I generally like to post images with these blog posts, either some contemporary image that connects with the Scripture text at hand or some classical painting or icon of the biblical story. As I looked for images of the first murder in Genesis 4:1-16, Cain slaying his brother Abel, my attention was focused by one particular site which called attention to the skin tones in one of these paintings. Made aware by that note, I began to look at other paintings of the primal fratricide. Overwhelmingly in these images, including in paintings by Titian and Rubens, Cain is portrayed with darker skin than Abel.
My survey of Cain and Able art on the Internet is by no means scholarly or definitive, but it certainly appears as if there is at least an unconscious, if not conscious, tendency to associate dark skin with spiritual failure, violence and uncivilized behavior. It’s a little ironic in this context because Cain ends up being the founder, in a sense, of human civilization as he builds a city in Genesis 4:17.
I would not have even noticed that difference in color between images of Cain and images of Abel if someone else had not pointed it out. That suggests to me that there are whole realms of unconscious prejudice and injustice in us which help perpetuate the misunderstanding and hatred which generated that first murder. We allow our minds to be influenced by differences which are not differences and fail to attend to the darkness of our own hearts and to address, as God says to Cain in verse 7, the sin which “is lurking at the door…”
We must resist trying to answer the question just why Abel’s offering of an animal sacrifice was acceptable while Cain’s offering of fruit and grains was not. Both sorts of offerings appear later and are commanded by God. It’s much more likely to be some interior state of the soul which was different in the brothers rather than some quality of their offerings, though even about that we cannot be sure.
However, neither should we imagine that there is ultimately no difference between the offerings other than God’s simple to choice to accept one rather than the other. That leads us down the path Karl Barth and I am sure others take to see the doctrine of “election” appearing for the first time in this text. That kind of thinking will only leave us helpless in the hands of a capricious and ultimately unjust God. No, it is probably better to err in the direction of offering some mistaken account of Cain’s failure and Abel’s success in worshiping God, than to place the whole division between the two in some inscrutable whim of the their Creator. Such a god would not be worthy of their or anyone else’s worship.
Yet the real question for us in this text is how to do what God asks Cain to do in verse 7, to master that sin that lurks at the door, to overcome and let go of the tendency to violence that arises among even in the closest of human relationships.
Fortunately, God Himself shows us the path which is ultimately made plain in Jesus. In verse 15, God is merciful to Cain, sparing his life and protecting him from a retaliatory murder by others in turn. There is our model, even in regard to those who have gone far down the path of Cain. We resolve nothing by further killing, but our brothers and sisters, and the world, are saved when we imitate our God by extending grace and forgiveness.