Cain: The Impossibility of “Walking Alone”

How do we prioritize contradictory yet equally rationalizable ways of acting? What aspects of our ignorance should be most alarming to us and why? Says who? It’s as if this story says, “you and I are prone to be misled in this sort of way, so look here before you forget where you are — and where you’ve come from.” Continuing the Genesis Series: The Bible and the Examined Life.

The exact cause of each character’s unhappiness is not explicit. However, all options seem to be open: self-pity, contempt for others, frustration with the environment, or cursing God himself. The Cain story follows Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden and suggests that the last option, discontentment with the Creator (or contempt for God), cannot be separated from the other options. After all, if God is God, all-powerful and all-knowing, then, we presume, God bears responsibility for everything else.

Yet, these stories invert that bottom-up perspective through a top-down rebuttal by begging the question, at the most concrete and individual level, “Why do you see and do what you see and do?” We’re oriented to our individuality and lonely place before God — apart from our philosophical tradition, tribe, denomination, or social circle. They present a God who asks us about us, inviting us to reevaluate our assumptions and judgements.

From the beginning, “knowing good and evil” (i.e., eating from the tree of good and evil) meant disunion with God. In Eden, Adam and Eve subordinated God’s will to their will. They rejected God to become their own judges. This story prompts the reader to see that the inherent anxiety in judging — and acting — is, at least in part, meant to remind them of their unique post-Eden (alienated) condition. They’ve been separated from their origin, which at its essence, is disunion with their Creator.

Rather than marvel at their privileged role — stewards of land, sea, and creatures — Adam and Eve sought the godhead itself. If images of grasping and ungrateful youth come to mind, you’re onto something. We all know something about privileged persons with an insatiable appetite for “more” because the pattern reoccurs in history (and Netflix), and, well — it takes one to know one. What’s this mean for us? Cain gives us a glimpse of what this — the continued story of man’s separation from God — looks like in individual concrete action (that began in heart and mind).

Ahead of killing Abel, we see Cain and Abel offering their sacrifices to God and learn that God had regard for Abel and his sacrifice, but he had no regard for Cain and his offering. The author records Cain’s response:

“So Cain was very angry and his face fell. The LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.’ Cain spoke to his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.” (Gen 1:5–8 ESV)

We can’t help but ask Cain, “what was so awful — so intolerable — why this reaction?” Was God’s regard articulated in a verbal judgment, or is that a figurative expression only made known to Cain by Abel’s being, disposition, intellect, or goods — all of which filled Cain with contempt (i.e., Abel was the golden-child, thriving, whereas Cain was just scarping by)? Whatever it was, the question we ask Cain stands above us, “why do you see it that way?” And, like Cain, we’re prone to be unable to hear — or believe — the words outside of our own head, namely, God’s words.

Two ways stood before Cain, manifest in literal, external, divine counsel (God literally speaking to him) and something else — never speaking aloud, but obviously loud enough in Cain’s own head. Cain was led by the latter. The final authoritative judgment for Cain is his volatile, cunning, defensive inner voice. We know a tragic fool when we see one because it takes one to know one — and that’s precisely the point of this story. God says, “this is you,” and we, God granting the strength to comprehend the depth of our ignorance, ask how this is true.

We mutter the same self-justifying phrases that humanity has always uttered. Behind the text, we hear Cain asking, “did God really say,” echoing the Serpent’s words to his mother. Rather than doubt his motives, he doubts divine ones. He trusts in his inner voice above the God who speaks outside of him. He determines that the external God cannot be trusted since their ways do not align. So Cain, through heart and action, sets out headlong on an azimuth opposite his Creator. Moreover, through his heartfelt actions, we learn what it means to even have “a god” in the first place.

To have “a god” is not merely a matter of sacrifice and sing-song, but mind and heart. Cain wasn’t an atheist in the formal sense, but he acted as if God did not exist. Does that mean he rejected God in the way we mean today, rejecting “belief” in God? Or, does his story point us to the fundamental reality that, regardless of our possession of God’s own words (like Cain), we (church or unchurched) are still prone to act as if God does not exist? We still fumble through life, and the author wants us to see the logical ends of our hearts’ plans through Cain before we get “what we wish for.”

The story does not end when Cain rejects divine counsel — “and that’s the rest of the story” — but describes an alternative leader, presupposing we are all under the influence of something. While rejecting counsel here, we simultaneously submit to counsel there. During Cain’s brooding, God warns Cain of this alternative counselor. Sin, God says, desires him — or actually, his desire is “against him,” like a lusting adversary, seeking to master and subdue him.

Sin is a misleader, here acting as a force that turns people from God by nourishing mistrust of his words and Godhead. To trust in God’s word, after all, would circumvent Sin’s purposes for Cain. So we’re led to believe that this “sin” fuels a narrative antithetical to trust in God. How this takes place is mysterious, but we know Cain is pulled between the external voice of divine counsel and sin, silent, presumably speaking within.

Hatching the plot, we can imagine Cain and sin in dialogue: “He’s only doing well at my expense — correct, you’re overworked and equally underutilized (says another),” “This is unfair, he might be better there, but I’m superior here — yes but things are actually rigged against your talents,” “The time for talking is over, they are beyond hope — definitely,” “I’ll show them all — we will” and so forth. According to our ancient text, “this is the way” of humanity alienated from their God.

Today we say, “take comfort, you’re never alone,” as if the only possible influence on us is positive, divine affirmation (i.e., moral therapeutic deism). The Cain story suggests something less trite: an innate influence (personified as sin) that does not desire our best interests — just us. Specifically, it desires mastery over us and independence from God. We talk of “ego” today in the way our ancient’s talked about sin — at least in part. The first is amoral and detached from any idea of God, the latter moral and specifically in relation to God. Our ancients, not in ivory towers, did not comfort themselves by softening the blow of “self-discovery” by detaching it from morality; instead, they intensified it.

The story points us to the most pressing aspect of our ignorance and discovery. It is not the depths of our ego’s influence over our lives. It is not merely our universal capability for impulsive murder. It is the fact that we see and do what we see and do precisely because of our alienation from our Creator. According to this story, our Cain-ness is due to a mistrust of God and a self-obsessed sickness called sin, granting us the superpower of self-justification. Spiritually speaking, we continue to see our captors as liberators and our Liberator (life-giver) as an oppressor.

If all of this is true, one implication seems to be that we need no help identifying how we’ve been “victimized.” A “false-helper” (sin) exists eager to encourage us already. Moreover, given the opportunity, we can and will identify or invent listless reasons for our unhappiness, bitterness, or spite: IQ, personality, physical appearance, job, leaders, parents, subordinates, injuries, environment, responsibilities, and so forth, not to mention the primary group identity categories we accept with primacy today.

All that said not to invalidate your suffering, but to suggest — as I believe the story suggests — that our eyes might fixed on the wrong object if and when we’re fueled by flashes of bitterness and envy. Though the “thou shall not covet” had yet to be spoken at this phase in the story — that moral precept was in effect. The Creator cares about the disposition of our heart and our neighbors. Cain stands as a reminder of the reality that, as good as it feels to justify our discontentment, that might not be what we need.

We crave a verdict over our lives— but, like Cain, we want it to come from our personally selected jury. Cain gives us a glimpse of the jury within ourselves, capable of exquisite (sin-assisted) self-justification and rationalization for our sentiments and behaviors. The people constructing the tower of Babel show us our temptation to gerrymander a jury, too, slipping into a crowd when we should be standing alone (the next article)…

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Joshua Armstrong

Joshua Armstrong

I read and write widely. Interests: theology, psychology, ethics, & leadership. Last 11 years: Special Operations Officer. Christian — Lutheran.

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