3. The Correction of Cain

PART TW0: Lessons through People

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 3. The Correction of Cain

Gen 4:11,12   Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

 A Strange Story: I think I often say that I am sure we frequently just scan our Bible reading and fail to think about what we have just read.  The story about Cain is strange on a number of levels and perhaps not easy to understand in its outcome.  The story is often taught so we may be familiar with the basics of it. Two sons of Eve, Cain and Abel. Although God has shut them out of the Garden they nevertheless bring offerings to Him, presumably on the teaching of their parents. Abel’s offering appears whole-hearted, Cain’s half-hearted, and as a result God was blessed with Abel’s but not Cain’s.  This upsets Cain, but God challenges him over it and warns him against giving way to a bad attitude that might take him into doing something bad. Cain pays little attention to this warning and kills Abel. We have the Bible’s first murder.

Integrity of the Record: If we may pause for a moment, this is one of those instances that gives me confidence that the Bible is inspired by God. If you think about this, if this was merely of human origin, the writer would have given a different outcome but instead we have an outcome that raises questions, certainly at first sight anyway, questions about God as a Judge. Why do I say that? Well, later on in the Law, the application is ‘an eye for an eye’ etc. and murderers forfeit their lives. But what do we have here?

The Judgment on Cain: All we have, as we see in our verses above is a ‘curse’, that means that Cain will no longer be able to farm the land and all he can do is wander the world, presumably looking to work for others. This upsets him: “Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” (v.14) He sees being sent away as being sent away from God’s presence, which is interesting in that mankind has been excluded from the most intimate encounter with God in the Garden as we saw previously. The follow on from that, he feels, is that he will be vulnerable, and others could kill him.

God’s Protection: But it is not going to work like that: “But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” (v.15,16) Now this is the outcome I find strange.

The depth of Cain’s Guilt: Not only have we seen Cain kill his brother, but it clearly is seen as premeditated: “Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” (v.8) i.e. he had in mind what he intended to do, which makes it murder and not manslaughter (an accident). Moreover when God banishes him, he shows no remorse but simply complains, as we saw above. In my eyes, he should be put to death, so what am I missing? I find I empathize with the idea that the Lord spoke out: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.(v.10) i.e. justice cries out against you. It is the cry of the martyrs in Rev 6:10, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Justice demands wrong-doers be confronted and dealt with. We hear it in the child appealing against his brother or sister to their mother, “It’s not fair!” and we feel it when one close to us his harmed by a criminal.

So why? So why does God NOT condemn Cain to death? We are not told, so we must speculate along with all other commentators. First, we may suggest that, as this is the first death after the expulsion from the Garden, it may be that God is making a point for the rest of history, not that we can get away with sin, but that He looks for a way out for us that is a way of grace, a way for redemption to deliver us into something better. Second, the way for Cain gave him space to come to his senses and to repentance, as he wandered the earth. We aren’t told that he ever did, but the opportunity was there. Third, he traveled with an awareness of the grace of God over him for the rest of his life, reminding him of the possibilities open to him that were there because God had declared protection for him; he only lived because of that protection.

And more? In verses 13 and 14 where Cain protests, “My punishment is more than I can bear,” commentators note that the Hebrew could be construed as in the Septuagint, “my sin is too great for forgiveness,” but reject that as not being supported by the text. Have our translators opted for the easy path? Did, in fact, Cain realise something of the awfulness of what he had done, making the judgment of God here even more amazing? If they had opted for that rendering, they would have steered us more clearly towards thinking about this incredible act of grace, which to the legalistic mind makes little sense.

 Jesus Parable: We find this same struggling with God’s grace (that looks for redemption – and the rest of this series is about how God takes sinners and makes something more of them!) in Jesus parable of the workers in the vineyard (Mt 20). There the owner (God) employed men at intervals throughout the day, but when accounting came, paid them all the same. Those who were employed at the beginning of the day complained but the point was that the owner didn’t have to employ any of them, and so when he did it was an act of grace.

God’s End Goal: You can’t measure grace and so wherever we come across God’s redemption – and we will see it with many people and in many different forms – it is always a free gift. We dare not demand justice for our lives for that would be too painful, the condemnation would be too great; instead we gratefully accept the mercy of God that comes in the form of His grace – forgiveness AND blessing.

Transformation is the end goal and in the Christian life we are being changed, one degree at a time, into the likeness of Jesus: “And we all, …. are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor 3:18) He doesn’t just forgive on the basis of the Cross, He blesses us with a new life, a new identity and new power.

Cain at the end: The story of Cain in Genesis ends in a surprising way: “So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.  Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch.” (Gen 4:16,17) Wow! Cain settled, he had a wife and children and builds a community (a city). If that isn’t a turn up for the book, what is? Cain had the opportunity to change and he clearly took it.  We, too, have the opportunity to change as we live out the years the Lord gives to us. May we not squander them.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, I understand that you deal with each one of us uniquely but whatever you do in respect of us it is for good, to redeem us from what is not good in our lives to something better. Help me value my days and look for your good in them.

51. Two Mountains

Meditations in Hebrews 12:  51.  Two Mountains

Heb 12:18,22  You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire…. but you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem

The flow: This book is full of analogies and now we come to yet another one. It is difficult at first sight to see the continuation, how this flows on from what he has just said but in the verses we have recently been considering he was speaking about discipline from God which only showed we are sons (v.5-11), then there was a call to strengthen up (v.12,13) and then some practical exhortations (v.14-17), at the heart of which there is the emphasis on the need for God’s grace (v.15) in order to be holy (v.14) and not to demean our spiritual heritage (v.16,17).

Two ways of looking: Now depending on how you think about God, those verses can either appear bad (painful discipline, needing to be holy, hard God who calls you to account) or good (God treating as sons who he loves and for whom He desires strength and blessing in the Christian life.) It depends very much on our starting position, what we think about God, and so perhaps that is why our writer now gives two pictures of how God has been revealed, in the Old and then New Testaments.

Sinai NOT our experience: Verses 18 to 21 remind us of some of the aspects of the experience Israel had with the Lord as an embryonic nation but says that this is NOT what WE have come to: “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” There was mount Sinai, scary signs, and a trumpet blast and a warning to not even touch the mountain and even Moses found it scary. But that is NOT our experience. It was their because they were in the early stages of learning about God but in our case we are a long way down the path of revelation with the whole Old Testament, and now much of the New in existence when this writer was writing.

Our Experience, Mount Zion: No, our experience is something quite different: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (v.22-24)  We need to look at the various elements of this passage.

God’s home: A threefold description of the dwelling place of God which perhaps is more easily understood in reverse: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” (v.22a) The city of the living God – the dwelling place where the heart and life of all existence dwells. It is a heavenly city, a place of fellowship and community, the reality of the dwelling place that had for years been considered to be the temple on one of the hills of earthly Jerusalem, Zion.  But that had been like a temporary stopping place for God’s presence which had slowly departed prior to the Exile, as seen in the book of Ezekiel. But we haven’t come (notice the verb indicates this has already happened  – ‘have come’) to a temporary place but the eternal dwelling or place where God can be found.

Home of the angels:  “You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly.” (v.22b) Wherever there is revelation of the heavenly throne room, there are angels. Be under no illusion, we have access to the heavenly throne room, for the moment purely by the Spirit in prayer or worship, but one day in reality. This is our home, our ultimate destination.

Home of the church: “to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.” (v.23a) Again revelations of heaven in scripture show there are people there. This is the destination for the church, all those born again, known from before the foundation of the world and whose names are recorded there.

Home of God the Judge:  “You have come to God, the judge of all men.”  (v.23b). We’re on a repeat track now, a form of Hebrew parallelism. We’ve already noted that it is God’s home, but it is also the place where He holds court , where He judges and  holds all mankind accountable.

Home of the redeemed:  “to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.” (v.23c) But it is not the place of condemnation, it is the place of revealing the saints, all the believers who have received Jesus as their Saviour, who have come to perfection, completion in the work of God. it will be a place of great joy.

Home of the Redeemer:  “to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (v.24) Jesus comes bringing in the new covenant sealed with his own blood, bringing about a completed work.

The blood of Abel?  Abel was slain by Cain and God said to Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out” (Gen 4:10) i.e. it cries out for justice. Jesus said, “Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.” (Lk 50:51) i.e. Abel was the first human being to have his blood shed by violent means, the first to cry out for justice. The Hebrews writer writes of him, he “still speaks, even though he is dead” (Heb 11:4),  and so there is a sense whereby his spilled blood continues to cry out to God for justice to be applied, i.e. it demands for justice to be done, but, we now read, the blood of Christ “speaks a better word”  The Message version puts it well: The murder of Jesus, unlike Abel’s—a homicide that cried out for vengeance—became a proclamation of grace.” And the Living Bible puts it, “ Jesus himself, who has brought us his wonderful new agreement; and to the sprinkled blood, which graciously forgives instead of crying out for vengeance as the blood of Abel did.”  Abel’s blood demanded justice, Jesus blood brought mercy and grace and forgiveness through justice being satisfied.

And so: We started out by saying that it is possible to take some of the earlier verses negatively and so that is why the writer comes with these explanations. Everything about these verses shouts, “God loves us, Jesus died for us, he’s for us, all so we could share eternity with him in the most wonderful of experiences.”  Hallelujah!

5. Faith or Formality

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 5.  Faith or Formality

Heb 11:4  By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.

Cain and Abel have always raised questions in the mind. Why did God accept Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s offering? That is the fundamental question mark behind their story and in a sense, at first sight anyway, everything else flowed from that, But was that how it was, I wonder?

“Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.” (Gen 4:2-5)  Note first of all Cain brings ‘some of the fruits of the soil’ which has a somewhat casual feeling about it. Yes, the word ‘some’ is also used of Abel but here it is completely different because he is bringing what would have been considered the best portions of meat from more than one of his animals. ‘Some’ of the firstborn indicates more than one, so Abel’s gift is both high quality and abundant or generous. God looks at the heart and is blessed by what He finds in Abel but is distressed by what He finds in Cain. Indeed Cain’s heart is revealed in his response which was anger. Cain becomes synonymous with those with wrong hearts against God (Jude 11) while Abel is named among the people of faith who come to God with good hearts as noted in our verse above.

We may also look at what follows in the Cain and Abel story for the Lord warns Cain not to let a bad attitude prevail (Gen 4:6,7) and yet Cain goes and kills Abel. A bad heart doesn’t just start one minute; it is there long-term. Everything points to Cain coming with an attitude that is lacking. We don’t know what it was that get the two of them bringing an offering to God but Cain seems to come out of duty or formality, something he ought to do. (Perhaps Adam or Eve had suggested it).

Abel on the other hand comes with a wide-open heart that likes the idea of giving to God so comes generously and so when the writer here speaks of him being a man of faith, we are considering heart issues. Faith comes out of an open heart. If you are a critical, even judgmental sort of person you are unlikely to be a faith person. If you are someone of low self-esteem, you are unlikely to be a faith person. A faith person comes with an open heart that does not judge others or be critical of others because they are aware of their own weaknesses and propensities to getting it wrong. They will be a person who has realised the love and goodness of God towards them and surrendered to that and will know that in Christ they have all things and can do all things, so when a faith opportunity is presented they leap at it.

Do we see something fundamental here? Faith doesn’t come at odd moments; it is there as the outworking of a heart that at some point in life surrendered to God, facing the reality of their own failure and receiving Jesus’ work on the Cross on their behalf. Yes, they were born again and the presence of the Holy Spirit now indwelling them opens a whole new world of possibilities. For the apostle Peter it was the opportunity to walk on water but for all the disciples it was the opportunity to get involved with the work of Jesus and see people healed when they prayed and demons be cast out when they commanded (e.g. Lk 10:17)  These were acts of faith but they came out of lives that had first responded positively to Jesus call to “Follow me.” Once they did that there was a whole heart change (they were not perfect) that opened up a new world, the kingdom of God on earth!

So the starting point is that Abel is a different heart person to Cain and so when he brings his offering it is an act of faith: he’s heard the instruction to give to God and so he does it gladly, presumably desiring to bless God, and God spoke well of him. His actions were right and proper and good and therefore as acts in response to a heart moved for God, they were acts of faith. The message version of this verse is interesting, particularly the first part: By an act of faith, Abel brought a better sacrifice to God than Cain. It was what he believed, not what he brought, that made the difference. That’s what God noticed and approved as righteous. After all these centuries, that belief continues to catch our notice.”

The Message emphasises that it was what was going on in Abel’s mind (and heart) that was all-important – it was God directed, with God in mind, aiming to please God. Cain was focusing on the act – I suppose I had better do this.  He didn’t have good feelings about God; he was more caught up in what he felt he ought to do.  Every second of getting the stuff out of the ground and bringing it was an effort. Formality and duty are like that, but faith is a flow that fulfils and feels good – because it is! he was commended as a righteous man.”   Faith is a righteous expression.

I admit to not liking the end of the Message version’s v.4, it doesn’t seem strong enough. Our verse above read, “by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.”   How about J.B.Phillips interpretation of that ending: And though Cain killed him, yet by his faith he still speaks to us today.” In other words his actions, even though he is now dead and gone, still demonstrate to us what faith is all about. It isn’t about formality, it isn’t about duty, it is about an open-hearted response to God that is good. If we feel, ‘I ought to be a person of faith’, we’ve blown it from the start, we’ve missed the point. Faith is what flows from an open heart for God when it catches the word from God, whether it be a quiet prompting of the heart or a screamingly loud message through preaching or prophecy, and responds with that same good open-heartedness. How wonderful!


8. No Murder

Meditating on the Wonders of the Ten Commandments:  8. No Murder

Ex 20:13   You shall not murder.

This sixth command is the first of the short and to the point ones that now follow.  It does not say you shall not kill; it uses the word ‘murder’, premeditated, purposeful killing of another person. It is what Cain did to Abel: Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.” (Gen 4:8) This sixth command does not spell it out and does not specify what should happen to a murderer, it leaves that to other parts of Scripture.

In the Law there is a distinction between murder and manslaughter: “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate. But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death.” (Ex 21:12-14) In a day where absolutes appear a thing of the past, these laws come with a refreshing clarity: You will NOT murder, i.e. murder is wrong!

We should perhaps note that the indicators of God’s attitude towards the taking of life came before the Law of Moses, which we are noting was instituted in Exodus and has been since the primary law source for Israel. For example: “for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” (Gen 9:5,6)

Note:  i) A respect demanded for human life, ii) The reason for that is that humans are made in the image of God and iii) Whoever sheds the blood of a human being shall have his blood shed. The value of life thus seems a high priority and the reason for that is not some utilitarian reason such as ‘it makes for a stable society’ but that we are God’s design, made in his image and precious to Him. That creates a far deeper and more meaningful reason for the sanctity of life that anything else.

Thus, although modern society is easy going about abortions, killing of terrorists, going to war to repulse an invader etc. if we had the heart of God we would see every violent death (no doubt including abortions) as a tragedy. Sometimes they are necessary – as in the case of saving the life of an expectant mother, of shooting terrorists as the only way of saving possibly hundreds of others, and of going to war to repulse an invader – but nevertheless we should grieve over ever life lost violently. It may be that because generally we do not feel like this, we have opted to do away with the death penalty completely and we allow abortions for a variety of social reasons. ‘Tragedy’ is not part of our modern vocabulary unless it appears on stage.

I have commented in various places before that the stringent requirements of having at least two reliable witnesses and then the death penalty imposed by people who knew the guilty party by stoning, would make it such an horrific event that it would rarely happen.

Compare that society with ours today. Compare that society to London where the media have been excited that the murder numbers per annum in recent years appears to have fallen at last below three figures. Before that we were talking about well over a hundred murders a year in London. In New York they similarly rejoice over falling figures which are now down to a little over 300 a year. In 2011/12 there were 640 murders/homicides in the UK and this appears to have fallen to a little over 500 a year in subsequent years. In the USA in the middle part of the first decade of the 21st century murders fell from a total of over 15,000 to just under 13,000. That is still a lot of murders. And God says, “You shall not murder.” Murder, therefore appears a symptom of a godless society, a society that is not good at conveying moral requirements, a troubled society.

In these years when the media and authorities are focusing us on the start, progress and no doubt completion of the First World War, it is easy to get caught up with the story, the facts and the figures and, yes, in a measure the horror. Behind this sixth command is an inherent respect for human life that comes from heaven. When you study and read about the initial combatants of the First World War, and then later the Second World War, not only were the aggressive leaders guilty of mismanagement but above that they were guilty of a callous indifference to the death of men.

I have never heard of the Kaiser, or generals on both sides being accused of murder and yet the callous and thoughtless sending thousands upon thousands of men to their guaranteed deaths must surely in the courtroom of heaven be just that.  What did we say earlier was the definition of murder?  The premeditated, purposeful killing of another person.  The folly of sending the cavalry into the arms of death by machine gun has been possibly one of the greatest examples of wilful stupidity and callous indifference to the loss of life recorded in history.

The word ‘negligence’ cannot even be applied because that would almost give an air of respectability to it. Hitler’s use of the gas ovens even eclipses that and every person who joined in bringing that about was guilty of wanton murder. Today it is Jihadist terrorists. If a terrorist dies at the hands of interrogators who tortured him, it is still murder, slow, prolonged and possibly regretted, but still murder. All those people claimed they had reasons for it, but in the light of history and before the throne room of heaven, all such deaths are pure and simple murder and God says, “You shall not murder!” and all such people face the most serious accounting in heaven.

Why have I titled these studies, ‘The Wonder of the Ten Commandments’? Because they stand out like beacons in a sin-sick world and declare THIS is God’s will and if you disregard it – or try to excuse it – you WILL be held accountable. The clarity of these commands is simple and sharp and however much we wriggle to explain away our behaviour, unless it is the only option in a fallen world, we will be held accountable. Remember, Christian, Jesus said murderers will be liable to judgment – but so also will those who harbour anger against their brother (Mt 5:21,22). The inner attitude is wrong and it can develop from anger to revenge, to spite, to scheming, to who knows what. Don’t go down the slippery path. Get God’s grace not to go a further step down it. Do not murder – in reputation as well as literally.