Mercy for Cain

During this fasting season, all Orthodox parishes are reading through Genesis and Proverbs during Vespers (evening prayer service.) Yesterday and today the evening readings include the account of Cain from Genesis 4. In English, the Orthodox text reads:

The Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his sacrifices. So Cain was extremely sorrowful, and his countenance fell. So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you extremely sorrowful? And why has your face fallen? If you offer correctly but do not divide correctly, have you not sinned? Be still. He will come back to you; and you shall rule over him.”

Abel, the younger brother, brings a sacrifice that pleases God; Cain, the elder, finds his offering rejected, and because of envy his relationship with his brother is broken. The Lord sees Cain’s pain of heart and reaches out to him. He counsels patience: Give your brother time and he will come back to you (Brenton: “to thee shall be his submission.”)

An elder in Romania pointed out that in the Church's text of Genesis 4:7, after Cain’s sin, God invited him to become the first hesychast. God says, “Imartes? Isihason.” (Have you sinned? Become silent.)

Now Cain talked with Abel his brother and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. Then God said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He replied, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Thus God said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You will be groaning and trembling on the earth.”

Then Cain said to the Lord, “My guilt is too great to be forgiven! Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be groaning and trembling on the earth. Then it will happen, if anyone finds me, he will kill me.”

So the Lord God said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” Thus the Lord set a sign on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him. Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod [lit. wandering] opposite Eden.

I’m impressed with Cain’s awareness of how he’s broken fellowship with God, and with God’s compassion toward him. God offers Cain a promise that, if he’ll be patient, then Abel will come to him and serve him — if he’ll only wait and trust. Repentance and restoration are always available to Cain. But Cain can’t believe he can be forgiven, so he walks away from reconciliation.

This is one of the places where the LXX/Old Greek and the medieal Masoretic texts of the Old Testament draw from different text traditions; and here I appreciate the way the Church's text clearly shows God's desire to be reconciled.

The good and loving God seeks Cain’s restoration. But Cain insists, “My guilt is too great to be forgiven!”

What a loss that Cain could not believe in the reality of repentance or the greatness of God's mercy.