Harvest Festival with a Tragic End (Genesis 4:1-7)
Der Genter Altar ist ein mehrteiliger Flügelaltar. Was das ist, weißt du ja jetzt schon von Meister Bertrams Altar. Unser Bild beﬁndet sich in einem Bogenfeld rechts außen, oben in einer Nische, über einem großen Bild von Eva. Gegenüber ist das Opfer der beiden Brüder zu sehen, über einem großen Bild von Adam. Beide Geschichten, nämlich die von Adam und Eva und die von Kain und Abel, erzählen sozusagen dasselbe. Dasselbe? Ja, denn sie wollen uns zeigen, wie es am Anfang der Menschheit war. Zunächst war alles friedlich. Doch dann haben die Menschen Gottes Gebote missachtet und gesündigt. Deshalb durften sie nicht mehr bleiben: Adam und Eva mussten das Paradies verlassen, und Kain musste wegziehen. Die Menschen damals haben sich beide Geschichten erzählt, um zu erklären, warum es Böses in der Welt gibt.
Fig. 1: Jan van Eyck (before 1395–1441), Ghent Altarpiece: The Sacrifice of Cain and Abel, 1425–29. Left outer panel (upper alcove). Oil on panel. Ghent, St. Bavo Cathedral.
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.” Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 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, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “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.”
Why, we ask ourselves, does God accept Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s? Did the narrator simply want to demonstrate the power of the Lord? Our text gives no answer. Are we to infer that Abel offered his sacrifice with greater devotion (“the fat portions of the firstlings”) as opposed to Cain of whom we only hear that he offered “the fruit of the ground”? Or could this episode be evidence of a high regard for shepherds and pastoral life which is manifested, for example, in the early life of national heroes such as Joseph, Moses, and David? It is striking, too, that God prefers to choose the younger brothers to accomplish His great plans. “The story of Cain and Abel thus demonstrates a theme widespread in the Tanakh: the difference between God’s will and human conventions, such as primogeniture (the rights of the firstborn). In this text, the emphasis falls, however, not on the reasons for God’s preference, but on Cain’s fatal and culpable refusal to reconcile himself to it” (Jewish Study Bible 2004, 19). Cain is unwilling to come to terms with God’s decision which he deems wrong. God should have reassured him in his role as the firstborn, instead of accepting the offering of his younger, inferior brother. He only sees his brother as a troublemaker. His answer to God’s incomprehensible refusal is burning jealousy and, ultimately, brute force.
Der Genter Altar ist ein mehrteiliger Flügelaltar. Was das ist, weißt du ja jetzt schon von Meister Bertrams Altar. Unser Bild beﬁndet sich in einem Bogenfeld reThis altarpiece is comprised of many panels. What you see here in detail is located on the right wing at the very top in a small alcove. Directly below, Eve is portrayed in a large picture. In symmetry to Eve, Adam is presented on the outer left panel beneath the offering of both brothers. Why do we see Adam and Eve beneath Cain and Abel? The stories of Adam and Eve and of Cain and Abel have something in common. Both recount how humans are disobedient to God. Maybe both stories want to convey how things were in the beginning of mankind. At first, everything was peaceful. A wonderful paradise existed: no quarrels, no hatred, and no worries. But then people violated God’s commandments, and they were expelled from paradise. This is how an explanation for all the evil in the world was found.
Fig. 2: Jan van Eyck, Cain Murders Abel.
Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother‘s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch. When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred thirty years; and he died.
The name “Abel,” hevel in Hebrew, means “breath” or “breeze” and could be an allusion to his short life without offspring; he is one who leaves nothing behind, the epitome of vanity and transience (cf. the meaning of Hebrew hevel in the Book of Ecclesiastes, translated as “vanity of vanities” or “utter futility”).
Fig. 1: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/30/Jan_van_Eyck_-The_Ghent_Altarpiece–The_Offering_of_Abel_and_Cain–WGA07627.jpg Fig. 2: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5c/Jan_van_Eyck–The_Ghent_Altarpiece–The_Killing_of_Abel-_WGA07635.jpg
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.