Family Dysfunction in the First Family

Murder and exile become linked in the story of Cain and Abel.


One of the dominant themes in the Book of Genesis is family dysfunction and fraternal strife. Even the family of Abraham, that paragon of faith, is not spared. His two wives, Sarah and Hagar, do not get along. And there is a hint that their two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, do not either. This family strife continues down into the next three generations as we discover in the unfolding narrative.

We first encounter this theme in the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16), the two sons of Adam and Eve. Here brotherly jealousy and anger lead to murder. The story is terse. It does not answer all the questions it raises in our minds as we read it. But this is not a reason to write it off. It has a depth if we pay close attention.

The author sets the stage by telling us that Cain is the firstborn. By the standards of ancient culture, that immediately puts Cain in a privileged position. In ancient Israel, it was customary that the eldest son received a double-sized portion in the inheritance over the portions that all of his younger brothers received. That was privilege indeed.

Furthermore, the author tells us that Cain is a farmer. There is therefore a presumption that Cain may be a landowner–again a privileged position. Abel, on the other hand, is a shepherd. His social status would be lower, as he would live a rather nomadic existence as he accompanied his flocks to whatever temporary pasture he could find. His would have been the more unsettled existence.

God Evades Our Presumptions

 So for the Hebrews originally hearing this story, the social presumption is that God would respect society’s standards. God should give the edge to Cain in terms of any favors bestowed. But God does not operate within the standards set by society. He shows favor to Abel, the younger brother, not Cain.

This too sets another major theme into operation in the Bible–God’s unexpected favor to the unprivileged in society, not the privileged. That theme pops up all over the Old Testament. It receives a classic expression in the song Mary sings in Luke 1:46-55, the song we know by its Latin title Magnificat.

When the two brothers come to offer sacrifice to God, Cain offers agricultural produce. Abel offers animals from his flock. God favors Abel’s sacrifice, but has no regard for Cain’s offering. We want to know why. The author does not answer our curiosity, unless through a subtle hint.

The author just tells us without embellishment that Cain offered the “fruit of the ground.” Abel offers from the firstlings of his flock, but the author adds that what Abel offers is “their fat portions.” That little detail suggests that Abel is offering the very best portions of the animals he is slaughtering. This is a gift of great value.

I read into this detail that Abel approached sacrifice in an attitude of genuine piety. He saw nothing as being good enough for God but the very best. Cain, however, made no such distinction in the fruits he offered up. For Cain, sacrifice was a ritual, a necessary religious duty, but not an expression of deep reverence for the divine. Anything therefore would do.

As the Bible reminds us in other places, God looks at the heart, not just the outer action. The attitude and intention of Abel make all the difference.

Cain must have felt that God was playing unfair when he ignored Cain’s privileged position and granted favor to Abel instead. The result is jealousy and anger toward both God and his brother.

The Breeding Ground for Sin

Anger in itself is not a sin, but it provides a warm womb for sin. God reminds Cain of that when he says to Cain that “sin is lurking at the door: its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Emotion as emotion is not sin; sin enters when we decide what to do with the emotion.

Cain does not master the emotion. He gives in, and so sin like a wild animal consumes him. He invites his brother Abel out into a field, away from human community. And there Cain murders his brother. The author is well aware that when we sin, we often want to do so behind closed doors or in dark and deserted places where we are away from the community’s public gaze.

But the crime does not remain hidden. The author suggests that fact when he has God say that Abel’s blood is crying out to God from the ground. The ground was the source of Cain’s livelihood. Now that livelihood is the whistle-blower; it is turning against Cain. This leads to God asking another question: “Where is your brother Abel?”

God Seeks Dialogue, Not Monologue

Notice how all through this story God is one who asks questions. That is a feature of God that we often don’t pay attention to when we read Bible stories. It begins in the Garden of Eden when God confronts Adam and Eve after they eat the forbidden fruit. His first words are a question: “Where are you?” And God continues to ask questions throughout the Bible. Whether we want to or not, God insists on dialogue, not monologues either on his part or ours.

Cain tries to evade the dialogue by his snippy response: “I do not know: am I my brother’s keeper?” But the evidence of the ground witnesses against Cain. And God pronounces the judgment of exile. Cain has fractured his relationship with his brother, and as a result he is sentenced to separation from his community. He will wander as a restless nomad.

Also his own security has become fragile. By the standards of ancient justice, his murder of his brother should trigger the duty of vengeance on the part of Abel’s family. In the spirit of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, Abel’s murder will require Cain’s death as well.

The duty of exercising that sentence will fall upon the next responsible male (the go’el) in Abel’s family. But Cain’s death will also trigger the duty of vengeance on the part of Cain’s family. And so a cycle of revenge will be launched. No one can predict when it will end, as we have seen time after time in history and currently see in many parts of the world today. The endless cycle of retaliation among Israelis and Palestinians is a good example, as was also the cycle of violence in Northern Ireland at the end of the last century.

Cain knows that and so does God. And here comes the remarkable note of grace in the story. By placing his mark on Cain, God seeks to block that cycle from beginning. Murder has been done, but more murder is not the answer. Reconciliation is the answer if Cain and Abel’s family can exercise forgiveness. In the case of Joseph and his brothers that reconciliation happens. But the story of Cain and Able offers no hint that it did in their case.


A note: One reason why the story raises questions for us that the author does not answer is that we insist on reading the story as actual history. I read it instead as a traditional tale that the editors of Genesis have incorporated into their narrative for theological reasons.


2 thoughts on “Family Dysfunction in the First Family

  1. Robert Wallace

    Thank you, Gordon for continuing to so excellently teach us. We look forward to each of your inspired viewpoints.

    Sent from Novi Wallace iPad



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