Lenten Blog | February 28, 2023
What if God plays favourites?
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for February 28th: Genesis 4:1-16; Psalm 32; and Hebrews 4:14—5:10. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
We may all have heard the story of Cain and Abel since Sunday School. Do you remember why Cain’s offering was unacceptable to God? Were you told it was because it was a poor offering, definitely not the best of the harvest? Go back to the Genesis selection and read it again. Is that message in the text? It is true that Abel’s offering is described as “the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions,” but is there anything there describing Cain’s offering as insulting or inferior? Maybe it is implied when no superlatives are attached to Cain’s offering, but the text itself is silent.
We strive to find some reason for God’s reaction to avoid the unpleasant notion of divine favourtism. However, what if the biblical author is not as offended as are our current sensibilities? It has long been noted by scholars that this story represents the conflict between agricultural and pastoral ways of life. Israel’s origins trace back to nomadic, pastoral peoples. Their counterparts were the city dwellers. Israel’s origins trace back to tribes that lived among the less populated, less arable lands of Canaan’s hills where they established simple settlements supported by herding. Their city-dwelling counterparts established monumental architecture and lived in hierarchical societies on the plains, which were all made possible through agriculture.
Cain represents the city dweller, the one dependent upon agriculture. Abel, on the other hand, represents the pastoral peoples that gave rise in their small, transitory settlements in the hills to the worship of Yahweh. Accordingly, in the biblical text of these same pastoral people, Abel’s offering from the herd is related as pleasing to God, while Cain’s offering from the fields is not. What the text may actually be saying is that there was nothing wrong with Cain’s offering. Rather, it was that God preferred Abel’s offering because it was Abel’s offering. By extension, Yahweh was not pleased by the people of the city. They were the-other to those who were the ones at the beginning of Israel’s story. Yahweh preferred the offering from the flock because Yahweh preferred the ones who made that offering.
This divine favourtism is not something that may appeal to us today, but these are ancient stories that speak to an ancient mindset. Last week we read from the Book of Jonah, a later writing. Jonah tried to flee from Yahweh by sailing so far to the West that God would not be there. You may remember that this did not work out well for the prophet. But what do we encounter today? After Cain’s act of fratricide is discovered by God, Cain is punished by banishment. We read, “Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” The implication of this is that Yahweh is not there, it is “away from the presence of the Lord.” Yahweh in this sense is a territorial god, a god among other territorial gods. This is called henotheism and it is defined as the adherence to one particular god out of several. This perspective helps us understand who the people are who Cain is afraid of after God banishes him. In the story of Eden, the world’s population has just dropped from four to three. These others must be people of no account to the biblical tradition. They must be people of other gods. Again, this is an ancient myth struggling to define the world’s reality and it should be read as such, and not as a modern reader yelling “Gotcha” at a biblical discrepancy. This is to treat the text as naïve if not ignorant.
So what we have in this selection is an account of Yahweh simply favouring Yahweh’s people. The biblical author witnessed to a faith in God as preferring Israel. This was their God and they were God’s people. Before we jump to accusations about how unfair this is to the-other, let’s appreciate it for what it is. The loose knit tribes of a confederation held together by belief in a local deity named Yahweh were always imperiled by nature and by civilization. Their lives and connections were precarious. The thought of a divinity that favoured them must have been hugely encouraging and supportive. This is the message of their faith I think we need to focus upon.
Then, with the passage of time, comes Jesus. Jesus is God’s expansion of this divine protection of God’s people. No longer are God’s people those scattered and threatened tribes in the mountains of Canaan. In Jesus, God reveals that all people are God’s people. Think about what it says in Hebrews today. We have a Saviour who suffered so that He could sympathize “with our weaknesses.” Who has not suffered? No one. Jesus goes to the cross because even when it comes to suffering and death He will not betray the universal connection He has with all people. It is this universal connection that leads the anonymous author of Hebrews to declare without distinction, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness.” Jesus, especially Jesus crucified, gives us the boldness to beseech God because in Jesus God has stated without exception that we are all, sinner and saint alike, God’s favourites.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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