So many of the stories in the Book of Genesis leave me wondering.
What is wrong, for example, with humanity gaining the knowledge of good and evil? Isn’t that the very thing that separates us from all of the rest of creation? We know good and evil. We can tell right from wrong. Seems like half of the Bible is about refining that sense and putting that knowledge into practice. Why is that a curse? I think I may have a better sense about this now, after having read Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and I may blog on that story later.
Today I want to talk about the story of Cain and Abel. Everybody knows this one – the first murder story. No doubt there are many lessons that can be drawn from the story and no doubt there have been thousands of sermons preached on this text, but the thing that always struck me about this story – that left me kind of cold and unsatisfied – is that the text gives us no explanation of why Cain’s sacrifice was rejected by God. It always seemed to me that such a story in such a book should at least tell us why God acted as He did in rejecting Cain’s offering. I’m sure that preachers and scholars along the way have come up with a thousand theories in answer to that question, but I think it is fair to say that the text itself does not give us an answer and, it seems to me, is deliberately obscure or dismissive of the issue. Here is the text:
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.
The omission of any mention of God’s motive or reason for rejecting Cain’s offering bothered me till now. It bothered me because it made it seem that God was acting arbitrarily and capriciously. Unjustly, even. It seemed to me that there must have been some just motive or reason and that the story would have been much better as a moral lesson if we had known that reason.
But now I believe just the opposite. I now believe that the story is more true to life and better as a moral lesson because it does not explain why Cain’s offering was rejected. Again, I have Mr. Peterson to thank for this.
In 12 Rules, Peterson spends quite a bit of ink talking about sacrifice. At the most profound and fundamental level, writes Peterson, sacrifice is the forgoing of some immediate pleasure or gain in the hope of a greater, future benefit. Under such a definition, work is sacrifice!
That brings the whole matter a lot closer to home for me. I have always viewed the sacrifice rituals in the Old Testament as a forerunner or foreshadowing to the ultimate and all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Make no mistake, I still believe exactly that. But the idea that sacrifice – other than ritual sacrifice – is a fundamental part of every human life, including mine, made me think harder about that dynamic and gave me a different slant on the Cain and Able story.
When we go to work we are giving up immediate freedom and pleasure and involving ourselves in something that, although it may be meaningful, takes something out of us. It absorbs our time and energy and strength and in doing work a part of us gets used up.
We do this because we have an aim or goal in mind. Cain, ostensibly, had the goal of directly pleasing God. This would have led to his own good – the blessing of his efforts on the farm; the growth of his family; that kind of thing is what he probably hoped for.
By the same token, we hope that our efforts – our sacrifices – will lead to God’s blessing, too. We may have a very specific kind of blessing in mind. We may meet and fall in love with someone and accordingly make sacrifices for them. Our time and our effort are focused on pleasing them with the goal of winning their love. We may have vocational goals. And so we practice and plan and study and make decisions in favor of the pursuit of that goal that take us away from other avenues that might have led to pleasure or gain.
We may have such goals and we may work toward them and yet so often we find that our sacrifices are not accepted. We are not blessed. The person we fell in love with and made sacrifices for rejects us. The medical school that we sacrificed our youth to get into rejects our application.
And when these things happen it is more common than not that we really don’t know why we have been rejected. At least it is not obvious at first. If the reason for our rejection had been obvious, then we would have made a different kind of sacrifice. The common experience is that we’ve laid what we thought was our best on the line and it has simply not been enough. The blessing we so desired is denied us. Our sacrifice was rejected and we, like Cain in the story, are not told why.
That makes the Cain and Abel story seem true to life and something that we moderns can relate to, but what is the moral? So Cain is rejected – no reason given – and we are often rejected in the same way. Interesting. But what instruction or insight for living does the story give us?
I think it is this: faith is patience in the very face of what appears to be unfair and unexplained frustration and disappointment. Faith is that which does not rebel or give up when rejected but instead waits in the humility that says that maybe I don’t know everything I thought I knew. Maybe there is something else; something more.
This is extremely difficult, particularly when your brother’s sacrifice – which did not seem all that different from your own – was accepted. He gets the girl. He gets into med school. And here you are with nowhere to go and no one to run to. But accepting such a judgement – such a verdict – and continuing to listen and to wait and to work, that is faith.