Imagine the time of the birth of the first second son. Eve out of the painful throws of childbearing is sleeping quietly in her recovery. Adam, wiping the condensation of worry from his brow, calls to his son, “Cain! Cain, come quickly.”
Peeking out from behind the folds of a dusty, wool covered flap, we see a young boy peer into the shadowy depths of the tent he calls home, and there he finds his mother holding a tiny, pink mass.
“His name is Abel.”
Cain asks why his mother was screaming while Abel was being born. Adam tells Cain the story of the Garden and the casting out, the choices they made that brought pain into the world.
Adam tells Cain that he and Abel are the first brothers, and that their bond is unlike anything else in the world; neither the wolf pack, nor parliament of owls can boast to have such as what Cain has been gifted in his little brother. They will toil as their father has toiled, and one day, they will find their own suitable helpers and have sons of their own, whom they will teach of Yahweh, of the Garden, and of the Fall.
“Your mother and I failed to uphold the promise we made. But you, Cain, you and Abel will walk with God, and in you He will find something more new than He has known in your mother and me. One of you I will trust with our garden, the other with our herd, and one day-” he says, smiling and wrapping his strong arms around the baby as they watch him sleep, “One day you will make sacrifices together. And it will be good.”
We know how the rest turns out.
Cain, with a single, mighty stroke, bloodies the human timeline. His brother Abel’s breath is stolen away, and for the first time in the narrative of humanity, a soul is cut from the mortal coil and banished to Sheol to sleep – alone. And so it is fitting that Cain, like his brother, is cursed, to wander in a hellish, unfruitful life, watching the time pass, with only the seeds of evil that he sowed to grow. He is never given a chance to repent, or look into his brother’s eyes and say, “I was wrong.” Cain is given nothing but all the time in the world is left to his guilt, a suffering given to crush an already broken man.
It’s pretty scary story in my eyes.
However, the story of Abel and his brother Cain is not a horror story. Cain is not some brooding monster waiting in the darkness to slake a bloodlust in his heart. Nor is Cain completely a villain, though his acts are certainly villainous. The death of Abel by his brother Cain is a tragedy, the second act in the oral history of the Fall of Man.
Picture this: these first brothers ran in fields together, laughed together, toiled and shared in love for their parents together. They were united against all manner of wolves, darkness, and warned each other of a deceiving Serpent their mother told them bedtime stories about.
Imagine these boys sleeping beside one another, sharing the animal skins their father had tanned and tooled for their warmth when they felt the first winter. Allow yourself to picture Cain hushing Abel as the younger boy tries to overcome the clutches of a nightmare. Watch that picture in your mind further still to see how lovingly Cain wraps his tiny arms around Abel’s shoulders, telling him, “Shh, brother. It’s okay. I’ll protect you.”
It is easy to see Cain as something monstrous at the end of his story, but Cain was first a boy; a boy filed with an inconsolable first love for his brother. He later became a man filled with wrath when all his work and toil went uncelebrated. The writer of Hebrews suggests that Abel is picked over Cain because Cain didn’t work as hard as Abel in his sacrifice, but (as Walter Brueggemann asserts) there is nothing in the Genesis text to suggest this is the case. No, there is only a fall. A furious tumble occurs inside the throne room of Cain’s heart – love is usurped by wrath. The wisdom taught by Adam is overthrown by jealousy.
So before we label Cain as a murderer, though he certainly is one, it is essential to first remember this – Cain loved Abel.
Cain loved Abel.
His wrath caused him to forget that love.
And so, like all reasonable and loving people before wrath overwhelms them, Cain sins when he stops loving his brother as he loves himself. The fear that comes from not being chosen by God leads to anger. That anger swells inside of him, until it becomes a rushing tide that drowns love out of Cain’s heart. Love pushed aside leads to selfishness, leaving Cain’s jealous mind to think-
“Didn’t I try hard enough?”
“Why isn’t my offering enough?”
Cain covets the favor God has shown Abel, thus planting a jealousy inside of Cain that flowers immediately in the eldest son. The fruit of Cain’s envy is the blood of his brother – he is bathed crimson wet. Abel’s breath robbed away.
The first bloodstain is splashed on the tapestry of life God has only recently set upon the loom.
The first second son, the first little brother, is given a death lower than his father’s cattle at the hands of someone who once loved him.
The first son, heir to all the creation his father first named, abrogated from his inheritance, his family, and his God.
What a tragedy Wrath hath wrought.