The Shedding of Blood – 2: Cain

Posted: February 19, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology
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Running through the OT is a polemic contrasting two different sacrificial approaches, and this issue of human sacrifice is at the heart of the matter. Even before the problem of sacrifice to other gods becomes a theme after the exodus, the problem of human sacrifice is already in the spotlight.

From the beginning, in Genesis 4, Abel’s murder at the hands of his brother occurs in a context of sacrifice. Cain has offered ‘the fruit of the ground’, and been rejected, while Abel’s meat offering was accepted. Cain’s next move is to pour out his brother’s blood on the ground. This aspect of the pouring out of the blood is emphasised by repetition in Yahweh’s indictment:

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.  Gen. 4:10-11

This image of the blood poured out on the ground is typical sacrificial imagery. The idea of ‘the ground’ links Cain’s offering and his murder. No doubt Cain was motivated to murder by jealous rage. But he has also done something to the ground which had born him inadequate fruit: he has poured blood on it, human blood. This would be a natural-enough practice for an ANE person, and it would probably be natural for an early reader to see a sacrificial dimension in the text.

Yahweh makes it clear that Cain’s act was totally misguided. Far from bringing blessing on the ground, this pouring out of human blood has cursed it (4:11-12). Abel’s animal sacrifice was accepted, but the blood Cain has poured out it an abomination. This theme of the polluting of the land by human sacrifice, will recur through the OT (cf. Numbers 35:33) – an ongoing disagreement with other religions which saw it as a source of prosperity and blessing.

Cain, convinced of his crime, is now worried that someone else will seek to atone for his murder by shedding his blood. This righting of the balance by bloodshed seems to have been the natural scheme of things. God places a mark on Cain, to make sure that no one else follows his lead and sheds his blood to atone for the murder.

The point is not so much to understand Cain’s motives, which were clearly wicked, but to see the way his actions are portrayed in the story. The writer (call him Moses), will go on to develop this human sacrifice issue extensively: not surprising if he sees it foreshadowed in this story, with its contrast between the first animal sacrifice and the first shedding of human blood.

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