What would it be like to be Cain? To rage at how your life is unfolding, then somehow, in some way hear God speak to you, and recognize those words as God speaking? And then, go against it? What was going on with him? What would lead him to do this? And how would this change the world afterward? Yourself, and your descendants? When Cain murdered his little brother, he got his wish; that wish put a mark on humanity. And Death became our response to Life. (Genesis 4)
1:18 What God speaks to us through what happens
8:55 How God spoke to Cain and what was spoken
15:03 What Cain killed and lost by killing his brother
22:11 So, murder becomes a habit
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[ pendulum ]
There is an interesting quote by Hercule Poirot, the fictional detective that appears in many of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery novels: “There are things that my profession has taught me,” he says. “And one of these things, the most terrible thing, is this: murder is a habit....”
One reading of this is that once we kill—once that line is crossed—we begin to see killing as a viable solution to our problems. We resort to death as our response to what we face in Life, and murder becomes a habit.
And when Cain murdered his brother, Abel, murder became humanity’s habit. So, let’s continue this Genesis narrative on our descent in…
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…"What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs. And everyone in between.
I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our eighth episode of the second season, "When death becomes your response: from Cain to Lamech.”
[ / music ]
What is it like, to hear from God as Cain did? How would it happen—to fume at how your life is unfolding, then somehow, in some way hear God speak to you, and recognize those words as God speaking? And then, go against it?
Now, one key reason why those of us today have trouble understanding what it’d be like to “hear God speak,” is our tendency to think of it as some sort of special, mystical thing that most of us won’t experience. So, we imagine it as an unearthly voice that speaks to us, maybe in a vision or a dream. And it may happen that way. But it encompasses much more than that. That’s because what is fundamental to the idea of God is that our relation to reality as a whole is our relation to God—so, how we relate to Life, to how everything unfolds, or however else you call it. That’s what I mean when I say, all of reality—thus, everything that happens—is, in some way, God speaking. But, then the hard question is, just what is God speaking to us through whatever that happens? What is it really telling us?
Here’s what I mean. So, say, you’ve been running this business; you’ve put a quite a lot of yourself into it, your time, effort, and good will. But, it’s not doing well—not terribly, but not as well as you wanted. Your products received mixed reviews, your outreach to the community was met with lukewarm responses, and your sales are mediocre. Your work has led to one set back after another—it has produced more “thorns” and “thistles” than you expected. Meanwhile, your little brother opened a new business with rave reviews and roaring revenue. Now, all of what’s happening is God speaking. But, what is all of it telling you? Is it that… you should be patient regarding the thorns and thistles, and continue what you’re doing? Or is it that you need to rethink your business model—maybe learn from your brother, even though that will sting your pride quite a bit? Or is it that you’ve not set your priority straight, and is obsessed about the wrong things, like the success of your business? Or… is it that you’ve just been treated unfairly your entire life? …Which is it?
That’s the story of Cain by the way. Cain brought some of his crops, and his little brother brought best of his livestock. What they’re bringing is not offering, in the sense of donations to the church; there’s no church, no organized religion. Rather, it is about bringing their life and work before God; that is, they are both engaging Reality, bringing their lives, their strengths, hearts, and minds, into it. The Genesis narrative does not specify what happened then; it only says that God had regard for what Abel brought, while God had no regard for what Cain brought. Perhaps, Cain then had a poor harvest of crops, with thorns and thistles growing in his fields, while Abel’s flocks of livestock flourished. After all, figures like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in later narratives in Genesis, had flocks of livestock that multiplied and flourished as a sign that God blessed them. But, it could have been the opposite; maybe Cain was doing well, materially speaking, while Abel was just getting by. Yet, somehow, Cain felt rejected or disregarded in some inexplicable way.
So, say you are Cain. Now, before you were born, your parents had consumed the knowledge of what possible things, good or bad, may happen—that is, what God may speak in their lives—but they did so in their distrust of God. And their moment of distrust has become your starting point. If you bring your life and work to God, will God respond favorably? Which is to say, if you engage Reality in good faith, with all your heart, mind, and strength, will Life unfold good things for you? Maybe. I mean, how do you know? What if God does not respond favorably? Then, you will have brought all of that for nothing! But, your brother, Abel, brings everything, the “best” of what he is, to Life—to God. He’s either fearless or just naïve.
Then, Life unfolded differently for both of you. How? Perhaps, you just feel empty; no sense of fulfillment, no peace—just restlessness, as if your very way of living is lacking something. Abel on the other hand seems to love his life, his work, his daily routine. It’s like he has this inner sense of approval, while you don’t. Or perhaps, it is something more tangible—thorns and thistles in your fields, while your brother’s flocks multiply. Either way, you are angry. Why is this happening? And what is God speaking to you through what’s happening? Is it that God has regard for life and work that Abel brought, but has no regard for yours? Why? You brought yourself to God too; you engaged Reality; you’ve put in… some of your strength, heart, and soul into it. It’s not like you didn’t do anything at all.
Then, something within you speaks up. “Why are you angry? Why do you look so dejected?” The thought is calm, sober, yet firm; and it is painfully honest. “If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if you don’t, sin is crouching at the door, desiring to rule you; but you must rule over it.”
Everything that happens is God speaking. But, what speaks personally to us is about what these things mean to us, and what is meaningful for us is about how we are to act, and live, in response to what happens. There are thorns and thistles in our lives—that’s God speaking—but, that’s impersonal; God speaking to us, is about what we are to do regarding it. Should we consider them as signs that we’re on a wrong path? Or, should we persevere with our work? You feel empty and unfulfilled at work— that’s simply what’s happening, and that’s God speaking—but, God speaking to you, will be about why you feel that way, and what you need to do. Have you been doing things wrong? Or have you been doing the wrong things? And because what speaks to us in a personal way is about how we are to live in regard to what is happening, God speaking to us, will manifest a person, a character, which models and teaches the kind of life we should lead.
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In the episode 10—and 10.10—of the first season, I said that the voice of God speaking to you, will manifest a person, who will be something like… a better version of yourselves. A person that you could be, and are called to become. And that person beckons to you, toward a life and a mode of being, for lack of better words, that relates to reality—to the world, to other people, to yourself—more truthfully, more courageously, and more lovingly, with patience and grace. It’s not that you’ll become perfect right then and there; the question that this person of God asks is: can your life and world be better than it is now? More loving, more truthful, more just? If yes, why isn’t it now?
Now, is this what we nowadays call conscience? Not quite. If by conscience, we simply mean a list of rules about do’s and don’ts that we’ve somehow internalized, then conscience is not the voice of God that speaks to us. The obvious reason is that this voice speaks as a person, not as rules and regulations, and it is a person you are called to become. Then, what if by conscience, we mean an inner voice that personifies your ideals? Still not quite. That’s because this better version of you that you’re called to become is not quite God per se. Once you become that person, there’s yet better version of you beckoning you onward, and that is how it will be every time. So, more precisely put, “God” will forever speak to you through the person you can become, continually inviting you on a journey. And this journey is what the Bible calls, “walking with God,” and what Christians call “following after Jesus Christ.” And there may be times you will falter, and times when you just plop down, saying you’re too tired. That’s fine—well, perhaps not fine—but, God will wait, continuing to reach toward you, beckoning you, speaking to you, sometimes gently, sometimes firmly, and sometimes urgently.
And so, something within Cain addresses him in his anger and dejection, and it is a better version of him, through which the voice of God personally speaks to us. And the voice says, you know what you’re lacking. What God says, according to Genesis, is notably lacking in detail; there is no mention of what Cain specifically needs to do, such as say, he needs to bring a different offering. It is as if God was saying, “Cain, you already know. Your relation with reality, your world, your life can be more than it is now, and you know why it isn’t. And you know how to change it.”
And it is here that what we call conscience has some connection with what God speaks to us. Conscience is about what we ourselves already know is right—or at least, know as far as we can right now. What God speaks is far more than what conscience can tell us, because God speaks what we may not know yet. And our conscience may be misled, misinformed, or in some cases, even malformed; we have moral compasses, but there’s no guarantee that our compass won’t break, or is a bad product to begin with. So, say, according to your compass, the North Star is shining in the west, and the sun is rising in the north. Then, you should stop and look around, check your bearings, and probably get a new compass. But, if that’s not what’s going on, and you’re just ignoring your compass, then you will become lost in your journey. If you’re ignoring your conscience, about what you yourself believe, to the best of your knowledge, to be right, then your conscience may still be wrong, but you are definitely wrong.
God speaks to Cain, and what God speaks is what his conscience also says. You know where you’ve been going wrong. A better version of himself, through which God beckons to Cain, says, “Bring your life, bring your work, in the way you know you should have, and you know God will have regard for what you bring.”
And God speaking to us is more than just a voice that speaks within us. For Cain, God also spoke through the life of his little brother, Abel. Cain likely wanted to think that God had regard for what Abel brought, only because God favored Abel over him; but, God speaks up, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” Cain need not be Abel; Cain can also do what Abel has done. How Abel related to God—to reality, to Life—is a better version of Cain that he could yet become.
Then, God adds, “Watch out! Sin is crouching at your door, and desires to rule you. You must rule over it!” Because the voice of God has competition. And it says, can God be trusted? Will God respond favorably if you change? Maybe God still won’t have regard for what you bring. What then? And why should you change? Why should reality be like this, that what you’ve brought to it so far isn’t good enough! Why should the world be like this, that you need to humble yourself and learn, and learn your little brother! How humiliating! How frustrating! If only…
If only Abel didn’t exist.
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If only my little brother was never born. Or, maybe if I was never born. Then, I wouldn’t have to experience all of this. Even if thorns and thistles grew in my field, even if I felt unfulfilled, empty, and lacking, if Abel didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have to think that I have a problem—that my relation to Reality, that what I’ve brought to God, was deficient and wrong. I wouldn’t need to feel like a failure. If only Abel didn’t exist. If only God didn’t speak Abel into being.
If only God didn’t speak.
And so, Genesis reports that Cain said then to Abel, “let’s go out to the field.” And then, when they were in the field, Cain killed Abel.
What God spoke to him was this. “Cain, you are better than that. You can become someone whose life and work will be meaningful; God will yet have regard for what you bring. You know this yourself already”
Cain ignored that voice. He does more than just ignore it. He kills that voice within himself. And there is something irrevocable about killing. You can falter, and you can stop, and you can plug your ears for a while to the voice that speaks to you. But, you can also reject what it speaks so completely and with such finality, that it will not speak those words again. The problem is, even as he kills that voice of God within himself, God is still speaking through his little brother, Abel. How Abel lives will continually embody the words Cain rejected. So, he needs to kill him too. In the New Testament, Jesus would include Abel on the list of the prophets and sages through whom God spoke, and who were killed because of it.
Then, God speaks to Cain again—but this time, God is speaking something else.
The LORD speaks, “Where is your brother, Abel?”
“I don’t know,” Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
There is something strange about Cain’s answer. He doesn’t simply lie, saying, “I don’t know.” He cannot resist adding, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” which is to say, “Why should I have to watch over him!” Nobody said he should. But, the thing is, Cain was his brother’s keeper; Abel was his little brother, and he probably followed Cain around as a child, looking up at him with admiration that kids often have for their older siblings. But, Cain cast away that role. He cast away his responsibility, along with everything that made him Abel’s big brother. He cast them away just as he cast away the person he could have become before God—just as he cast away God that spoke to him. He cast them all away, before he killed his brother; he cast them away, so that he could kill his brother.
Killing someone kills a part of you; that’s part of the deal. It involves discarding every part of you that formed a relationship with that person. And killing what God speaks to you, kills what you could have become, and that involves killing every part of you now that enables you to become that person. And so you are left with a piece of yourself, as death takes over the rest; you become lesser, and until you become numb to that loss, you know what you’ve lost.
So, Cain snaps at God, only to have God speak, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are cursed and banished from the ground, which swallowed your brother’s blood from your hands. No longer will the ground yield crops for you, no matter how hard you work! And you will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
God is speaking how Life will now unfold for Cain. He has killed, and shed blood— and for the ancient Hebrews, blood signified the very substance of life. And the ground, the world Cain inhabits, had received his brother’s life-blood. And what Cain did, shapes the world he will now inhabit. His life and work no longer will bring forth any meaningful fruit. That’s because by killing Abel, Cain had killed the very voice that beckoned him toward living that kind of life. Through Abel, God was speaking to Cain of a version of himself that he could become, whose life and work he brings to God will be accepted, a life where he engages Reality more truthfully, lovingly, and courageously, to bring forth something worthwhile out it. But, Cain rejected that version of himself, and rejected it irrevesibly by killing his brother, that this life is now impossible. And the blood—the lost life—of his little brother cries out as a testimony that this is so.
And so, Cain got his wish. He wouldn’t have to feel his failures and frustrations, if his brother was never born; or if he himself was never born, he thought. Now, it will be, for him, as if neither of them were ever born. And from now on, he wouldn’t feel his failures and frustrations, because now, there is nothing to fail at. He has killed what he was being called to become. That is why God says, Cain will now be a restless wanderer. That’s because Cain no longer has a destination; he has no goal to strive for, no relationship to maintain. He’s headed nowhere, and so will simply wander aimlessly, meaninglessly, to the end of his life.
Genesis then reports that Cain left God’s presence, and settled in the land of Nod, which means, “land of wandering.”
But, before he leaves, Cain pleads with God because he is afraid that someone else will kill him too. Cain now realizes—and is terrified—that what he has done to his brother, others can now readily do too. As to where these “other” people can come from, is another question, and one I think, is not as important. For now, we want to follow what God speaks in response.
“Not so,” God speaks. “I will give a sevenfold punishment to anyone who kills you.” And God puts a mark on Cain, as a warning to anyone who would kill him.
But why? Part of the reason is according to Christianity, God is always more merciful than we’d imagine. But, there is another; God is speaking how reality will unfold because of Cain’s actions, and this is part of it.
Which is: now that Cain has brought murder into this world, murder is a habit.
[ pendulum ]
What God was doing by leaving a mark of warning to protect Cain, is, I think, a way to forestall the downward path humanity was now descending. Cain has responded to what God speaks, to the things he faces in Life—the challenges, the frustrations, and even a calling to a better version of himself—by silencing the voice of God irreversibly. And with that, death, violence, and rejection now become a viable way humanity will respond to Life—because that’s easier.
Everything in Life we do not want to face, we’ll try to ignore, but when we can do so no longer, we will have either face them, or kill and silence anything or anyone that somehow make us face them. So, instead of engaging reality and everything that unfolds, reject and denigrate everything as worthless; instead of dialoguing and understanding those who differ from us, vilify and disparage them; instead of facing up to our own inadequacies and unfulfilled life, pour out our resentment and frustration on those we can get away with blaming our woes—children or spouse we can abuse, that migrant worker taking away your job, that co-worker that got a raise, who we can slander, our parents who didn’t treat us right. Because that’s easier than heeding the call of that voice, that better version of you, through which the voice of God beckons, saying, “If you do what is right, won’t God have regard for what you’ve brought?”
And what if Cain’s example becomes the norm? What if more people do what Cain has done, and kill those around them, who are like Abel, and by doing so, kill the very person they could have become—that God was beckoning them to become? What if it becomes something like a point of boasting? So that Life itself, the way Abel lived, becomes something to be sneered at, to be mocked and jeered?
In his meaningless wandering, Cain builds a city. And his descendants live in it, and they become the builders of civilization. Greatest among them is Lamech; and as the first display of his power, he takes two women as his wives. And they bear him three sons and a daughter. Genesis reports that one of his sons was the first of all who play harp or flute—the first musician. Another son is described as the first to raise livestock—remember that Abel bringing his livestock to God was more of a figurative way of saying he brought his life and work in general. Lamech’s third son was the first of metalsmith, forging tools of bronze and iron. The daughter was named Naamah, which may mean “beauty,” or “pleasure,” and thus bringer of the arts and pleasure. And Lamech, who is thus the father of music, arts, pleasure, animal husbandry, and metalcraft, sings this song to his two wives.
“I’ve killed a man for attacking me, and a young man for striking me,” he says. “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, I will be avenged seventy-seven fold!”
When Cain murdered his brother, and God declared that no one is to use that as justification to kill him; those who do, will be punished sevenfold. That’s because that’s how violence works—an act of violence pushes one to a harsher retribution, and that retribution will be met with even greater violence. That is how blood feuds work, for example. But, now, Lamech, the father of civilization, deliberately invokes the words God spoke to Cain. Cain is avenged sevenfold, but I’ll be sure to avenge myself seventy-sevenfold. Any opposition he faces will be dealt with, by killing. A mere attack, a single wound, will merit death. And he celebrates violence and the casual disregard for Life in a song to the two women he possesses.
Murder has become a habit—a hobby and a sport. Violence has become the go-to response to oppositions. Death has become the answer to Life. And this has become the foundation of human civilization, built by Cain.
And such a world inevitably unravels.
[ closing music ]
So, please join me next time, as we continue to explore the slow, unnoticed unraveling of the world as we follow the line of humanity after Cain and Abel, eventually to Noah, and the Great Flood.
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