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Gen. 4:1-8; 22:1-19; Num. 21:4-9; John 3:14-15

His Glorious Purpose Foreshadowed in Types. One of the crises precipitated by the modern critical study of Scripture is that the teaching about salvation which Christians accept on the basis of New Testament teaching is not nearly so clear in those passages which Christians accept as foreshadowing the story of Jesus and the cross. This week’s lesson addresses three key contexts:

Discussion questions and themes:

  1. Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-8): Are sin and salvation moral or ritual issues? The story of Cain and Abel has often been used by Christians to support the idea that animal sacrifice and the shedding of blood are foundational for salvation issues. But was Cain’s sacrifice unacceptable because of ritual failure (animal sacrifice vs. vegetable offering), or because of deeper attitudinal and moral failure? What is implied by the gradation of sacrifices listed in Leviticus 5 where the poor are allowed to bring a grain offering for their sin instead of an animal sacrifice? When Hebrews 9:22 declares that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins,” should this be seen as a general rule in the light of Christ’s sacrifice, rather than an absolute rule applying at all times and in all places? What about the salvation of those heathen who have never heard the name of Christ but who have “cherished His principles”? Note how those words are used in the following Ellen White quotation, based on the interpretation of the judgment scene in Matthew 25 and also informed by the words and ideas found in Romans 2:12-16:

    Those whom Christ commends in the judgment may have known little of theology, but they have cherished His principles. Through the influence of the divine Spirit they have been a blessing to those about them. Even among the heathen are those who have cherished the spirit of kindness; before the words of life had fallen upon their ears, they have befriended the missionaries, even ministering to them at the peril of their own lives. Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God. – The Desire of Ages, 638 (emphasis supplied).

  2. Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22): Does God’s command to sacrifice Isaac conflict with the moral law? The story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah provides us with a powerful first glimpse of God’s sacrifice for humanity. In effect, God tells Abraham at the last minute that he does not need to sacrifice his son: God provides the sacrifice. But is it possible that the form in which that truth was told was determined, in part, by the deeply-rooted suspicion that the only way to placate God (or the gods), is by offering the first and best of all our gifts, including our first-born?(Cf. Exod. 13:11-16: the firstborn all belong to God; 1 Kings 3:26-27: the terrifying effect on the Israelite army when the king of Moab sacrificed his first-born; Micah 6:6-8: the psychology of restitution and the hierarchy of sacrifice, culminating in child sacrifice). Strictly speaking, the sixth command prohibits first-degree murder; it was not understood as prohibiting killing in self-defense, the civil death penalty, nor killing in war. Thus it is possible to argue that God’s command to sacrifice Isaac did not present Abraham with a moral dilemma in the same way that we would face that dilemma today. Does such an approach allow us to see the powerful imagery of “substitution” without having to struggle with the moral dilemma which so often clouds the telling of that story?
  3. Christ and the Serpent (Num. 22:1-19): How can the Serpent, a symbol which Revelation 12:9 identifies with Satan, also be a symbol of God’s saving power? In his conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:14-15), Jesus uses the imagery of the upraised Serpent and actually refers to the passage in Numbers 22 as a means of highlighting His saving ministry. How could the bronze serpent save when the real serpents killed? Can the dilemma be solved, in part, by recognizing that the serpent in the Old Testament was not yet a full-fledged symbol of Satan? The first biblical passage to identify the serpent explicitly as Satan is Revelation 12:7.
  4. Summarizing reflection: Why is it that the human mind can often find more meaning in ancient passages through a system which distances the contemporary application from the original historical context? Can the original and the later application both be true?

Additional material: The following article about Cain and Abel focuses more on the moral than on the ritual aspect of religion. Some might be troubled by the fact that an alternative approach is suggested to the traditional one. That methodological issue is addressed in the first chapter of Who’s Afraid? “Don’t let your New Testament get in the way of your Old Testament.”

The Anger of Cain
By Alden Thompson
(Cf., Signs of the Times, August 1990)

And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10, RSV)

Strange how the violent, the angry, and the sinful grab more than their share of the headlines, even in Scripture. Abel brings the right sacrifice. Enoch walks with God. But we hear not a word from them. Scripture slips them quickly onto the stage of history and then off again. We catch only a glimpse and then they are gone.

But angry Cain earns almost a whole chapter and speaks more than once. Why?

So that we can learn about anger. How it snatches away those we love. How it destroys in a moment the work of a lifetime. How it pushes beyond our reach all that is precious and dear. Cain can tell us about all that. That’s why he has a whole chapter.

Genesis 4 opens with Eve’s joyful exclamation. “I’ve gotten a man with the help of the LORD,” she declares at Cain’s birth. And again she bore Abel his brother. The stage is set. The drama begins.

Abel is a shepherd. But Cain has given his life to “serving” the earth. Yes, given our current interests in ecology, it is noteworthy that the Hebrew word translated as “tiller” (of the ground) is the word for serving. It even carries overtones of worship. Cain is devoted to the earth. He inherited the original charge to Adam “to serve the earth” (Gen. 2:5, 15), and dedicated his life to its fulfillment.

Offering time. Both brothers bring of their best, Cain from the fruit of the ground, Abel from the flock. The word used for both offerings is a general one, suggesting a gift of gratitude or thanksgiving, a sacrifice of homage or of allegiance.

But something went wrong. Horribly wrong. The LORD accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. We can only guess the reason; Scripture does not tell us why.

Traditionally, Christians have said that Cain should have brought an animal. Possibly, especially for a sin offering. But even in the Levitical laws, an offering of first fruits clearly is part of God’s plan. A full chapter (Leviticus 2) deals exclusively with that kind of offering.

Yes, the flaw could have been in the offering or in the manner in which it was presented. But Cain’s reaction suggests that the problem lay deep in his own heart. Hebrews 11:4 says that Abel’s offering was only acceptable “by faith.” Apparently Cain lacked such faith.

The attitude of the worshiper is what counts before God. That means unanswered prayers: “Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen” (Is. 1:15, RSV).

And that is what happened to Cain and his offering: The LORD did not listen. But He was watching. And when Cain’s anger boiled over, the LORD had words with him. Scripture does not record Cain’s response. But his anger is worth pondering.

Somewhere in the depths of Cain’s soul, a hidden fury was smoldering, a deep anger against God and mankind. A gift rejected, especially when presented in adoration to One greatly loved, would be a crushing experience, to be sure. But anger? Would not genuine love search the heart in sorrow and humility and put things right? In one sense, it is more blessed to give than to receive, but surely a “successful” gift, in the first instance, is one that brings joy to the recipient.

Cain killed his brother. The blood seeped into the very ground which Cain had been called to serve.

“Where is your brother?” called God.

“I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Then Cain’s beloved earth turned against him in court. “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground,” said God. “The ground has opened up its mouth to receive your brother’s blood.”

“You can no longer serve the ground, Cain. You are cursed from it. From this day forward it will be forbidden to you. You will be a wanderer and a fugitive.”

Cain’s anger melted into fear. The LORD graciously granted him a mark of protection so that he would not be a hunted man. Yes, the LORD cares deeply, even for murderers. And why shouldn’t He? Cain already had paid a terrible price for his sin. His outburst had cost him his brother; then his parents and his beloved earth were wrenched from him as well. Cain could use a touch of God’s grace.

Looking back on Cain’s anger, we ask: Was there a cure?

Scripture tells us nothing about the reasons for Cain’s anger. That is just as well. For if we decide our anger is not his anger we could miss the point, a point we need to hear: the cure for Cain’s anger, for your anger, for mine.

Jesus told us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). We might think that the enemy is the one who benefits – and there would have been advantages for Abel, to be sure. But think of what it would have meant for Cain.

How does it happen? We all know how impossible it is simply to turn off the anger and turn on love. It doesn’t work. But there is something that does: giving our anger to the Lord. We can even tell Him that we sometimes “enjoy” our anger, but that now we are asking Him to take it away and to give us the gift of love and compassion.

It may not happen immediately. We may often fall short of the mark. But sensing our need, we can pray the prayer of that desperate father who was longing for the healing of his son: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24, NKJV).

Can you imagine what could have happened if Cain had prayed that prayer?

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