This is an amended (and extended) version of a sermon I preached at City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. If you’d prefer to listen to this (spotify link), or watch it on a video, you can do that. It runs for 38 minutes. I’m going to be honest, 90% of the reason I started posting these sermons is that I think the title of this post is pretty great.The original introduction to this sermon, which was preached the day after the Federal Election in 2022, I’ve adapted that slightly for this blog version
In Genesis 4 we meet two brothers; two brothers offering two paths in response to humanity losing access to the Garden of Eden. We see a branching of the family tree; a choice between two lines of seed, with two ‘parents’ shaping the tree and the fruit it produces.
Like a good origin story this is where we start to set up the tension that is going to drive the narrative, we’ll see threads that take us to the end of our chunk of Genesis, but that pay off at the conclusion of the story, so we’re going to take up a couple of these threads — first by really looking at where the human family we’ve got our lens zoomed in on find themselves, and then by following them through the story of the Bible all the way up to Jesus. We’re seeing the start of two feuding family lines; the beastly line, children of the Serpent, and the line that might produce an image bearer who’ll lead people back past the guardian cherubim, into the presence of God and to the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:24).
Genesis chapter four deals with a major change of scene that came about in the events of chapter three; this human family find themselves exiled; outside of the Garden — the eastern entrance to the garden has been sealed off by a cherubim wielding a sword (maybe imagine this as a gate).
This move east, away from Eden, is going to be a significant repeated thread that’ll take this family all the way to Babylon in chapter 11; it’s a device to pay attention to, and to have in our imagination that the gateway back to God’s presence, his heaven on earth space, sealed off by cherubim is reached by heading west. Gates on the east of places like this will repeat over and over again through the Bible’s story. We’re going to be on the look out, ultimately, for both God’s presence returning to a place like Eden, and a Son of Adam leading the way back into God’s presence, and the seeds for both these storylines start in this origin story.
The cherubim guarding the way — people being kept out of the Holy of Holies where God dwells on earth — is a big obstacle to be overcome through the unfolding narrative, so is the idea that people now are going to approach God with a gap that requires sacrifice, and that’s where we land in chapter four. Adam and Eve failed to act as one in chapter three, but now they become one, so that Eve, the mother of the living (Genesis 3:20), brings forth a son, Cain (Genesis 4:1). They’re being fruitful and multiplying — and the question framed by the narrative so far is, has she brought forth an image bearer, who will rule the wold representing God, and maybe lead people back towards the Garden, or a beast? They’re fruitful and multiply again, and along comes Abel (Genesis 4:2). Two Sons of Adam; sons of man; that’s what Adam’s name means.
Abel shows a mastery over the animals, keeping flocks, while Cain does what humans are made to do in the garden; the task required for the uninhabited and unpopulated land to become fruitful; he works the ground (Genesis 4:2). He’s an earth man working the earth. So far so good.
They both bring the fruits of their labours to God as a sacrifice. Abel brings the firstfruits — the good, fatty, portions of his first born animal, while Cain just brings “some” fruit of the ground; the narrative doesn’t suggest its anything particularly special.
We’re not told where Cain and Abel are taking their sacrifice; but at this point it seems this human family is dwelling outside of the garden, but still in Eden, by the gates with the cherubim. There’s some fun stuff we’ll get to below around the Tabernacle that means I reckon readers of the Torah, tracing the development of some imagery, would imagine Cain and Abel taking their sacrifices up to the dwelling place of God, the Garden, to the barrier, to the cherubim guarding the way to God’s presence, knowing they can’t get in, but maybe seeking to restore themselves to being God’s representative people through sacrifice.
But it doesn’t go so well.
If you read the rest of Genesis you’ll see a type-scene beginning here; a conflict playing out between brothers. Humans were made to represent God together, and it’s not just husband and wife turned against each other from the curse in Genesis 3, but siblings, as firstborn and secondborn compete to be the child of promise. This type-scene repetition includes Jacob and hairy-beastly man Esau; and maybe later stories from the same big story can shape the way we read the dynamic here as these two brothers compete to represent God as the serpent-crushing line by offering a sacrifice. Or maybe only one brother is competing: Cain. Maybe that explains why there’s a little bit of implied tension between them as God receives Abel’s sacrifice and rejects Cain’s (Genesis 4:4-5). We’re not told why God favours one gift and not the other here; the New Testament book of Hebrews gives us an interpretation that says Abel was acting by faith, and so produced a better offering (Hebrews 11:4).
When his offering is rejected, Cain, the ground-worker gets a test; will he be a son of dying-beastly Adam? A son of the serpent? Or Eden-gardening Adam? Will he repeat his parent’s failure in response to his disappointment. Will he know Good from evil? God says “Sin — is crouching at the door” — like a beast — wanting to devour him — like the serpent wanted to devour his parents (Genesis 4:7).
And before we find out where Abel, the younger son, might be able to lead his family after his sacrifices are accepted, Cain makes a sacrifice of Abel in a field (Genesis 4:8). Abel makes an animal sacrifice then Cain acts like an animal and sacrifices his brother. Where he’s meant to sow life, he sows death. Abel’s blood, his flesh, is given back to the ground; dust to dust.
This sacrifice shows sin has devoured him; he’s been swallowed up and become a bloody swallower of life; beastly; opposed to God’s plans for fruitfulness and multiplication. Now the land isn’t just desolate and empty, or a source of fruitful human life, it’s soaked in blood. Cain has become part of the seed of the serpent, its ‘striking’ offspring attacking the seed of his mother, Eve.
And just like in the garden, where God came to see his folks after their sin and asked “where are you?” now he asks “where is your brother?” (Genesis 4:9). Cain knows, but he pretends he doesn’t, he gets shifty — his dad owned up when God came looking, but Cain doesn’t. “Am I my brothers keeper?”
Well. Yes. He’s meant to be. Humans are meant to be one in their task of representing God; cultivating and guarding his presence in the world; defeating the crouching beast, and yet, he has become his brother’s killer; he is his brother’s keeper at this point; he knows exactly where he has hidden Abel, but he can’t hide what he’s done. God says his brother’s blood is crying out from the ground — telltale blood — calling out for justice (Genesis 4:10).
As a result, instead of Abel leading the family back towards the garden through his acceptable sacrifice, Cain’s unacceptable sacrifice means he’s sent further east; out of God’s presence, away from Eden, and the ground he once worked turns against him (Genesis 4:11-12, 16). Cain becomes a picture of the human condition in our exile from God. This serpent-like line is marked by violence, grasping, and vengeance. The ground has received Abel, but it will not receive Cain.
The garden was made as a place to rest with God and enjoy his hospitality; there’ll be no rest for Cain (Genesis 4:12, 14). People were blessed to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28), Cain is cursed (Genesis 4:11). He becomes a “restless wanderer” at war with the world — the ground is not going to yield fruit for him; he’s pushed out of God’s hospitality into an inhospitable world — further east (Genesis 4:16).
There’s more than a hint in this chapter that there might actually be other human families out there — outside of Eden, away from the Garden-temple, God’s dwelling place on the earth. Cain is scared people out there will kill him… He’s being driven from God’s presence, and he’ll be devoured. He’s got this picture of other people acting like animals. Violent killers who take vengeance. A world ‘out there’ that is red in tooth and claw.
At the moment with our camera zoomed in on Adam and Eve and their two boys there aren’t other people in the picture; we’ve been looking at this is the family tasked in the story with bearing God’s image in the Garden Temple and perhaps cultivating that life to spread it out into the world where the people Cain is scared of live. It’s a conundrum the narrative gives us, but doesn’t resolve — it just assumes killer people are going to be out there, outside the borders of God’s lands.
There are other ways to try to resolve that narrative conundrum, like they could be a bunch of siblings who’re about to go out into the world along with Cain, who might kill him, but they seem to be out there already, and I think it’s worth just sitting with the story the way it works, keeping the lens firmly on this family line we’re zoomed in on.
But here’s the point of the narrative — it’s not the people who are the real obstacle or threat to life, it’s being hidden from God’s presence (Genesis 4:14). Cain is sent out, exiled, with a mark from God protecting him. God promises that anybody who kills him will suffer vengeance (Genesis 4:15). We get this cycle of bloody violence, rather than people guarding and keeping with one another, ruling together, they’re murderous and celebrating their viciousness (Genesis 4:19-24). Cain goes out from God’s presence into this world. He’s exiled. He lives in the land of Nod, which is the Hebrew word for homelessness. He becomes homeless East of Eden (Genesis 4:16).
Cain finds a wife, out there away from his family, and he founds a city — a home away from home — a city in the land of homelessness away from God’s presence. If Eden, as a garden, was a walled enclosure marking out God’s presence and hospitality this city is an echo of Eden but without God’s presence (Genesis 4:17). In the midst of the story of a family tree we start getting some culture; some cultivation of creation; some fruitfulness and creativity; a weird origin story for instruments and farming tools and methods of farming livestock (Genesis 4:20-22). They’re taking the raw matter of creation and making stuff; they’re ruling. This city might look nice; the music might be good and the tools might help humans overcome the cursed ground, but there are makers of death in this family line. Cain might be avenged seven-fold; his descendant Lamech is a violent avenger who’ll kill a man just for wounding him (Genesis 4:23-24).
This is a beastly city; a city of violence and bloodshed and vengeance, in a land of ‘no-home’ — it’s the furthest thing you can get from the Garden in Eden; the home of life and generativity and God’s fruitful presence.
But the narrator takes us back to the land of Eden, outside the garden. Eve, the mother of the living, celebrates — God overcomes Cain’s beastly attempt to end the line of seed from Eve — he grants her a son, Seth, who has a son. We’re also told that at this point, people begin to call on the name of the Lord — while those out in Nod are shedding blood, there’s a little note of hope in this line (Genesis 4:25-26).
And we get a re-cap around the line of seed that the narrative is going to follow. Cain’s line is a dead-end that creates death, but this recap goes back to the beginning. God created mankind in the likeness of God, blessing them, male and female, and calling the earthling, Adam, then Adam’s son Seth is made in Adam’s own image and likeness — a chip off the old block. We’ve seen how an ‘image’ in the ancient world was an idol statue, or the king as an embodiment of the gods, part of being the image of or the likeness of someone, or of God, is also caught up in this idea of being a son or daughter (this idea gets picked up in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, which calls Adam the “son of God.”) (Genesis 5:1-4).
A line of image bearing humans continues. God works despite human beastliness towards creating a serpent-crusher who will lead humanity back from the east, from restless wandering and a sense of homelessness into rest in a garden-like home.
These threads get picked up through the narrative of the Bible. People keep heading further east. People keep acting more like Cain — and the Serpent — than Adam’s purpose in the garden. We’re landing this series in Genesis 11, with another move east, to the Plain of Shinar, where humans build a tower called Babel (that’s Babylon), which, as it turns out, is also due East of Jerusalem. When the southern kingdom of Judah is exiled, like Cain, they’re sent eastwards again. The Genesis origin story is a story that helps exiled Israel understand their own predicament; they, too, have behaved like Adam and Eve, and Cain, like children of the Serpent.
Through this origin story God’s also going to call his people out of Babylon; starting with Abram, who comes from Ur of the Chaldeans — that’s Babylon — to begin a people of promise; a nation of priests; calling people back into his presence. In that nation of priests we get little Edens; little pictures of the paradise lost, not just the fruitful land around the garden, but the garden itself. We meet a bunch of people who look like they might lead people back to life with God; Abraham, Moses, The priests, David, Solomon and all their stories have echoes of this story.
Moses enters God’s presence, on the mountain and then builds a tabernacle, where there’s an atonement where blood from sacrifices would be taken up to two cherubim, who were sitting, guarding, the Ark as they guarded the garden. The Ark is the symbol of God’s heavenly throne, where he says he’d meet with his people “between the Cherubim” (Exodus 25:22). The ark was placed behind a curtain embroided with Cherubim (Exodus 26:1, 31) who are guarding the way, separating the Holy place, like Eden, where God’s people could dwell from the most Holy Place, God’s dwelling place — like the Garden. The curtain was a barrier like the gateway separating the garden from the rest of Eden.
The entry to the Tabernacle is on the eastern side of a courtyard (Exodus 27:13-19). To come towards God was to move from the east, back towards the curtain and the Cherubim; towards his dwelling place. Moses and his priestly family end up guarding the tabernacle; living to the east of this door; a bit like the Cherubim guards Eden; living at the doorway to God’s presence and caring for the Sanctuary. Anyone else who approaches the way to life; to God’s presence, was to be put to death (Numbers 3:38, note the word for “caring for” or “keeping” here in Numbers is the same word used in God’s instructions to Adam in Eden). Once a year, a priest — starting with Moses’s brother Aaron — would sacrifice animals (like Abel) to make atonement for sin — to bring God and his people together again. He couldn’t come past the Cherubim whenever he wanted; or he’d die — but this time it’s the presence of God in the cloud, above the ark and between the Cherubim, that’s the risk (Leviticus 16).
One day a year that priest would go behind the curtain; entering the Eden-like place, or specifically, the Garden-like space, where God is present, in order to sprinkle the blood of animals on the atonement cover, under the Cherubim. There are even two goats where ones blood is spilled and the other is exiled into the wilderness. There are echoes of the Cain and Abel story here, and throughout the story of the Old Testament. Sacrifices to God are offered where God dwells as an expression of a desire to be one with God again; to dwell with him in the Garden. For Cain and Abel these sacrifices are made in Eden, outside the Garden excluded from entrance, for Israel, it’s in the Tabernacle, then the Temple. In all these places the barrier remains.
And people in Israel keep acting so much like Cain that they get tossed to the east.
At one point in the story, and this’ll be significant below, Israel acts almost exactly like Cain, killing the people who are meant to lead them back to God in the temple. There’s this guy named Zechariah — who’s different to the Zechariah the book of the Bible is named after… they kill him in the Temple courts (2 Chronicles 24:20-21). Chronicles tells the sorry story of Israel becoming like Babylon, and so being sent east to Babylon; when that happens Babylon takes the whole Temple set up with them (2 Chronicles 36:15-21).
When Ezekiel the prophet talks about this moment he talks about God departing from Israel’s Temple with the cherubim; the presence leaves, heading to the east, first of the temple, then the city (Ezekiel 10:18-19), stopping on the mountain to the east of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 11:23), which is called the Mount of Olives. According to Ezekiel, Israel won’t come back to God, from the EAST, from exile in Babylon and back into God’s presence until God’s presence has first returned to Jerusalem. Ezekiel is brought, in a vision, to a gate facing east where he sees God’s glory returning to his Temple through an eastern gate (Ezekiel 43:1-4). Once that happens humans — first Israel, then the world, can be restored to garden-like life with God in a new Temple as the world becomes a picture of Eden restored; centred around a mountain temple facing East, where living water flows out to give life to the nations (Ezekiel 47, note Ezekiel 28 has earlier pictured Eden as a garden on a holy mountain in verses 13-14).
By the end of the Old Testament, via the prophets, we’re waiting for God’s presence to return to a Temple in Jerusalem; an Eden space, in order to dwell with people again and we’re waiting for someone like Abel, or a priest, to come and make a sacrifice God will accept; one who will get us past the Cherubim and re-open access to life in his presence; a human from the line of Serpent-Crushing seed who is not, like Cain, a beastly child of the snake. We’re waiting for someone who might bring us back into life with God; the paradise we lost.
And the New Testament picks up these threads ties them together in the person of Jesus. Luke tells us he’s from this line of seed; he’s the image bearing son of Adam, and Seth (Luke 3:23-38, especially 38). At the climax of the Gospel story Jesus heads towards Jerusalem. John’s called him God’s glory tabernacling in flesh and a walking Temple (John 1:14, 2:19-20). As he approaches Jerusalem, he approaches from the East; from the Mount of Olives (Matthew 21:1). He comes in to the city via the eastern gates and then enters the Temple court — moving from east to west towards the Holy of Holies, and he sets about cleaning up the sacrificial system, because people’s sacrifices — their sin offerings — have been corrupted by those running the temple (Matthew 21:12-13). He enters the Temple to proclaim judgment on the people running it, including the woes he pronounces on the Pharisees who ‘sit in Moses’ seat, who aren’t ‘keeping the Temple’ like Moses’ family, or leading people to God, they’re shutting the door of the kingdom of heaven on them (Matthew 23:13). He calls them a brood of Vipers — serpent children — who imitate Cain, throwing back to both the murder of Abel and of Zechariah the priest between “the altar and the sanctuary,” which is maybe how we should picture the location of both Zechariah’s death in the Temple, and Abel’s death at the gateway to Eden (Matthew 23:33- 23:35).
The blood of these innocent people is on the hands of Jerusalem’s leaders because they have become like Cain; like the Serpent; a violent and oppressive people whose city has become like Babylon.
Then he talks about himself as the Son of Man; the true son of Adam; who’s going to come like “lightning from the East” (Matthew 24:27) to give a place in God’s kingdom to those who are blessed by God; a kingdom prepared from the creation of the world (Matthew 24:30). He’s going to enter God’s presence and sit at his right hand (Matthew 26:64), but before he gets there there’ll be more blood on the hands of the humans who take up Cain’s line; the line of the Serpent. Jesus will become like Abel, and like Zechariah; as he’s put on trial the priests are joined by the people of the city baying for blood, and they crucify him.
But Jesus’ arrival in the city, and even his death, is a demonstration of God’s glorious presence returning to Jerusalem to judge the city and its Temple, making access to life with God possible through the sacrifice of a firstborn. So the Temple curtain tears (Matthew 27:50-51); the curtain embroided with Cherubim, separating humans from the Holy place and containing God’s nominal dwelling place on earth (he doesn’t return to dwell in the Holy of Holies in the rebuilt Temple in the Old Testament). This Temple in Jerusalem has been replaced with one that will make people holy, bringing actual atonement so we can come in to God’s presence again.
This is how the book of Hebrews picks up what happens in the death of Jesus picking up the threads that run from exile from the Garden, to Cain and Abel, through the Tabernacle and the curtain and the altar — it says we’ve been made holy through his sacrifice; restored to being the kind of people who can live in his presence (Hebrews 10:10-11) by this one human who can lead us back into the Garden. Jesus replaces the sacrifices that couldn’t take away our sins in the temple and he has entered heaven to sit with God, having made one sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 10:12). His entering this Most Holy Place; the place behind the curtain makes him — his body through his sacrifice — a new and living way; a way past the cherubim and into life with God. Through his sacrifice we can draw near to God because atonement has been made and we have been washed and purified (Hebrews 10:21-24). His blood “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” because while the tell-tale blood of Abel cried out for justice his sacrifices, even his death, did not bring humanity back into the Garden; Jesus, on the other hand, brings us into the city of the Living God, his heaven-on-earth dwelling place (Hebrews 12:22-23); the new Jerusalem the prophet Ezekiel saw as the end of Exile, and that John pictures for us in Revelation (Revelation 21-22). Jesus becomes the way maker; the mediator of a new covenant who brings us back to God; the media or way we use to come back to God, Jesus’ blood as the first born son sacrificed on our behalf is what Abel’s faithfulness anticipated. All those threads from the start of the Bible’s story are tied together in our origin story, the Gospel. This is the story that shapes our lives; the story of how we find ourselves back in the promised land; the garden.
We might pin our hope on all sorts of leaders to carry us back to the promised land; modern politicians promise lots and deliver little. This can be disappointing, but our politics is not exhausted in our vote; we practice politics in where we give our time, our money, our energy, to building the city — the ‘polis’ — we want to live in; whether it’s Babylon or the New Jerusalem — and we do this knowing that it’s actually Jesus who builds the city, we’re just ambassadors popping up little embassies in our households and the communities we start, or occupy. Our businesses. The kids we educate.
We have to choose our family — our story — not red or blue, but Jesus or the Serpent.
Our politicians won’t lead us back to a promised land; they’ll make plenty of promises, but the world offers cities built by Cain, by children of the Serpent; Babylons, and old Jerusalems when we humans turn to violence to solve our problems, or live seeking our own way to heaven-on-earth.
But if we plant ourselves in the story of Jesus; in his family tree, as children of God, people living as God’s Images in the world, knowing that we are now located in Eden; the new Jerusalem; raised and seated in the heavenlies with Jesus; this story will produce fruit in our lives.
It’ll change the way we think about politics and participate in the polis; our city. Our desire to not be violent people of vengeance, but people of peace, will shape the way we vote; certainly, but it’ll also shape the causes we support with our time and money.
We’ll see ‘politics’ as going way beyond voting for a blue team or red team — Scomo, or Albo — who just offer more of the same; scratch a western liberal democracy and you’ll find violence and greed and individualism lurking below the surface; the coils of the Serpent — even if there are Christians in the corridors of power; and we should be participating in our city, our politics — this story will shape the alternative city we build within our city; our communities, our households we participate in and the way we use our tables. We aren’t nomads living in exile in the land of nod; or exiled in Babylon; we’re citizens of heaven, or the New Eden, called to live as those who are home, not those who’re wandering.