Have you ever heard the story of how humanity came to build cities, or learned to fashion metal out of stone, or how we came to play music? This all began long ago, before the flood, before the sons of God sired giants in the land, in the days when the Lord still took walks in the Garden of Eden at the hour of the evening breeze. In those days there was only the man Adam—which means earth, because he was formed from the earth—and his wife Eve—which means life, because she was the mother of all who live. Adam and Eve no longer lived in the Garden of Eden, but that is a different story, one too long and sad to tell today. They lived outside the Garden, tilling the ground and eating the crops that grew, just as the Lord had commanded them when they were exiled from the garden. Life was toil and sweat and dust, it was hard, but they were not alone. They faced life together and were soon blessed with a child.
It was a boy, the firstborn of all humanity, the first human being not fashioned by the hand of the Lord, but begotten, born from the will of humanity. And Eve, so proud of what it meant to bear life named him Cain—which means, I have made a man. Cain was the pride of his mother, and an honor to his father, because Cain took up the same work as his father, tilling the ground and growing crops for them to eat, just as the Lord had commanded them when they were exiled from the garden. But of course, Cain had never lived in the Garden of Eden, Cain only ever knew the world as it was never meant to have been.
Then Eve bore another son, and named him Abel—which means oblivion. Abel did not follow his father and his brother’s work, Abel did not till the ground as the Lord had commanded, but kept a flock of sheep instead. As a keeper of sheep Abel guarded the flock from animals like wolves and lions. Abel’s mother and father claimed that those flesh-ravenous and blood thirsty predators used to eat straw in the Garden of Eden. But, of course, Abel had never lived in the Garden of Eden, Abel only ever knew the world as it was never meant to have been.
And yet even so, even though the only lives they had ever known were toil and sweat and dust and danger, even so it was Cain and his brother Abel who first decided to bring offerings to the Lord. They were the first human beings to take some of what they had and bring it as an offering to the Lord. The Lord had never commanded the humans to bring sacrifices and indeed the Lord had no need of them. But it seems that Cain and Abel wanted to make an offering to the Lord. Cain brought an offering of crops, smelling of moist earth and dark root and sunshine. For his part, Cain’s brother Abel brought the fat of a lamb, smelling of blood and untimely death.
The Lord considered the offering Abel had brought. And the Lord looked with favor upon Abel and Abel’s offering, and Abel’s smile was like the sunrise. Then the Lord considered the offering that Cain had brought. And for Cain, and Cain’s offering, the Lord had no regard.
The Lord had no regard for the offering of crops that Cain had brought, the crops that Cain had broken his back tilling the ground to plant, the crops that for months Cain had sweated and toiled over, the crops that the Lord had commanded them to grow when they were exiled from the garden! The Lord had no regard for Cain or his offering of crops. And Cain was angry, and he turned his face away from the Lord, his countenance just a shadow now.
Then the Lord asked a fool’s question: Why are you angry Cain? Cain did not answer. Cain would not confess the truth of his anger to the Lord. In fact Cain did not speak to the Lord at all. Instead, Cain spoke to his brother Abel. Brother Abel, let us go out into the field. So Cain and his brother Abel went out into the field, amidst the crops that Cain had grown for which the Lord had no regard. Abel stood among his brother’s crops full and ripe and tall and ready to be cut. And Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him then and there, Abel’s blood soaking into the field where Cain grew the crops for which the Lord had no regard.
Then the Lord asked another fool’s question: Cain where is your brother Abel? But Cain would not confess the truth of what he had done to the Lord, instead he spat back a retort, even as he stood over his brother Abel’s body. I do not know where that keeper of sheep has gone! Am I brother’s keeper?
Then the Lord asked what was no fool’s question: 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. So when you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you any crops; you are cursed from the ground, you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth. You will never be able to grow crops again, ever.
It was only then, when the full weight and enormous consequences of what he had done came crashing down upon him, it was only then that Cain confessed and spoke truth to the Lord. Cain spoke truth now, begging the Lord, “my punishment is more than I can bear! Growing crops is all I know. How will I live? And with no place of my own I will be a wanderer and trespasser wherever I go, anyone who comes across me might kill me.”
And so the Lord had mercy on Cain and said, “No one will kill you Cain, neither human nor animal.” So the Lord put a mark on Cain. It was a mark more terrifying than a black widow spider’s hourglass, it was a mark more terrifying than a cobra’s hood as it readies to strike at your heel, it was a mark to turn your heart to water in your chest if you saw it because what it portended was no mere poison but the wrath of the Lord. No one would ever kill Cain, no one would ever even try, the terrible mark would see to that. And Cain would never forget what he had done, the indelible mark would see to that. He could live in peace, but he could never grow crops again. Growing crops was all Cain had known, and so Cain would have to learn to live a different way. And Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the Land of Nod, East of Eden.
Humankind grew and expanded, Cain and his descendents along with it. Cain and his descendent Jabal were the first to create tents and herd livestock. Cain and his descendent Enoch were the first to found cities and smelt metal out of rock. Cain and his descendent Jubal were the first to create flutes and lyres and music itself. But they would never grow crops. What had been done in that field on that bloody day could never be undone. And what had been done to brother by brother could never be forgotten. Cain was forever changed, forever marked by what he had done. He had to live in a new way.
Have you ever heard the story of how humanity came to build cities, or learned to fashion metal out of stone, or how we came to play music? It’s all the same story. It all started long ago, when someone who tilled the soil and grew crops committed a terrible sin, and the Lord showed them mercy, and drove them away from that way of life forever. And they had to find a new way to live, ways they would never would have considered had old ways of living not proven to lead surely on to death and misery. It is a story about the shape and form of the mercy of the Lord. It is a cross-shaped mercy, one that needs an old way of living to pass away, so that something new can take its place.