(The following is Chapter Five of a forthcoming book about Cain and Abel.)
In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.
The blade sinks in. The sudden rush of blood warms his arm and drips from his elbow onto the ground. It slithers between his fingers, still gripping the knife where it severed the animal’s artery. His arm is firmly wrapped around the goat’s neck. The goat kicks at the pain. He maintains his grip. His face is contorted into a grimace of sorrow. This is no trivial matter. This hurts. The goat is innocent. He looks into the animal’s eyes, strokes its head, and speaks its name aloud. Why should it bear the burden? Perhaps Cain is right, he thinks. Perhaps this is all a huge waste, a needless loss.
As the goat becomes limp, he now raises its hindquarters to accelerate the flow of blood. The life of the animal fully spent, its blood soaks into the dirt to create a viscous red morass. The slime sticks to the bottoms of his sandals as he lifts the dead animal into place on the blood-stained altar, the heap of stones he assembled that day in the spring. He prays, improvising words that have become more natural and predictable each time. It is nothing like the prayer formula that Cain uses, certainly nothing like what his father taught. It is raw and sincere and anguished. He laments his sinfulness. He cries out for mercy.
The older brother stands at his altar, ready to light the fire. The burning torch is held high and brought down into the pile of dry grain, which swiftly burns with a fragrant smoke. He mutters a prayer, something like the one his father taught him, but it is distorted, its perspective warped. “Thank you, LORD,” he says, unaware of the contradiction, “that I am not like other men. You know my devotion. I give you a tenth of all I harvest. Thank you for this true religion.”
There follows a long silence. He waits for the fire to burn out and walks away. He is neither happy nor unhappy. His duty is complete; he moves on to his next task.
His father. The thought hits him again with renewed force. His father had known God, walked with God, spoken with God. When he was a child he heard the stories about the beauty of the Garden and they filled him with imaginative rapture. Lately he has begun to understand what happened. “Where is the Garden, father?” he asked several years prior. “Can we go there and see the animals?” But his father had said “No, son, we cannot go there. It’s – we’re not allowed – we can’t go there.”
“Not allowed.” The forbidden area, forever guarded by the flashes of lightning. He had never ventured in that direction, heeding his father’s stern warnings. He knew his brother had never gone close. But had he not seen with his own eyes his father leaving the camp, traveling in that direction? He would disappear for several days at a time. What did he do there? Did he plead with the angel to let him in? To let him glimpse the Garden again? Did he simply get close enough to remember, and then break down in regret?
Ever since the boys began asking questions about it, his father has stopped speaking about the bygone time in the Garden.
The younger brother shoves his sharp blade through the sinews at the hip joints. The blood has made his hands sticky. There is blood on his tunic, blood on his face, blood squishing between his toes. The warm entrails stand in a pile behind him. He tries not to look at the head, that benign, mournful face that followed him here without a complaint. The best parts – the fat portions – he arranges in the middle of the altar, on top of a small pile of dried sticks and brush. He sighs and lights the fire. The fat sizzles in the heat.
But he cannot hear it. He has fallen face-first on the ground in front of the altar, deep in prayer.
Something different is happening, something new. For the first time in his life, the LORD is speaking directly to him. A quiver of joy radiates through him. He is cleansed. He is made new. His offering has been accepted. He sees – perhaps the LORD grants him a vision – that the life of the goat has substituted for his own life, the life that he owes to God because of his own sin. He sees that a more perfect sacrifice, one which God accepts, still lies in the future. With the perception of faith he places his trust in the LORD.
He rises, blood and mud stuck to his forehead.
His soul has found rest.