This morning, I began a new segment with my Christian Learning Center class. We’re discussing the philosophical foundations and development of Biblical worldview this semester, so that means were looking extensively at how the Bible answers the four fundamental questions of life: origin, meaning, morality and destiny. This morning marked the beginning of our look at morality. So naturally I started in a really strange place: the story of Cain and Abel.
I read the story from Genesis 4 and then asked the students one simple question: Was God fair to Cain?
Immediately they connected my question with the punishment of Cain, and naturally they said that God was not only fair to Cain, but merciful. I kindly replied that Cain’s punishment wasn’t the action I questioned. I wanted to know if God were fair to Cain before that.
They questioned my question, so I asked them to do me a favor (you can do this too, if you want to play along at home and humor an idiot such as myself): I asked them to go back into Genesis 1-3 and find the place where God laid down the laws regarding sacrifice. Any verse would do. Just find the one where God tells Adam and Eve or Cain or Abel what He expected regarding offerings submitted to Him.
They went silent, searching their cellphones and the random hard copies on hand. One minute ticked by, then two; eventually, after five painful minutes, one of the students looked up and said, “This is a trick question. There’s nothing in here about what sacrifices God wanted.”
And I said, “Bingo. When you read the Scripture, it would appear that the gifts from both Cain and Abel are spontaneous gestures. Cain brings part of his stock and trade; Abel brings part of his. God is pleased with Abel’s, not so pleased with Cain’s. There’s no reason given why He felt that way, despite the fact that many Christians have been taught that Abel gave from a pure heart but Cain didn’t. That’s not in the text here**, so let’s put it aside and consider this story as it’s written, and let me ask you again: was God fair to Cain?”
**I’m patently aware that Hebrews 11:4 acknowledges that Abel’s sacrifice was better than Cain’s, but the writer of Hebrews still doesn’t tell us why that was so – it merely confirms it was. So I submit to you that the notion that Abel’s heart was more in tune with God is something that we read into the text to help create a context for what happens next. I think this is an instance where well-meaning Christians have invented a false “truth” to help ameliorate discomfort over the seeming arbitrariness of God in the passage.
There was a pause. Finally, one of my students said, “No, I don’t think He was. It’s not fair to not give a guy any standards and then tell him he doesn’t meet those standards.”
Other students agreed.
One did not. She still insisted that God had been plenty fair to Cain, and that Cain was a jerk at heart anyway because he got miffed and killed Abel. And murder confirms jerkiness, so Cain probably brought a jerky sacrifice and God merely pointed that out.
Again, I told asked her to put aside the aftermath of Cain’s sacrifice, and just consider the sacrifice itself. I asked her to set aside everything else she knew about the story and just consider, for a moment, if God were fair to Cain in rejecting his sacrifice.
She looked at me, and said brilliantly, “Yes. Because He’s God, and He determines what’s acceptable or not.”
And I pointed at her and said, “Exactly. This is the beginning point of morality for anyone who would profess to be a Christian: God alone determines what is and isn’t acceptable. What is and isn’t right or wrong.”
I wish I could say that this was a deep and profound thought that I’ve been harboring for a long time. I wish I could say that I stole it from someone like John Piper or Tim Keller or Al Mohler or any other wise and deep theologian. Instead, it was the result of me staying awake most of the night with this story on my mind, convinced that it was the place to begin our exploration on morality without really understanding why, other than the fact that this story has ALWAYS bothered me.
Maybe it’s because I’m an older brother myself, but I never could quite shake the idea that Cain got a raw deal. I’ve grown up being taught that he was a jerk, that he was an evil person at heart (as evidenced by his killing Abel), and it never seemed quite fair to me. In fact, it always struck me as retrofitting. I’m probably the only Cain sympathizer in the known universe, so I’ll accept any questions regarding my orthodoxy with the acknowledgement that I deserve such questions.
But walking through this passage this morning, with God leading me ahead of my students, helping us all to see that He alone is the Sovereign King who decides right and wrong on the basis of His perfect, unchanging nature and character…well, that was the most exciting thing that’s happened to me in a long time. It brought sense to a text I’ve wrestled with for years and it opened up my heart to fear and marvel at God once again.
I don’t think God was capricious in His choosing between Cain and Abel. I don’t doubt that any of the explanations we’ve offered in the millennia since this story was written contain truth about Cain, his heart and what God knew about each. To be perfectly honest, this story makes me think about Romans 9, an incredible passage that makes clear God makes vessels of dishonor to use as He sees fit.
I would daresay Cain was one of those vessels.
The students sat stunned at the idea. I won’t say anyone’s paradigm shifted (after all, it’s hard to shift anything at 7:30 in the morning) but there was certainly a look of comprehension on a great many faces. The story of Cain and Abel wasn’t about their righteousness or unrighteousness – it was about the Sovereign God and His established rule.
I’ll probably be castigated for my take on the passage, and I invite and welcome the discussion in the comments below. But even if my interpretation is unorthodox, I stand by the conclusion: that this story shows us, if nothing else, that the root of Biblical and Christian morality lies not within ourselves, or even our understanding of God’s Law. It is found in the essence of God Himself, in His character and authority and His power.
Can’t get more orthodox than that.