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.

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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.

31. Avoid Evil

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  31. Avoid Evil

1 Thess 5:21,22   Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.

Now this third and final instruction may sound so obvious that we might be tempted not to consider it, but it is the other side of the coin. You may have heard the expression, “The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing.” The implication behind these two verses almost seems to say, hold firmly onto good or evil may creep in.  To say avoid something means to steer clear of it . Now that can mean that we need to keep away from evil when we see it before us, or be careful that evil doesn’t make its way into your life.

I always remember an illustration of going too close to evil given by a preacher. He said that some people are like a cow he saw grazing in a field and it had its head under the bottom strand of an electric fence. It was just seeing how far it could go without getting electrocuted! The wise Christian doesn’t do that but steers well clear of the fence. Now I am not one who usually says you shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that but where there are places or situations in life where you could be led astray, my advice is stay away! Samson was a man who thought he could stretch his boundaries with God and look where he ended up (Jud 16:30)   Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, had the opportunity to capitalise out of his master’s work and ended up with leprosy (see 2 Kings 5:20-27). He allowed himself to be led into evil.

Perhaps we should pause and consider, ‘what is evil’ and what does ‘evil’ mean? A dictionary definition includes, “anything morally bad or wrong; wickedness; depravity; sin; anything that causes harm, pain, misery, disaster.” So we then have to ask what is ‘wrong’ and we have to say anything that is contrary to God’s character and His design for Creation i.e. anything that is contrary to His perfect will. Good is that which conforms to His character and His perfect will. Now because there is freedom of will in angels and humans, behaviour is possible that is contrary to His character and to His perfect will, and THAT is evil. So murder is evil, theft is evil, adultery is evil, lying is evil. Anything that is Sin is evil.

Evil is expanded upon a little in the Law: “if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God…..” (Deut 4:25) ‘Corrupt’ here means being changed from a good thing into a bad thing, being changed from a faithful people to an unfaithful people. That is evil. Making idols to replace God is evil. Moses, referring to this same thing, later put it slightly differently: “all the sin you had committed, doing what was evil in the LORD’s sight,” (Deut 9:18) where sin and evil are seen as the same thing. Turning away from God is shown as evil (e.g. Deut 13:6-11): Moses made that abundantly clear again and again: “For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come, disaster will fall upon you because you will do evil in the sight of the LORD.” (Deut 31:29)

Solomon, despite having started so well, ended up badly: As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the LORD; he did not follow the LORD completely, as David his father had done.” (1 Kings 11:4-6) In those verses we see the steady decline and growth in evil: a heart not fully devoted to the Lord, took many foreign wives, allowed them to turn his heart even further, tolerated and then followed their idols and gods thus fully turning away from God. All of these things were examples of evil.

So many times in the Old Testament  the condemnation of a king was that he did evil in the eyes of the Lord and when you look at what he did it is summed up by, he turned away from God and turned to the ways of the world and worshipped idols.  Do you see why the meditation  ‘10. Facing Idolatry’ was so important?

When that happens we find specific behaviour in respect of others also becomes corrupt and described as evil. Consider: “You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit. You speak continually against your brother and slander your own mother’s son.” (Psa 50:19,20) Speech there is considered evil, because it involves deceit and slander. This absence of truth is emphasised even more in another psalm: “Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man? Why do you boast all day long, you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God? Your tongue plots destruction; it is like a sharpened razor, you who practice deceit. You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth.” (Psa 52:1-3)  But is it not only wrong speaking: “Rescue me, O LORD, from evil men; protect me from men of violence, who devise evil plans in their hearts and stir up war every day.” (Psa 140:1,2) No, acts of violence, anything done physically against another is evil. Words and actions that follow ungodliness, are all evil.

So maybe now we see the importance of this instruction to “Avoid every kind of evil.” We have seen evil starts by turning away or rejecting God and turning to place reliance on other things. That is godlessness which always leads to idolatry.  But that is soon expressed in unrighteousness which may be words and/or deeds that are self-centred and godless and harmful to others. This call by Paul in the last of these instructions we are going to consider screams out to us – “Stay away from any thought or word or behaviour that is turning way from God and leads into destructive and harmful behaviour. You were not saved for that!”  It is a strong call, far stronger than we might have thought at first sight. May we hold on to these things and let them remain as warning to us as we finish with this letter in this particular series of meditations.

17. Capital Crimes

Lessons from the Law: No.17 : Capital Crimes

Ex 21:12-14 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.

The Law now moves on to cover murder and manslaughter. The Ten Commandments stated “You shall not murder.” This law spells out what should happen when that basic law has been broken. Note that we have said previously that the purpose of law is to restrain sin and act as a deterrent, but also to provide directions when it has not acted as a deterrent and people have disobeyed it and done the forbidden thing. How to handle that situation is what is at the heart of this law. Because it also goes against a norm that Western societies have taken on board, we also make note of the whole issue of capital punishment which arises here.

Behind our three verses today is the heart of criminal law: premeditated killing is murder; accidental killing is manslaughter. The basic law is that Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death.” That is the starting point: it is wrong to kill someone – seriously wrong! But then comes a looking at the motivation for the act: “if he does not do it intentionally.” If it is unintentional that is different from if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately.” The secondary reason for assessing motivation, is because of what is going to follow. If it was manslaughter, then the perpetrator could flee to one of the cities of refuge: “When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that a person accused of murder may not die before he stands trial before the assembly. These six towns you give will be your cities of refuge.” (Num 35:10-13) There is within this additional law a realism and an awareness of human behaviour that is admirable. There is the awareness that even though it may have been manslaughter it may take time to prove that and in the meantime the close family of the person killed may be so incensed by the killing that they may want to go out and take revenge on the killer. That would not be justice. No, the cities of refuge were a device to thwart human anger.

But then we come to the penalty for murder – death! In Western societies, in our human wisdom, we have abolished the death penalty. Some of the reasons for it appear good reasons: the police may be corrupt or lazy and so evidence may have been tampered with or simply missed. Those are legitimate concerns especially in an age when DNA testing now questions a number of past ‘guilty’ decisions.  But in so doing this we appear almost casual sometimes about human life, for there are times when it is blatantly obvious that the person murdered another and there is no question about it. When a man carries a gun to carry out a robbery and then guns down a policeman in his escape and is immediately apprehended in full view of the on looking public, we demean the policeman, the killer and ourselves when we put the killer in prison for a number of years. Life suddenly means little. For God, life is the crucial ingredient of the world and it is not to be taken casually. Indeed when it is taken, there is to be a serious accounting.

Another reason for the abolishing of the death penalty is the claim that it is not a deterrent. As we said in an earlier meditation, it may not be for a few, but it will be for many. The horror of the death penalty is to be one of the things to acts as a deterrent. The law went on to demand that witnesses come forward and it is the witnesses and neighbours who are to be the executioners by stoning, a most gruesome form of execution – but that is the point. If you have taken part in or even witnessed such an execution, then you will do all in your power to avoid either that happening to you, or it having to happen to someone else. Oh yes, this was a deterrent and we have removed any such deterrent from modern society and we are witnessing the results!

In the following verses we see variants of the Law: “Anyone who attacks his father or his mother must be put to death.” (v.15) You will see in your Bible a footnote to the effect that the word ‘attacks’ could mean ‘kills’ This focuses the violence of death or attempted death on the sanctity of the family, which was the primary building block in that society that God was creating. Whether it is murder or attempted murder, when it applies to parents, then death is to follow. The consequences of the breakdown of society were too great; this must act as a deterrent.

Then comes, “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death.” (v.16) The taking away of life by kidnapping (not literal death) is considered just a heinous. We then come to a strange one (in modern eyes at least): “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” (v.17) A curse, here, is not a casual slanderous comment; it is a purposeful bringing of an occult curse that will have effect and as such, is put into the same category as the previous laws, for it has the same potential. Again it is linked with the sanctity of the family, the primary building block of society. That is why it is so serious and that is why it will seem so strange to us who live in a society.  Here we are so casual about the family building block that we have made it easy for it to be broken up, and we do so little to support and strengthen it, allowing abuses of many kinds to continue almost unchecked.

If some of these laws seem strange or even abhorrent to us today, perhaps we should ask who has lost perspective – God or us? There is much to reflect upon in the light of the failures of our modern societies and the more we reflect the more, I suspect, we will change our thinking.

16. Evil Men

‘WHY?’ QUESTIONS No.16

Psa 10:13 Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, “He won’t call me to account”?

There is a mystery in many people’s minds, a mystery about evil and specifically about evil in people. Why are people like they are? Why do dictators do the terrible things they do? Why do men and women murder, why do men rape, why do fathers abuse children, why do people steal from other people? I once led a law class where the whole class were unanimous that we needed laws to protect the weak “because people are nasty”. What an indictment of the human race!

There are two possible aspects to this verse today – the reason why men act like this, and the reason God lets them act like this. First of all, what is the reason men act like this? Why do people do wrong and then deny the presence of God? Why does the wicked man think he will get away with it?

Well there are two parts to the answer to that. Looking at Scripture, we see that we have an adversary, Satan, who comes against us to tempt us to do wrong, and he does that by getting us to think wrongly. We did consider this the other day but we will look at it more deeply now. At the Fall we find the following sequence of events: He said to the woman, “Did God really say,’You must not eat from any tree in the garden? (Gen 3:1) This was Satan challenging the truth in Eve’s mind as part of his endeavours to get her to go against God. That was followed by,You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman (Gen 3:4), his denial of the consequences of her actions. So we see he whispers into people’s minds that it’s all right to do this thing because who’s to say it’s wrong, and anyway, it will be all right. It is wrong and it won’t be all right – A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal 6:7) There are always consequences to our wrong doing.

Now there is a second reason men now do wrong. It isn’t only Satan; it is the fact that since the Fall, every man, woman and child has been tainted by this thing called Sin, this tendency towards self-centred godlessness which results in unrighteousness. Note that it is now a tendency within us. Once we become Christians we have a greater power within us, the Holy Spirit, who enables us to overcome the old tendency, the old nature. However until a person comes to Christ for salvation, that old nature prevails and Sin prevails in them. Godlessness is most natural; self-centredness is most natural, and unrighteousness is most natural. Now David didn’t have this understanding when he wrote this psalm, but we have all the revelation of the New Testament teaching so we should understand it and we shouldn’t be surprised when we see such things. Satan plus the old sinful nature means that evil is expressed in human beings.

But we said there is a second aspect to this verse – why God allows wicked men to act like this. This is so often the cry of lack of understanding, “Why doesn’t God do something about it?” the ‘it’ being the wrong doing of evil people. Well actually when you think about it there is an easy answer to this one. The Bible indicates quite clearly that God has given us free will. It would be a nonsense if God told us to do things if we did not have the capacity not to do them. The fact that Eve and then Adam ‘fell’, were disobedient, is a clear example of this free will. A variety of other people in the Bible also clearly didn’t do what God told them to do. No, free will is a capacity that God has obviously given us. So when we cry, “Why doesn’t God do something?” we are in fact saying, “Why doesn’t God override this person’s free will?” and that’s where it gets difficult. Put simply, where should He stop? Obviously He should stop murderers and rapists and criminals, you might say. OK, but why stop with them for there are lots and lots of acts of wrongdoing that are not criminal acts? OK, you say, do away with all wrongdoing! Ah! Including in you? Including your wrong thoughts, wrong words and sometimes wrong acts? You want God to take away your free will and make you into a robot who can only do good, whose action will be severely curtailed, and whose human experience will be radically cut back? You want God to do that, because that is your only alternative?

As soon as we come to this point we see the awfulness of Sin and the awfulness of free will, but then we start seeing the wonder of salvation that wins sinful human beings to God’s side to be good. That’s what salvation does, but we have to have the other awful freedom first. Yes, God does act into this world and sometimes He does obviously move against evil men, and yes, men do reap the consequences of their actions, but in the meantime the terrible downside of free will is that man can be evil!

Never blame God for your wrong doing and never demand He takes away free will of other people – or you! Free will is the staggering responsibility that God has bestowed upon mankind. It is, if you like, a sign of His respect for us. He gives us our lives to live as we will, with the potential to achieve wonderful things, but also to do terrible things. The choice is ours. He will be there to help us achieve the former, and His wrath will be there against the latter, but the choice is still ours. Choose wisely.