Monday of week 6 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Genesis 4:1-15,25

The story of original sin continues with a number of accounts all pointing to the source of people’s pain and suffering – their alienation from the ways of God. Today it is about the all-too prevalent violence and killing which brings death, anger, fear and division into people’s lives.

The New Jerusalem Bible introduces the story in this way:

This narrative presupposes a developed civilisation, an established form of worship, the existence of other people who might kill Cain, the existence of a clan that would rally to him. It may be that the narrative originally referred not to the children of the first Man but to the eponymous ancestor of the Cainites (see Num 24:21). The Yahwistic tradition has moved the story back to the period of the beginning, thus giving it a universal significance: after the revolt against God we now have fratricidal strife; against these two evils is directed the double command that sums up the whole Law – the love of God and of neighbour, Matt 22:40.

Now expelled from the Garden, the Man has sexual relations with his wife, Eve, and they have a son who is called Cain. “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.” The Hebrew name qayin (“Cain”) and the term qaniti (“I have produced”) present a play on words. There are many examples where biblical naming of children or places typically involves puns on key events. The statement also expresses the delight of the first Woman who, though under the domination of her husband, produces what the Man wants but cannot produce on his own – a son. God is more behind the procreation of the son than her husband.

Cain, then, is seen as a gift from God. There is an element of creation in every act of pro-creation. Cain is soon followed by a brother, Abel. ‘Abel’, in Hebrew folk etymology “Emptiness, Futility”, is the perfect counterpart of “Acquisition”. In the Scriptures brother pairs are often seen opposed in temperament, way of life and destiny (e.g. Jacob and Esau).

Abel was a shepherd while Cain was a farmer tilling the ground. The historical opposition of shepherds and farmers is indicated here. God favours the shepherd, but the choice comes to grief in any case. This is the first instance, too, of a common biblical theme – the younger being preferred to the elder (among others, Isaac to Ishmael, Jacob to Esau, Rachel to Leah). Such preferences indicate the freedom of God’s choice, his bypassing earthly standards of greatness and his regard for the lowly. (See Jesus’ teaching to his disciples about who is really great in the Kingdom.)

In the course of time, Cain brought along the fruits of his farming and offered them to the Lord. Abel also brought the first lambs of his flock and offered their fat portions to the Lord. God was pleased with the offerings of Abel but disregarded those of Cain. This made Cain very angry and resentful. We might be inclined to sympathise or ask the reason for the discrimination.

Perhaps Cain is being told that what really pleases God is righteousness and good behaviour. This will emerge more clearly in the time of the prophets where religious rituals are seen only as having value when they are accompanied by a life of concern for the brother and sister, especially those in need.

God asks Cain why he is angry and despondent. If he had done well, would he not have been accepted by God? If he is badly disposed to God’s treatment of him, is not sin lurking at his door “like a crouching beast hungering for you”? This is something he must overcome but something he failed to do. He invited his brother to go out to his farm and there Cain killed Abel. The crime is aggravated by the deceit (“Let us go into the field”), its being against a blood brother and a good man, who had done nothing to provoke such violence.

God then asks Cain where his brother has gone. As in the case of the Man and the Woman after their sin, God knows very well what has happened but he wants to give Cain an opportunity to confess his crime. However, Cain backs off. He says he does not know and then asks the famous question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It is, of course, in the Scriptures a rhetorical question.

God now comes out straight: “What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the earth.” So Cain is cursed from the ground, the very ground which received Abel’s blood from Cain’s hand. From now on, the earth he tills will not be productive while Cain himself will be a fugitive and a wanderer over the earth. He will enjoy no citizens’ rights, at least in his initial homeland.

Cain’s punishment is to till the ground with great difficulty and to be condemned to the life of an ever-wandering nomad. This was, in fact, the life of many people in pre-agricultural days and there are still people living in this way, including the Bedouins of the desert.

Cain feels his punishment is more than he can bear: he has been driven from the soil which provided him with a living and, worse, he must remain hidden from the face of God, while being a fugitive and wanderer for the rest of his life. Anyone who sees him will feel justified in killing him. Faced with his crime, Cain does not express any form of repentance but is simply filled with self-pity. Ironically, then, he begs God that he not meet the same fate as his own brother, that of being killed.

He has no need to fear, God tells him, because anyone who kills Cain will be punished seven times more severely. The message is clear: killing, even in revenge is ruled out (cf. Jesus’ words on this in Matt 5:21-26). God then put a mark on Cain to prevent anyone from striking him down. This is not a brand of shame but a protecting sign: it shows that Cain (with Abel) belongs to a clan which will exact blood for blood. The use of tattooing for tribal marks has always been common among the nomads of the Near Eastern deserts. Also in ancient times, certain criminals were offered limited asylum when uncontrolled reprisals posed a greater social danger than the criminals themselves.

Cain was left in a living hell – neither living nor dying. But what he did was only the beginning of a huge trail of murder and bloodshed in the world’s history. For the authors of Genesis this was the first recorded murder but such violence continues now as a reality of life, part of man’s sinfulness from the very beginning. In a verse which is part of this story but not contained in our reading, Lamech, a descendant of Adam boasts of killing a man for wounding him and a young man for striking him. “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Is Jesus’ answer to Peter about the number of times he should forgive an echo of Lamech’s boast? Cf. Matt 18:22)

At the end of the reading, we are told that later Adam again had intercourse with his wife and they bore a son called Seth. “God has granted me another child instead of Abel.” The Hebrew word for ‘granted’ (shat) sounds very like ‘Seth’. Abel was dead and Cain was rejected so another son was needed for the family line (indeed the human line) to continue. We know very little about Seth except that – in biblical terms – he lived a very long life and had many descendants (Gen 5:6-7).

We live today in a world full of violence and killing. Let us not be instigators of violence in any way – in action, in word or even in thought.

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