Cain, Abel, and Envy

October 27th, 2013

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

Genesis 4:1-16

Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.”  Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14 Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

The Cain and Abel story is fascinating to me. In it I believe we are exposed to some of the deepest secrets of the kingdom of God.  Our entry point is the green-eyed monster of envy.

I draw the imagery from William Shakespeare. The play Othello, the words from Lago, “Beware my Lord of jealousy; It is the green-eye monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

I use envy and jealousy interchangeably, because it works. Envy is the sins in this story that gives us insight into the deeper truths about the kingdom of God. The green-eyed monster is the game we stalk. Cain is our foil.

Let’s take a look at the story.  Adam and Eve have a child, a son, they named him Cain.  In Hebrew Cain means smith, as in blacksmith.  And yet, this first born son, instead of following his name identity as an artist of iron, goes into the family business, and becomes a farmer like his father, Adam.  This is the first point I will circle back on later-Cain the blacksmith bound to the farmers plow.

Another son is born.  His name is Abel.  Now as all of you first-born children know, this second child is pampered by his parents.  Abel is encouraged to follow his “passion,” which, it turns out is following sheep.

One day Cain brought some of his harvest to God as a gift. Abel, as younger siblings are wont do, copied Cain, and brought an offering to God as well.  Cain looks upon Abel. There was a joy in Abel bubbling up from the inside and bathing him on the outside as he gave his best lamb to God. And Cain wondered, “Why don’t I feel like that? Why doesn’t my offering provoke that much joy in me? Why is Abel’s so happy? Clearly God likes him better. Clearly God likes his offering better.

And Cain’s gaze turned inward blinding him from the fact that Abel had followed him to the altar in the first place; that Abel had emulated his actions; that Abel wanted to be with him and be seen by him and maybe even be like him. This is the second point I’ll circle back to later – the younger brother loving following the older brother and not being seen.

Instead of appreciating Abel’s delight, anger flashed across Cain’s face. And with this anger came its partner envy, because anger never travels alone. It always has a partner to feed off of.

Envy, in Hebrew the word is “cha/rah.”  It refers to the burning in the face of a person produced by deep emotion. Cha/rah shares a root word with the color green. The ancient Greeks believed that when a person’s pallor became yellowish-green, they had been overcome by a surge of envy that produced an over-production of bile.

In the seventh century BC, the poetess Sappho used the word “green” to describe the face of a stricken lover, and ever since green has been freely used to denote envy as in the green-eyed monster of William Shakespeare.

As anger rose up in Cain, it drew forth the yellow-green bile of envy.  And God saw it and asked, “Why are you so angry.  Why has your countenance fallen?”

God seemed genuinely surprised. Now if God had given Abel ice cream and Cain Tofu in response to their respective offerings, God would not have wondered why Cain’s countenance had fallen. But since both gifts, from God’s point of view, were equally valued, then the question seems natural, “Why has your countenance fallen?”  This is the third point we’ll circle back to later.  The question of how gifts are valued in the kingdom of God.

We’ll circle back on

1)     Cain the blacksmith wrongly bound to the farmers plow.
2)     Abel loving Cain and not being seen.
3)     The manner by which gifts are valued in the kingdom of God.

These all produce the envy God’s notices as the green-eyed monster and his traveling companion anger, appear crouching by the door of Cain’s soul.  And God warns: “sin is lurking at your door; its desire is for you, you must master it.”

Envy may well be the first temptation we encounter in life.  Observe a child.  Even in the nursery we see envy, as a toy or a snack is snatched from the hands of the other, even when it is the same toy or snack the child is holding himself. The child reaches to grab what he wants, and the other cries out, and relationship is tested and challenged and in some cases broken; which is why envy is a crime in the kingdom of God, where relationship is primary, and that which causes brothers to brawl is contrary to the world as God made it.

Envy is a kingdom of God crime that has the potential, when pushed to the extreme, to provoke the secondary human crime of murder.  While we consider murder a capital offense the crime of envy has a much greater impact on the kingdom of God.

We see this reality in the story.  Abel never speaks until after he is murdered.  God says, “Your brothers blood cries out to me from the ground.” In other words, God and Abel continue in relationship, despite the actions of Cain.

Cain has no power, even through murder, to deny Abel’s relationship with God.  He only has the power to pull himself out of relationship with God, by striking out against his brother.  Cain tries to kill what he envies, which is a kingdom of the world response; rather than mastering envy itself, which is a kingdom of God response.

There were three moments in the story that I pointed out along the way where Cain could have killed the green-eyed monster. Cain’s failure to do so offers us insight into secrets of the kingdom of God.

Cain’s first misstep occurs around his chosen line of work.  His very name reveals his heart’s desire to be an artist of iron, yet he chooses to harness himself to the plow of someone else’s expectations.  And so the fruit of his labor was produced by the sweat of his brow rather than the song in his heart and it was found to be bitter and tasteless.

Now I want to make clear that in the kingdom of God gifts and passions can find their feet in many different venues. Abel was a shepherd, but he could have been, had circumstances been different, a cattle herder, or a goat master, or a keeper of pigeons. His passion was animals. Cain’s was iron and he never gave it its outlet, and this provokes envy in his heart.

The second point at which Cain could have banished the green-eyed monster was by noticing the actions of Abel, and perceiving them for what they were.  Abel was following Cain. Abel was emulating Cain. When Cain went to make his offering, Abel was right there.

Let me tell you why I draw the conclusion that Abel was always seeking his brother Cain. There is missing sentence in the most ancient Jewish manuscript of the Bible.  It is called the Masoretic text, written 1500 years ago.

The sentence missing is the invitation Cain makes to Abel to lure him to the field to kill him.  The missing sentence is Gen 4, verse 8b “Let us go out into the field.” I suspect the Scribes left those words out seeing that where Cain went, so too did Abel. But Cain was so caught up in himself that he failed to recognize the blessing of his brother’s presence. His self-centeredness invited envy to his doorstep of his soul. Which brings us to the third stopping point in our story where Cain could have killed the green-eyed monster. It has to do with how the gifts of grain and a firstling lamb were valued in the mind of Cain.

Now this idea of value returns us to a sermon I preached on a few weeks ago.

I spoke of the stone in the pond principle. We know that every time we throw a stone in a pond it causes a ripple; the bigger the stone, the bigger the ripple. That is just the way it works. But in God’s kingdom all stones thrown, irrespective of size are of equal value when thrown from a place of honesty and authenticity and prayer. The point of the principle is to look at the rock, and never the ripple. Each rock is unique and beautiful and valuable in its own way.

Cain was comparing ripples, he was smelling the cooking lamb, and found it more desirable than his burning grain and envy pounced once, twice, three times upon the soft underbelly of Cain. It pounced clawed its way onto that place of discontent around his life as a farmer when his love was bending iron.

Envy pounced upon the soft underbelly of Cain who favored competition against rather than companionship with his brother. And envy pounced upon Cain who valued the product given more so than the process of giving. Envy pounced and when it did and Cain was driven into exile from family, tribe, and homeland and even his own soul. And in the end Cain wandered in fear, seeing envy in the eyes of everyone he met along the way, and thus malice, and always the possibility of murder.

In the end envy turned Cain into a perpetual victim as the green-eyed monster consumed him, and he became the meat upon which it fed.