1. Let us read the Cain and Abel story and see how it can help us understand the origin of violence and God’s role in it. The whole chapter 4 is the Cain and Abel story. We are used to thinking that after the murder the story ends. Well, again, the whole chapter 4 is the whole story. By the way, our insights here are mainly from Thomas Romer.
2. Gen 4 is a section of Chapters 1-11 of Genesis. These Chapters are about the human condition—what happens to every human person each day. These Chapters try to answer questions that have always been asked. What is the origin of death? …of evil? …of the world? …of man and woman? …of civilizations, cultures and language? With the Cain and Abel story there is the attempt to answer the question about the origin of violence. Note that the Bible does not start with the origin of the people of Israel. Rather it starts with the origin of all humanity. Israel will come later because it is part of humanity. So the origin of violence is within the context of all humanity. It is about the violence of all humanity.
3. Sometimes we tend to spend so much time asking about the wife of Cain. But that is not the problem of the text. Chapter 4 does not intend to continue the logic of Chapter 3. Chapter 4 wants to reflect on the origin of violence. The answer is quite complicated.
4. There is an exclamation of Eve after the birth of Cain. The real father, in the eyes of Eve, is God. Eve is doing just what was announced in Chapter 3: you will be like gods. In other words, for Eve she attaches Cain direct with the divine. The real father is Adam. Through Adam Cain is attached to earth. But Eve connects him with the divine. The New American Bible tells us about the play of words in verse 1. The root meaning of Cain is related to production, creation. Later in the story Cain will, indeed, produce/found/create a civilization.
5. What about Abel? We know little about him. Maybe he is twin of Cain, being born “next”? What is crucial in the story is this conflict between the two brothers. What is “fraternal” is in fact source of conflict here.
6. The name Abel (or H’abel) means “mud”, a “nothing” or “an insignificant”. He can be the “wind that passes”. Let us say Abel means, “nobody”. Imagine calling someone, “Hey nobody”. Or “hey no importance”. The name identifies the fate of Abel and the fragility of his existence.
7. The conflict is about the offering. It is about accepting or rejecting an offering. Cain gives, as offering, fruits of the earth. Abel, gives the first born of animals. Now God accepts one and rejects the other. Why? The text does not explain. It is just like that, one is accepted and the other is rejected, period.
8. The tendency is to darken the image of Cain. We may have learned that in our younger years. We were told to give Cain a bad picture. We may have been taught to imagine Cain looking so bad and Abel looking so innocent. But really, we have no evidence of how they look.
9. But do we really have to look for an explanation as to why God accepted one and rejected the other? If we look for an explanation, we are making an image of God. We want God to be rational and clear with his choices. But maybe this is not the intention of the text.
10. The text is saying that in human experience there is the fact of rejection and the fact of acceptance. Life is not just. This is a fact of life. Bad things can happen even if try to do good things. There is no quick link between what we do and what happens to us. There is inequality in life. There is no explanation; such is life. The text is saying this.
11. Here starts the conflict between the two brothers. Cain experiences the injustice and the inequality, he does not accept it. He is frustrated.
12. Note that although the offering of Cain is rejected, it does not mean that Cain himself is rejected! In fact God talks to him; God does not snob him. God does not talk to Abel but to Cain. God treats Cain like God is father, teaching him a lesson. God tells Cain not to fall for the temptation of sinning. Note tha the word sin occurs for the first time in this story (and not in the Adam and Eve story). Sin, as shown here, consists of allowing violence to happen, letting violence loose and free. Sin is the rejection of managing what to do with inequality and injustice. Cain fails to manage his anger, he fails to manage his situation of inequality.
13. Look at verse 8. The two brothers go to the fields and there is no more talking. Cain says nothing, he just kills Abel. The violence arises when Cain is unable to say anything. He has no room for explaining, venting his feeling, communicating anything. Violence is here linked with the incapacity to communicate.
14. God asks Cain a question and Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” There are possible interpretations. One possibility, that which we always have in mind, is that Cain provokes God. So Cain asks what about Abel? What do I care? That’s none of my business.
15. Another possibility is this. At this point in the history (of humanity fresh from Adam and Eve) there are no laws yet, no legislation regulating social relationships. No law tells Cain how to behave. Hence at this point (in the history of humanity) the main reference is still interior. There is a need to regulate oneself and Cain is lost here, he cannot manage himself. So he cries out asking for the necessity of having concrete references to manage violence.
16. Cain understands the situation. Anyone can kill him too (v.14). He tells this to God. So God replies. He announces a complete revenge against whoever touches Cain and kills Cain. Cain will be revenged seven times! Then God puts a sign on Cain. The sign is to prevent anyone from killing Cain.
17. Human life then, even that of a murderer like Cain, is to be respected and stay sacred. Nobody has the right to take the life of anybody else.
18. The God allows for conditions for Cain’s future. Note that in spite of what Cain had done he can stay at the East of Eden in the land of Nod.
19. What is with the East of Eden? The sun sets at the west and the night starts after. The west symbolizes death, darkness coming. The east is where the sun rises. Life is possible. A new day is possible. Cain settles in the east—thereby having the possibility of life. From there he is able to have descendants. With his descendants a civilization is founded. Note that there is no more direct link with the earth, with the soil. Nor is there a direct link with God. It is now time for other forms of production outside the direct production with earth. It is precisely “civilization” where human activities extend beyond working directly with earth.
20. In the Bible civilization starts with the descendants of a murderer. It is on one hand a risk but also on the other hand a chance, an opportunity.
21. The danger stays. Violence is always a reality. We see it in Lameck, an descendant of Cain. Lamek re-opens the spiral of violence with his statement in 4/24). Violence, in other words, is not fully regulated.
22. Then the text brings us back to Adam and Eve with the birth of Seth, a kind of replacement of Abel. Then Seth has a son named Enosh and the NAB explains it to be synonymous with Adam or humanity. Is this sign of a new humanity? One thing for sure, the name of the Lord is now invoked. To invoke the name of the Lord is different from making sacrifices and offerings. It is rendering word—praise—to God. But why say this? Why mention this?
23. The act of offering—sacrifices—is a failure. Its role is to please the divine, but with Cain and Abel it leads to conflict and violence. Hence now the name of the Lord is invoked. It is now time for voice and word—and the Torah. The author may be concluding that the better practice is by the Law and the word rather than by rituals.
24. Let us conclude. Genesis 4 shows us that violence starts with the refusal to manage frustration, injustice and inequality. Then it is also about the failure to communicate, the refusal to speak and express. God here is someone who gives instructions on how to manage a brewing violence. God instructs on how to get out of violence. It is clear that violence is not regulated, it stays. It is a reality, an omnipresent reality.