It is always a good idea to pay close attention to what the Bible says. Sometimes, however, you have to pay attention to what the Bible does not say. Take for example the story of Cain and Abel. We will first consider what the story says, and then we will look at what it doesn’t say. The story of Cain and Abel is told in Genesis 4:2-12:
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
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 master it.”
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
First of all look at what the story says. Both men were farmers. Abel went into livestock and Cain was a cash cropper. Both young men brought what they had for a sacrifice to the Lord. Cain probably brought some of his best corn and soy beans. Abel brings the best portions of the firstborn of his flock. So far, so good. But then things go wrong. The Lord looks with favor upon Abel’s offering, but does not receive Cain’s offering with favor. We are not told how this favor or lack of favor is shown, but the Bible does make it clear that one was favored and one was not. Cain got angry about this, so angry that the Lord had a talk with him and warned him against doing something wrong. Cain ignored the warning and went out and killed his brother. And so, the first child born in this newly created world became the murderer of his own brother. The Lord then questioned Cain on the whereabouts of his brother, and Cain said he did not know anything. But the Lord, who knows everything, punished Cain, making him a restless wanderer on the earth for the remainder of his days.
There is something very disturbing about this text. Certainly Cain responded wickedly to the situation, but why did God create the situation? Why in the first place did God not accept Cain’s sacrifice? Both boys were performing their religious duties. Both boys brought the best of what they had. And there was no word of Cain doing anything wrong before this. Why then did God respond the way he did, favoring one and not the other? Doesn’t God share at least a bit of the blame by creating the opportunity for this jealousy?
What the Bible says gives us no help in answering this question, so it is here that we have to begin to look at what the Bible doesn’t say. And first of all, the Bible doesn’t say anything about any other sacrifices. People in the Old Testament were often making such sacrifices, and so why should Cain get all upset about how just one of those sacrifices is received? As I said, we know very little about this particular sacrifice and what was required by God, and how God showed his favor or disfavor– but we do know that it concerned only this one sacrifice. And figuring out what God is or is not doing in this world is a hard enough business without trying to figure it out on the basis of just one event. The Spirit moves when and where it pleases, said Jesus in the Gospel of John, and you cannot force or insist on God’s favor and blessings on your terms. In fact, God even guaranteed Cain such future blessings, saying, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” The story tells us about only one sacrifice, and that is not nearly enough to go on, not for us and, not for Cain either.
Furthermore, there are many aspects to life, many ways that God blesses us (or does not bless us)– so how can God’s favor be judged on the basis of just one event in one area? Here again, the Bible tells us nothing about the other aspects of the lives of Cain and Abel. But if they were like any other two random human beings who ever lived, we can well imagine that both had their own mixed bag of blessings and woes. Certainly there would have been areas where Cain had the edge over Abel. Perhaps Cain was healthier than Abel, perhaps he had better eyesight. Perhaps the weather was good that year and he had a bumper crop; and maybe livestock prices were down, so Abel had to borrow some cash from Cain. Perhaps Cain was more intelligent, stronger, better looking, more articulate, or whatever. Even if the story was fifty pages long, and we knew much more about Cain and Abel, even then we would not be able to say which one was more favored. The Bible doesn’t tell us any of this, and so here we have to pay close attention to what the Bible does not say and what we do not know. All we know is about one sacrifice, and from that it may seem like God favored Abel. But there is too much we don’t know, and too much that Cain didn’t know– so who are we, or Cain, to be sitting in judgment of God? (continued…)
Thanks be to you, Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have won for us, and for all the pains and insults which you have endured for us. O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day. Amen.
–Richard, bishop of Chichester (13th century)