nd reading. “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.” (1 John 3:14)

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” asked Cain. Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan illustrating the 2nd Great Commandment – Love your neighbour as yourself. The Tower of Babel which led to the scattering of people across the face of the earth, unable to communicate with each other, is finally resolved on the Day of Pentecost. The crowd gathered in Jerusalem asks:

“How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:8-11)

Those ancient ‘myths’ found in Genesis chapters 1 – 11 continue to intrigue, to challenge, to inform. Don’t write them off. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, in the Collect for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, invites us to pray in this way:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

To which may we all say ‘Amen’.