Shuck and Jive

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Sunday, October 02, 2011

O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- A Sermon

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 2, 2011
World Communion Sunday

Genesis 4:1-16

Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’ Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’

Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

So, Adam and Eve are the first humans.They are sent away from the garden. They have children, Cain and Abel. So far we have four people. Cain kills his brother and is sent away. Now we have three people, Cain and his parents, Adam and Eve. Then we read in verse, 4:17:
“Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch.”
Who was Cain’s wife?

Who were those people living in Nod and elsewhere that Cain feared would kill him? Where did they come from?
The fancy literary phrase for that is, “Oops, it’s a hole in the plot.”

A gaping hole. Few editors would let that pass today. There you have it, a literary problem right there in the Word o’ God.

Problems like this were noticed early by careful readers and answers were provided. Enter midrash, a form of storytelling that provided comment on the biblical text and filled in the holes. A famous form of midrash on this particular question is found in the Book of Jubilees. The Jubilees are Hebrew commentaries on the Torah. 15 scrolls were found at Qumran with the Dead Sea Scrolls collection. Scholars date them to 100 BCE or perhaps earlier.

Here is how Jubilees solves the problem of Cain’s wife. After Adam and Eve have Cain and Abel, we have the story of the murder, then the banishment of Cain, and stories of Cain’s descendants. Then Genesis tells us that Adam knew his wife and they had a third son, Seth. Jubilees tells us that in between the birth of Abel and Seth and before the murder of Abel by Cain,
"Eve gave birth to her daughter Awan."
Awan is not in Genesis or the Bible, but she is in Jubilees. You know what’s coming.

Jubilees tells us that
"Cain took his sister, Awan, and she bare him Enoch."
Keeping it in the family. It still doesn’t answer who those people were who wanted to kill Cain.

There is another hole. The legacy of Cain is civilization: cities, agriculture, tools, and music. From Seth’s line you finally get to Noah. Then everyone gets wiped out. So does all of that civilization get lost? Yet from the point of view of the account of Cain’s descendants, all of this isn’t lost. We read in 4:20-21:
“Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.”
The point of the story is that when you look around and see people using bronze tools and playing pipes and lyres that this is from whence they come. Cain. The plot hole is that they all are destroyed in the flood. The editors were stringing together re-tellings of ancient myths that they had inherited. We have a collection of “how it all came to be stories” linked together with less than careful editing.

These stories provide insight into the tellers’ understanding of what it means to be human, why we kill, why we feel loss, but the narrative string is nonsensical. It is like listening to opera--beautiful music with silly plots.
The wise reader allows liberties with these tellers of tales. Before I get to Cain and Abel, I want to say something about God. God functions in at least three ways.

The first way
is that God is a literary character. God speaks and God acts all within the context of a story. God’s character develops. A great book I recommend is by Jack Miles, God: A Biography. Miles’ book shows how the character, God, develops and changes through the course of reading the Hebrew Scriptures. This is the same for Jesus when we get to the Gospels. Jesus is a literary character.

In the story of Cain and Abel, God is a character in the story. He speaks to Cain, gives him warnings, asks him questions, puts a mark on him, and sends him away. By the time we get to the Joseph saga in the last part of
Genesis, God is offstage, working perhaps behind the scenes through hints in dreams. God is someone the characters talk about, but he doesn’t appear directly in the story. The first way that God functions is as a literary character in a text.

second way we speak about God is through theological and philosophical discussion. Theologians have written systematic theologies explaining the attributes of God. While this God might be based upon the God of literary text and story, the theologian’s God is not the same. The theologian’s God may be embarrassed by the God of text and story. This second way of thinking about God involves intellectual explanation of how people might conceive of God today.

third way we speak about God is as a symbol or name for the experience of the sacred. This is the God to whom we might pray or experience in our lives. This is the God of personal faith.

The God we find in hymns and liturgy is a bridge between these three ways of speaking of God, God as character in text, God as subject in theological reflection, God as personal experience of the sacred.
When we use God language we sometimes find ourselves speaking to each other unsure of which of the three ways we are speaking. Are we talking about my personal experience of the sacred, or theological theory, or the character God in the Bible?

For the sake of these sermons on the myths of
Genesis, I am going to speak about God as a character in the text. I am not talking about the God of the philosophers or theologians or the God of your personal experience, just the God of the text. The hymns and liturgy might speak to these other aspects of God. But I am going to try to stick to the character "God" in the story.

That said, I am also concerned with why the authors of these stories conceived of God and created the literary character, God, in this way. Some of this will be a critique. This is the God of Western culture and of patriarchal myth. This God invites and deserves criticism. This God is not the only way to be human or to conceive of ultimate truths or ethics.
These myths of patriarchy are dominant stories in our culture and they have pushed out other stories.

They are, nonetheless, our stories. We should know them. We ought to be consciously familiar with them, not just blindly to acquiesce to them, but to gain insights as to why those of us who are products of western culture and patriarchy do what we do.
I find myself haunted by these stories and by the God of these stories.

This is the God of competition, of favoritism, of free choice that isn’t really free. This is the God of obedience and punishment. If you haven’t heard many preachers speak like this, it is because this is a God who does not tolerate heresy, questioning, or critique. Yet, on the other hand, this is a God who admires the wrestler and will grudgingly bless after wounding. This is a male God created by males.

Pat Willard is doing a great study on the women of Genesis. It isn’t a long study. There aren’t many women:

Sarah’s slave, Hagar,
Rebekah’s slave, Deborah,
and their slaves, Zilpah and Bilhah,
Tamar the prostitute,
Potiphar’s wife who tries to seduce Joseph,
and Joseph’s wife, Asenath.

Cain’s wife, Awan, does not get a mention. You have to go to Jubilees for her.

Feminists, such as Phyllis Trible and her book
Texts of Terror, have done important work in criticizing these myths and the absolute claims these myths attempt to hold over everyone, women and men alike. But it isn’t all criticism for me. I am not sure I equate patriarchy with evil. I don’t know if it is all of one cloth, that you take it or leave it, let go of this God altogether or embrace him wholeheartedly. Before we issue judgment, let’s enter the story.
"Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have created a man with the help of the Lord.”
Cain is the firstborn. He does not come from his father’s rib, but from the womb of the feminine, the creative force of life.
"Next she bore Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground."
Two sons. Two brothers. The first family. We hear nothing of their childhood. We hear nothing except what they do for a living. That is how they are identified and that is how men will be identified through the patriarchal myths. Who are you? When men talk to each other, it doesn’t take long until the conversation leads to the question,
“What kind of work do you do?”
That is your value. That is how the God of patriarchy values you, or devalues you. Women are bearers of children and men are tillers and shepherds.

“What do you do for a living?” we ask, checking out the competition.

There is competition in these ways of earning a living. We compete for resources. Don’t tell me our wars are about freedom or democracy. They are about stuff. They always have been. We see this creatively pointed out in Rudyard Kipling’s poem that we heard earlier in the service.
Yet the competition for stuff, for resources, money, and power may also be a competition for something more, something deeper. It is competition for honor and for value.

If the myth is true that when the eyes of Eve and Adam were opened they saw that they were naked, they were seeing their shame. This is the shame of not measuring up, of not being valued, of not being OK. Are we born with this shame? Do we spend our lives in an attempt to cover it with success, with love, with what?
Adam and Eve attempt to cover their shame with their creativity. They sew fig leaves. God clothes them with animal skins. God provides the cover for our shame, says the myth.

Cain, the tiller of the soil, knows where he must go to cover his shame, to be valued, to be honored. Cain wants to please this God.

In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground,
Cain is the first to bring an offering to God. Why? Perhaps he wants to honored and valued. He wants to be OK.
Do you love me now?!
Abel sees what older brother is doing and he catches on quickly.
…and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.
There is a new book out that was featured this past week in Time Magazine. The author is Jeffrey Kluger. His book is The Sibling Effect. The thesis of the book is that, yes, parents do have favorites, even though they don’t admit it. This favoritism does have effects on siblings.

I remember hearing the story of Cain and Abel in Sunday school. I remember thinking this was terribly unfair of God. I remember telling my mother about it. The rule in Sunday school is that you always have to defend God no matter what God, the character, does. God slaughters the Amalekites. They deserved it. They were bad. She brushed my concern away by trying to tell me that Abel’s offering was better. Cain should have been a shepherd like his brother.

I always wish I could fix things like my brother. My brother can fix anything and he always knows the right gift to give. He makes my parents happy. I don’t fix things. I preach sermons.

What is it you do for a living again?
Cain should have been a shepherd like his brother. If he couldn’t be, he should suck it up knowing that he’ll always be second best.

So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
We know that look, don’t we? I see it on the faces of angry mobs. I see it the strut of the guy who wore his guns when President Obama came to speak. I see it drivers on the freeway. This anger is just under the surface.
The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Cain could not. Can any of us? If we admit it, we know Cain. But we don’t admit it. We put on the mask of niceness. We pretend that we would not give in. We would not open that door and give ourselves over to what lurks there.

This is peacemaking Sunday. We all know about making peace and being nice.

But if we admit it, we know the taste of revenge. It is sweet before it goes sour.

It isn’t just that life is unfair. In a world of chance, that happens. I can live with that. The myth of patriarchy says that God makes it so. God chooses Abel over Cain, not fate, not chance, God. That is harder to take.

We know the rest of the story. Cain kills his brother. The Lord returns and asks Cain where his brother has gone.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Great question. The answer is yes. It has to be yes, no matter what. Regardless of favoritism, regardless of a fickle and unfair God, you must master your rage. The line has to be drawn somewhere. If we have any hope for peace in this world, we have to say yes to that.

God sends Cain away but puts a mark on him, a mark of protection. Cain will not find honor from God, so he creates. The legacy of Cain is civilization.
Cain knew is his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city.
That is what patriarchy does with its rage. It builds civilization. All these great buildings and great fortunes were built and made by people who didn’t feel loved. Find the successful man or woman and underneath you uncover someone who is still trying to please mom and dad, or God. From Cain’s rage comes agriculture, civilization, bronze and iron tools, and music.

I wonder as we celebrate peacemaking Sunday, what we might learn from Cain. He couldn’t squelch his rage. He didn’t know how to master it, to hold it down, to put a lid on it. But if the stories of his descendants shed any insight, he could create with it.

Maybe peacemaking is not about being nice or pretending that we don’t have the rage of Cain within us or that if we do, we can silence it. Maybe peacemaking is admitting the rage within and using its energy to build something new.



  1. Hmmm. . . the end product of our rage at not being hunter-gatherers or shepherds is civilization? is our creativity? Hmmm.. .

    John Dominic Crossan says that the "normalcy of civilization" is its inherent injustice because as civilization "progresses" justice becomes retributive (payback) instead of distributive -- radical sharing.

    Jesus came (according to a rewrite of tradition) to restore God's covenant (with Able??) of distributive justice-compassion.

    (I add -compassion to justice, in order to distinguish retributive payback from radical fairness. Matt Fox does the same).

    Hmmm . . .

  2. There is the mixed bag thing.

    Is civilization good or bad?

  3. Sea, a longer answer.

    I know what you are saying about Crossan. I have used his analysis often. Cain represents agriculture and the inherent violence and injustice of civilization. I talk about that often in our own time when I talk about peak oil and infinite growth and the environmental stresses due to the unjust and unsustainable industrial civilization on the verge of its own implosion.

    But I guess when I preached this sermon I had a soft spot for Cain.

    The legacy of Cain has given us nuclear weapons and McNuggets. But it also gave us Beethoven and the Hubble telescope.

    I am going to miss it too.