There’s No Good Reason that God Preferred Abel to Cain [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

David tweeted a question into the series asking a question about one of the most troubling passages of the Bible, and many of you answered him:

It’s a great question, and one that I must say is all the more poignant because of the blood shed yesterday. For someone who is drawn to René Girard’s scapegoat theory of the atonement, as I am, then Cain’s murder of Abel is telling: the human cycle of mimetic desire and bloodshed is primitive in its genesis, and it afflicts us still.

But that wasn’t your question, David. Your question has to do with God’s preference of one brother and his offering over the other’s; you asked about the rejection that led to the murder. So yesterday morning, before we’d heard about the Sandy Hook school shooting, I went over to my rabbi’s house for a cup of coffee and a chat. I asked Rabbi Joseph Edelheit your question, and I recorded his answer. I didn’t give him any warning, or even a hint as to what it was about. I simply told him that I had a question for him and turned on the recorder. Here’s what he said:

Rabbi Joe on Cain and Abel [mp3]

So there we have it. He’s basically stumped by this episode in the Hebrew scriptures. We went on to talk about it after I turned off the recorder, and he said that when he teaches undergrad about Genesis, they often say what your baptist buddies say. But then Joseph tells his students to read the text — what it actually says — and find where God had told the brothers that one type of offering was preferable to another. It’s not there. These guys were shooting in the dark.

The bigger question, it seems, is does God have preferences? And if God does, how do we suss those out?

The Bible is chock full of God’s preferences, but many of those are locked in a primitive narrative, being told by primitive people the best way that they knew how. It’s hard to think on God’s preferences without being confronted with what happened yesterday. One of my atheist friends posted this on Facebook:

Seriously, if god can’t intervene to prevent a senseless such as what occurred today, what the hell good is he?

And one of my Christian friends posted this:

On the way home today I listened to a Christian talk radio host take 30 min validating the 2nd amendment necessity of private ownership of assault weapons. Then he seamlessly segued into an argument intended to convince listeners that God was ultimately and undoubtedly responsible for the horror in Connecticut today. “What God allows, by default, he sanctions. What God sanctions he wills.” he stated. And somehow these “facts” of God’s omnipotence and omniscience should bring both a sense of confidence to the faithful and “terrorizing fear” to the pagan. To claim unreserved certainty regarding the mind and motives of God on such matters is troubling enough. But these types of claims also adds insult on top of an injury in the lives of those who are suffering unspeakable pain during moments such as these. Let’s keep it simple. Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. How about we all listen more, talk less, and focus on what’s important. Peace in all its forms.

All I can muster today is this: since ancient, tribal times, human beings have wondered about what God prefers, and how connected God is to the choices that we make. Like many readers here, I’m wrestling with whether God is an interventionist or not. A lot of people seem to find evidence of God’s intervention everywhere. I struggle to see any hints of it. Especially today.

  • http://http://winter60.blogspot.com/ Lausten North

    My wife overheard the audio, not knowing what it was, she said the Rabbi sounded like a guy from the morning rock radio station. That’s a compliment. I love the non-answer. I love your wrestling with this. Thanks for working with us on the struggle.

  • http://salamanderslam.com Dave H.

    Thanks very much for this reflective post, especially today. I love the courage your rabbi has to say that the way God responded is the worst thing we could do. If we have a preference (like an opinion about what someone else should be doing, or how they should be doing it) does it matter how we express what we want or need? I heard your rabbi saying that God learned there are consequences to how God responds. If that’s true for God, how much more true must it be for me?

    The main lesson of this blog post is that I gotta get me a rabbi.

  • http://enterthesilence.blogspot.com/ Jay Potter

    I’ve been struggling with this same issue of God’s preferential kindness/wrath on all those he created, and mind you, in the beginning called “good.”

    Lately I’ve been more taken with Greg Boyd’s position in open theism that God is allowing his creation to work it self out, and therefore actually allow free will to exist in the actions of his created beings. But I still believe God is outside of time and creation and knows the endings end, allowing us to work out the way there. Some may accept the movements of the holy spirit towards a positive direction, others may not (regardless of whether they are followers of the way of Jesus or not).

    This also allows us to not blame every particular human action on God.

  • http://www.antichristaliens.com Lock Ledger

    God is a semi-interventionist.

  • http://keithbrenton.com/ Keith Brenton

    I don’t have “the” answer, but isn’t it possible that God knew Cain’s heart (just as Jesus knew the hearts of those who tried to trap Him – Matthew 9:4), and could see something there that made his sacrifice less favorable? The text says (as the original question astutely perceives) that God did not show favor to Cain AND his sacrifice?

    God could have been using the sacrifice as an opportunity to coach Cain on resisting jealousy. Maybe he had a problem with that, one that his parents couldn’t see — because they loved him and thought better of him than that he could harbor such feelings — or just because they could not see his heart as God could …?

    • http://www.livingmartyrs.com brad

      It’s not impossible, Keith. This is close to how I think about it. However the point being made in the post is that this is highly speculative. Staying true to what’s written, strictly speaking, we don’t know.

      Particularly as a lesson God’s teaching regarding resisting jealousy — I’d want God’s intention clearly spelled out before I’d believe that confidently. :-)

  • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

    Dammit, Tony, stop making me think your God might actually “exist”…

    (P.S. That was not sarcasm.)

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      She’s not *my* God, Rob.

      • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

        Hmm…

  • ME

    “I struggle to see any hints of it [God's intervention].”

    Totally understandable. Hypothetically speaking, if God is an interventionist and you struggle to see it, the only way you would ever see it is if you change (or get changed) in such a way that allows you to see it.

  • Lois

    God is “with” us….in the many ways the “us” create spaces for life…or death. It’s not a question of preference, more a statement of presence. Yesterday’s pain is and was our pain, God’s pain. Many troubled minds and bodies search for God in us and their world. God is here.

  • http://whatever-you-art.squarespace.com David

    Thanks so much for engaging the question like this, Tony. I’ve appreciated the dialogue that was generated and the thoughtful way you have pushed the question onward in this post. Thanks again, brother.

  • http://keithbrenton.com/ Keith Brenton

    Brad, I agree. Way too many hypotheses (like mine) have attained a weight equal to scripture itself in the minds of too many!

    I was just positing possibilities.

    (And I’d note that there’s a LOT of sibling rivalry factored into Old Testament scriptures.)

  • Anony-mouse

    Here’s another point of view – somewhat in line with what Keith said. If you look at both the short and long-term consequences of the sacrifices, it doesn’t seem that God necessarily preferred one or the other brother according to the sacrifice that each offered. Directly after the sacrifice, God seemed to prefer Abel (I’m not sure how Cain and Abel came to this conclusion: either God told them directly or, more likely, Abel enjoyed good fortune). However, the long-term consequences of the story were that Abel was killed and Cain became a nomad, was married, and had children. From examining the long-term consequences, it seems that God preferred Cain. In either case, it is my opinion that God prefers obedience to sacrifice (as is stated by Jesus and in several Old Testament passages). HE didn’t really prefer either sacrifice but just said that he did knowing the likelihood that Cain would sin out of jealousy and HE would be able to teach Cain a lesson about using reason to conquer sin (i.e. Genesis 4:7).

    • Anony-mouse

      In the above, I meant to say that God prefers obedience OVER sacrifice. It is better to obey than sacrifice and, in the gospel (I don’t have time to look up the passage), Jesus states that compassion is preferable to sacrifice.

  • Todd

    She is your God Tony. Certainly not the God of the bible. She is a creation of your prideful, sin redefining heart. It is such a shame because if you would just repent and submit to the clear teaching of scripture God could use you for good.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      I happen to think that God is powerful and sovereign enough to use me in spite of myself. You too!

    • nathan

      ugh. submit to the “clear teaching” of Scripture is code for the “clear results of my particular dogmatic interpretive tradition that rises from the a priori commitments of said tradition”. There is no hermetically sealed world where Scripture qua Scripture can be engaged.

    • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

      Deuteronomy 7:2. Submit to the clear teaching of scripture! Do it!

  • http://thebookofdavis.blogspot.com/ Michael Davis

    Great post to think about in light of what happened. I had been one who believed in God’s meticulous sovereignty but it was based on what I thought God should be. I’m not sure there is much Biblical evidence for it. As a charismatic Christian though, I do see God intervene in positive ways. The post above that used the phrase semi-interventionist struck me as accurate. As far as Cain and Abel, I can’t really add much other than to say the context of Genesis does seem to have the theme of the 2nd born being chosen over the 1st born but I have not studied it enough to determine why this was so important to the original author/audience.

  • Lock Ledger

    Cain kept saying to God, “Baby stop swinging those hips around. You are distracting my sacrifice.” The transgender God loved to be effeminate, so he strutted her stuff so Cain could see all her glory.

  • http://www.turridesign.com Jesse

    I’m surprised you didn’t go with the Ched Myers anarcho-primitivist route with this. The story of Cain and Abel isn’t about God preferring one person over another. It’s about agriculture vs. pastoralism right? In order for agriculture to work, land is fenced and privatized. It’s no longer common land, it’s enclosed and sectioned off with signs that read, “PRIVATE PROPERTY, NO TRESPASSING. VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.”

    (I’m sure someone brought this view up in the first post, sorry to recapitulate.)

  • Todd

    No Nathan I mean the clear teaching of scripture as presented so clearly that even a child can understand it.

    Tony, you believe that God is sovereign and powerful yet you still freely choose to go your own way. I will continue to pray that you will repent and preach the full counsel of God not what people’s itching ears want to hear. You must know that what you are doing is warned against time and time again in the bible. You are in my prayers.

    • Evelyn

      Job 10:15-16 If I am wicked, woe to me! And if I am righteous, I dare not lift up my head. I am sated with disgrace and conscious of my misery. Should my head be lifted up, You would hunt me like a lion; And again You would show Your power against me.

      Please instruct me Todd. I am female and my intellect is feeble. Why are you lifting up your head against the LORD? You are just as likely as Job to be hunted like a lion.

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