Because life is a series of edits

Of Murder, Offerings & Dogma

In Calling, Education, Westminster on January 12, 2008 at 12:46 pm

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been slow with original material. I think this is due to an experience earlier this week in my Biblical Ethics class that has caused me to pause ever since with regard to creating content. Let me explain.

We began walking through the sixth commandment (“You shall not murder”), and it seemed good to me to start talking about murder by studying the first murder, that of Cain killing Abel (Genesis 4:1-16). Though my students were still groggy from their holiday break, they engaged with the story enough to find it interesting, particularly God accepting Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. Why did God choose one over the other?

Well, actually, I explained, God didn’t choose one over the other; He accepted Abel’s and (in grace) gave Cain the opportunity to do what was right and his would be accepted, too:

“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7)

Cain, of course, did not receive these words (in grace or otherwise), summoned Abel to go with him to the field, and killed him – the world’s first pre-meditated murder.

Even after the crime, I explained, God still showed grace to Cain by protecting him and caring for him – now a murderer. My students were fascinated (they’d never been taught that the God of the Old Testament was in the business of so much grace), but they still wanted to know the difference between the sacrifices.

What are the possibilities for understanding God’s different responses to Cain and Abel? I hadn’t had time to do an in-depth study beforehand, but here were the three options I came up with on the fly:

  • The first has to do with the fact that “Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” (Genesis 4:3); in other words, Cain brought something while Abel brought his best
  • The second is the attitude with which each brought their sacrifices (though from the text, that’s incredibly difficult to nail down apart from God’s response to both)
  • The third is that Abel brought a blood sacrifice, whereas Cain’s was only a grain offering and wouldn’t have been appropriate for an atonement offering (it seems to me God’s sacrificial system for atonement was initiated when God killed an animal to clothe Adam and Eve and make atonement for their sin in the Garden)

While I alluded to all of these possibilities as seeming valid, I spoke too dogmatically about the atonement option, so much so that by the end of my third section of students, I found myself dismissing the others more than I meant to. At the end of the day, not feeling right about all I had taught, I came home that evening and spent 45 minutes flipping through the pages of some of my study books (I don’t have all of them at school).

What did I find? All three of my perspectives were indeed in the ballpark of possibility, but the atonement option (that is, the one I landed on) is the weakest of the three as viable. Why? Because in the Hebrew, the word used for “offering” is almost always used in reference to a thank offering, not a blood offering; thus, the first option (and even the second) makes more biblical and grammatical sense than the third.

Nuts.

I hate feeling like a loose cannon with the Bible (this is part of why I sensed the need to come to seminary later in life), and I should have studied more than I did on the front end of teaching this passage than on the back end. Lesson learned (or re-learned).

However, the real lesson for me was learning just how dangerous repetition can be for those of us who teach or preach (or campaign) on a regular basis. The more we hear ourselves saying something – getting better at saying it as we go – the more we run the risk of convincing ourselves how right we are in saying it, regardless of our dogma and its degree of truth.

Teaching is hard; re-teaching is humbling. I did both this week, and am glad for the grace and chance to have been able to do so.

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  1. Thanks for the tale; that’s happened to me, as well. In fact, I think students learn lessons best when those lessons begin with the words, “I was wrong in yesterday’s class when I said…”

    But hey– it looks like that Hebrew IS good for something, after all… who knew?

  2. Don’t be fooled by my Old Testament exegetical skills, Ed. An F.F. Bruce commentary was all the Hebrew I needed for this one.

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