Cain and Abel

Tale of Two Brothers: Cain, Abel and Yom Kippur

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A metanarrative is a story woven through other stories and there are a plethora of them threaded through the biblical narrative. As a young Christian I often read the Bible in isolated chunks searching for only the direct application that the present chuck contained. In Bible college, I improved upon this through hermeneutics and exegesis. These are valuable and necessary, but the danger of putting a section of scripture under a microscope is that while you have a better understanding of that spot under the lens, you can miss the broad and intricate movements through the whole organism. It’s kind of like throwing out the bathwater with the baby. Pretty much the only metanarrative taught during Sunday school and Bible college was the foreshadowing of Christ in the Old Testament. However, there probably is not a paragraph in the Scripture where some thread is not being woven in, pulled on, or introduced into the tapestry of God’s redemptive story. Following these threads from one story to another will reveal the beauty and intentions of Scripture. Threads may disappear behind the tapestry for a time, so when a writer does reintroduce one, it is pregnant with implication. Taking a step back and looking at all the threads will unveil sketches within sketches where before only obscurity and simplicity were seen, each thread woven together to support and be supported by the others, each having their own aesthetic and each improving the aesthetic of the others.

One of these threads which has infatuated my contemplation of late has been the tension of two’s: two parties at odds with each other, one rises while the other is lowered. From the moment of the Fall in Genesis, people are pitting themselves against each other. When both Eve and Adam eat of the fruit (and not before), they descend into the underworld of shame. They cover and they hide. When that fails, Adam blames the woman God had given him and Eve blames the serpent (Genesis 3:12-13). Fingers are pointed and blame is shifted. Each is the victim of some other. In the moment of their shame and inability to hide, they feel compelled to lash at out someone or something.  Before expelling them from Eden, the Lord clothes their nakedness with the skins of animals (Genesis 3:21).

Cain’s Answer

Cain and Abel, Cain kills Abel

Slaying of Abel

Still lingering in the story is that prophetic announcement of death. They would surely die if they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Yet nothing. I wonder if Adam and Eve thought they had escaped. We are then introduced to their two sons: Cain and Abel. Abel’s offering to the Lord was accepted but Cain’s was not. Envy overwhelmed Cain. Was his gift or himself not good enough? Why was Abel accepted? “So Cain was very angry, and his face fell” (Genesis 4:5). Interestingly, God seemed surprised by Cain’s reaction. “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7). Cain did not have to react the way he did. It wasn’t logical. But Cain wanted what Abel had, and, in Cain’s mind, that made Abel the enemy and himself the victim. So he did something about it. Cain led his brother into a field and he “rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:8). This is what the death of Genesis 2:17 looks like: when brother kills brother. 

It is this story that “sin” is first introduced as a concept and not the chapter we often label as “The Fall.” The Bible does not introduce sin in the context of Adam and Eve taking of something they were commanded not to take but rather in the context of one brother rising against another brother. This is not to say that sin has nothing to do with Genesis 3 but rather to say Genesis 4 has everything to do with Genesis 3. Adam and Eve believed they needed something they did not have and in a like manner Cain believed what Abel had should have been his. Adam and Eve took what they wanted. Cain took his brother’s life. When the Lord appeared, He asked Adam and Eve “Where are you?” but when he appeared to Cain he asks, “Where is Abel your brother?” (Genesis 3:9; Genesis 4:9).  God asked in both stories, “What have you done?” (Genesis 3:13; Genesis 4:10). And in both stories, someone was driven away (Genesis 3:24; Genesis 4:12-14). There are two stark differences, however. One is that Adam and Eve were envious of an object only the Lord had (the knowledge of good and evil) while Cain was envious of what another human being had (acceptance). The other difference is that it was the innocent person whom the Lord inquired about his location in the second, not the guilty.

When the Lord asked, “Where is Abel your brother?”, Cain snorted, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” The Lord did not answer Cain’s question but the story is implicitly shouting “YES!” Instead of guarding and looking out for his brother, Cain looked out for himself.  Sin is never a personal problem. It shatters the bonds of spouses, siblings, friends, and humanity. It sets those closest to each other against each other. It flips the created order on its head and where once we looked out for each other’s well-being, we now spy on each other’s liabilities. When we only look out for ourselves, people become tools, obstacles, or threats. Others will have something we want or threaten what we have.

Abel’s Alternate Ending

This story is told and retold through out the biblical narrative. It will vary ever so slightly from one to the next, but it is clearly there. Two parties are set at odds against each other because one of them has something the other wants, whether an object, a quality, or a social status. Nearly every time, someone or something is victimized or killed. And often someone is driven away. Sarai was jealous of Hagar for conceiving Abram a child, even though it was Sarai’s idea, and she dealt harshly with Hagar and Hagar fled. Later, when Sarah (aka Sarai) had born a son, she was threatened by Hagar’s son Ishmael so Hagar and Ishmael were forced out. Later, Abraham’s son, Issac, has two sons who were also are odds with other. Jacob weaseled his way into obtaining Esau’s birthright and blessing. Esau, being more than a little upset, threatened to kill his brother so Jacob flees. Later, Jacob’s sons were threatened by their youngest sibling, Joseph, due to the favor he had in his father’s eyes. So, they planned on killing him but instead send him away by selling him as a slave to Egypt. While in Egypt, Potiphar’s wife wanted Joseph but when she couldn’t have him, she had him sent to prison by falsely accusing him. And the thread keeps going: Samson and the Philistines, Hanna and Peninnah, Saul and David, David and Uriah, satraps and Daniel, and many more. It almost always ends the same: either with someone being cast away, with someone dying, or both.

Joseph makes himself known to his brothers. Bible.

Joseph makes himself known

I must pause for a moment and draw attention to one story with an alternate ending. After Joseph was sold into slavery and he eventually ascended into second in command over all of Egypt, he finds himself in a position to do to his brothers what they had done to him. They had come groveling to Egypt, desperate for food, and they were now at the mercy of Joseph. At first, it seems like Joseph was going to pay them back for what they had done, but instead the story ends with his brothers reconciled, a family healed, and life is preserved (Genesis 45:5). Brother lowers himself to raise brothers up. Instead of sin’s destructive force tearing through the strongest of human bonds and leaving bodies in its wake, Joseph forgives.  Atonement is made. Love brings life.

Yom Kippur

So, this is where I would like to take a bit of leap. Smack dab in the center of Leviticus is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16 details how atonement must be made for the nation. For the High Priest, a bull is to be slaughtered. A ram is to be taken for a burnt offering. But for the people, there are two goats. One goat is killed. One goat is driven away into the wilderness (i.e. scapegoat). The first was a sin offering and the other was to make atonement. Why two goats? Why is one killed but not the other? Leviticus 16 could have been nothing more than just “kill this animal” but instead it was intentionally set up in such a way that two of the same type of animal are presented and one dies while the other lives but is cast away. Could Leviticus 16 be alluding to Cain and Abel where we find Cain failing to rule over sin, killing his brother and then being driven into the wilderness…as well as the other stories where someone rises against another. This connection is even more compelling when one recalls that in many of the former stories there is a reference to a killed animal: Adam and Eve are clothed with skins of animals, Jacob steals his brothers blessing by wearing the skins of two goats, and Joseph’s brothers kill a goat and dip Joseph’s coat in it to prove to their father he was killed after they have sent Joseph away.

In this light, these two goats are more than just a “payment” but become a metaphor reminding us not just what sin does to us but what we do to ourselves. We rise against each other and drive each other away. We perpetuate a cycle in which ultimately no one wins and all are either put down or driven out. Yom Kippur offers a different alternative by providing atonement for both parties and showing us that we can end it. The Day of Atonement reminds us that we can choose the path of Cain or we can choose the path of Joseph. Through both goats all sins and iniquities are covered. That means the person you despise, who has wronged you, who has what you want: they too have been covered. The Lord’s Day of Atonement is much more than just me getting my forgiveness card and going about my merry way. It’s about my relation with all of mankind.


Day of Atonement, choosing of the goat, scapegoatIf I may, one last story. It is not often that you find one story appearing in all four of the Gospels. One that does, however, occurs during Jesus’ trail before Pilate. Pilate, having found Jesus innocent, attempts to release Jesus. So, he offers the people a choice. They can either have “Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ” (Matthew 27:17). Barabbas was a notorious murderer and robber (Matthew 27:16; Mark 15:7; John 18:40). The priests stir up the people to cause them to pick Barabbas to be released and Jesus to be killed. I hope you see where I am going with this. Just like Leviticus 16, two are presented, one is chosen to be released and one chosen to be killed. Like the other stories discussed, Barabbas bears a similarity to the brothers who rose up against their siblings through theft and murder. The guilty is released while the innocent is sacrificed. Jesus willingly takes the position of Abel and in so doing provides atonement for both parties (c.f. Hebrews 12:24). In a dramatic plot twist, the “goat” that was slaughtered rises again and is now also living. What is incredibly ironic is that Barabbas literally means “Son of the Father.” The Christ is killed while the Son of the Father is released. Later Jesus would be crucified among criminals, being both identified as a criminal but also being innocent. Jesus becomes both goats and both brothers.

I can’t help but to think of Romans 12:1, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” I know of no other image that the rabbinically trained Paul would be alluding to other than the scapegoat of Leviticus 16. The logical response of our spiritual service/worship is to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, not a living animal that stays upon an altar but rather a wandering goat bearing the iniquities of others. In the way of Joseph, may we forgive those who rise against us. May we end the cycle of blame, envy, and attacks by lowering ourselves, as our Lord lowered himself, so that we may lift others up. May we become living sacrifices and bring life in the midst of evil.

The Scapegoat by René GirardWant to learn about the sociological and anthropological implications of this? I know you do! I would highly recommend René Girard’s work called The Scapegoat. Girard approaches this biblical metanarrative not as a theologian but as sociologist and philosopher.

Another great read is Raising Abel: The Recovery of of the Eschatological Imagination by James Alison, who builds upon René Girard’s work from a theological perspective.