Friday, September 12, 2008

Their blood cries out: Cain and Abel

I recall a discussion I had a few years ago with a well-known leader of a ministry devoted to serving the persecuted church.  When learning of my research into developing a biblical theology of persecution and how I intended to start in the Old Testament before discussing the more familiar passages in the New, he exclaimed, “But there is no teaching on persecution in the Old Testament!”  This is not an uncommon sentiment.  Rarely does the teaching on persecution move beyond New Testament passages that are familiar to many of us.  This is unfortunate and a mistake that Jesus and the apostles did not make.  They understood clearly that what they taught had foundations in the Old Testament writings.

It is interesting to note, for example, that the first case of persecution in the Bible occurs during the first recorded time of formal worship before the Lord as we find the sons of Adam and Eve bringing offerings to the Lord in Genesis 4:2-5. 

We are not told exactly why Cain’s offering was unacceptable to God, while Abel’s pleased him. It is likely that Cain brought simply some samples of his harvest, whereas Abel made certain that what he brought was only the best. Thus Abel gave out of faith and thankfulness, whereas Cain gave only out of duty. 

Likewise, we are not told how God expressed His displeasure with Cain’s offering, but it was obviously done in such a manner that Cain understood and was angry that God should respond that way to his sacrifice. The Lord refused to ignore Cain’s response and, in grace, calls him to repentance in verses 6-7.

cain_and_abel That Cain did not heed God’s call to rule over his anger and instead allowed it to master him is evident. Cain refused to bow the knee before God and he decided to rid himself of his religious opponent, even if it is his own brother. At this point we witness the first incident of religious persecution as Cain rose up and killed Abel (verse 8).

It is obvious that the New Testament views Abel’s death as much more than the result of sibling rivalry or a family squabble that got out of control. Jesus clearly saw Abel’s death as an act of martyrdom (Matthew ), as does the apostle John (1 John ). John explains that Abel’s death was because Cain’s acts were evil and Abel’s were righteous. Abel’s death is clearly set in a context of martyrdom, a result of the conflict between the world and those who belong to God (1 John ).

Not only did persecution begin because of religious intolerance, but it also took place in the home. Just as it divided the first family, loyalty to God continues to cut families asunder, providing stark demonstrations of the cruel reality of the conflict between the seed of the woman and the serpent (Genesis 3:15). Families, as important as they are for our nurture and security, can also be places of terrible violence.

The Lord’s response to Abel’s murder is instructive to us. He says that the voice of Abel’s blood “is crying to me from the ground” (). The word used here for “crying” (sa‘aq) is frequently used in the Old Testament to describe the outcry of the individual or group who are suffering injustice and require intervention on their behalf (John E. Hartley, (sā‘aq) in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2. ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke. Moody Press, 1980: 772).  It often refers to God hearing the outcries of the op­pressed because they have been denied justice and are unable to defend themselves from unlawful oppression and exploitation (Paul Marshall, “Human Rights” in Toward an Evangelical Public Policy. ed. Ronald J. Sider and Diane Knippers. Baker Books: 2004: 313). On the use of the word in Genesis 18:20, Gerhard von Rad comments that the word is a technical legal term and designates the cry for help which one who suffers a great injustice screams.

We even know what the cry was, namely, “Foul play!” (hāmās, Jer. 20.8; Hab. 1.2; Job 19.7). With this cry for help (which corresponds to the old German “Zeterruf”), he appeals for the protection of the legal community. What it does not hear or grant, however, comes directly before Yahweh as the guardian of all right (cf. ch. 4.10). Yahweh, therefore, is not concerned with punishing Sodom but rather with an investigation of the case, which is serious, to be sure. The proceeding is hereby opened (Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, A Commentary. Revised edition. SCM Press, 1961: 211).  

Novak observes that it is here that we read of the very first appeal made to God to enforce a human right, in this case the human right to have one's murder avenged. 

Thus God says to Cain immediately after he has murdered his brother Abel, "What you have done! Your brother's blood is crying [tso.aqim] to Me from the ground" (Gen. 4:10). 

In the Cain and Abel story, Abel has a claim upon Cain: Do not kill me! Why? Because God takes personal interest in every human person who has been created in the divine image. In fact, that is very likely what it means to say that all humankind is made to "resemble God" (Gen. 5:1), namely, God and humans are interested in each other insofar as they share some commonality, a commonality not found in God's relations with the rest of creation (David Novak, “God and Human Rights in a Secular Society" in Does Human Rights Need God?  ed. Elizabeth M. Bucar and Barbra Barnett. Eerdmans, 2005: 51).  

God’s justice requires that He punish Cain for the murder of his brother, for such an assault on any other human being is taken to be an assault on God himself. In sentencing him, however, God does not condemn Cain to being a disdained outcast, liable to vigilante justice. This is what Cain fears (4:14). God, in His mercy, places a mark on Cain to protect him too from being wrongfully killed (Genesis 4:8–17). 

Cain had complained that he would be hidden from God’s presence or face and terrified that he would be denied God’s judicial protection. The imagery of God hiding His presence or face is a common one in Scripture, meaning to refuse to notice something and thus avoid responding to it (LeLand Ryken, James C. Wilmot, Tremper Longman III, “Hide, Hiding” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. InterVarsity Press, 1998: 383). The Lord’s response is evidence that, even as a murderer, Cain is not beyond God’s mercy and protection. Cain’s life, like Abel’s and all humans’, belongs to God and He will not abandon it. The right to life is protected by God, even for those who do not deserve it.

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