Tuesday, February 17, 2015

What is the overarching story line of the Bible? (Part 3)

This is a very personal journey for me. I have concluded for myself that a dominant story line (Part 1) told to me from childhood and which I adopted as part of my baptism when I became a Christian in 1982 at the age of 20 hasn't made me a better disciple of Jesus. It actually made me less loving, more judgmental, and overly concerned with getting to heaven and avoiding hell - both for myself and for others.

I'm not putting that on you; just saying what is so for me and what is now a realization and conviction.

To give that story line up that is so dominant didn't come without a lot of soul searching, prayer and study. It felt like I was giving up some core belief that might set me on the very path I wanted to avoid. (For those of you who know me, Yes: I'm referring to the ever-living lake of fire!) I defined my faith primarily by "right belief" rather than trusting relationship. And when you do that, it's awfully hard to let something go you've been told is the only right belief even when you know it is standing in the way of experiencing God vitally and joyfully.

In my last piece (Part 2) I took the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and suggested another story line - one that makes me more loving to God, my neighbor, and even my enemy. I want to continue running with that story line in Genesis.

Cain and Abel
The story in Genesis continues east of the Garden. It picks up with two brothers; an older one named Cain and a younger one named Abel, both sons of Adam and  Eve. Cain is a settled farmer; Abel is a nomadic herder.

Unknown, Cain and Abel, ivory panel from the cathedral of Salerno, ca. 1084.

As the story goes they both bring and offering from their respective lives. Cain brings food from the ground as a gift to God. Abel brought the best parts of the firstborn from his flock. God accepts Abel's, while not accepting Cain's. Does God appreciate the simple, trusting relationship that Abel's nomadic life instills in him more than the settled, farm life with its characteristic borders, boundaries, possessions and defense? Is God saying something about the kind of person produced by these two ways of life?

Cain grows angry with his brother Abel. God suggests to Cain to be careful, watchful, for evil is crouching at his door, sin is ready to attack and rule over him.
The Lord asked Cain, "Why are you angry? Why do you look so unhappy? If you do things well, I will accept you, but if you do not do them well, sin is ready to attack you. Sin wants you, but you must rule over it." (Gen. 4:6-7, NCV)

But feeling rejected and blaming Abel, Cain formulates a little plan. He invites Abel into his field, attacks him and kills him, then hides into his normal routines and patterns like nothing happened. Reminiscent of God searching for Adam and Eve in the Garden, God comes and asks Cain, "Where is Abel, your brother?" And after his familiar denial, "I don't know, am I my brother's keeper?", God says that he can hear the blood of Abel crying out to him from the ground.

Does God at that point strike Cain down? Cain will suffer the consequences of his actions. But not by being killed by God. Not by God condemning him to eternal conscience torment in hell. The ground will no longer respond to Cain's efforts; it will only produce poor crops, effectively meaning that he will be forced to wander the earth, which is to turn him into a nomad like the brother he murdered.

It's more than Cain can bear. His fear seethes out of his every pore:

This punishment is more than I can stand! Today you have forced me to stop working the ground, and now I must hide from you. I must wander around on the earth, and anyone who meets me can kill me." (Gen. 413-14, NCV)

Is Cain afraid of the nomadic life that exposes him to murder as it did his brother Abel?

It's here that the storyline takes an unexpected turn - unexpected, at least, compared to what most of us have been taught. God doesn't set Cain off with, "Good luck with that. If you get killed you'll just be getting what you deserve." No. God marks Cain as his very own. He shields him from harm with a mark that will show everyone who meets him that he is off limits from any violence.

But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.

This storyline - traced through Adam and Eve, and now through Cain and Abel - is a far cry from the heaven or hell one that has made us blind to God's constant faithfulness to God's creation, which will ultimately find it's best and final expression in Jesus.

But what about what follows in Genesis - the stories about Noah and the flood, Abraham and all the way to Joseph? Do we see the same thing? Wait for it...