My youngest son is named Abel, so you can imagine the horror I experienced when I looked out the window one day to see his older brother, just shy of three years old at the time, walking toward Abel with a large rock lifted above his head. Scary for any parent, sure, but particularly so for those foolhardy enough to name their child after the Bible’s first victim of domestic violence.
In Genesis 4, just after God expels Adam and Eve from Eden for eating from the one tree, sin crouches at Cain’s door, and he does not overcome it. The seed from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had taken root, grown, and blossomed in ways Adam and Eve surely could not have imagined. What’s more, Cain’s sin and its consequences reveal the disturbing pattern that we know all too well: the punishment doesn’t always fit the crime, at least from our human perspective.
When Adam and Eve sinned, they suffered immediate and devastating consequences. When Cain sinned, though, Abel was the one who suffered. According to Deuteronomy, which would come much later than this story, Abel should have lived a long and full life, with wealth and plenty of children and time to spend with them (see Deut 7:9–15). Cain, on the other hand, should have experienced sickness, disease, death, barrenness, and a whole host of other terrifying consequences. Instead, Abel died childless at a (presumably) young age, while Cain went on to live a long life, have several children, and even found a city.
We catch a glimpse of God’s grace here, but it’s a glimpse that makes me, for one, pretty uncomfortable.
That’s not to say that Cain didn’t suffer; certainly he did: “So now you are cursed, alienated from the ground that opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood you have shed. If you work the ground, it will never again give you its yield. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth” (Gen 4:11–12, CSB). Yet God allowed Cain to live and prosper, and God even answered Cain’s cry for mercy by marking Cain “so that whoever found him would not kill him” (Gen 4:15, CSB). We catch a glimpse of God’s grace here, but it’s a glimpse that makes me, for one, pretty uncomfortable. I’m not sure how to reconcile my discomfort with God’s grace toward Cain, but I suspect that may be part of what this story is trying to teach us. That is, we are not God, and so it is not up to us to dispense or withhold grace.
Nevertheless, right here, just four chapters into the Bible, we face the reality of injustice in this life, the reality that the righteous innocent suffer while the violent wicked prosper. Later in the Bible we’ll learn that God will one day set everything right, but right now—as it was in Genesis 4—we have to wrestle with injustice and suffering. And, as Rich Mullins put it, “scrape to find the faith to ask for daily bread.” I don’t know why God protected Cain and allowed him to live. I don’t know why God didn’t protect Abel or allow him to live. But I find comfort in this part of the story because it reminds me that the world was turned upside down long before I entered it, and God reigned then as he reigns now.
My wife and I didn’t name our son Abel to commemorate the world’s first murder, but rather because we want Abel to always bring his best to God, to serve God faithfully, and to live as a constant witness to the Creator of the universe. In the midst of all that hope for Abel’s future, though, is the devastating truth that his namesake’s narrative is embedded in what I can only describe as injustice. Cain—not Abel—lived and prospered and saw his children and children’s children grow up. So I pray that my Abel also remembers that God’s ways are mysterious and that “he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45, CSB). Even so, God remains trustworthy and righteous, and we stand in a long line of people seeing and experiencing injustice and yet holding out hope for God’s righteous rule.