Cain, Abel and worldwide inequality among the subjects of Presbyterian Association of Musicians Bible study
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Whoever wrote the book of Hebrews — especially the 11th chapter, which the Presbyterian Association of Musicians is studying this week as part of its online 50th anniversary celebration — wasn’t a very careful reader of the biblical account of humankind’s first murder, told in Genesis 4: 1-10.
“The details are a bit murky” in the Hebrews account, which claims that Abel’s sacrifice was “more acceptable” to God than Cain’s, said Dr. Suzie Park, assistant professor of Old Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Park is offering a two-part Bible study to the 900 or so people registered for PAM’s worship and music conference, celebrating the organization’s golden anniversary.
The problem, Park explained during her 45-minute presentation, is that “the letter (Hebrews) got canonized.”
After a brief foray into the Hebrews text, Park spent the bulk of her time with the first 10 verses of Genesis 4. The Hebrew names for Cain and Abel give us clues about how this story will turn out, she said: Cain, the farmer, sounds like Hebrew words for jealous, suppress, and sharp weaponry. Hebrew words that sound like Abel, who raised animals, describe vapor or mist and sound like breathing. The word for Abel also sounds like Hebrew words for lament and desolation, she said.
“It’s almost like (Abel) exists not to last very long,” and Cain exists “to commit the first crime,” Park said. The story is an origin tale, she said, and attempts to explain something larger: why do humans kill each other?
“Cain’s name addresses this larger question,” she said. Our capacity to murder may be based on greed or envy. Maybe we’re angry and jealous because we were never able to acquire the things others have. “This envy leads to fighting, violence and the desire to subdue,” she said. “The end result is death — treating one’s brother or sister like their lives are mist or vapor or vanity,” as in the Book of Ecclesiastes.
“The Hebrew insinuates this, but it doesn’t say it aloud,” she said. What the Genesis account suggests “is that we forget about our relationships with each other because of divinely allowed unfairness and inequity.”
Many of us read the account of God rejecting Cain’s gift of produce and accepting Abel’s offering of his animals and decide that Cain has done something wrong. “The easy answer, reflected in Hebrews, is that Abel brought something better and Cain brought something deficient,” Park said. “The problem is, that’s not what it says in Genesis.”
The writers of Genesis “could have told you exactly what was wrong with Cain’s offering, but chose not to,” she said. Abel brought the firstling of his flock, and first means best, so maybe that’s part of it. But “vegetables and fruits don’t work that way,” Park said. The first fruits aren’t necessarily the best. “It doesn’t say that Cain brought bruised peaches or misshapen apples,” she said. “The closest answer we get is that God likes meat over vegetables. God likes hamburgers above having a healthy salad.”
That doesn’t answer the theological problem, she said. “If we can’t think of anything Cain did wrong, why God would refuse his gift, then God is arbitrary or unfair,” she said. And if that’s the case, “God could decide not to like you. God likes some people and their gifts better. Most people aren’t super comfortable with this idea. This seems highly unfair.”
Look at the world we live in, she suggested. Does it speak of a fair God, or an unfair God? “The reality is, the world remains unfortunately highly unfair,” she said. Some of us are born, she said, to what could be seen as the right family in the right country. We have the right amount of money and educational opportunity. We also have the right gender and the right sexual orientation. “In our world, we call it the luck of birth,” she said. “It feels like God likes some of us better than others. We are deeply sensitive to this unfairness.”
She said she sometimes asks her students if they want God to be completely fair. At first students say, “Of course,” but after they think about it, “they start moving backwards,” she said.
Because in a completely fair world, most Americans would live in much smaller houses and probably would not own an automobile. “The truth is, most of us in the U.S. don’t want this. We don’t want God to be completely fair,” she said. “We don’t want to admit it, but we want God to be unfair and like us more. We want to be the favorite. We want God to like us just a little bit better than our brothers and sisters.”
Left to our own devices, we also would prefer a better explanation than the Genesis account offers for why Cain killed Abel. She imagines a conversation the writers could have included. “Abel, I’m so sad God didn’t like my gift. Can you help me do better?” Cain asks his younger brother. Abel’s suggested reply explains Cain’s rage: “Why would I help a loser?”
“The writer has an almost impossible task … You might like to leave that line blank too,” she said. “The point is, there is no good answer to the question of why do we kill each other. We have hints with their names, but not a complete and true answer — only possibilities.” Like all good stories, this story asks lots of questions instead of providing good answers, she said.
They’re questions we can ask ourselves today: “How would you behave? When do we feel more like Cain? Abel? Why does God allow unfair things to happen? Why do we hurt each other even when we’re part of one family?”
Park had even more questions by the time she wrapped up: As the writer of Hebrews says, is Abel a paragon of faith? If he is a paragon, how is he a paragon? What does faith look like now? What are the modern-day equivalents of Cain and Abel? How can we understand today’s Cains and Abels better?
“In the end, we don’t get answers,” she said. “Only questions.”
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