Protecting the Vulnerable - Genesis 4

It is easy to give up on people. We find people in all walks of life we are willing to write off or walk away from. We give up on people for slighting us or disagreeing with us. God's way is different. God seeks out the vulnerable to offer protection, encouragement, and a better path forward. It is really so hard for us to do the same?
Our sense of justice does not mesh too well with God's sense of justice. We find a few texts in the Bible to substantiate our notions of how justice ought to work, but then we encounter God acting in a different fashion than what we would expect. Sometimes we are simply reading a passage incorrectly or attributing human concepts to God. We take the actions of human beings and assume they represent God's purposes. At other times, we simply can't figure out what to do with how God surprises us. It should not be that hard, as God begins working in those surprising ways as far back as the opening chapters of Genesis.
Genesis chapter four begins straightforwardly enough. There were two brothers and one wanted to kill the other. God told him not to do such a thing, and then he got caught having murdered his brother Abel. Yahweh returned to the picture and meted out Cain's punishment. That is all fine and well, except that is not really what the passage says. Let's try again.
Cain was the elder of the two and Abel the younger. They held different occupations, which would lead us to understand they were likely something other than siblings. They represent larger groups of people and the perennial conflict between farmers and nomadic herdsmen. Abel brought Yahweh an offering from the very best of his livestock and God was pleased with him. Cain brought an offering of his produce, but Yahweh was not quite as pleased with him. As Cain became jealous and angry, Yahweh warned him that his anger could easily lead to sin, and he needed to master it. He also encouraged Cain to do well, reminding him that in so doing he would be accepted.
Next, we find Cain calling Abel out into the field with him, where Cain killed him. Yahweh then came to Cain asking Abel's whereabouts. Cain avoided the question and Yahweh responded, forcing Cain to face up to his actions. Yahweh warned Cain that the voice of Abel's lifeblood was crying out from the ground of the very fields Cain tilled. Accordingly, the fields would no longer bear fruit for him, because he had spilled Abel's blood. Instead of being the settled farmer, Cain would have to roam the land seeking sustenance wherever he might find it. He would become a fugitive and a migrant in the land. His life would be in jeopardy as the life of any outsider, reflecting the very attitudes of the conflict between farmers and herdsmen which had led Cain to murder Abel.
Cain then cried out that he could not bear his punishment, as others would kill him. Yahweh responded, “Not so!” Yahweh then gave Cain a seal of protection. While others might want to claim his life in response to his murderous actions or for being a migrant in the land, Yahweh offered protection. Yahweh granted Cain a seal his victim Abel had not enjoyed. Yahweh made it clear that vengeance and murder were unacceptable.
This is the story of two brothers, but it is much more than that. It is a story of generational conflict. It is the story of the conflict from a culture war. It is the story of conflict resulting from changing economic systems. It is the story of conflict repeated time after time in our struggles with one another for supremacy, power, position, and advantage over each other. It is the story of how jealousy and strife enter our lives ostensibly to resolve tension, but in fact making life's tensions worse. It is the story of unintended consequences. It is also the story of God's redemptive love in the face of tragedy, violence, disobedience, and death.
As long as we force the narrative as a literal, historical account regarding the second generation of human beings, we miss the larger picture and the very purpose in its telling. Hunter-gatherers, herdsmen, and farmers have never existed easily side by side. Herdsmen did not simply decide one day to take up farming, any more than hunter-gatherers decided suddenly to take up herding animals. Until very recently in human history, children learned trades, farming, or herding from their parents with few choices available, if any. At the beginning of human history, the shifts from gathering to hunting, to herding, and to agriculture were slow transitions. Rather than attempting to change that narrative, Genesis reminds us that among all our differences we are still brothers and sisters to one another. We are all part of the same human family.
More than simply one family and one human race, we are also charged with caring for one another as equals. When we fail to do so, God comes along to remind us of our responsibility toward our neighbors, our brothers, and our sisters. When we fail, however, God does not simply give up on us. God does not deal with us according to the rules of baseball. Rather than allowing us one shot at bat, God calls us back to the plate until we get it right. Rather than playing the role of umpire, God plays the role of coach.
You have to keep your eye on the ball. Bend your knees and hold your bat like so. Wait for the good pitches. Now get back out there and try again! You've got this!”
Cain was feeling tempted to harm Abel when God first spoke with him. He was angry. He was jealous. He was feeling like Abel was the source of all his problems and needed to be eliminated. God warned him where his actions were taking him. God gave him a better plan to follow. Cain did not listen. When confronted him after the fact, Cain eventually recognized what he had done and accepted the consequences of his actions. God again offered him guidance and protection. God gave him a better path forward. God did not brush Cain off as a failed project.
We don't know Abel's story. The narrator did not decide to focus on Abel. We know Yahweh had found Abel acceptable. We know Yahweh cared for Abel. This narrative, however, is about Cain. It is about how God deals with us in the midst of and on the path to our failures. This is the story of how God deals with us when we fail to walk down the path God sets before us.
God took Cain aside to direct and encourage. He spoke to offer him direction and instruction. He gave Cain counsel, as well as understanding. He offered protection. He offered correction. What God did not do was write Cain off as unworthy of anyone's care and attention. God did not cast him aside as broken and irreparable. Instead of relegating Cain to the refuse bin of humanity, God placed a seal of protection upon him, giving assurance that there was still a path forward for him. Then God set him upon that path.

We'd like to know that everything turned out rosy from there forward. The text does not give us any hope in that regard. It just tells us of God's redemptive character and action. It tells us how God is so willing to redeem us that even what we consider lost causes are worth God's effort. It tells us how God wants us to care for one another to the point of coaching murderers toward a better way forward. Rather than condemning, we find God caring for the vulnerable. Is that really so hard?

©Copyright 2017, Christopher B. Harbin  http://www.sermonsearch.com/contributors/104427/ 

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