“Why should I care about abuse?” Cain asked God almost the identical question, right after he beat his brother to death. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Genesis 2:7, 15; 4:2, 8
The irony of Cain’s question makes me laugh every time I read it. Had not God just created a magnificent world and placed people in it to tend and “keep” it? Was Cain not a devoted gardener, a “keeper” of the soil and a nurturer of its tender plants? He had embraced his God-given role to rule the earth in a way that made it more fruitful, more beautiful, more full of life, but did he not understand that his care for fellow humans was an inseparable part of that created role?
The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
If Cain thought it was possible to tend his own business without tending his brother, he was in for a big surprise. Even the land had noticed his abusive treatment of Abel, and as a result, it was boycotting his business. It refused to cooperate with his efforts to make it productive, righteously protesting his abusive behavior and compassionately receiving his victim’s broken remains.
Abuse is an attack against the image of God within us. What is done against us is done against God.
But the land wasn’t the only one that had noticed. God saw the way Cain had treated Abel, and He took it personally. Abel was precious to Him. He had lovingly fashioned Abel’s body and spirit according to His unique design. Abel was God’s handicraft, and Cain had defaced it. Even worse, Abel was God’s image, and Cain had desecrated it.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.
Abel, like every other human on the face of the earth, had been created in the image of God. That meant that his body, his personality, and his very life were a sacred representation of God Himself. Any mistreatment of Abel was, in fact, a direct attack against the God in whose likeness he was made. When Cain raised his fist to strike Abel, he was really assaulting God. And as the Scriptures go on to make clear, when we raise our voice to lash out at another, we are really attacking God.
“And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”
God does not tolerate such abuse, against Himself or against the ones He loves. He confronted Cain for His reprehensible conduct, allowing him no wiggle room for excuses or diverting questions. Like any good property owner, God required Cain to give an account for the way he had cared for his brother. And like any offender caught red-handed, Cain was left powerless before God. Everything he had said or done to Abel was laid bare before God, and all he could do was beg God for the compassion that he had refused his brother.
The story of Cain and Abel is just the first in a long line of abuse stories that are an integral part of our Bible. God does not turn His face away from abuse, nor does He allow us to. He will require us to give an account for how we have looked after each other, not just in terms of whether we have abused others or not, but also in terms of what we have done to protect, nurture, and build them up.
When I stop to look at myself and at those around me as living, breathing, touchable images of God, I am moved by a deeper, more connected love for humanity. What happens to us happens God. His glory is bound up in our frail lives.
Abuse is an attack against the image of God within us. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is an affirmation of that image.
So am I my brother’s keeper? Even the dirt knows the answer to that one.