After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, their story continues into the next generation. Two sons are born to the couple, first Cain and then Abel. Abel becomes a shepherd, while Cain farms the ground. Each brings an offering of their labors to YHWH, but the Lord is pleased only with Abel’s and not with Cain’s.
Once again, the story is sparse, hinging on information not given. What was unsatisfactory about Cain’s offering? We cannot know. Once again, there are boundaries around the characters’ lives and actions regarding which they have no say, and for reasons which we do not understand.
Cain is faced with an (apparently) un-requested difficulty and the question is again is on the table – how will he handle living under someone else’s terms?
Cain becomes angry at the situation and YHWH warns him: “If you do not do right, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
Sin here is described as a wild animal, a predator hunting with an eye on Cain. His instructions are not to blindly follow a list of rules, but to gain mastery over a stalker. The assumption given by God is that it is fully possible to summon the strength to succeed.
Cain does not heed the warning, however. He rises in strength not against the crouching predator of temptation but against his brother, killing him. As the rest of the story unfolds, two things are clear – Abel’s life is destroyed literally, but Cain’s life is destroyed as well.
As he did for Adam and Eve, God offers protection and provision along with discipline. Cain’s headstrong behavior, as his parents’ before him, carries a consequence of death. Yet the consequence given is, as was his parents’, less than a death sentence. The ground that took in the blood of Abel will no longer partner with this brother-betraying farmer, and Cain is exiled – again, as his parents were before him. But his life will also be protected. Once more, God is true to the boundaries he has laid, but merciful.
The image of sin as a crouching predator is a powerful one. Cain is warned that he is being stalked by a hungry creature desiring him, yet he is given hope – even an imperative – that he can and must defeat this powerful foe. When he does not, both victim and perpetrator are destroyed. And so here in the story, even more than in Adam and Eve’s story, we are introduced to one of the main characters we meet with in life – sin.
In our current language and conversations, we’re suspicious of the word ‘sin.’ It has been so misused it can hardly be used at all. We tend instead to speak more in terms of brokenness, and there is good reason for this. Yet here in Genesis 4 we find a valuable description of our situation. Sin in this narrative is not the breaking of an arbitrary list of rules as we often speak of it, but a hunter poised to consume us who can and must be defeated. When we give way to this crouching animal it destroys both ourselves and our own victims.
In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov seems to understand this as he gives his first confession: “Did I murder the old woman? I murdered myself, not her! I crushed myself once for all, for ever.” He has given in to what hunted him, and not only his victim but he too is destroyed.
I can see the truth of this, in my own life, and in the world around me. There is no need to commit murder to see that when we are stalked by temptation, giving in (to anger, self-centeredness, greed, desire, or whatever) destroys both ourselves and those around us.I appreciate both the warning and the empowerment – sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for me, but I must rule over it. This hunter is lethal to both perpetrator and victim, but victory is possible.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” was Cain’s insolent retort when cornered by YHWH in his guilt. Rabbi Telushkin* suggests that the rest of the Bible is spent answering a resounding “Yes” to that question.
As always, h/t to Brueggemann’s Genesis for so many good insights