Read: Genesis 4:1-16
Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:8-9, NRSV).
Cain is notorious for being the world’s first murderer. While that reputation is well-deserved, I would like to focus on his facility for lying. Since most of us are not guilty of murder, it’s easy to sidestep this story as being “about somebody else.” When we focus on Cain’s lies, however, it’s a story that strikes closer to home.
So, Cain and Abel each present an offering to the LORD. God shows a preference for Abel’s offering (we’re not told why), and Cain is not amused. In fact, he is “very angry.” God notices this, and warns Cain that he is on thin ice. (Actually, the metaphor God uses is that “sin is lurking at the door,” which sounds every bit as dangerous.) Cain, however, ignores the warning and invites his brother out for a walk from which Abel will not return. Did Cain plan to kill his brother on that walk? If so, it’s premeditated murder. In any case, God shows up after the fact and confronts Cain with a question: “Where is your brother Abel?”
We as readers may have some questions at this point as well. If God knew that Cain was a ticking time bomb, why didn’t God stop him rather than simply warn him? If God knew what happened, why did God bother to ask? While these are good questions, the Bible isn’t interested in answering them, so I suggest we move on. The biblical storyteller is interested in Cain’s response to God’s question, so let’s look there. “I don’t know,” Cain says. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
First of all, “I do not know” is a bald-faced lie. Cain knows full well that Abel is lying dead in a field somewhere. Cain could have led God right to the scene of the crime—or at least he could have if he weren’t so eager to distance himself from the deed.
In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say. So, Cain shrugs his shoulders and asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
You’ve got to hand it to him. This is a classic bit of misdirection designed to make God feel guilty even for asking. If God were more of a push-over, God might have replied, “Oh, well, no—sorry I asked.” But God is not a push-over, and is having none of it. Of course, being omniscient helps some, too, and God knows full well that Abel is lying in a pool of his own blood and that it was Cain that put him there. So, there is that. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that after the initial lie, Cain’s first instinct is to shift the blame.
One could argue that Cain came by this character flaw quite naturally. Back in Genesis 3 Cain’s father, Adam, is quick to blame Cain’s mother, Eve, for the forbidden fruit affair. She in turn passes the buck to the snake. But God is not fooled by either of them, and wastes no time dealing out the consequences.
There are consequences for Cain as well. First, he will have a much harder time farming. There is a certain poetic justice to this, since he desecrated the ground by spilling his brother’s blood on it. But God also condemns him to being a “fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” This is too much for Cain, and he cries out that “My punishment is greater than I can bear.”
This is the point at which God puts a “mark” on Cain—not to brand him as a murderer but to protect him from being a “marked man.” Justice, it seems, is being tempered with mercy. It’s a lesson Cain will have the rest of his lonely life to learn.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked earlier in the story. Ironically, that’s the moment when he inadvertently stumbles onto the truth. He expects the answer to his rhetorical question to be “No.” But it’s “Yes.” Yes—a thousand times yes. We are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers.
Ponder this quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” When is silence not only betrayal, but a lie we tell ourselves?
Pray: Give us the wisdom to know the truth and to tell it—to ourselves, to others, and to You.
“Notorious” Series Introduction
The dictionary defines someone who is “notorious” as a person who is “famous or well-known, typically for some bad quality or deed.”
Some of the characters featured in this series deserve that reputation; others do not. We’ll take a closer look at those in both categories, and you can make up your own mind. But whether the characters deserve to go to jail or to rehab, they can teach us a few things about integrity.
So, strap yourselves in and get ready to meet some of the Bible’s most notorious characters!
Carol M. Bechtel