Lurking at the door - The Bible introduces the concept of sin
Hespeler, 22 January, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 4:1-15, 23-24, Matthew 18:21,22, Psalm 36
ne of the complaints that you hear leveled against the church from time to time is that we never seem to talk about sin anymore. We love talking about grace and love and reconciliation – and that is fantastic – but where is that focus on faults and shortcomings that was so characteristic of the church in former days?
And I will certainly agree that there is something to this complaint. I understand where the reluctance to talk about sin comes from – especially when it is a concept that has been so often misunderstood and even misused to gain control over people – but I also appreciate that if we do not have an understanding of sin and what it can do to us, our Christian faith will never reach its full potential.
So I am going to dare to look closely at sin, its meaning and its power over the coming weeks. I do not necessarily feel like I have to approach the topic in the ways that Christians have always approached it. The Christian understanding of sin was largely defined way back in the fifth century by a thinker named Augustine of Hippo. It was Augustine, for example, who first came up with the idea of original sin and especially set up the close association between sin and sex that is still often made in the church to this very day.
But I am a little less interested in what Augustine says about sin than I am in what the Bible has to say on the topic. And the Bible does say some surprising things. For example, if I were to ask you where in the Bible the idea of sin is first introduced, what would you say? Most would say, I suspect, that sin first enters the story of the Bible in the second and third chapter: in the story of the Garden of Eden. That is certainly what St. Augustine thought. But what if I told you that the Bible never uses the word sin to describe the events in that garden? I mean, yes, it does say that Adam and Eve disobeyed a commandment in that story and we may understand that as a sin, but Genesis doesn’t call it that.
The first time the Bible brings up sin as an idea is in the fourth chapter of Genesis, in the passage we read this morning. It comes up in a conversation between God and Cain. Cain is upset with his little brother Abel. It is all wrapped up in a question of what makes an acceptable sacrifice that we don’t have time to get into here, but the basic problem seems to be that Cain thinks that God likes Abel more and he’s jealous. It really is a story about the worst case of sibling rivalry that you have ever heard of. God, clearly worried that Cain may be about to do something stupid, gives him a warning: “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
And this little conversation, as I say, is the very first time that the topic of sin comes up in the Bible. And the concept that is introduced in this passage may not quite correspond to what you have always been taught on the subject. To start with, just think about how the idea of sin is portrayed in this little poem. Sin, we are told, is “lurking at the door” of Cain’s tent.
But that is not how we generally talk about sin, is it? We usually talk about sin as an internal struggle – it is something that I feel inside of me that draws me towards something that I shouldn’t do. Here in Genesis – in the first reference to the very idea of sin – everything seems to be the other way around. Sin, far from being inside Cain is outside of him. It is lurking outside his tent flap like some kind of wild beast that is looking to attack and devour him.
But that is not even the most surprising thing about this passage. It actually says something so unexpected about sin that modern translators of the Bible have actually had trouble accepting what it says. The original text of the Bible doesn’t actually say what we read this morning: “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” I looked it up in the original Hebrew text of the Bible and the correct translation should actually not be “you must master it,” but “you shall master it.” God is not warning Cain that he should try to triumph over sin; he is promising him that he will.
I think I understand why the translators of the New Revised Standard Version mistranslated that verse the way they did. They were kind of stuck thinking about sin the way that they had always been taught to think about it – the way that Christian theology had taught them to think about it. In particular, they were thinking of sin as this force within you that is ultimately irresistible – that you can try to resist but you are doomed to fail.
It is true that you can find passages in the Bible that speak of sin in such terms. But this passage, near the beginning of the Book of Genesis is actually not one of them. This teaches me that the Bible does not speak about the problem of sin in just one way. The Bible uses different images to talk about sin. Here, in Genesis, sin is like a wild animal that is trying attack us and to have mastery over us but, God reminds us, sin’s triumph is not inevitable.
Sometimes that way that we talk about sin actually lays the groundwork for its ultimate triumph over us. When we think of it as this irresistible force within us that is always going to have its way, that is exactly what happens. But here, in this passage, God seems to be suggesting that we don’t have to think of it that way and maybe if we didn’t, sin would not have so much power over us.
But this story of Cain is even more important in that it outlines pretty clearly what the power and consequences of sin really are. God tells Cain that sin is out to get him but that Cain is actually able to triumph over it. But Cain does not triumph. He allows the beast lurking at his door to master him. The immediate consequence of this is a murder. Resentment leads to hatred and, because Cain does not manage to be the master of his hatred, hatred leads to murder.
The message seems to be that sin, as the Bible introduces it, is primarily about hatred and violence. But the worse part of it is that it is something that only begets more violence. It works like this: Cain is mad at Abel and kills him. That is the first act of violence – the very first in all history according to the biblical view. But this one act of violence leads to another. First, God tells Cain that, because he has polluted the ground by pouring his brother’s blood into it, the ground will now be in revolt against him. Though Cain is a farmer, he will now find the very earth rebelling against him and refusing to produce its crops. The ground is responding to Cain’s violence by threatening the very life of Cain and his family.
Cain complains – says that this is too much punishment – that he will be forced to wander the earth as a vagabond if the ground will not produce for him. But I don’t think that God is saying that this is a punishment. I believe that God is saying it is a consequence.
And, what’s more, there are further consequences to come. Because Cain is now a social outsider, everyone will feel free to kill him. But to this God says no. Cain is marked now, God says, and because of that, if anyone harms Cain, there will be seven more killed in vengeance. But this also is not divine punishment. God is not saying that God will kill seven if Cain is killed, only that seven will be killed.
What is being described in this passage is a vendetta. It is a Hatfield and McCoy type situation. Cain will found a clan and that clan will be the one to take vengeance if anything happens to him. They will kill seven to avenge the death of any of their clan in order to make people think twice about hurting one of theirs. God is not saying that this is good; he is just saying that that is how it is going to be from now on. Cain has only started the ball rolling by killing one. God is warning that the killing won’t stop there.
And indeed it won’t because, as we read on in this same chapter (after skipping a few long and hard to pronounce names), we land on a character five generations descended from Cain. His name is Lamech and he is the great great great grandson of Cain. So what is now happening five generations later? Well, Lamech, a character about whom we are told almost nothing, is boasting to his wives and this is what he says: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
There is a powerful picture of sin in this passage and it is a picture of vengeance leading to violence spiraling ever further and further out of control – spinning so quickly that it is frightening. That is the kind of power of sin that we are talking about. Worse, it is a power this is still all too present in this world. This is the monster that was lurking at Cain’s door and that still lurks at our own to this very day. What is being described in this passage is frightening but we all know deep down that it is a very real force in our world – a force very much holding sway in places like Syria, Israel/Palestine, major cities like Chicago and Detroit.
The only ray of hope I see in this passage is the promise that God gives to Cain. “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you,” God says, “but you shall master it.” Sin may be a frightful beast, but its defeat is guaranteed. But how can that be? Surely we cannot win that battle alone. Only with God’s help can we defeat the power of sin. And we believe that such help has been sent to us, particularly in the person of Jesus who broke down that never-ending cycle of hate and violence by becoming the ultimate victim of both and hate and violence through his death on the cross.
Yes this is the same Jesus who said, when asked by Peter how many times he had to forgive someone, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” And that one can also be translated as “seventy times seven.” Do you think that it is a coincidence that Jesus’ answer to Peter echoes Lamech’s statement of vengeance? I don’t think so! I believe that Jesus was speaking directly to the story of Cain and of Lamech. What Jesus was saying was that there is only one answer to the problem of sin in this world which is a problem of hatred and violence spiraling out of control. And Jesus is that answer. Forgiveness is that answer. Cain and Lamech can kill seven times. Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin and the commanders of Isis can kill seventy-seven times in vengeance. Alt-Right agitators and Klu Klux Klansmen can kill seventy times seven for every perceived slight. That is the way of this world – that the way of sin.
But do you know what you can do? Jesus is saying that you can forgive. And you can forgive again and again even up to 490 times. (That’s seventy times seven; I did the math.) And you know what that makes you? It makes you a follower of Jesus. It makes you part of the solution, part of the kingdom of God and part of what Jesus came to accomplish. Forgiveness isn’t just something that we do when we feel sorry for someone; it is the antidote to sin. And you can be part of changing the conversation in this world from violence to hope. It is that simple; that is what Jesus was saying.
I think that this story in Genesis is a really helpful story about sin. It is one that teaches us new ways of thinking about sin and destroying its power. There is a lot more I would like to say on the topic and hope to look in more detail in weeks to come. But hope in the face of violence spinning out of control is a great place to start.