I’ve taken something of a break for the last couple months from writing. I’ve had my reasons, my challenges from carving out the time. Something similar happens when we as the church read our Bible. The passages I explored this Spring about Creation and the Fall, Yahweh and Adam and Eve get a lot of attention. Then there’s something of a break. We have our reasons, our challenges around noticing the shape of the literature we call Scripture.
I get it though. Sustained attention is hard. We break after the story of Adam and Eve, and then we go on to more familiar stories or the ones that seem more useful. Give us some Romans, so we know what to do with it. Stories are entertaining, but some nice, dense teaching is what gives us something to do, right?
So we leave the stories for the kids. Isn’t that right? When was the last time you heard a sermon on Cain and Abel, or Noah, or Samson (and why are we telling these stories about murder, the death of nearly every person in the world in one shot, and seduction and mass violence to children, by the way?)?
I did recently hear a sermon on Balaam and the talking donkey, so that’s something, but it’s unusual. If we really are leaving stories—and the prophets, and poetry, and wisdom literature—out of our teaching, then we’re leaving 80% of our Bibles out, AND we are necessarily misusing the other 20%. We just don’t really know what to do with it most of the time, I think, and it’s fatally detrimental to our understanding of the parts we do read and teach.
So, after Eve and Adam leave Eden, we can’t just stop there and feel good about completing a three-chapter section and skip forward. That’s not how storytelling works. There were no chapter or verse numbers or section headings when the Bible was written or for centuries after. It’s meant to be one continuous thought.
I’m not saying every time we read a little we have to read a whole book or that once we’ve taught one part, we’re obligated to continue through the whole book. I don’t plan to do that with Genesis here. But I am saying it is essential to read the parts with the whole in view, and it’s important not to stop reading just because someone way later thought it was a good idea to put a big number 4 in between when Adam and Eve left Eden and the births of Cain and Abel.
I recently taught on a section of James 4 during a worship gathering with my church community. The main points were about not judging each other and not speaking against each other, going to someone if there was a problem or learning to let things go, and all of that in order not to create inequalities. I immediately thought of Genesis 1-4. That’s right: all four chapters. So I told that story as my opener, with a mix of quotation and paraphrase of my own and selecting what I believed were the most relevant parts.
I’ll recap here much more succinctly the first three chapters since I’ve already written about them and then focus on chapter 4.
Yahweh created humans in the image of God, designated for a purpose (holy). The purpose was to be caretakers of creation, including each other, and in doing so to reflect God’s character to that creation (again, including each other).
Yahweh formed Adam of the earth, and Eve was made of the same stuff as Adam and taken from the part of him closest to his desire. Together, they knew the animals and creation intimately enough to name them. They were in a mutual relationship that mirrored the character of the divine dance we call the Trinity, and there was no hierarchy between them, only mutual serving and godly love.
They knew their maker intimately and trusted fully, being more than willing to be faithful to Yahweh’s instructions because of that trust and love. The Deceiver planted doubt in the trustworthiness of Yahweh to provide everything they needed to embrace the fullness of life in all its abundance and keep them separated completely from death. That doubt led to them trying to grasp for self-preservation and live lives characterized by seizing the prerogative that belongs only to God: the authority to decide what (and who) is good and what (and who) is evil.
Heartbroken, Yahweh explained the natural consequences of that perversion of priorities and allegiance: death and conflict and power imbalances and domination between them where there should be only self-giving love and partnership. These were not arbitrary punishments but the inevitable results of their choice.
It is shown tangibly by their expulsion from God’s clear presence in Eden and access to the tree of life.
And there we are. That’s where we usually stop. But Genesis certainly doesn’t stop there. Instead, it goes on to show us what that all means in the first example of how choosing to claim God’s right to judge good and evil and rejecting our calling to care for creation and live as examples of Yahweh’s cruciform character leads to death and increasing separation and relational imbalance.
And here is the story (Genesis 4:1-16):
1 Now the man was intimate with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. Then she said, “I have created a man just as the Lord did!” 2 Then she gave birth to his brother Abel. Abel took care of the flocks, while Cain cultivated the ground.
Eve continues to claim divine prerogatives. She still does not trust Yahweh and has not renewed her allegiance to God above all. And that of course means she has not taken up her call as image of God and taught her children the same.
3 At the designated time Cain brought some of the fruit of the ground for an offering to the Lord. 4 But Abel brought some of the firstborn of his flock – even the fattest of them. And the Lord was pleased with Abel and his offering, 5 but with Cain and his offering he was not pleased. So Cain became very angry, and his expression was downcast.
I don’t really have space to tease out the exact problem with Cain’s offering here. It may be worthwhile, but it’s not part of what I’m highlighting at the moment. Hit me up sometime if you’d like to explore it together.
The point though is that God rebukes Cain and “his expression was downcast.” He feels the shame of rejection and deflects it with anger, blaming others instead of taking responsibility and being willing to repent and do something different in the future.
6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why is your expression downcast? 7 Is it not true that if you do what is right, you will be fine? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must subdue it.”
Yahweh here tries to repair the relationship, to help Cain move from shame, which is always destructive to the one who experiences it, to guilt, which is corrective and allows for connection and growth.
8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
And Cain chooses to judge his brother as evil, blaming him for his own shame, and it leads very literally to death.
9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he replied, “I don’t know! Am I my brother’s guardian?”
Cain’s infamous question is rhetorical for Cain, but there is actually an answer. And that answer is “yes.” God created humans to be caretakers for all creation, and that includes for our fellow humans. Cain was not only derelict in faithfulness to his call as image of God, but he violated it at the most profound level by choosing violence and destruction of God’s prized creation in Abel.
10 But the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11 So now, you are banished from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you try to cultivate the ground it will no longer yield its best for you. You will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”
Again, Yahweh does not give an arbitrary punishment but explains the nature of the choice that has been made. Cain chose violence and to place himself over Abel as judge. He rejected connection and representing God’s nature and character. He rejected his call to care for his brother. He rejected his ability to be with his family and know them with love and intimacy. In murdering Abel, he banished himself and sealed his own fate.
13 Then Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to endure! 14 Look! You are driving me off the land today, and I must hide from your presence. I will be a homeless wanderer on the earth; whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “All right then, if anyone kills Cain, Cain will be avenged seven times as much.” Then the Lord put a special mark on Cain so that no one who found him would strike him down. 16 So Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
And Yahweh demonstrated what that character was like, what we humans are supposed to reflect. He showed Cain love and mercy and cared for him and his safety with no thought of what was ‘deserved’ or of retribution. No matter whether we remain faithful, God remains faithful to who the Creator is and was and always will be. Yahweh’s love endures forever.
And still, this is not the end of the story. It continues through others who also act out of fear and shame and forget their call as image of God. It continues through Noah and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and David and Nehemiah and Mary. And Jesus shows us what it means to be faithful as image of God, to trust Yahweh fully and to live into the call, not to be dominated by fear and shame, but to overflow with love that endures forever.
And this is our story. Through Peter and Paul and Tertullian and Athanasius and Gregory and Francis and Clare and Theresa and Martin Luther and Dorothy Day and you and me.
These struggles with fear of death and shame at our disconnection from Yahweh and each other and our grasping at self-preservation and our need for trust and faithfulness and connection are our story. And Jesus is the way and the truth and the life and makes the way for us to return to our call and walk with the Creator in the cool of the garden to reverse the curses and receive the blessings, to choose life and love.
These are the beginnings of what I have reconstructed as I approached my faith again after my dark night of the soul. These truths lead me to Jesus, and thus, to life. What might you find if you look again at these things as well?