Sunday, May 16, 2010


"Let's go out to the field." It's what Cain said to Abel to set the stage for murder.

The story of Cain and Abel is that much worse because of this treachery, this evil plot, this premeditation in the context of a relationship between brothers. Brothers -- and sisters -- are supposed to watch your back, to defend your honor, to bear your burdens. As a younger brother, I imagine Abel's rush of excitement -- no matter how old he was -- when his big brother invited him to go along to the field. As an older brother, my stomach churns with the thought of betraying trust in this horrific way.

I think what my siblings and I have been through. My brothers and I hunt together. One night in the Colorado Rockies I was having trouble finding my way down a mountainside as night fell. I had stayed too long on stand watching for elk in a high meadow, and every trail I followed down brought me to the top of a 30-foot cliff. I knew if I couldn't get down, my brothers would be out in the middle of the night looking for me. Many times we have hunted bears together, and I can tell you there is great comfort in having brothers along on the trail of a wounded bear through thick brush in the middle of the night. We take care of each other.

It's what brothers and sisters do. We have cooked for each other and cleaned up after each other. We have worked together off and on most of our lives. We laugh together and tell stories and muse together to find the collective wisdom of where the deer are moving in the morning, or how best to work a herd of cows. We have sat in the pews together at worship services and at too many funerals. We pass on hand-me-down clothing and favorite books.

How can Cain turn on Abel? God tells Cain before the murder, "Sin is crouching at your door." Cain turns his back on his bond with his brother and turns toward his own desires, his own fears, his own insecurities, his own bitterness. This is what sin does -- it turns us from God, from our brother, toward ourselves. People sometimes ask how the Bible can teach that even babies are sinful -- they're so cute, so adorable. But have you ever met anyone more self-centered than an infant? When we indulge our sin, we become more infantile, more childish. The sin that crouches at our door demands a pacifier. In Cain's case, pacifying his own selfishness meant killing his brother. It's a dark story, one of the darkest in the Bible, which is full of unpleasant stories.

But it is not primarily a story of murder. It is primarily a story about selfishness. And if we see it in that light, it hits much closer to home. How often have I turned toward my own self-indulgence rather than stepping out of my way for someone else? How often do I not see the needs of another person because I am so preoccupied with myself? I am not much different from Cain.

There is a Jewish story about a rabbi who asked his students if they could define at what point night gives way to day. One student replied, "When you can tell a cat from a fox?" No. Another said, "When it is light enough to tell a chicken from a duck." No. Finally the students ran out of ideas, and the rabbi stated, "It is daybreak when you look into the face of a man and recognize that he is your brother -- for until that moment it is still night."

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