1 Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, "I have produced a man with the help of the LORD." 2 Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6 The LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 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."
What was it that made God so displeased with Cain? The most common explanation is that Abel gave his first firstlings while Cain brought an offering of fruit and grain, not necessarily first fruits. Therefore, God was displeased with the offering. Clearly this is a possibility, although it is not obvious from the text. But there may be another way of seeing this passage.
The only clear distinction we find between Cain and Abel is, “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.” So why would this have any significance? Shepherds are nomadic and tillers are settled. What is the one mission God had given to humanity?
God blessed them [Adam and Eve], and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." Gen 1:28 NRSV
Based on their lifestyles, which of these two brothers was more likely to move about the earth and expand the inhabited area? Is it possible that God was displeased with Cain because Cain’s offering was symbolic of Cain’s refusal to “fill the earth?” Instead, Cain chose to put down roots (literally) and remain planted where he was. “If you do well…” God asks. Do well at what? Following the mission God gave to fill the earth.
Cain created an illusion of control, comfort and self-reliance. He came to rely upon his own efforts to control his environment and not upon God’s provisional care as he lived out God’s mission. God disillusioned Cain. Cain was left to confront his delusion of human autonomy and selfishness. Was it Cain’s failure to offer legitimate sacrifice or was it the very nature of the work Cain was doing? Either way, Cain was confronted with a choice. Cain could turnaround from his delusion and enter authentic relationship with God, or Cain could redouble his efforts to manufacture illusions that gave him comfort in his delusion.
But this is not just the stuff of Old Testament stories. It is the very existence of the Church today. Several millennia after Cain and Abel, God stepped into the world in a personal way. He told his followers to go to their home towns, to Judea, to Samaria and to the utter most parts of the earth, and fill the earth with his disciples.
Instead we have decided to set down roots and plant crops that leave us comfortable and in control. We will not make the sacrifice God expects of us. Instead of expanding out into our communities and the world, we have become angry and resist anything that threatens our comforting illusions. We protect our delusions at all costs.
But God is disillusioning us to see his authenticity. As the institutions that have gave our delusions illusionary support crumble around us, like Cain, we have a choice. And if you listen closely, in congregations all across the land you will hear these words reverberate:
"Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 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."