Cain and Abel - The First Harvest Service
Genesis 4 1-16
The story of Cain and Abel in the Biblical narrative represents the first biblical Harvest Festival as the two brothers bring offerings from their produce in thanksgiving to God. But it is a Harvest Service that goes horribly wrong. It begins with what seems to have been some kind of unworthy gift from Cain, descends into jealousy and ends in murder.
The story like so many Bible stories gives us but a bare skeleton. It leaves room for a whole lot of questions. We are not told for example what was wrong with Cain’s offering. It is left open for the reader to speculate.
Some might read this story as history. Other’s might read it as a parable, a story that is true, not necessarily because it happened but rather a story that is true because it happens. It happens in the present tense in people’s lives today. And so it might be regarded as an archetypal story. In other words, a stereotypical or a paradigmatic story that replay itself over and over again in human interactions. It describes a common pattern of human behaviour and in doing so it invites us to see ourselves in the story and in doing so to reflect on our own selves. .
Interestingly, the names Cain and Abel appear to have symbolic value:
Cain seems to be a play on the Hebrew word qanah meaning to acquire or to get. It seems to suggest that Cain represents the destructive quality of greed in our humanity that is responsible for so many of the problems in our world today. Greed, the desire to acquire more, but to what end? At what cost? Until the blood of other’s cries out from the ground?
Abel’s name seems to be a play on the Hebrew word hebel, meaning vapor or breath. It is the word that is used in the book of Ecclesiastes and is translated as meaningless, meaningless. And yes, sometimes life does feel as meaningless and insubstantial as vapour. But it is perhaps better translated as fleeting. Just as Abel’s life is fragile and fleeting, so easily taken by his brothers jealousy, greed and anger, so all of life is fragile, and the older one lives, the more fleeting it seems.
And so the story of Cain and Abel asks a number of questions of each of us:
In what way do the characters of Cain and Abel live within us?
What does it mean to bring of our first fruits to God?
What makes an offering worthy? Is it possible to bring an unworthy offering to God?
Is Cain’s offering unacceptable or worthy because he does not give of his best or perhaps gives begrudgingly or half-heartedly?
What happens in life when we don’t give of the best of ourselves? When we live only half-heartedly? Or when we give only half-heartedly? Does the story suggest that living half-heartedly, in other words with our hearts not really in it, is a way of living that undermines fullness of life. What does it do to the soul, when we might be engaged in a job or even a career where our heart is not truly in it? Rather than bringing life, it may be dissipating or undermining a sense of life?
The story raises further questions...
What happens when jealousy arises within us? How do we deal with our feelings of jealousy and anger? Do they disrupt, destroy and kill our relationships?
And the story goes on to ask yet a further question...
At harvest time, when we celebrate the goodness of God and the blessings of the earth, do we have a responsibility to consider also the welfare of our neighbours? Am I my brothers and sister’s keeper? This is the question that Cain poses to God, when God questions him about their whereabouts of his brother Abel, after Cain has murdered his brother. Cain’s first response is to lie. I don’t know says Cain? And then he follows up with this question: Am I my brother’s keeper? It is a question that is left hanging, unanswered, for ultimately it is a question that each of us must grapple with. Am I my brother’s keeper? What responsibility do I have towards others in life? And who is my brother and who is my sister?
Before my parents moved here to Northern Ireland, they were living in Chesterfield. They had some neighbours who they got on really well with. The family next door were a kind of a bohemian or, one could even say, a hippy family. They weren’t at all religious. Their young pre-teen son, who was highly intelligent had already read Stephen Hawking’s books on physics and the universe, and by the age of 11 had decided to be an atheist like Hawking. The family were not wealthy, with the mother earning money by making croche’d objects that she would sell at festivals during the summer. But there was a genuine human goodness about them. My Dad found it very striking that when lockdown started, the mother left a thank you note on their bins for the bin men who were having to continue working. And they were very friendly, kind and very helpful to my parents, perhaps the best neighbours that my parents had experienced in their 12 years of living in England. When my parents packed up their belongings for their move here to Northern Ireland, the neighbours very kindly offered to help, which was a life-saver in light of my father struggling with his back at the time. Afterwards, my parents gave them a gift of money as a thank you for their help. Their immediate response when receiving the gift was: “We’ll have to give it to a charity.”
For them, an unexpected gift was something to be shared with others who needed it more than they did. My parents had to explain that they would have had to have paid someone to help them and so it was only fair that they should give them something in gratitude for their kindness, time and effort.
On this Harvest Sunday, as we celebrate the goodness of the earth and it’s abundance, and as we bring our own offerings giving thanks for God’s life that sustains all life, I end with a beautiful verse from Hebrews 13:16
‘And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.’
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