Adam Palmer: Cain, Abel, and a Theology of the Table

Cain and Abel (1911), Chagall

Note from CM: I’m always happy when we can post something from our friend Adam Palmer. This is good stuff, folks.

• • •

By Adam Palmer

Too much grief. I have so much, and have it so consistently, and I almost always have it because of our violent world. Because someone shot someone else, or a group of people, or a church filled with people, or a school filled with people, or an outdoor concert venue filled with people, or a middle-Eastern city filled with people, or…

“This is nothing new,” say those who have gorged themselves lethargic on cynicism. “Oh, and you’re surprised by this?” they say. “Try reading history.”

Of course it isn’t new. The only thing new about it is our technological advances that allow for more rapid death and more rapid dissemination of news about that rapid death.

Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah vividly depicts the beginnings of human-on-human violence within the story of Cain and Abel. For a heart-stopping and spellbinding 27 seconds in the midst of a creation narrative, he shows us the silhouetted brothers, one violently smashing the life out of the other, the sun low on the horizon. Sunrise on violence? Sunset on peace? Perhaps both. The silhouettes blinkingly shuffle form through every kind of pre-firearm soldier imaginable.

The meaning is clear: when we enact violence against one another, we are reenacting the first violence found in the story of Cain and Abel.

No, of course it isn’t new.

In the story of Cain and Abel we see a sin that is the first of its kind. Adam and Eve sinned against God; Cain sins against his own brother. And it was because of a sacrificial rejection.

Abel brought a lamb and was accepted. Cain brought the harvest of the field and was rejected—and turned that rejection into the first act of violence recorded in scripture.

“Same as it ever was,” say the cynics, and in my lesser moments, I count myself among their number. It’s tough to hold on to hope in the face of the incessant cycle. Pragmatism defeats idealism. The repeated cries of “There’s nothing we can do” outshout hope.

But pragmatism doesn’t belong in Christianity. Jesus was an idealist. In the Christian church, we shouldn’t calculate our chances and make expedient choices. We believe in forgiveness of sin and in redemption and in actual resurrection. These are outlandish claims and, for the Christian, foundational and non-negotiable. They are our hope.

And so I turn to the Table every week and find a hope that lies buried in the story of Cain and Abel.

In the bread and the wine I see the body and blood of Christ. The Sacrificial Lamb. Abel’s sacrifice presented to the Lord

In the bread and the wine I also see the fruit of the harvest. Grain and grape. Cain’s crops presented to the Lord.

At the Communion table are both the brothers’ sacrifices, brought together. In the bread and the wine I see both the harvest and the lamb. Both Cain and Abel. The two brothers, reunited. The enmity between them—between all of us—forever healed, yesterday, today, and forever. At the table, violence is put to death and resurrected as peace.

At the table I lay down my pragmatism, my cynicism, my weary despair, my extended sighs of “This is how it’s always been and how it always will be” and Jesus redeems them and resurrects them as hope. He resurrects Cain and Abel from their sin-forced estrangement and binds them back into fraternal bonds.

The grief is too much. But with it, hope.


32 thoughts on “Adam Palmer: Cain, Abel, and a Theology of the Table

  1. If it had been a Billy Graham special (like a lot of people seem to have wanted)…

    The difference between storytelling and Propaganda.

    Many of the stories in the Bible are themselves simply adaptations of stories that were current in the culture so why shouldn’t our contemporary artists have the same right to interpret?

    If I remember right, Judaism has a tradition of speculative interpretation called Midrash.


  2. According to Wikipedia, Ken Ham and Ray “Banana” Comfort pitched a fit over that creation sequence.
    Because — EVOLUTION!!!!!!!


  3. “Only Real True Christians(TM) can turn a Father’s welcome celebration feast into a Fascist rally.”


  4. I’ve been thinking about this whole thing, the shootings, the year that not only truth died in my country, but reality, itself, became lost in the fog. I feel for your grief of your loss, the waste that death brings, especially cancer. It is a discouraging time in many ways.

    It is interesting that I did a search for passages about Jesus’ own discouragement. I re-read Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane. I reviewed when he wept for his friend Lazarus. But what struck me the most was the overwhelming clutter of Christian web sites (when I searched online) that proclaimed why Christians should never be discouraged. For example, “The five steps of defeating discouragement,” or “Why God Doesn’t Want you to be Disappointed.”

    I think this is a type of emotional-prosperity Gospel. Where those of faith never have sad or discouraging thoughts. But I think they are wrong. If I sugar-coat this fallen world, it is to deny the reality of the fall. On the other hand, I think the work of the Christian is to embrace sadness, grief, pain, and hopelessness. Because we cannot know the height of the Gospel if we live in denial of the darkness of the trench of falleness. I think of the previous postings here about Luther and his wise embracement of the horrors of sin that we can understand the Gospel better.

    There is a season of grief and a season of joy. I celebrate the grief with you.


  5. I Kings 19:11The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
    Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.


  6. There is real hope in the state; what it can do is real: it may really render justice instead of injustice, it may really build roads and highways, it may really defend the helpless and vulnerable, etc.. But there is no lasting hope in the state; the real hope we may have in the state is for things that have an expiration date. The hope we may have in Jesus is both real, and lasting, without expiration date.


  7. I can deeply identify with Adam Palmer’s despair. I yearn to be gone. This place is just too much. But the only available option, isn’t. I always open with

    Jeremiah 12:1-2 NIV
    [1] … You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? [2] You have planted them, and they have taken root; they grow and bear fruit …

    but the Lord always comforts me with

    Isaiah 46:9-10 NIV
    [9] Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. [10] I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’ …

    I know, I know. I’m supposed to use something from the New Testament. But there it is.


  8. It’s good in a strange way.

    The story is engaging, deriving more from I and II Enochand the Book of Jubilees than from Genesis. There are some good performances; the aforementioned Roy Winstead who shines as the bad guy, Emma Watson as Shem’s wife, Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah.

    I don’t think Noah was one of Russell Crowe’s best roles. His wooden, unnuanced Noah was hard to watch at times. Crowe is probably why most people give Noah a 3 out 5 at best.

    And yeah, the rock-angels (Nephelim) were a good touch.


  9. I agree.

    But when I look up at the scoreboard and see that life is whipping up on people, it’s easy to have moments of doubt.


  10. You’re right, my apologies. I’ve just filtered and heard that through the lens of “NO” hope “so why bother” too often.

    Which is strange considering the Bible and it’s recorded history.


  11. +1. Maybe I’ll put it on my list. I didn’t see it not because of the “non-Biblical” concern, but because I heard it just wasn’t that good.


  12. In defense of Seneca’s statement, he said “There is no *REAL* hope in the state.” (emphasis mine) Sure, the state can help. Sure, the state can provide avenues for people to improve. Sure, good things come from the state.

    But no one…NO ONE…should turn to the state for their ultimate hope. The state is ultimately flawed. Too dependent on people (yes, BUREAUCRATS) doing the right thing. And consider how your sentiments change with who’s currently in office and holding power. And tell me, how much hope are the North Korean people having in THEIR state?

    The state is flawed. There is no REAL hope in the state.


  13. Thank you Adam P. for your insightful, thoughtful, bold approach to pain in our world. You’re right, there is no room for pragmatism in Christianity. Either we live and act like God is God and is unchanging and is not wringing His hands in defeat, or we don’t.


  14. > Did no one enjoy Aronofsky’s Noah besides me?

    Haven’t seen it; but you’re recommendation has put it on my list. I’m ok with a little wacky . . . and it isn’t like we don’t spend a fair amount of our time here discussing some rather wacky topics.

    I heard varying reviews of the movie at the time.


  15. Blaming the congregant.

    You didn’t hear God? Then you did not listen hard enough.

    Bad theology.


  16. +1,000. This is “Ok, got Jesus, throw in the towel”.

    There is a *LOT* of hope in the state! For example, the state can install a cross-walk at the intersection near my home. Hooray for the state! Go state! Go state! Go state! Sign me up for “Team State”!

    Dear career politicians – thank you for the many positive things you have contributed to our society and prosperity, for your thankless labors.


  17. I loved it. I think I cried at the creation moment. It was a beautiful, wonderful film.

    I cried again when I had friends, believers, scream at me for seeing that film, because that film was the only chance for the gospel those people who saw it might ever have, and how evil and wicked it was that I saw it and enjoyed such heresy.


  18. legalistic communion-as-sin-flaggelation church

    That’s a good term for it. The emphasis on eating and drinking damnation. The solemn duty to remember. The lack of joy. Yeah.


  19. Faith in the saving power of Jesus Christ is the ONLY hope. There is no real hope in the state.

    I hear what you are saying. I recognize it. But I can’t disagree hard enough. 32 years of the most righteous, fundamentalist, legalistic, by the book Christianity has infused me with a hard “no, that’s wrong’. And sadly I think we’ll always be at an impasse with this.


  20. I enjoyed NOAH myself. I loved its wackiness and offbeat approach. If it had been a Billy Graham special (like a lot of people seem to have wanted) I daresay it would have been instantly forgettable. I loved the rock monster/angels and was moved that they got to go back to heaven at the end. (if you haven’t seen the movie and are going “whaaaat?” then just watch it. Trust me.)

    There is a certain segment of our population who think they own the Bible. Many of the stories in the Bible are themselves simply adaptations of stories that were current in the culture so why shouldn’t our contemporary artists have the same right to interpret?



  21. Robert,
    The receiving of Communion on Sundays or any other day of the week is not a slap in the forehead experience.
    To me it is an affirmation of Christ within me whether I am feeding the cats or watering the seedlings I should have planted out last week or saying “Hi” to the autistic lad next door who is smoking his life away on the kerb because he isn’t allowed to smoke in the sheltered group home.
    The Eucharist/Thanksgiving extends far beyond the Altar or Communion rail. It is what lifts our chins above the day by day slog through slush and mud or life. The Eucharist/Thanksgiving lifts our head above the detritus and like a torch on a dark night says, “come this way, I will show you the path”.
    Peace be yours Robert.



  22. …Christians who apparently have a problem with Jews being Jews.

    Unfortunately, there’s nothing new in that. It seems to be a Christian tradition, stretching back to ancient times.


  23. Did no one enjoy Aronofsky’s Noah besides me? Wherever you go, you hear griping about the unBiblicality of the film. This isn’t particularly fair to Mr. Aronofsky, who based the film on Jewish extra-Biblical sources.

    I thought it was a good film, and especially enjoyed Ray Winstone as Tubal-Cain. It wasn’t a perfect movie, but it didn’t deserve the calumny it received from Christians who apparently have a problem with Jews being Jews.


  24. I had an earth-shattering communion experience. There’s nothing like six months in a legalistic communion-as-sin-flaggelation church to make one open to the Grace of the classic Anglican/Episcopal/Methodist liturgy. But that trauma is not anything I’d wish on anybody.


  25. I’ve been partaking of Holy Communion, the Eucharist, all of my life. I’ve never had the visceral experience of peace at the table that I know some people do. In the past, I envied others this experience, and foolishly sought to produce it in myself by inner spiritual gymnastics of various sorts, but, of course, never succeeded. I’m past the envy and the looking for any special experience in receiving Communion, as well as the gymnastics and effort to psyche myself into an experience of some kind. Now the moment of Communion is one more moment like any other, as far as my experience is concerned, and I leave it to God to quietly and invisibly impart to me whatever gift of peace, or anything else, he chooses. Selah.


  26. Faith in the saving power of Jesus Christ is the ONLY hope. There is no real hope in the state.

    Faith in Jesus doesn’t promise a pain free life until 100 years of life. It DOES promise an eternal future where the sins of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel no longer work their terrible destruction. For God’s chosen, Easter’s coming.


  27. Call me back if I am inappropriate, but today I watched on Yutube a service for a local preacher who died from cancer a couple of days ago. A huge congregation attended.

    My husband and I knew him and his family. He and his family were Brethren and then escaped and became Baptist and then on to a local Gospel Community which he led as Pastor.
    I was amazed by the great of faith by the community and the family in their grief as expressed by them. Jesus was with them.

    I wish I could be more so strong or so sure of my goal after death, But supposedly I am a Christian, but perhaps not enough. I dance and weave over the future. With whom do I dance?

    Pray for my insecurity and my faltering faith.

    Pray for Tim,



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