“Why did Cain kill Abel?”

I was asked to explain this a little bit.  It’s a funny thing that Cain’s act seems cynically rather intuitively obvious, (“Well, he was jealous!”) and at the same time blatantly irrational, serving no real or even imagined interest of Cain’s, and not even avenging a perceived slight.

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It was God, not Abel, who rejected Cain’s sacrifice, and the mere fact that retaliation against God is impossible really does nothing to undo the absurdity of an act of violence against Abel.  Of course every part of this is as familiar as violence itself; we are so used to irrational, self-destructive, downright mindless violence that the most incomprehensibly idiotic acts fit neatly into well-used human categories.  We have no reason for what we do, but we have a name for it, and even a narrative cliche for the things we have done a million times, and should not have even been stupid enough to do once.

So to begin with, the reason that Cain killed Abel is that he acted in error.  He acted evilly, but not in the sense we often imagine of ruthless self-interest or dogmatic certainty of a some evil principle, but in the blind wrongness of perverse self-destruction or mindless waste.  And there’s something to be said about the circumstance in which he errored, because in the background of Cain’s mysterious action is God’s mysterious action that provoked him.  God looked with favor upon Abel’s sacrifice, and not Cain’s; we are tempted, for lack of detail, to call this unreasonable on God’s part.  However…If Cain and Abel had each submitted an economics paper to Dr. Friedman, and gotten a similar reception, we would know on that basis alone that one paper was in true fact better than the other, even if we were ourselves incapable of comprehending either paper.  If God is anything like Friedman, that is, anything like God must be to be God at all, then his judgement is to be trusted.

Very well, Cain’s sacrifice was defective in a real, but unknown way.  Where does that get us?  Well where it gets Cain is to an explicit lesson from God, a privilege few enjoy and what could have been the key to major personal growth for Cain.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

It’s a teaching opportunity. It’s direct, sound advice from God to Cain personally in his exact circumstance. It’s how to handle rejection and failure. It’s illumination of the nature of sin: The thing that seeks to rule over you, the error that seeks to corrupt your character and has its moment of opportunity when you make a misstep.  It’s God’s wisdom for a situation that will come up over and over again through the life of every human being since Cain.  It’s God’s plan for turning your misfortunes into strengtheners of character, of using the hard world he gave us as a force to purify our souls of errors. As hungry belly immunizes the man against the temptation of sloth, so the hard knocks of failure in ambition abrade away the rust of complacent pride and give our dreams the polish that only a resilient surface can take. Such is God’s plan for hardship, such is the strategy by which God prevented sin from blooming immediately into an all-consuming flower of self-indulgence and suicide (a flower some aristocracies have, however, more recently succeeded in cultivating). And then we have Cain’s plan:

Now 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.

How much of human history, whether of whole societies or whole men, is described in this little answering of God’s instructions? “No thanks God, I’ll just do something blindly idiotic instead,” said Man to his maker.  I’ll just harm my brother, and myself, and gain nothing, because I’d rather pursue an error of my own than the wisdom of God. I’ll just funnel a million lives and innumerable gifts into the monstrous whirlpool of pride that was the Great War. I’ll just take God’s Liberty and modify it to create monarchies and slave classes. I’ll just sell my birthright for porridge.

I can’t give a rational explanation for Cain’s crime, because it was a blatantly, purely irrational act. I haven’t the slightest difficulty in believing the story however, because the proper explanation is intuitive: Cain killed Abel because Cain is exactly the same kind of dumbass that i am.


5 thoughts on ““Why did Cain kill Abel?”

  1. Pingback: What Does God Really Know about the Things Others Don’t See? | Ronnie Murrill
  2. Wow. This is powerful and true. Cain is exactly the same kind of dumbass that I am too. But, as you point out, there is hope if we follow God’s instruction. Thank God for providing a better way.

  3. Thanks for a thoughtful piece. I read it as I was preparing a post on my own blog about the Cain and Abel story in response to a reader’s question.

    I agree that Cain’s act was irrational. Abel had not wronged him. And even if he had . . . Murder? Really, Cain?

    However, there is enough in the story itself, if read carefully, to understand why God accepted Abel’s offering and not Cain’s. For one thing, as described in verses 3 & 4, read in the light of ancient Middle Eastern sacrificial practices, Abel gave his best, but Cain seems to have brought only an average offering, indicating that his heart was not in it. Also, Cain’s reaction to God’s not accepting his offering shows that he already had jealousy and anger in his heart. Though actions are, of course, very important, God is most interested in the intentions behind the actions.

    • Thanks for your comment!

      I maintain my agnosticism about the specific deficiency of Cain’s sacrifice, even after reading your piece, simply because there’s nothing in its description (“some of the fruits of the soil…”) to actually exclude it being totally in line with the law regarding firstfruits or grain offerings. It’s not impossible that Cain brought it as flour, finely ground, and poured olive oil on it, and offered it as a pleasing aroma while Abel brought the fat portions of the firstborn…of his swine. In other words, Cain might have been in a position to be legitimately ignorant of the fault of his sacrifice, he needn’t have been acting defiantly or sinfully to have missed the mark on pleasing God. Our errors are not our sins, they are the means by which sin appears crouching at our door.

      Of course you might be right, Cain’s evil path may have begun very early. But if my version is not true of Cain, it is certainly true of me. When one is on the way that seems right to man (but in the end leads to destruction) one is still definitely on a way that seems right. If we look back at our past actions and can find nothing wrong, and yet sin is crouching at our door, we are not necessarily going to be rescued from our torment by discovery of our past error; we may never discover it. We must be prepared to act rightly towards our brother even with the full conviction that our sacrifice was good, or at any rate without any understanding of what was wrong with it. Our ability to obey God cannot be made dependent on our ability to understand Him.

      • Hi waltherkoch,

        Of course, you’re right that Cain’s sacrifice could have been perfectly in line with sacrificial law. As you say, there is nothing explicit in the text to deny that.

        However, that seems unlikely.

        If the author wanted us to assume that both of the offerings could have been correct, and that this was not an issue in the story, then neither one of the descriptions would have required specific language pointing out that it was, indeed, a correct offering.

        Since the description of one sacrifice (Abel’s) does contain such language, and the other does not, and since the one that does not comes first (so that in the flow of the narrative it does not dwell under the umbrella of the correct offering), there would be no narrative reason for that discrepancy other than that the author is subtly pointing out that the first sacrifice was deficient whereas the second was not.

        This interpretation is also generally confirmed by God’s reaction to each sacrifice–assuming, of course, that God is not capricious.

        I do take your point about our errors not being our sins. Errors do not become sins until we act upon them willfully, with knowledge that they are wrong. This point about “sin crouching at the door” is a fascinating aspect of the narrative that could easily be missed on casual reading.

        In the case of Cain, his error of not honoring God in a proper and heartfelt way did not become sin until God called him on it, and instead of correcting his faulty attitudes and actions, he inflated them by acting upon them willfully and killing his brother. At that point, sin ceased to crouch at the door, and and entered into the “house” of Cain’s mind and life.

        For the rest, I do enjoy your thoughts about our still suffering the effects of our errors even if we do not believe they are errors (if I have read you correctly), and about acting with integrity toward our fellow human beings even in the face of that misunderstood suffering that may be due to the backlash from our own undetected wrongs.

        Even if Cain suffered unjustly, as he believed, through God’s accepting Abel’s offering but not his own–and that for no good reason that he could see–this still did not justify Cain acting in an evil fashion himself. Other people’s evils can never justify our own. We are judged based on our own willful good and evil, not based on the goods and evils of others.

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