By an act of faith, Abel brought a better sacrifice to God than Cain. It was what he believed, not what he brought, that made the difference. That’s what God noticed and approved as righteous. After all these centuries, that belief continues to catch our notice.
—Hebrews 11:1-4 (MSG)
There was a man named Origen Adamantius who lived in Alexandria in the third century. His father was martyred under intense persecution when he was a boy. Origen tried to join his dad in martydom and was only stopped, legend has it, because his mom hid his clothes so he couldn’t go outside.
He gave up his job, slept on the floor, didn’t eat meat, wouldn’t drink wine, fasted twice a week, owned no shoes, and engaged in some pretty extreme behavior based on literal interpretations of the Scriptures. He was also a prolific writer, a top shelf Christian philosopher, and the most significant theologian of the early church.
This first Bible scholar analyzed the Scriptures on three levels: the literal, the moral, and the allegorical. As he put it, "For just as man consists of body, soul, and spirit, so in the same way does the Scripture."
Origen, in fact, preferred the allegorical not only because it allowed for more spiritual interpretations, but many passages he found impossible to read literally: "Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day … existed without the sun and moon and stars?”
Pretty controversial view for a “Father of the Church.”
This Sunday morning we will take a look at the story of Cain and Abel using the framework provided by this ancient friend of ours, Origen of Alexandria:
Body = Historical/Literal
Mind = Moral/Intellectual
Soul = Spiritual/Symbolic/Allegorical
The symbolic reading of the story of Cain and Abel holds some profound meaning.
The name Cain, Cain’s name in Hebrew is קַיִן Kayan (Strongs # 7014) comes from קָנָה (Strongs # 7069) kanah, meaning “possessing” or “acquiring.”
In this way, Cain represents the selfish, the impulsive, the ambitious aspects of human nature. The materialistic.
Abel is הֶבֶל Hevel (Strongs # 1893) in Hebrew, and his name is derived from a root meaning “breath.” It has the associative meaning of “gentle breeze.”
In this way, Abel represents the humble, the true, the gentle. The Spirit.
Cain is overcome with the desire to create, to build, to acquire.
After he is driven from home, the narrative tells us that Cain gave birth to a son, named him Enoch, and went about building the world’s first city, and named it after his son. Enoch means “dedicated” and we can take that to mean that Cain remained dedicated to earning his way back into God’s good graces.
Cain is a getter, a doer, and accomplisher.
Whereas his brother Abel is satisfied to be with what is, to go with the flow, to offer back to God from God what God had given him.
For this reason, maybe God wasn’t concerned so much with what each brother offering was, but with the place where the offering came from, or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases in the Message:
It was what (Abel) believed, not what he brought, that made the difference. — Hebrews 11:4a (MSG)