Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cain and Abel

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p 943)
Psalms 119:1-24 (morning) 12, 13, 14 (evening)
Genesis 4:1-16
Hebrews 2:11-18
John 1:(29-34)35-42

(Note: The readings from John are also this Sunday's gospel reading.)

Maybe you remember Rogers and Hammerstein's hit musical "Oklahoma." Part of the sub-plot is an historical conflict among settlers of the American West. The chorus sings, "Oh, the farmer and the cowboy should be friends." Then the two groups trade barbs about each other under the tense prescription that they should be friends.

Many different cultures and many epochs of human civilization have periods of bitter, even bloody conflict between peoples of differing lifestyles. Some early humans learned how to domesticate flocks of animals. They led the cattle and sheep to graze in places where there was adequate food and water. The animals could be used to make food and clothing, shelter and tools. The freedom of movement for the wandering herds was critical for their success.

Other early humans learned how to plant and harvest. They became settled in one place long enough for the plants to produce their yield. They too found resources for food and clothing, shelter and tools.

But the potential for conflict was great. Wandering herds could devastate young crops or compromise the water or harvest of the farms. Settled farmers claimed possession of critical wells or water supplies and restricted access to land, usually the most fertile land. History is filled with the stories of conflicts between individuals, communities and tribes competing between these two ways of living.

We have two great brother-stories that preserve elements of these struggles in our patriarchal literature -- Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau. Cain is described as "a tiller of the ground;" Abel was "a keeper of sheep." ("Esau was a skillful hunter, and man of the field; Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents." Genesis 25) In both stories jealousy leads to betrayal when one brother is favored and the other feels rejection.

Why does God accept the offering of Abel, the firstlings of the flock, and reject the offering of Cain, the fruits of the field? No explanation is given. (Likewise, Abraham prefers the hunter Esau over the tent-dweller Jacob.)

The story implies that Cain would be accepted by God if he would continue living rightly. But Cain allows his resentment to fester. And here we have the first scriptural use of the word sin. "If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it."

Cain fails to master. He lures his brother out into the field and kills him. Although the deed is done in secret, the blood cries out from the ground. God hears, and curses Cain. The ground will no longer yield its strength, and Cain "will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth." Without community, he will be completely vulnerable to the violence of strangers and other tribes. For protection, God marks him with a threat of sevenfold vengeance should anyone kill him.

In story form, the Bible describes our human darkness. Our history of conflict and violence, rebellion and prejudice is recorded in compelling narrative. This is powerful stuff.



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About Morning Reflections
"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site at this location --
The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

See our Web site at

Our Rule of Life:
We aspire to...
worship weekly
pray daily
learn constantly
serve joyfully
live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


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