Am I my brothers keeper? Genesis 4:9 (NIV)
No Mention of Sacrifices – Keepers – Series 1 – Part 4
(Go to Series 2)
Cain and Abel's tragic story isn’t really about sacrifice, but about the two men’s relationship with their creativity.
One was so connected to it, entwined into it, that he couldn’t give his best freely. The other could. He knew he couldn’t hold on to the things he had “acquired.” He knew his partnership in creation with the Divine was something to be expressed beyond himself, not unto himself.
Since he could never really “own it,” it was all a gift to be shared. And that in giving what he had a hand in creating, he was giving power to gratitude, rather than acquisition.
Let’s talk about the sacrifice bit for a moment, because it is deeply ingrained into our (modern) religious outlook.
A considerable assumption is made when we guess that Cain and Abel knew about sacrifices, were asked to each bring one, and were being obedient in doing so.
There is no mention of sacrifices before Cain and Abel brought their offerings to God. Like I said back in Part 2 of this series, what the Hebrews included and excluded from their stories are a part of the story, too. They were deliberate communicators. Things were not assumed or randomly left out. There is no mention of sacrifices before Cain and Abel because they were quite possibly the first people to have ever bought one before God.
And it would seem that it was Cain's idea. He was not responding out of obedience, or command, or ritual. It was a free-will gift.
This story raises a tremendous theological question: Does God really need us to offer him anything? Is God some sort of cosmic carnivore, satisfied by the taste of burnt flesh? Is it conceivable that the Master of the Universe, the Source of all Life, would need man’s sacrifice of animal or plant to appease him?
If this story is simply about Cain bringing something to God that he wasn’t supposed to, we miss what the bigger questions, like the one above, lead us to. And I’m not suggesting they lead us to definite answers.
We may never know if Cain and Abel were the entrepreneurs of offerings, or if they were acting out of obedience. The question above moves us beyond the two dimensional moral of the story to dig around into the more provocative themes and challenges it wants to tell us.
If Cain did have the brilliant idea to bring an offering of his work and creativity to God, and Abel followed suit, why did God accept one and not the other? Was it simply about the items brought? Lambs are good; plants are not?
Here’s a thought:
A person expressing profound gratitude gives the best he can.
A person buying an insurance policy is looking for a reasonable deal.
Cain embodied the meaning of his name: he was the ultimate acquirer. He planted seeds, tended crops, and brought forth enough food to nourish and sustain himself and his family. These days we are so removed from farming, we have largely forgotten the creative work that it is. To grow and harvest food is to create life to sustain life. Cain couldn’t bear children like his mother, Eve, but he could still bear life in the form of creating the substance to sustain it. It became his identity.
Perhaps he got so consumed with his creativity that he forgot that God provided the earth for planting, water for nourishing, and the sun for growing. Perhaps he started to believe that it was his ingenuity alone that caused his crops to prosper. Perhaps he wanted to buy God off, keep him happy so that he would continue to hold up his end of the bargain with good weather and lush soil.
After all, that’s why many ancient civilizations gave offerings and made sacrifices to their Gods. They were a bargaining chip for favor. Bargaining chips are more “rational” than free-flowing gratitude. They appear more transactional and sure. A purchase of goods and services. Of favour and blessing.
Ultimately, when the gift you give is little more than a spiritual insurance policy to make sure you get what you want from God you end up creating distance, not closeness, with that gift. When the recipient refuses it, what they’re not saying is: you haven’t brought the right kind of sacrifice. But rather: try again; we’re not in the insurance business. That isn’t what our relationship is meant to be about…
Written by Liz Milani