Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Cain and Abel

Elizabeth D. and I recently read the novel Demian, by Herman Hesse. The main character, Emil Sinclair said that he perceived Max Demian as bearing the mark of Cain. Elizabeth said to me that she has felt that she has born the mark of Cain for her entire life. This led me to explore the meaning of the mark of Cain.  The story of Cain and Abel rather pithy yet seems to contain several of the major themes of the Bible.

Historically, some interpreters have treated the mark of Cain as a stigma, a curse, or sign of eternal damnation. Augustine used it as a rationalization to justify the persecution of Jews. In the American South, white Southern Baptist congregations considered black people to bear the mark of Cain and used it as a justification for slavery. For the same reason, until the 1960's, many white Protestant congregations refused to ordain black men to the ministry.

In the text, we are told that while Abel's sacrifice to God was judged acceptable, Cain's was not. This was Cain's first sin. Note that God did not mete out any punishment towards Cain. Nevertheless Cain was upset, angry, and downcast over the fact that God was not pleased. Seeing this, God questioned Cain over the fact that he was upset and told him that as long as he did the right thing going forward, that all would be right between them. God even cautioned him that if he did rectify himself, then his risk of falling into sin would be even greater. Note that a personal relationship existed between God and Cain. It was God who desired a loving relationship with Cain, and it was God who tried to repair the broken relationship. Yet Cain did not repent.

Cain's first sin was a minor one compared to the next. For killing Abel, God punished Cain by causing his fields to have an insufficient yield. Note that God did not kill, or harm or threaten to kill or harm Cain. Rather, God's intent was to get Cain to repent--to reform--to get him to realize that what he did was wrong and to motivate him to return to a loving and obedient relationship (and friendship) with God. Yet Cain still chose not to repent. Instead, became a vagabond and a fugitive, as if he thought he could hide from God.

In primitive societies people take the law into their own hands, and revenge is considered a just punishment for crimes. This was the most primitive of times--no government, laws, judges, police, jails, etc. After Cain killed Abel, others would have felt justified in killing Cain for his crime.

Despite the murder, God still wanted Cain to repent. And Cain, still not repenting, nevertheless expressed his fear to God that anyone who came upon him will want to kill him. To avoid that and probably to assure Cain himself of that, God put a mark on Cain as a sign to others that if they killed Cain, they would receive a punishment seven times worse than the punishment God meted out to Cain (his crops failing).  A common, traditional understanding of the mark was that it signified a threat of punishment, which it clearly is. But even with the traditional interpretation, it still does not preclude an understanding on the part of other people that God is patient, forgiving and wants people to repent, to not be killed, harmed or consigned to eternal damnation.

This pithy little story has many messages. God still loves us, even after we commit serious sin. 
Even after serious sin, our relationship to God is not completely severed. He still listens to us and protects us, in his own way, even if we do not understand how. God wants evil-doers to repent. God is patient. 

God wants mankind to practice a law of love and forgiveness, not one of revenge. Punishment of evil by causing the evil-doer to suffer should be designed to reform the individual. It should not kill or permanently harm the person. This passage is a teaching for humane treatment of evil-doers and against the death penalty. 

Before the murder, we do not know why God was satisfied with Abel's sacrifice but dissatisfied with Cain's.  But if I were Cain I would be similarly upset.  Note that we do not know exactly what Cain was upset about. He may have felt that God was being unfair to him. He may have been upset by is own guilt. He may have angry and jealous at Abel.  Or any other number of other possibilities.   

God communicated to Cain that if he made thing right and repented then all would be right again. He even warned Cain that if he did not repent, he was at risk of sinning gain, which he did with the murder.  

We don't know exactly why Cain killed Abel. I suspect it was related to his prior sin. Traditionally, we are taught that he killed Abel out of jealousy.  God confronted Cain over the murder, first diplomatically, again permitting Cain to repent but then forcefully and angrily. 

I can relate to Cain.  When I sin, afterwards, I am so upset and ashamed with myself that I cannot repent, at least not immediately. I either want to hide from the one I sinned against, or I want to apologize but am unable or do not know how. 

St. John Chrysosotom is quoted as saying, "Be ashamed when when you sin, not when you repent." This is really an exhortation to repent. But when I know I should repent, the thought of confessing my sin in the Sacrament fills me with so much shame that it makes confession difficult. I suspect that this was the problem that Cain had.

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