On Gifts, Sacrifice and Relationship

Sometime ago — April 2009, to be exact — I wrote a post on Cain, Abel, sacrifice and exile:

Some might say that Cain’s offering was inferior — not firstfruits. Maybe. But it may also be that God was partial to Abel’s “choicest of the firstlings” as opposed to whatever grain and fruit Cain offered. … [Farming is] hard work, and perhaps he felt that God did not reward his work well enough. But maybe the sense of rejection he felt when God favored the firstling of Abel’s flock was intolerable. Tilling the land wasn’t just what he did, it was who he was, and clearly he saw that who he was simply was not good enough for God.

Not good enough. Our capricious God liked Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s through no stated fault of Cain’s. I’ve had time of late to consider this lately (some of you know why, and the rest of you will just have to ponder) , and something else about this passage early in Genesis struck me.

The entire story of Cain and Abel prefigures the history of Israel from Sinai onward — sacrifice and offer, follow the law and be blessed, or fail to offer proper sacrifices, to follow the law and Israel shall be cursed. It is almost the entire Hebrew Bible writ small.

It occurred to me today that Cain has something Abel does not — a real relationship with God. Abel just gave, and God received. (That’s fine, you may say, but we cannot know much about Abel’s relationship with God because he is dead. True enough. But work with me in regards to what we actually have in Genesis 4.) Abel’s relationship with God is a very passive relationship, perhaps even a very pagan or idolatrous relationship. Abel gives, God takes. God may be pleased, but God is not giving anything to Abel.

But Cain’s failure — which I state above is God’s doing, and not Cain’s — to deliver a sacrifice that God will accept begins a different kind of relationship, in which God gives to Cain. And receives nothing from Cain. First God gives advice (“If you do well, will you not be accepted?”, implying Cain was at fault for the failure of his offering to please God), then accusation and curse (“When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive, and a wanderer on the earth.”) and finally a promise of some kind of protection or vengeance (“If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.”). It may stink as a relationship — who wouldn’t want to be happy and content giving to God and knowing that God had accepted all they’d given? Because I’d really like to be there right now… — but it is far more than what Abel had. In sinning, and in fear, Cain lived in a relationship with God that the sinless, approved and accepted Abel did not.

It prefigures Israel’s tempestuous relationship with God, in Egypt, in the wilderness, in the take-over of Canaan, in conquest, exile and regathering. It says that in sin, and the consequences of sin (wandering in the land of exile), we have a relationship with God that cannot be matched by those who are “sinless” and whose offerings are accepted. (The story itself may imply that such people don’t really exist, since Abel is killed and therefore nothing can be said of his relationship to God.) That in sinning, space for relationship with God is opened that cannot otherwise be opened — God is transformed from a mere receiver of sacrifices, a kind of fat and happy God who smiles on the one making the offering (suddenly, a bronze Buddha statue surrounded by clouds of incense and rotting oranges comes to mind), to an actual being interacting with the creation. To a God who has something meaningful to say to the creation.

Interacting with the created, who need God’s gift because our gift to God is unacceptable. Sometimes, it’s not much of gift — a mere mark to state whoever kills me gets it back seven times! — but it’s more than first fruits. Perhaps a true relationship with God can only begin in our sinfulness, because only then are we open to receiving what God has to give us, rather than lining up and dumping our offerings into the mouth of Vaal.

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NOTE: The Cain and Abel story is, however, something of a sideshow. Abel dies before having progeny (an assumption based on the fact that none are listed), and all of the featured characters of Israelite history trace their lineage to Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son.