We divert for a short period from the conversation between God and Abram to look into a couple topics that fall into Genesis at this point. These are not, in my opinion, part of the conversation, but are tales from Abram’s prior life in Sumeria that have been repurposed to teach important lessons to God’s people.
To understand why this was done we must understand what the Bible is, and what it is not. It is not the Koran, that is, it is not a recitation from God to Abram, rather it is a work inspired through the Holy Spirit. “Inspired” is the key word here, to my thinking this means that the writer was given revelations of concepts God wanted to teach his people: killing is wrong, some sexual activities are wrong, there are right and wrong ways to treat people; the writer was then free to translate these lessons into human terms in whatever form worked best. At times this takes the form of short stories (parables), as songs (the Psalms), fictional tales (Job), sometimes they were adapted from stories already familiar to the people, but reworked to present them as lessons God wanted his people to understand. If you think about it, this only makes sense, and is no different that what we do today, just look at all of the traditions surrounding Christmas, most taken from ancient practices or pagan rituals, reworked to represent Christian lessons. They are stories that Abam’s people are already familiar with, using concepts they already understand
Our first diversion is to the story of Cain and Abel, a tale deeper than the story itself.
Gen. 4:2-5 “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”
Many people have debated just why Cain’s offering was rejected by God and Abel’s found favorable, the Bible itself is strangely silent as to God’s reasons. One of the best theories is that the text tells us the Able picked from the first born of the herd, while Cain simply brought an offering of the “fruit of the ground”. I think it certainly bears consideration, but it may not have been the only reason, and I think it ignores that standard practice of the day was to offer the first fruits, and this understanding may have been assumed by the writer.
A better answer to this is that it is related to the separation of Abram from the gods of his past. In Mesopotamia the first agricultural fruits were offered to their gods in hopes of blessings for the new year.* Here, we see Cain making an offering of his crops to God, and God responding with disapproval, preferring instead an offering of the first born of the flocks. It is a safe assumption that Cain would have offered the first fruits, not just anything picked from the ground; after all, this is an offering to his God, and after hearing from his parents what happened when they disobeyed God, this was not a god to make angry. God’s reaction makes a clear statement that Cain’s ways are the ways of the past, and will not be accepted by this new God. The farmer vs. shepherd concept translates into the New Testament as we see Jesus taking on the role of a shepherd several times (Matt 28:31, John 10:2, John 10:11), and shepherds feature positively in the parables as well, whereas agricultural narratives frequently represent negative images (Matt 13:3, Matt 21:19, Luke 12:16).
This is further backed up when we understand that the lesson is directed to Abram, who gave up the city life to become a herdsman, along with his brother Lot. It also raises some interesting questions later in Genesis in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where it appears Lot has given up his shepherd life return to life in the city. But, more on that later.
What happens after God’s rejection is a repetition of the first sin, that of selfishness, or being self centered. Cain, seeing that God approves of Abel’s sacrifice and not his wants that attention for himself. God sees what is in Cain’s heart and cautions him not to let his anger grow, learn to master it and to try harder the next time (Gen 4:6-7). Once God leaves the scene we are told that Cain takes his brother out into the fields and kills him.
The lessons here for us are legion, and the tale should be read repeatedly, looking at it from all sides: older vs. younger child; from God’s perspective, was Cain trying to get away with offering rotting fruits; considering the conversation between God and Cain, was God trying to teach Abel to control his anger. Two primary lessons which we should all take away:
- Anger is never a good thing to let stew. It leads us to do things in haste. Not only do the people in the Bible never learn this lesson, but we have done no better ourselves. Anger is the cause of families breaking up, of churches dividing, and of wars being fought. The situation in the Middle East is nothing more than family factions, from the two sons of Abraham, and among the religious “sons” of Muhammad (he had no sons that survived him).
- God is patient, and always willing to give us a second chance (seventy times seven chances, Matt 18:22)). We should never feel that we have exhausted all chances of being forgiven, for we are all sinners born of sinners, but God’s love and patience are unending. As Jesus tells us, everything can be forgiven except blasphemy of the Spirit (Matt 12:31).
A final digression, and ending of this diversion: what is this Blasphemy of the Spirit that cannot be forgiven? It is rejecting God’s promise that you can be forgiven, and rejecting the work of the Holy Spirit. In the latter case it occurred when the Pharisees said that the healings done by Jesus were the work of the devil, and not of the Holy Spirit. With regards to the former, Ephraim the Elder tells it very succinctly:
“Concerning the sorrow which you have in your soul because of your sins, it is good and beneficial. Only when it leads you to despair, then it is clearly demonic. Immediately turn toward hope and say: ‘Since I repent for everything, I hope that everything I have done is forgiven.’ There is no sin which surpasses the compassion of God. However great the sins may be, when they come to repentance they are dissolved. Oh, the depth of the humility, forbearance, and compassion of the Lord!” – Elder Ephraim of Philotheou, Counsels from the Holy Mountain