H/T: Daily Reflections with Patrick Henry Reardon (here)
“Flee from sin as from the face of a serpent, for
if you come too near to it, it will bite you.” (Sirach 21:2)
Genesis 4: This chapter does not tell why God favored Abel’s sacrifice, while rejecting that of Cain. For the answer to this question we must go to Hebrews 11:4: “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts.” We also observe that this is the first of many biblical instances where God chooses the younger son over the elder (Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph and David over their older brothers, and so forth).
In verse 7 the Lord describes evil as “lying at the door” in wait for Cain. Temptation is portrayed as lurking for a man, stalking him, and Cain is exhorted to vigilance, lest he be taken by it. The Hebrew participle for “lying” here, robesh, may be better translated as “crouching.” It is related to the name of a god in Assyro-Babylonian literature known as “Rabishu,” who is described as crouching along the road, endeavoring to waylay the traveler. Cain is warned not to fool with it; it is dangerous. Cain’s mother, after all, had made the big mistake of dialoguing with the snake. Satan, however, invariably wins over those who discuss things with him. Or, as we read in Sirach 21:2, “Flee from sin as from the face of a serpent, for if you come too near to it, it will bite you.”
Cain pays no heed, nonetheless, and goes on to kill his brother (verses 8-10). The first sin leads to the second. The original alienation in Chapter 3 becomes the murder in Chapter 4. Jealousy and violence are the proper products of that first act of infidelity. Cain, the first human being begotten of human parents, is also the first murderer. This murder was not
committed in a fit of passion. Cain showed, by his response to God in verse 9, that he had closed off his heart to God. His disrespect for God was the foundation on which his murder was based. He could not have killed unless he had isolated himself from God. Moreover, by this murder Cain alienated himself from the very ground on which he walked (verses 11-12). He had begun as a farmer, but now he is alienated from the soil. He has assumed, by his sin, the impossible task of being a wandering farmer. The foundational reason for Cain’s alienation from the earth and his fellow men is his
alienation from God (verse 16).
At this point a new element enters the scene, vengeance. Cain is afraid of the retaliation that may be visited on his head because of his murder of Abel (verse 14). Violence begets violence. God’s reply to Cain in verse 15 is reassuring to Cain himself, but it further extends the domain of violence. If Cain is killed, the vengeance will be seven-fold! Then comes the building of the first city (verse 17), and it is manifestly ironical that this first great effort at this exercise of social cooperation was inaugurated by a murderer! What is said of clothing seems also true of what we may call “urban life.” God did not, at the beginning, place man in a city but in a garden. The city was fallen man’s idea. The first city was founded by the first murderer. Indeed, the first city was founded by the first fratricide, a fact that becomes the most ironical of archetypes. The irony was certainly not lost on St. Augustine, who commented at some length on the manifest travesty that such a great enterprise of brotherly cooperation should be started by a man that killed his brother. In
his lengthy The City of God, the saintly bishop of Hippo went on to compare Cain’s founding of the city of Enoch to the founding of the city of Rome by Romulus, who had killed Remus, his own brother. Man’s efforts, that is to say, are constructed with the elements of their own deterioration. Merely human efforts only disguise man’s plight for a while. The heart of all evil is alienation from God, so any society founded on that alienation has already drunk poison. It will surely die. It is abundantly curious that Cain’s descendents take up, among other things, the crafting of musical instruments. This is another example of a cultural form conceived in evil, but which God takes special care to redeem.
What we said about clothing and urban life also applies to musical instruments. Originally crafted by a descendent of Cain, they do not look promising at first. Moreover, there has often been something a bit problematic about such music, morally considered. When King Nebuchadnezzar employed “the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in
symphony with all kinds of music” for his idolatrous purposes, it was not the last instance when instrumental music served to deflect men from the worship of the true God. Yet, in fact, God rather early designated musical instruments as appropriate to His own worship in the tabernacle and the temple. And, once again, in the final book of the Bible we find heaven to be a place resonating with the sounds of trumpet and harp. Moreover, as an added irony, instrumental music is eventually limited so exclusively to the saints in heaven that the damned in hell are forever deprived of such music! The sinful descendents of Cain, the very inventors of harp and flute, will never hear them again, inasmuch as the “sound of harpists, musicians, flutists, and trumpeters shall not be heard in you anymore” (Revelation 18:22). These things are now reserved for the blessed.