As an only child for my first decade, I’m not sure I really understood sibling rivalry. When my little red-headed sister popped out, I thought she was cool. And she, I think, idolized me as her big brother. But I’m pretty sure it’s not always this way. Sometimes, it is exactly the opposite. As it was at my aunt’s house. The same two boys who led me into neighborhood baseball games and explorations of the fields also fought with each other. Really, really fought.
I remember the build-up before a fight. That atmosphere of tension and provocation. It was like reason had leaked from their brains and had been replaced by adrenaline. Whatever was between them was toxic, enraging. Like two gamma-irradiated Hulks, each insult and denial seemed to swell their fury until it all broke loose. The thudding of punches landing, the grasping, panting wrestle for dominance, the fall to the concrete, and the eventual crying and shouted accusations when a parent arrived on the scene. It was ugly. As an introverted only child, it left me flash-frozen with fear, dipped and rigid with terror. And more often than not, they would turn to me as the witness to who said what, who was wrong and who started it all. I could never understand how this happened. Did they think I was training to be an arbitrator in cases of assault or domestic violence? When it was over though, it was never really over. Just postponed for another day, another cage match in the basement.
I don’t really know why those boys fought so desperately, why they didn’t just walk away. Looking back, I suspect that there was favouritism and jealousy at the root of it. Maybe a sense of entitlement in one. Insecurity, in the other. I don’t really know. I do know that it is not a new scenario. That variations on this theme have been going on since the beginning. The tragedy of Cain and Abel is the prototypical story of all toxic sibling relationships. It’s a side effect of being bombarded by sin. But this familial dysfunction starts not in rebellion to God, but in the very act of worship. The very place where there should be self-reflection. Peace. Humility.
Each brother brings an offering to God. Abel’s sacrifice is accepted. Cain’s isn’t. It makes me wonder what that looked like. How anyone would recognize the divine rejection. Did the wood not catch on fire? And what was wrong with Cain’s sacrifice? I’ve heard people talk about this, confident that it was because Cain didn’t offer an animal sacrifice, or that he didn’t give from the first intake of the harvest. Cain failed to have faith, failed to give God what is due to him. Part of me wants to stick with this, but these answers seem to dance around the text. They seem superficial in relation to the heat and anguish of the event. This is not tax evasion. This is murder and rage. Rejection and fear. It is so deeply visceral. A horrendous act. I don’t think I’m supposed to scuff about at the surface of the text. I’m suppose to climb down into it. Feel it. Because it’s what might be inside of me. It’s what could erupt if I’m pushed hard enough.
I force myself to be realistic here. Abel’s death doesn’t just happen in a minute of unguarded emotion. It is calculated, planned. What comes out of Cain is murderous. Magma hot anger frozen into calculated thought. Wielded and acted upon. Buried in dirt. And nobody does that unless they are a hardened murderer or a raging nut-case. Nobody normal plans a murder because they are bored and have nothing better to do. No one lures a sibling into a field to kill them without having a long-standing hatred for them, a history of conflict. Murder is not the normal response to another’s success. But in light of his own failure, Abel’s success does propel Cain to take this extreme step. I don’t know why God rejects Cain’s offering, but I know that there is already murder in Cain’s heart. Before the moment of worship comes, Cain is already primed.
This is an excerpt from Gordon Harris’ new book: Oriented. It’s a gloriously written book on the first 11 chapters of Genesis. And Gordon is a master at his craft. This book was a reminder to my lazy soul, to dig deep into scripture and re-discover the meatiness of Genesis. Plus, reading it made me feel intelligent and spiritual. I highly, highly recommend you invest in this gem. A book full of confessions, engaging anecdotes and beautiful words.
‣ Check out Gordon’s Website
‣ Click here to: Pre-Order the Book