Why Keep Sheep?
Cain and Abel’s story paints for us a tragic picture of life after Eden. The man and woman had stepped out of their place in the creation, and things were falling apart at the seams. Though the degenerative process was already caught up in redemption, the man and woman had a new reality looming ahead of them, their inevitable death. Surely, the death of the animal slain to cover their shame would have been shocking, but imagine their response to the discovery of their son’s lifeless body. Abel was the first fruits of death, ripe for a harvest never tasted before.
This story is riddled with questions. Why is Abel, the younger, listed before Cain, the elder? Why was one in charge of animals and the other occupied with the fields? Are we missing the story of the previous sin of Cain and Abel, or was Abel’s murder the second instance of sin ever? Central to the discussion on this passage is the question of the quality of the two sacrifices. Why was Abel’s offering any better than Cain’s? Both offered out of the means provided to them. The sacrificial system written down later even condones a grain offering. There must be something bigger going on here. Perhaps the question to begin with is: why did Abel even have sheep in the first place?
Surrounding this passage are two interesting yet brief statements made by God. Though much attention has been given to the sacrifices of the two brothers, no one has engaged these two statements, at least as near as I can tell. Before Eve’s unfortunate encounter with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God commanded the people that they were to eat of any of the plants in garden, save this one tree. The same permission was granted to all creatures of the garden. It is interesting to note that even in God’s pronouncement of the new reality of a broken world following the fall, eating of the produce of the earth is reiterated. It is only after the Flood narrative that God gives animals as food to the humans.
If Abel’s family was forbidden to eat the sheep that he cared for, his occupation seems superfluous. Casting the narrative in this light, we are given some insight into Cain’s jealousy of his brother. Cain is the one who first brought offerings to God of what he had produced. His offering was clearly of more value, too. The sheep sacrificed by Abel were not going to provide for the family’s immediate need, but the produce brought by Cain was. How could God challenge Cain to change the way he was sacrificing?
It is important to note that God does not mention Cain’s faulty sacrifice, nor his jealousy towards his brother as sin, but only suggests that the dissatisfaction he experiences could lead him to sin. It is also interesting that, unless there was a specific sin, an animal sacrifice wouldn’t be entirely necessary. Abel’s offering most closely resembles a burnt offering: a non-essential offering meant for worship, similar to the grain offering. Perhaps the key to understanding the meaning behind the sacrifices isn’t located in the sacrificial laws at all—perhaps we need a different motif to see things through.
If we leave the opening of Leviticus and delve instead into the motif of the firstborn articulated in Exodus 13:1-2, Cain’s shortcomings become a little clearer. The image of the firstborn is woven throughout both the Old and New Testaments as a central element to God’s redeeming work in Christ. The firstborn was to function as a priest, that is, to be both a representative and a mediator. The Old Testament office of the high priest was central to the story of atonement during this time period as he represented the firstborn of the whole nation. It was the priest`s job, the firstborn`s job, to take care of the things dedicated to the LORD and to present the offerings before God. As the high priest goes before the mercy seat to make atonement for God’s people, so must Cain—the firstborn of the first family—make atonement for his family. Abel`s job wasn`t superfluous at all. Abel`s job was a great honour, for he cared for the things that were utterly devoted to God, the things that the people couldn’t have. However, Abel should not have been the one taking care of the sheep and doing what seemed like useless work. That was Cain`s job. And so we have the irony of Cain`s jealousy of Abel.
Instead of taking on the role of the firstborn in caring for the things dedicated to the LORD, Cain had passed this opportunity up, giving responsibility over to his younger brother. For Cain to truly do well, as God had challenged him, he would need to take ownership over the things dedicated to the LORD—the sheep—and so fulfill his own role as the firstborn, wholly dedicated to the LORD.
This story goes to show that, regardless of whether we hold to a literal or literary view on various passages of scripture, we must admit that God is teaching us more than cool stories. The same could be said of the creation narrative, the Flood narrative, Jonah, and pretty much all of the apocalyptic literature.
Pentateuch students, here is my question for you: am I right? Is this understanding of the Cain and Abel narrative faithful to the rest of scripture? What are the holes in my argument? I already see a few, so don’t be shy to point them out. What do you propose is going on here and how would you answer the questions I’ve attempted to? Is it appropriate to read the Cain and Abel narrative in the light of the Law though the Law itself had not been given? How does this help us understand what the Law is and what sin is? These last two questions will be important for future blog responses and will likely pop up again so be thinking about them and formulating some initial thoughts. Be sure to interact with one another rather than simply sharing your own thoughts. Also, please include your name at the end of your comments so I can give you credit!