Neither Cain Nor Abel

Eggie (6) and I are reading Genesis 4. It’s the Cain and Abel story. [1] One of my favorites, it’s close to my heart, violent and edgy, emotionally deep and true.

And it lacks redemption. It’s a loveless story. Some people don’t like that, but I do. It’s just my preference.

Speaking of preferences, the story of Cain and Abel is a look at three characters who can’t work out the problem of preference. Cain, Abel and God can’t figure out how to have their preferences and still get along. In the end, they don’t solve this problem. It’s a tragedy; no one wins. Cain and Abel fight as rivals for a place in a world where there aren’t many vacancies.

In the epic biblical narrative, this early chapter is not where we’ll find deep affection and curiosity and flexibility. Instead it’s about how intensely we long for parental approval. And it’s about the rivalries that ensue when we don’t get it.

God, the parent figure, prefers Abel and rejects Cain. It’s a major theme in Genesis, this struggle to gain preference and the effects of losing it. Because being preferred is to be a legitimate person, someone who can make a contribution to the world because he has his parent’s support. It’s not what this kid does; it’s that he does it with his parent’s blessing. Without it, life lacks meaning; plans struggle to get traction; hopes and dreams don’t come to life; efforts aren’t sustained.


Now, back here in the 21st century, I have two sons, Eggie is the one I’m reading Genesis with. Jacs (9, pronounced: yacs) is his brother. They seem very different. The Egg is staunchly independent; Jacs is social. Eggie is an artist; Jacs wants to be a teacher. It’s probably the natural order of things, because nature likes balance.

We see this balance in families, where a couple divides the household labor, each becoming experts of their own domains, but imbeciles in their partner’s. And then they have kids, and the first child fills in the gaps that the parents left open, and then the next kid shows up, and there’s whatever’s left open, and this new kid fills in those gaps. And so on. It’s not magic. It’s logical. Nature loves balance, not because Nature is some wise and ethereal deity, but because each new thing that comes into existence logically fills vacuums in the existing system.

A downside to this balance is that we come to believe that we are these roles that we’ve adopted in order to fill nature’s vacuums.

Eventually, a family is populated by all these seemingly different types of individuals. Naturally each of us prefer some types better than others. We ally ourselves with those we prefer and become rivals with those we don’t. And even though we’re often tired of being the type of person we are supposed be, we don’t usually have the option to be anything other than what we defined early on. We’re stuck being the type of person we’ve always been, rivals with the type of person that the type of person we’ve always been has always been rivals with.


While Eggie and I are reading, a small rivalry starts to brew. The kids are, quite naturally, aware of it. They call it “the royal treatment” when one sibling is preferred over another. In this case, it’s Jacs who’s suspicious that the Egg is getting the royal treatment. He starts looking over. He wants to know what’s going on. It doesn’t take long for him to come over and read with us.

Along the way, they want to talk about Abel getting the royal treatment, and how that’s like people they know. And of course we get to questions about killing. We want to know if we would ever kill each other. Of course we all promise we will never kill each other. But what about other people? Would we ever kill anybody? At first, we each say that we wouldn’t kill anyone. None of us want to be Cain. The moral of the story seems really obvious and nobody wants to be the loser. But why do people kill each other? Self-defense seems like a good enough reason. But would we kill someone to get God’s blessing, because we wanted to be preferred by God?

I don’t know how to talk to them about these big ideas about figurative murder, sibling rivalries and people getting pigeonholed into self-limited types and roles. I don’t know how to explain that I think this is about how the way we think about people and God are illusions, that when we say “I am this but not that” and “God is this but not that” we are setting the stage for murder, because some will prefer this but not that, and that will believe it is not this, and rivalry, anger and killing will ensue.

I want to give them a Bible lesson on Galatians 3:28 as the solution, a verse that says that our most important differences do not exist. [4] And there doesn’t need to be any more rivalry, because there is neither Cain nor Abel for we are all one in Christ. This is the point.

Paul’s approach is not just to love them as they are, but also to love as they aren’t. To give them enough space to be different than they already are, than how you like them to be, and how you hate them to be. Genesis 4 and Galatians 3 are speaking to each other. We suffer, hate, murder, desire, reject, and die because of rivalry. We are saved by the end of rivalry.

But they’re kids. They’re just figuring out the first version of who they are. And as much as I’d like to skip ahead to some utopian universalist paradise where sibling rivalries can be side-stepped with loving openness, I know pain is inevitable. And that too is part of the illusion, that there is now rivalry and then later non-rivalry. It’s a hard thing to grasp, that there is both-and as well as neither-nor. And writing it down doesn’t necessarily make it easier, neither does talking about it. But thankfully, sometimes, it just happens, and there aren’t reasons or explanations, and we feel at one with the universe and still individually ourselves.


[1] A summary from last time: Cain and Abel are brothers. They are both farmers; Cain farms plants; Abel farms animals. They each give God a gift from their farms. God likes Abel’s gift, but rejects Cain’s. Cain is jealous and murders Abel. God punishes Cain by banishing him from his family.

[3] Figurative murder is referring to the idea of killing some aspect or role that a person embodies. It’s sort of like saying, “you assassinated my character” or “you’ve buried my love for you” or “the church killed the part of me that believed in God.”

[4] “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28 New King James Version


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