Monday, April 26, 2010

Genesis 4:3-5's offerings of Cain and Abel

Starting into Genesis 4:3-5...

Where does Cain’s decision come from? It may imply unrecorded instructions had been given earlier. (One sees something similar in Abraham’s tithing—and more broadly, the extent to which the Law seems to codify earlier.)

In any case, it’s certainly not explicit and would probably have occurred naturally anyway. As Kass notes: “Sacrifice is of human origins. [At this point] God neither commands nor requests it; we have no reason to believe that He even welcomes it. On the contrary, we have reason to suspect…that the human impulse to sacrifice is…highly problematic…To be sure, God will eventually command sacrifices, though then only under the strictest rules.”

This is the first recorded act of “worship” and alludes to a somewhat natural desire to sacrifice and worship—or at least, to look like one is doing so. Given what follows, we’re suspicious that sacrifice originates with Cain. The term for “offering” is minchah—a neutral term that does not connote something sacred. More troubling, it implies ownership/possession (rather than the biblical ideal of “stewardship”).

What is Cain’s motive? The two most likely candidates are fear or gratitude. The latter hopes to bridge the gap with the divine. The former acts as a bribe to Something one doesn’t (fully) understand and control—to improve one’s lot or avoid trouble. Kass observes: “For primitive man—and especially for farmers, eager for rain—it is perfectly fitting that the primordial farmer be the first to think of sacrifice.”

Why did Abel follow? Was it suggested by Cain? Perhaps Cain was trying to out-do Abel in God’s eyes—not imagining that he possibly “lose” to his shepherd/younger brother. In any case, Abel takes the opportunity to heart.

To his credit, Cain divines the presence of the Divine, but doesn’t get what he expected in God or from God. God is not just a Santa Claus doling out rain and blessing crops; instead, he cares about individuals and what’s “right”.

Kass notes that unless man understands God and what He wants (if anything), it’s a shot in the dark. Man is likely to offer what would please himself (see: God built in my image!)—and probably hoping for credit for good intentions. We see the same thing today in various forms of works-based salvation.

In Gen 4:4b-5a, we read of God's disparate response to the sacrifices. Cain’s offering is not accepted. But there is nothing about Cain being rejected. In fact, God will soon address Cain and encourage him in a growth opportunity. Abel’s offering is “looked [on] with favor”

Why the disparate response from God? All we’re told here (vs. the motives to be revealed soon): 3b’s Cain's "some of the fruits of the soil" vs. 4a’s Abel's "fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock". Some of the possibilities: the type of sacrifice (plant vs. animal; the quality of the sacrifice: “some” vs. “fat…firstborn”; or related to that, low-cost vs. costly (animal life more difficult to replace).

For all of the excitement about this question, Borgmann notes the bigger issue: “Passing over any possible interest in why God favors Abel’s offering, the story moves on quickly, as the reader should. The dramatic focus emerges: an exploration of Cain’s response to rejection, and God’s response to the depressed Cain.”

Cain’s response to God's judgment? Not repentance and humility, but “very angry” and “face…downcast”—in a word, anger and shame, both with roots in (wounded) pride. How can it be that he is bested—the firstborn farmer who produces crops by his own efforts and ingenuity and is the first to sacrifice—by a lazy shepherd who follows him into sacrifice?!

Cain is upset with God (and Abel—as we’ll soon see!) when it's really his fault. They are blameless (Pr 19:3) and God is trying to help (Heb 12:5-11)! With this, Kass has a sobering observation: “When looked at in this light, Cain appears not as some monstrous deviant but as humanly prototypical.”

Again, Kass: “Cain’s display of anger reveals retroactively his state of soul in making the sacrifice. Because he had sought to place God in his debt by means of his gift, Cain feels slighted by what he takes to be God’s unjustified rejection of his offering. If indeed part of Cain’s anger is directed at the divine, it shows how presumptuous…were his expectations.”

In a word, when a gift is rejected, we either try to do better (if interested in the other) or we get angry (if concerned with self not the other).


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