Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden. (Genesis 4:16)
Religious educator Gretchen Wolff Pritchard comments on the biblical story of Cain and Abel and how it can be used in the Christian education of children in helping them deal with their emotions and passions:
The story of Cain and Abel is a myth exploring the primal roots of violence: sibling rivalry and jealousy, and the fury we feel, not only as children but throughout our lives, when someone else is preferred before us. (The story does not explore why the other is preferred; that is not, it seems, the important question.) Behind the fury is fear: fear that preference given to another means that we ourselves are of no value, fear that we will be displaced, cast out, and forgotten; fear that in losing our exclusive position of favor, we ourselves will simply vanish. . . . This story places children’s own experience of jealousy and rage, violence and fear, in a mythic perspective that can help them accept it, come to terms with it ,and begin to believe that they (and God) can control it. (OFFERING THE GOSPEL TO CHILDREN, p 26)
Though Pritchard’s topic is children’s Christian education, it should be noted that none of the biblical stories were written for children or as children’s literature. As St Paul notes about the Old Testament texts: For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4; see also Romans 4:23-24; 1 Corinthians 10:11) The Old Testament according to Paul was written for “us” by which he certainly means believing adults (and then through parents, also for children). To reduce the Old Testament lessons to being stories for children is to empty the stories of their spiritual power and their purpose. There is a wisdom critical of modern Christian education which says that Jesus blessed children and taught adults, but today in the church we do the opposite. ‘Bible stories’ are written for adults, have multiple levels of meaning, and often have a hidden meaning in them. Adults might help children garner lessons from the bible, but the stories have adult meanings in them. The Church Fathers endlessly wrestled with the meaning of biblical texts and didn’t see them as children’s literature.
Sin is not childish mistakes, but intentional behavior – choosing evil over good. Cain and Abel are young, but Cain’s act of murder is an act of an adult. The Scripture about Cain is looking at adult sinfulness and our own wrestling with the violence that is in each of us. Pritchard rightfully connects our jealousy and fear of being devalued with death. But she misses the much more important point that because we fear death we often engage in self-preservation to the point of sin – we are willing to make sure others die so that we don’t. It is not only that sin leads to death (Romans 6:23), but death (or our fear of it) also leads to our sinning (for example committing murder). Just the fear that we might be somehow diminished, or might ‘disappear’, can lead us to be willing to sin against others (to lie, gossip, spread false rumors, discredit, give disinformation, cheat or even murder) in order to protect ourselves or prop ourselves up. Also, because we know we are going to die, we sometimes think we have a right to get all the gusto we can out of life and so we eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die (1 Corinthians 15:52)!
As St Isaac of Nineveh, says:
It is not because we sinned that we became mortal but because we became mortal that we were under the constraint of sin. The faculty of freewill, which was placed in between, he made it so that it should be for the use either for life or for death. (Headings on Spiritual Knowledge: The Second Part, Chapters 1-3, Kindle Location 2540-2542)
The story of Cain and Abel is not a children’s bible story, but rather deals with us adults and whether or not we will follow the Gospel commands, obey Christ and deny ourselves to take up the cross, or whether instead we will choose self-preservation especially if we believe it will benefit our status in the world. Religious education efforts which reduce biblical narratives to children’s bible stories are misguided for they tend to make the stories childish, eliminating their theological meaning. (see my post Questioning Cain)