The Story of Cain and Abel is tragic but grasping its lessons offers you to choose a hopeful path. Sacrificial offerings, disappointment, jealousy, anger, malevolence, choice and consequence are just some of the universal themes you can glean from this story. Regardless of faith, every soul is touched by the legacy of Cain and Abel.
Genesis 4:1-16: The Story
Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. 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. So, Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.”
Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Burnt Offerings and Sacrifice
“Cain brought…an offering” and “Abel brought his firstlings of his flock and their fat…
As a lay Catholic, my interpretation of the purpose of burnt offerings is to remind you to free yourself from earthly treasures and give reverence to something higher than yourself. This keeps you humble and in service to God. Therefore, you should sacrifice what you value most in this life, presenting to God the very best part of you.
Abel demonstrates an example of sacrificing what he values most – the first generation of his flocks. Whereas Cain gives “some” of his abundance leaving us to assume he kept the best for himself. Maybe this explains why God shows “favor to Abel and no regard to Cain.” Do you share the fruits of your labors and extend them to others? Do you give sparingly to the poor or none at all? Are you willing to sacrifice things of great value, or do you allow it to consume you (ex: money, power)?
God weighs your intentions – do you serve Him and mankind first, or yourself?
Dissapointment, Anger, and Jealousy
Like Cain, it’s natural to be disappointed for the lack of recognition or validation for your hard work and likely ask, “why?” You may even know people like Abel who seem to have everything going for them. Have you ever heard yourself say, “He seems to have it all. He makes it look so easy”. As Cain sees his brother’s efforts go rewarded and flourish, jealousy seeds inside of him. God sees Cain’s anger grow and gives him advise.
If you do well, will you not be accepted? God points Cain to look inward and to question his intentions and face the truth of what he is aiming for. Cain, disappointed and hurt, does desire to serve God but in his own way. God Infers that Cain’s poor choices led to the undesired results, and this does not sit well with him.
His countenance fell. Cain grows angry and so does his impulse to lash out. Anger is an emotion universally labeled as “bad” and there’s a natural tendency to suppress and hide it. God, knowing mankind’s tendencies, tells Cain to master himself. In those Cain moments, mastering requires your full attention to your thoughts and feelings, not denial, suppression or justification. Full attention will aid in regulating the waves of negative feelings that try to overcome you.
As long as you hold onto your anger, your mind will feed it with malicious thoughts justifying your next actions. The temptation to act on impulse “is crouching at the door; it’s desire is for you…”.
Malevolence and Suffering
The act of murder reveals malevolence exists. Despite Abel’s best efforts he is betrayed and victimized by his own brother. Explanations I’ve heard as to why God would allow this, is simply that God gives us “free will” to choose. God intervening would mean he would do so in all aspects of choices and free will would no longer exist. Knowing you have the capacity to act good and malevolent is helpful, so when you are touched by egregious actions from a friend, family member or stranger, you don’t respond in ways that would add to your suffering.
“He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)
Due to random elements of being human, such as facing illness, the death of loved ones, and subjection to environmental elements, there are forces beyond your control. Many spiritual teachers espouse this helpful truth, “You may not be able to control things that happen to you, but you do have a choice how to respond”. God instructs us to “master ourselves”. Your boundaries will be violated and like Cain you face those moments of choice – master your emotions or give into spite and vengeance. You always have a choice and your choices have consequences.
Choice and Consequence
“Let us go out to the field” …. Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Cain chooses not to heed God’s warning, lies to God regarding Abel’s whereabouts, and acts like a victim when he must deal with the consequences. Cain serves as a model of what can happen when intense emotions overcome you. Not to say you will do murderous acts, but it can blind you to reason and lead you to being vindictive, spiteful, and cruel.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Actions that hurt only yourself are not wise but actions that hurt another human being does have a price. There are consequences to your actions. When God confronts and punishes Cain for his actions, he responds as a victim, “my punishment is more than I can bear”. By not taking any responsibility and blaming God, he does not help his circumstances. For the rest of his life, he is left wandering aimlessly in the world with no peace. What would have happened if he owned up to what he did and asked for forgiveness? Were there times you know you did something you shouldn’t but place the blame on others and see yourself as a victim?
The legacy of Cain and Abel leaves humanity to choose a hopeful path. Cain and Abel represent the worst and best humanity has to offer. When you see the evil capacity you can become, then you have the ability to stop feeding the vindictiveness that leads to the path of Cain. This is acheived by mastering yourself which includes being conscious of your intentions, chosing wisely, and taking ownership of what you do. The randomness of life guarantees you will have those moments of Cain. God, however, gives us hope if we follow his instructions.
The bible is filled with God’s instructions and when executed the best of your ability, this can be freeing. However, by way of free will, you are given the choice of how to conduct yourself in this world. Just know the consequence that befalls you when you choose the path of Cain. You always have a choice and your choices have consequences.