Cain Within

Abel-Camille_Felix_Bellanger-IMG_8279Last week, I tried to show the value of allegory in biblical interpretation. The account of Cain and Abel seems to be a “straightforward” story of one brother killing another in a jealous rage. But what is the “deeper” story — the story for us and our lives. Isn’t it something more than: “Don’t kill your brother”? Certainly.

The story of Cain and Abel is the first outworking of the curse and promise of Genesis 3:15,

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring [literally, “seed”] and her offspring [“seed” again]; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

There will be the seed of the serpent (those who oppose God) and the seed of the woman (those who love God). In naming her first son, Eve proclaims, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” Cain sounds like the Hebrew word for “gotten” and that seems apropos, since Cain tries to steal Abel’s honor and blessing when God rejects Cain’s sacrifice. Abel’s name, in fact, sounds like the Hebrew word for “vapor.” The names indicate their destiny and their character.

In the following chapters we see the line of Cain: building cities, living for themselves, and rejoicing in their increasing violence (the seed of the serpent). Since Abel has died, his place as the seed of the woman is assumed by Seth (which sounds like the word “appointed”). Seth’s line is listed in chapter 5 — the great list of men who lived almost 1000 years, yet still died, suffering the punishment of all men. That line includes exceptional Enoch, who “walked with God and did not die” — proof of his deep love of God.

Then finally, in the first few verses of chapter 6, we find the “sons of God” (line of Seth, seed of the woman) marrying the “daughters of men” (line of Cain, seed of the serpent). In fact, they chose their own wives (which seems harmless enough to our convention) —those whom they find attractive, not those of whom God approves. In fact, they “see” and “take” and “choose” for it seems “good” to them. (These are the same words used of Eve’s temptation with the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree represents man choosing for himself what he wants and how he wants it. It is a rejection of God’s plan and God’s destiny.)

Thus we begin to see the allegorical meaning: there are different lines of people—not by race or gender or nationality — but two lines: the line who loves God and the line who reject Him.

And — here’s the deepest and tragic truth — this is true within each of us! One time we are seeking God, another we reject Him and his commands. And we do the same thing the next day. And the next.

For in each of us lurks Cain within.


Painting is “Abel” by Camille Felix Bellanger, 1875