The third story in Genesis (Chapter 4), tells of Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel, wherein Abel follows Cain’s lead to sacrifice produce to God, yet “God turns to Abel and his offering, and to Cain and his offering God did not turn”. Angered by this outcome of God’s choice, Cain kills his brother. The episode invites many questions, especially since it holds so seminal a place in the development of humankind, preceded only by the stories of creation and Eden.
Is this story teaching us about God’s preference of one person over another? Or about God’s preference for quality over initiative; i.e. notwithstanding that Cain conceived of and initiated the offering to God, the Torah specifies that Abel, the follower, improved on the idea and offered to God from the best of his flock. The Biblical commentators and Midrashim stretch to extract lessons of justice and fairness from the story.
I believe the lesson of the story is not about God’s preferences, nor about justice or fairness. To the contrary, I believe that a powerful life lesson emerges precisely by virtue of it being born from a backdrop where fairness is absent. It is a deeply human and realistic teaching about the consequences of our next step.
The Torah tells us in Genesis 4: 6,7,8, following Cain being rejected;
6. And the LORD said to Cain: 'Why are you angry and why is your face fallen?
7. Did you not know, if you do good, you will be lifted upward and if you do not do good, sin lurks at the threshold; and toward you is its desire, but you may rule over it.
8. And Cain spoke to Abel his brother…and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and killed him.
Verse 7 reveals the critical life lesson. Notwithstanding that life can be unfair and unjust, and out of our control (e.g. Cain being rejected by God), the Torah teaches that how we respond to those events will create our true consequence. “If you do good (respond properly) you will be lifted upward”. Conversely, if one responds with anger, one can enter a downward spin of anger, depression and destructive acts.
Our choice to value and be shaped by our next positive step, rather than be troubled by what has just happened to us, is indeed a fundamental life lesson.
Image credit: "The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve" by William Blake ca. 1826, Tate Gallery, London; WebMuseum, Paris.