Hurting One Another When We’re Angry at God
Genesis 4:1-16, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, March 16, 2014
It’s possible that you’ve never heard a sermon on Cain and Abel, because the story didn’t make it into the lectionary. Maybe it’s just too mysterious, with too many gaps and few explanations. This past week, though, I attended a workshop at Princeton Seminary led by the new president, Craig Barnes. The subject was conflict in congregations, but he started with this story of how one brother murdered the other. I want us to think about the connections between our conflicts with God and our conflicts with people.
But first I need to get a couple of things out of the way. I don’t read the story of Cain and Abel as the literal history of the third and fourth humans on the face of the earth. That may be the way the editor of Genesis makes it appear to us, but there can really be no doubt that this story was first told in another context. Both the Adam and Eve story and the Cain and Abel story are true primal myths about the origins of sin and violence. But if you read all of Genesis 4, you see that Cain assumes that there are already a lot of people on the earth.
- First, when Cain is sent away, no longer a farmer but a wanderer, he tells Yahweh that he is afraid that anyone he meets may kill him. If you read this as a literal continuation of the Adam and Eve story, the only ones out there would be his parents.
- Second, there is the famous question: “Who was Cain’s wife?” You can try a workaround by saying that women weren’t valuable enough to be mentioned (although Eve is), and that he married his sister. But it makes more sense that in its first telling the story assumed an earth settled by humans.
- Third, verse 17 says that Cain built a city. Why would you build a city without humans?
So I assume that the person who put Genesis into the form we have it in took an ancient story of Cain and Abel and put it next to another ancient story of Adam and Eve. It didn’t bother him that one assumes a different context than the other. What mattered to him was the theme of how the effects of sin flowed from generation to generation, and how sibling rivalry was a feature of most of the big stories in Genesis. So don’t think you can get out of hearing God speak through this story by asking me, as so many smart-alecks have, “Who was Cain’s wife?”
The second thing I need to ask you to set aside are any traditional interpretations you’ve heard as to why Yahweh “had regard”—or accepted—the meat offering of Abel and not the vegetable offering of Cain. Many say that they must have given them with different attitudes, but there is nothing in the text to suggest that. It’s just a way of trying to explain away what seems to be the arbitrariness of God. Even conservative commentaries have not offered that explanation for decades. In the rest of the Torah there are all kinds of instructions to offer grain and vegetable offerings to the Lord, and they are not inferior to meat. One mistranslation by a 3rd century church father said that the smoke of the meat went up to God and the smoke of the grain went down, but there is not even any indication in the text that the offerings were burned, much less that one went up and the other went down. Again, an over-eagerness to explain. Neither is this a folk tale about the origins of hostility between farmers and shepherds—or, in this country, farmers and ranchers. That hostility was real, but it’s not what this story is about.
I find it interesting that many scholars say that this story is about sibling rivalry. Of course it is, to some degree, but the sibling rival never says anything and gets knocked off early in the story. For the original tellers of the story and for the author of Genesis, the focus of the story is not the conflict between Cain and Abel as much as the conflict between Cain and Yahweh. No one tells these brothers to bring an offering to the Lord, and there is no priest to receive them. We can only speculate that these were offerings rooted in gratitude to God for causing their flocks and their crops to multiply. Cain, the older one, brings an offering of the first crops of the ground, then Abel brings the firstborn lamb or kid from his flock. So far so good.
But then in the middle of our verse 4 we run into the mystery of God. “The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” Yahweh accepted Abel and his gift, but he rejected Cain and his gift. We have no idea why this is so. There is not the least hint in the text as to why this happened, and any explanation we offer goes beyond the text. The assumption of the people telling the story was that Yahweh is free. God does not have to explain himself. He chooses some for his purposes and not others. I am not a Calvinist in this regard, but I accept the reality that I have no idea why God does some of the things God does. As far as I can tell, some people are blessed more than others. Some people have an easy time connecting with God, and others always feel disconnected. Some people fail at everything they try, and some people succeed at everything they put their hand to. I think God has something to do with that, but I have no idea why.
I want you to get in touch with the feeling that you may have had at some point that God loves somebody else more than you. I know we are not allowed to say that, or even to think it. But most of us have been in the situation of Cain. We did our level best, just the same as our sibling or our friend, and ours clearly wasn’t good enough to be rewarded, and the other person’s was. Sometimes it as simple as envy. I’m going to my 40th college reunion at Princeton in May, and it will be fun but there’s always something to dread about it. Here are people I was once equal with, in fact I did better in school than most of them, I worked harder, I was spiritual when they were hedonistic, but now those rascals are senators and CEOs and retired multimillionaires—and I am living in a church building with a tiny congregation on Block Island, near the very bottom of my class in income or assets. There are moments—moments when Jesus drifts out of view—when I ask God why that should be so. Of course my own choices along the way—which may or may not have been God’s idea—explain most of the alleged unfairness. And I have this to fall back on: the notion that I have been following a divine call and somewhere deep down—I admit it—I tell myself that God likes me better than those selfish people.
But sometimes the question of unequal treatment by God is much more difficult. Why was my sibling given a healthy body while I was given one with all these health issues? Why was I fat and she was skinny? But even deeper is this: Why does she find joy in the Lord and I don’t? Why does she say she has a relationship with Jesus and I don’t? If I can tell myself it’s because I am more sophisticated, I may get myself out of this funk, but I’m suspicious that deep down there is a hunch that God always liked her best.
So Cain experiences the mystery of being rejected by God. What he does for God is not good enough—although God tells him later that he can do better and be accepted. Cain has no idea what the rules are. We are not told. So, the text says, “Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.” Who was Cain angry at? Had Abel done anything against him? No, his issue was with God. And it’s God, the one Cain is angry at, who comes to speak to him.
“Why are you angry?” Yahweh asks. “Why are you sad?” What?! You know very well why I am angry and sad. You’re the one who rejected me. Cain must have been trembling. I’ll say this for Yahweh: no explanation is given of his apparently arbitrary preference for one brother over the other, but he reaches out to the wounded one in compassion. Here he comes to reassure him and warn him about the dangerous nature of this moment, and later after Abel is dead Yahweh tells Cain that he will place his mark of blessing or ownership on him so that no one who met him would kill him. He reaches out to the murderer with compassion and protects him. I wonder if Yahweh does that because he understands how he has wounded Cain.
But at the moment, Yahweh seems like a jerk as far as Cain is concerned. The Lord says to Cain that he can still be accepted. “If you do well” I think might mean “if you meet the challenge of having your sacrifice rejected, and if you meet the challenge of envy of your brother”—then you will be accepted. But he warns Cain: sin is lurking at the door. He uses a word related to the name of a demon in Mesopotamian stories who hangs around doorways waiting to ambush people when they come through. Sin is like that. It wants to possess you, but you must master it. You must master the anger that you are feeling right now because if you don’t, sin will take control of you.
But Cain does not master his anger. The story is told in very few words, in a matter-of-fact fashion. Cain suggests to Abel that they go out into the field—presumably the field where Cain farms—and there Cain kills his brother. That is the only interaction we ever see between the brothers, and I’d suggest that their relationship is not the center of the story. The center is Cain’s relationship with God.
Yahweh asks the question “Where is Abel?” just as he asked in the Garden of Eden “Where are you?” The Lord already knows the answer. Cain lies outright, rather than making excuses. “I don’t know.” He knows exactly where he buried him in the field. Then he asks the Lord, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Christians would answer that question, “Yes, duh.” But I think the question to God has an edge to it. I’m not the one in the keeping business. Yahweh, you are the one who is supposed to keep us. Later in Genesis Yahweh says, “I will keep you wherever you go” (28:15), and we all know the benediction “The Lord bless you and keep you” (Numbers 6:24). Cain may be asking “Wasn’t it your job to “keep” my brother? He was your favorite, and you didn’t protect him.”
The Lord does not accept the denial or the blame. “What have you done? Listen: your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” Just as Yahweh hears the cries of the Hebrew slaves when they are oppressed, he hears the cry of injustice from the blood of Abel. As the Book of Common Prayer says in the prayer for purity, adapted by Thomas Cranmer from an ancient Latin prayer: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid. Nothing is hidden from God, and now God announces the curse on Cain: Adam was cursed to farm rather than just picking fruit in Eden, but Cain is cursed by being told that he can never farm again. He must be a wanderer, a hunter-gatherer, and a fugitive forced to keep his secret from men.
What does Cain’s story have to teach us? Here is what I want you to think about long and hard, and it comes straight from Craig Barnes at Princeton: Human conflict is rooted in conflict with God. Cain was angry at God and took it out on Abel. Abel had done nothing to hurt Cain. It was Yahweh who created the problem. And Yahweh was the one to whom Cain should have taken his anger. The Book of Psalms is a great example for us; in that book the poets yell and scream at God, accusing him of failing them and hiding himself. In the worshipping community, we have to be able to express our frustration and anger at God so that we don’t take it out on one another.
You may say “I’ve never been angry at God”—but that may be proof that you are repressing that anger at God about your situation, and that anger may come out directed at a human. Those of you who don’t normally think in a religious framework may think something like “I’m mad at the world” or “I’m mad at life” or “I’m mad at the universe.” It amounts to the same thing as being angry as God, the power behind the universe—except that if you did personalize it and express it to a personal God, you might be able to deal with it.
Craig Barnes says that “often in church conflict the subtext is anger with God.” We have this deep unspoken anger or disappointment with God—the one who gave us this lot in life, who failed to protect us from suffering or enemies—and we attempt to resolve that stirred-up feeling within ourselves through expressing anger at others. Most of the time, conflicts with the pastor have nothing to do with the pastor. If you’re mad at God, the most obvious stand-in for God as a target is that guy who claims to speak for him every week.
When someone is angry at you—especially within the context of the church—it might help to stop and ask yourself what this person has been through that has left them with an underlying anger at God and life in general. Long ago a pastor told me that I ought to keep a box of Q-Tips on my desk, so that when someone was angry at me I could remember Q.T.I.P.—quit taking it personally. Now you don’t want to say to the person who’s angry at you “This isn’t really about me.” That will just make them madder. But when you stop taking it personally and reacting to a personal attack, you have more room for compassion for the angry person and you can pray and work to help them experience the grace of God in a way that addresses their anger.
But the key thing that Cain’s story tells us this morning is that we need to ask ourselves whether the anger we feel at a fellow church member or at the pastor or at a family member is rooted in anger about life in general, anger about the situation we now find ourselves in and its unfairness—which is, if we are honest, anger at God. We are better off if rather than being disappointed with life we name God as the problem and tell God we are disappointed with him. Not only will that keep us from killing our brothers, but it will give God a chance to reconcile us to himself.
Oh, yeah, that’s what God is all about, what Jesus is all about: reconciling the world to himself. We will never understand most of the choices God makes. We will rarely know whether we are choosing our own lives or he is choosing them for us. It takes some living to get used to the idea that God is free and absolutely out of our control; we can’t control God by prayer or by using the Bible. But the glimpses we have of God in the Bible—and, I can say, in our experience—show us that the unexplainable God intends ultimately to bless us and draw us into a relationship with himself.
- Harbor ChurchBox D2Phone: 401-466-5940
Block Island, RI 02807