The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 is typically understood as a human story of sibling rivalry and the dangers of giving in to jealousy, resentment, and anger. If we read the story with ecological lenses, however, the story deepens. Let’s look for what is hiding in plain sight - the connections between Cain, Abel, God, and the ground.
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 face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face 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 rule over it. 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.
The first thing to notice is that the brothers’ births and eventual vocations – shepherd and farmer – are a fulfillment of God’s commands to be fruitful and multiply, to rule over domesticated animals, and to work the soil. God’s plan for creation continues, and humans remain part of it, despite the fraying of relationships that come from Adam and Eve’s disobedience.
It is also worth noticing that the brothers’ act of worship – offering portions of their labor to God – is presented as a natural part of life. There is no temple or priesthood, no lengthy laws or instructions. It appears to be an obvious part of life, woven into their intimate relationship to the land and to God. It is unclear why God accepts Abel’s offering and not Cain’s (it may be because Abel offers the very best of his flock). Whatever the reason, Cain takes the rejection very personally, and God warns him against letting his anger and resentment fester – he must “rule” over it – this may be an intentional connection to the same kind of mastery and skill needed to care for and tend his animals.
Cain does not listen to God, and lets his anger turn into action. Soon Abel is dead. God’s interrogation of Cain sounds a lot like the examination of his parents in Genesis 3; a question (“Where is your brother Abel?”), followed by a dodge/denial (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”). God knows where Abel is, of course, and his response to Cain is worth reading again.
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.
Note that God found out about the murder because Abel’s blood cried out from the ground – the very soil Cain was meant to tend in order to support and extend life. God is clearly in relationship with the non-human world, and his command to Cain to listen may be inviting Cain to hear the cry of injustice rising from the earth as well.
It is not only Abel who has been violated – the soil has as well, for it “opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” And so it seems appropriate that the soil mediates the curse; it will “no longer yield to you its strength.” Cain’s violence is an intensification of human selfishness and violence, so it makes sense that his curse is an intensification of the curse against his father Adam, who was still able to produce food from the soil through strenuous labor. The painful outcome of Cain’s curse is that he “will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
Cain knows his life is in danger, for he has fractured the interconnected and life-giving relationships of family, soil, and God. It is interesting to note that when Cain laments his curse, his distress is not from being separated from his parents but from being “driven from the land” and “hidden from [God’s] presence.” Despite another dramatic failure, God shows humans grace, marking Cain with a sign of protection as he wanders.
Echoes in Scripture
The connections between violence and the earth, between blood and soil, continue to emerge as the biblical story moves forward. In Genesis, it reaches a climax in the flood story, where we are told that “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence” (6:11). The flood is God’s drastic decision to wash the earth clean and start over.
God begins again with the family of Noah, and eventually the people of Israel. When God gives Israel instructions for how they are to live, the connections between people, violence, and the land are explicit. The final command in the book of Numbers makes lays it out clearly:
Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it. Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the LORD, dwell among the Israelites. (Numbers 35:33)
The prophets do their best to hold Israel accountable to these commands. In particular, Hosea laments that Israel is failing, and speaks of the resulting consequences in direct connection to Genesis 1:
There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away. Hosea 4:2-3
It is not hard to imagine Hosea speaking the same words to us today.
The human impulse toward anger, jealousy, greed, and violence continues to lurk at our door, and we have not mastered it. What has changed is the scale of consequences, for our human brothers and sisters, and for the earth as a whole.
One slogan of Nazi Germany was “Blood and Soil,” which combined an ideology of ethnic purity (blood) with an ideology of agrarian production (soil) to help justify violence against non-Germans and the violent takeover of non-German lands. It is no surprise that it has become a slogan of contemporary white nationalists. In the United States, we carry the ongoing consequences of Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery, which justified genocide against Native Americans and the ongoing plunder of the continent’s natural abundance. If we listen carefully, do we hear the blood of the innocent crying out from the earth?
And it is not just spilled blood that reveals our violence. We must also consider the cost of industrial resource extraction, which has plundered the planet at the expense of the poor. We must consider the ocean of chemicals that we have poured into the land to extract every ounce of its abundance.
It is no wonder that one of the most pressing problems of the modern age is rootlessness, the sense that so many of us are restless wanderers, disconnected from place and people. The curse of Cain continues.
Breaking the Curse
Perhaps the most important part of the story of Cain and Abel for us is God’s command to listen. Do we hear God’s lament over what we have done, collectively and individually? Do we hear the cry of the poor who continue to suffer the brunt of modern life? Do we hear the cry of the earth as it continues to open its mouth to the blood of the innocent and the poisons of progress?
If we hear it, what then do we do? Perhaps the most important things to do are to keep listening and sit in our grief and loss like Job, who declared,
My face is red with weeping, dark shadows ring my eyes; yet my hands have been free of violence and my prayer is pure. Earth, do not cover my blood; may my cry never be laid to rest! Job 16:16-18
To do that we must repent of our violence, learning to be content with our place before God, with each other, and on the earth. We must learn to settle down and settle in, to resist restless wandering and ceaseless craving. We must find ways to be at home and at peace.
This is a difficult task. The good news is that the story does not end with the blood of Abel. God continues the work of creation, and continues to show mercy and grace to us when we resist that work. Violence also continues, but another way is possible by Jesus, who willingly took upon himself the violence of humanity and broke its power. In the words of the author of Hebrews, Jesus’ blood “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel" (12:24).
It is our calling to work together so that we, too, can speak that better word.
With you on the Way,
I have certainly not exhausted the possibilities, connections, or applications of this story. If you have additional observations, ideas or questions, feel free to add a comment or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.