Work from the Beginning: Genesis 4

By David Williamson, part five of a series.

The revised script, the new drama of life post-Genesis 3, starts to be played out. Chapter 4 of Genesis begins with a comforting and hopeful statement: In spite of sin and God’s judgement, God’s grace enables Eve to bear a child. Indeed, all work, all labor, all production should be with the understanding and commitment “with the help of the Lord.” Both as gift of restoration and renewal, and as part of God’s creation intention, we work with God, receiving God’s gracious participation is to be the attitude for all work. This is the contest for fulfilling our destiny. All is not lost, Cain is born, God is still at work.

Abel, the second child, is a “keeper of sheep,” while Cain is a “tiller of the ground,” a farmer. Two honored forms of work, each fulfilling a portion of God’s intention. Cain and Abel each work with God in their particular work. In it, they and their families exercise the gift of work, the labor of their hands – and minds – necessary for their mutual sustenance and well-being. There is specialization, each necessary for the well-being of others.

Cain and Abel each offer the product of their work, the “first fruits” of their labor, as an act of worship. This is intended to express thanksgiving to the source, the one ultimately responsible of the productivity of that work. Work as worship is carried into a new form. As we noted earlier, avodah can mean either work or worship. In the New Testament, we hear a direct invitation to this act of worship: Take your everyday, ordinary life, your sleeping, eating, going to work, and walking around life, and place it before God as an offering (Romans 12:1). “Whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him…Whatever your task, put yourself into it as done for the Lord (Colossians 3:17 and 23)

An awkward issue develops. God approves of Abel’s offering of meat, but not Cain’s of farm produce. Is God valuing Abel’s profession and product more than Cain’s? Or, does it have to do with a difference in the way they related to God beyond the product? The text of Genesis does not speak to this, but Hebrews 11:4 offers this comment: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.” And the witness of scripture as a whole suggests that the work and product of these two types of work are equally valuable and necessary, when produced in partnership with God.

God does not just wipe Cain out; he summons Cain to repentance, and tells him he will be accepted if he does (verses 7-8). God will accept Cain, even after rejecting his offering. This suggests to me that we are not to worry about the rewards given to other people’s work (or even our own) but to remain faithful in our relationship to God. Reward, recognition from God is God’s business. We need to take note of and be careful of jealousy and the hostile actions that come from it. Before the Fall, work is done in full participation with God. There is joy and satisfaction in that. After the Fall, human work is infected with the deadly virus of sin, often evidenced in painful even violent jealousy. It comes from taking our eye – and hand – off of work done for God, to anxious comparisons in achievement and reward status.

I am not suggesting that we naively overlook inequities and injustices. We are to work for fairness and justice. We are to remember that it is God’s work we are called to, and privileged to participate in, trusting that God will treat us well and we will be satisfied. Then we are all called to affirm our co-workers and value our individual and mutual contributions, rather than resent the recognition given to another. Grace is promised and provided.

Cain’s jealousy leads to murder. As a consequence, he is driven from the land to live the life of a restless wanderer. Yet is spite of Cain’s extreme violence and disregard for God’s gracious purposes, God has not given up on Cain. All is not lost! God still protects and promises to provide (Genesis 4:15-16) for him and for his family. As workers, we too will do harmful, hurtful, sinful things to co-workers or competitors, contrary to God’s intentions. We must face that reality and its consequences, but never doubt that God is still available. All is not lost.

Genesis 4:9 raises the classic question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Implied here is the mutual responsibility we as worker have to care for each other. We are called as workers to live as brothers and sisters, to be encouragers, challengers, whistleblowers and helpers accountable to one another. Working with God, and in responsibility to God, in partnership and with responsibility to the co-worker. Disregard is connected to bloodshed, and evokes judgement.

Cain (verse 17) is blessed by God with a child and begins to build a city. This is the first reference to a city. Cain has moved from wandering to building a city, and in it a life for his family and others. Perhaps our work is also a move from a solitary (often thought to be idyllic, Eden-like) rural setting to the intentional interdependent environment of a city. Perhaps that is the redemptive work Cain is called to do – to come back from isolated wandering, from taking his brother’s life and undermining community relationships, in order to develop a lifestyle of mutuality, settledness and community, where all can thrive. Indeed, the movement in the gospel is from Eden in Genesis to the New Jerusalem in Revelation. Perhaps his is the kingdom of God work, where we are each called to do, post-Eden, and pre-New-Jerusalem; to “seek the welfare of the city to which I have called you. For in its well-being you will fine your own (Jeremiah 29:7).

Perhaps we can see from Cain’s new work that our work is to build the city – and rebuild the cities – in anticipation of the return of the Israelites from exile. In the last year there has been considerable focus on some of the factors that have led to the destruction of cities, from COVID-19 to civil disturbance, and, for many, a renewed idealism of life away from cities. Yet there is still a need to rebuild and find the structures that help cites be safe and flourish. The New Jerusalem, the heavenly city, is an image, a metaphor for God’s purpose: realized work, work consistent with God’s work in creation and applied to this post-Eden context.

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