by Dr. Eric Elnes
In his book East of Eden, Nobel prize-winning author John Steinbeck makes an astute observation about story-telling through one of his characters who asserts that “If a story is not about the hearer he [or she] will not listen . . . A great lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting–only the deeply personal and familiar.”
The story of Cain and Abel is, if nothing else, a story about us. All of us. Certainly, this is one of the reasons Steinbeck chose the story of Cain and Abel as the baseline of his literary improvisations in East of Eden, and probably why it succeeded so wildly.
If you wonder how the Cain and Abel story could be about you when you don’t even have a brother, you may want to consider the following questions:
- Have you ever harbored a grudge against someone for succeeding where you have failed?
- Have you ever hidden your success, or made light of it, lest you arouse the envy of a friend, relative, or colleague?
- Has the phrase “It’s not fair!” or “How can he/she get away with that?” crossed your lips recently?
- Do you feel like you deserve more from life/God/your employer/your spouse/your friends than what you have received?
- Have you ever had to deal with someone who felt you weren’t giving them what they deserved?
- Have you ever murdered someone … or wished to God you could?
Hopefully some of you fell off on that last one, but then again, the church really isn’t about ministry unless we’re all getting healed on one level or another–even the tough ones. In any case, if you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you can find yourself in the story.
Back to Steinbeck, what impresses me about him is how he notices things. When it comes to the story of Cain and Abel, he picked up on the central issue that most of us completely overlook. His knack for observation reminds me of the email I received from a Darkwood Brew viewer which included the photo below and some analysis.
The analysis covers what each of several demographic groups tend to notice going on in the photo. For instance, it states that “young men” notice the derriere, but only “the most observant” notice that she is crossing a street. Half of all women, it states, conclude that the woman’s a tramp “but wonder where she bought [her] blouse.” Older women “imagine the misery that the woman’s curves will cause by the time she reaches 50.” And so it goes until we reach the final observation, “But only children, the extremely intelligent, and the celibate will notice that the taxi to the right of her is being driven by a dog.”
When Steinbeck reads the story of Cain and Abel, he notices the dog driving the taxi when the rest of us are looking elsewhere. What Steinbeck spots is the presence and use of a single Hebrew word: timshel.
Now, before we go any further with Steinbeck, Cain, Abel, and the taxi-driving-dog, we will do well to remind ourselves of what we’ve discovered thus far in our series. By doing this, we may ultimately see something that even Steinbeck himself missed.
Over the last two weeks we’ve covered the two Creation Accounts in Genesis. The first, found in Genesis 1-2:4a, was written during the lowest of the low-points in Israel’s history–the Babylonian Exile of the 6th Century BCE. Curiously, we found that this Creation Account bears striking similarity to the Babylonian Creation Epic, Enuma Elish. Yet where the two accounts deal with the creation of humanity, the differences couldn’t be more stark. Enuma Elish claims that humanity was created with the blood of an evil deity and that our purpose is merely to serve as slaves of the gods. By contrast, Genesis 1 speaks of our being created in the very image and likeness of the Divine. Far from being slaves of God, we are to serve as co-creators (even co-rulers) with God. If we had only Genesis 1 to go by, we would never have a concept like Original Sin. In Genesis 1 there is only Original Blessing. Sin never enters the picture …
… Until the second Creation Account–the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:4b through Genesis 3. This story serves as a “second opinion” of sorts, counterbalancing the optimism of the first. Curiously, we found that it was actually written first–in the 10th C BCE, a full four centuries earlier than Genesis 1. This was the period when the “great kinds of old” ruled the land–kings named David and Solomon. In an era when Israel was riding so high, you’d think they would have written of the glories of human nature like in Genesis 1. Instead, they wrote of human frailty and fickleness. The story of Adam and Eve’s failing and falling is a story of how hard life becomes when we fall into the temptation of believing that life in this world is all about us, rather than all about God and God’s relationship with us.
Yet what we also found in the story of Adam and Eve is one of those “dog-driving-a-taxi” kinds of things. While many preachers and theologians are quick to claim that Genesis 2-3 is about “The Fall” and “Original Sin,” we noticed
something last week that most people overlook. The story doesn’t end with Adam and Eve failing and falling. It ends with God protecting and supporting them.
Given that the original couple has proved themselves to be a bit gullible when listening to talking snakes, God locks them out of the Garden so that they cannot eat from the Tree of Eternal Life. This is clearly a “dog driving the taxi” moment. It doesn’t get much clearer than this, that God is making absolutely sure that human mistakes will not have eternal consequences. But the fire-and-brimstone crowd these days is too fixated on the couple’s “Original Sin” to notice that the story climaxes with “Original Grace.”
As if to underscore this point, the narrator continues by mentioning that God sewed skins together and made clothing for the couple. Now, why would anyone, except perhaps the Project Runway crowd, care about where the couple’s first clothing came from? It’s because it shows that God cares for the couple, even to the point of looking after them like a protective Jewish mother, willing to scrap the “Original Nudity” paradigm in light of the fact that the world’s going to be a bit colder and harsher in this new reality.
Through our exploration of the two Creation Accounts in Genesis we have found that, yes, they depict us as being marked by “Original Sin,” but we are also marked by “Original Blessing.” And while we are marked by these attributes, neither defines us. We are defined by God’s action, not our own. Taken together, what the stories clearly show we are defined by Original Grace.
What does this mean to you and me? Glad you asked! For one thing, as Christians it should tell us that what Jesus did on the Cross was far more wonderful than it has appeared to be, at least to many. Many believe that until Jesus came and died for our sins, God was so angry at us on account of humanity’s “Original Sin” in the Garden that we were destined for eternal torture in hell. Some still believe this to be our fate if we don’t believe in Jesus the exact way they do. But now we see that God didn’t dream up the whole reconciliation plan for the first time with Jesus.
The Cross and Empty Tomb are a continuation of this original story. They reveal something eternal about God–that God is eternally working to reconcile us to God’s Self and heal us. God was at it literally “in the beginning” when we failed and fell … God was at it with Jesus when we failed and fell harder than in the beginning first time … and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that God will be at it in the end as well …
So the story of Adam and Eve, and the story of Jesus both challenge us with a central question: If God could see beyond humanity’s sin in the Garden, offering grace and healing and ongoing relationship in response, and if God could see beyond our sin at the Cross, again offering grace and healing and ongoing
relationship, why do you still run and hide from God, assuming that God wouldn’t want anything to do with you on account of your own sins? Why are you being so bashful and self-condemning? God has done a lot to ensure that we won’t be afraid to seek God out when we fall. We may as well swallow our pride and accept the fact that today is always the day when God can do something new in our lives.
We’ll spend time with Jesus at the end of our series when we cover Paul’s view of Jesus as the Second Adam. That Sunday I’ll actually be in the final week of a speaking tour of Australia (my first speaking tour ever–the that got cancelled last summer). So Chris Alexander is going to handle that service. Whew! Actually, I’m a tad jealous because she gets to show how Jesus can be our Savior in a way that saves us from something real not imagined, and how the Good News really is very Good News for all of us who dwell East of Eden. Speaking of which:
Back to Steinbeck, Cain, Abel, and another taxi driving dog. Where the world’s attention has mostly been focused on Abel’s murder and Cain’s curse, Steinbeck notices that the most gripping part of the story–the part that touches our lives most centrally–actually turns on a single Hebrew word–timshel. Timshel can be translated a number of ways, including “you shall rule,” (as a promise) or “you shall rule” (as a command), or “you may rule” (as invitation and possibility).
There was only one place that bothered me. The King James Version says this–it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” It was the “thou shalt” that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin … Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, “Do thou rule over him.” Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been …
It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, Steinbeck continues, to throw oneself onto the lap of the deity saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now …
… These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of mankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb … this is a ladder to climb to the stars … You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness … I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing–maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. [Eric’s note: Yes it is!] I have no bent towards gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed–because “Thou mayest.” (pp. 301, 304, chapter 24, 2; cited by Walter Bruggemann in Genesis, pp. 58-59).
At the end of Steinbeck’s novel, its central character–not coincidentally named Adam–strains on his deathbed to speak to Caleb (the Cain figure):
Adam looked up with sick weariness. His lips parted and failed and tried again. Then his lungs filled. He expelled the air and his lips combed the rushing sigh. His whispered word seemed to hang in the air. “Timshel!” His eyes closed and he slept.
What Steinbeck noticed in the invitation, challenge, and possibility behind the word timshel is that we are both blessed and cursed by the one thing that makes us who we are: our choices. Humankind is neither compelled to pursue sainthood, nor doomed only to sin. We may choose either one, on a daily basis. These choices are what form our character and shape our lives–the big choices we make, and the small ones; choices that have been carefully thought out, and spontaneous ones; choices involving ourselves alone and choices that impact the lives of others. Our choices matter.
If we are to take the story of Cain and Abel seriously, we would add that one of the most important choices we make concerns how we respond when we lose and someone else wins–especially when we feel our loss is unjustified and someone else’s gain is unfair.
The difference between a saint and a murderer can be delineated along this single line. Some of the strongest features of our character revolve around this particular kind of choice, too–whether we’re generous-spirited or stingy; whether we’re able to recover from being hit hard, or broken for the rest of our days; whether ever find a transcendent reality operating in this world, or miss it entirely. Much of it develops out of how we respond when someone else’s “offering” is “accepted” and ours is passed by.
But this is neither the end of the story, nor the sermon. If you can hang on for just a moment more, we may be able to out-Steinbeck Steinbeck by noticing something even more profound in the Cain and Abel story that not even he noticed. You may find a curious continuity between this story and that of Adam and Eve.
While Steinbeck drew our attention to how Cain’s ability to choose between good and evil marked his character, he missed the most important choice we make. The most important choice we make is not between good and evil. Heck, God didn’t even want us to know the difference between good and evil back in the days of the Garden, remember? God desires relationship over perfection. The most important choice we make is whether or not to trust God even after we know we’ve been unfaithful–trust God enough to surrender to the healing power of God’s love and grace. This, more than any other decision is what defines us. It defines us because Original Grace defines us, and the only way to allow that Grace to work its magic and do a new thing in our lives is if we surrender to it.
We find the power of this surrender at work in Cain’s story if we stop obsessing over the curses. In fact, the curses may not be all they’re cracked up to be. After being told that the land will become sterile for him, and that he’ll be a wanderer and a fugitive for the rest of his days, Cain protests that the curse is too great for him to bear; that it will not be long before he is killed out of vengeance for his brother’s blood. And how does God respond?
Just as God protected and cared for Cain’s father and mother after leaving the Garden, God placed a mark on Cain to protect him from harm. It is this mark, signaling God’s ongoing love and care and protection, that defines Cain, not the curses. What this means is that Cain can trust God. He can trust that God isn’t constantly re-evaluating whether God will love him or not. It means that he can trust that God is in this thing called “relationship” for the long-haul, through thick and thin, good times and bad, happy ones and sad. Thus, it means that when he screws up, he needn’t hide from God (which only makes things worse). Rather, he can come to God seeking God’s love and forgiveness.
If you have any doubt about how God’s mark on Cain redefined Cain’s life as one of Grace as opposed to Curse, consider what comes next.
When Cain’s story ends, he has built himself a city to live in.
How does someone who’s supposed to be a fugitive and a wanderer for the rest of his days settle down and become The Father of Cities in the Bible? Well, what else was Cain going to do with all that land that had become sterile under the curse? He couldn’t grow plants, so he grew cities.
You see, when your life is defined by God’s grace, which allows for ongoing relationship with God, some of those curses you had previously worked so hard to bring upon yourself simply dry up and blow away. And those curses that remain may just become transformed through your ongoing relationship with God, like cities rising from sterile soil, to become bearers of new life where there once was only death.
Cain, the cursed fugitive and wanderer is building cities. Now there’s something more impressive than a dog driving a taxi!