8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14 Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
I have long loved John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden. I personally think it is better than The Grapes of Wrath, but that is just me. There is an amazing scene in the novel in which three men—Samuel Hamilton, a man named Adam, and Adam’s Chinese cook, Lee—discuss the story of Cain and Abel. They wrestle with trying to understand what it means.
“Two stories have haunted us and followed us from our beginning,” Samuel said. “We carry them along with us like invisible tails—the story of original sin and the story of Cain and Abel. And I don’t understand either of them. I don’t understand them at all but I feel them. Liza gets angry with me. She says I should not try to understand them. She says why should we try to explain a verity. Maybe she’s right—maybe she’s right.”
After getting a Bible and reading Genesis 4, the men discuss the meaning of it. Samuel Hamilton offers this explanation of God’s rejection of Cain’s offering and then Cain murdering Abel.
Samuel said, “There’s an advantage to listening to the words. God did not condemn Cain at all. Even God can have a preference, can’t he? Let’s suppose God liked lamb better than vegetables. I think I do myself. Cain brought him a bunch of carrots maybe. And God said, ‘I don’t like this. Try again. Bring me something I like and I’ll set you up alongside your brother.’ But Cain got mad. His feelings were hurt. And when a man’s feelings are hurt he wants to strike at something, and Abel was in the way of his anger.”
It is a charming attempt at an interpretation—God simply preferring lamb to carrots—but as we saw last week the scriptures actually do explain why God rejected Cain’s offering (i.e., Cain not bringing his best, Cain not having the faith of Abel, Cain being self-focused). Even so, I suspect Samuel’s homey explanation of the murder itself is probably correct. Let us hear it again:
But Cain got mad. His feelings were hurt. And when a man’s feelings are hurt he wants to strike at something, and Abel was in the way of his anger.
Yes, perhaps it is just that simple: Cain got mad, Cain wanted to hurt something, and Cain’s eye fell on Abel. We can be sure that Cain’s wrath at Abel is stoked to a red fury by God’s favoring of Abel’s offering. So, he seeks Abel out and he kills him. Indeed, as Samuel Hamilton says, we carry this story around with us like an invisible tail. It does haunt us. It frightens us. Why? What is its abiding significance?