The Genius of Genesis, Part 8: ‘Cain and the Art of Self-Control’

By David Marshall Published on November 28, 2023

“Fiona! Come back! Where are you? I went to the can, and when I got back, you were gone!”

A young man with bare chest and unruly hair emerged from the trees and crossed the former railroad bridge, now jogging trail over the limpid waters of the South Fork, as I stood rooted to the spot. I used to enjoy picnicking and swimming here, before tents began to appear. Still yelling, more from anger or concern I couldn’t tell, the man crossed the bridge and disappeared back into the woods.

A slightly less scruffy-looking fellow with a prosthetic limb stopped his bicycle on the bridge. “They’ll be OK,” he assured me in a raspy voice. “That’s his girlfriend. I used to live in those woods, too, but was never a meth-head.” He had lost his leg in a forklift accident, he explained, and had taken a while to get back on track. These woods were within walking distance of a food bank, so were a choice spot to camp.

“Sin is Lying in Wait For You”

What does the Book of Genesis say about “modern” problems like drug-addiction, tent cities, and broken families? The second half of the book tells the story of the trailer-trash gypsy clan that became Israel, and features incest, polygamy, sibling rivalry, sex for mandrakes, and mass murder. But the first violent crime, Genesis 4 informs us, was brother-on-brother, after which the killer was banished to the bush. God had warned Cain:

“Sin is lying in wait for you. You must master it, or it will master you.”

For some, “master” is a trigger word, evoking 19th Century chattel slavery. But Adam and Eve had been given joint control over Nature, as we saw. God gave humanity a job to do, and wished them “mastery” even after they ate the “Forbidden Fruit.” Without self-command, even if we gain the world, we lose our souls, and maybe the shirts off our backs and our loved ones.

Control is visibly slipping from the hands of this generation.

A thousand people live in storm drains under the city of Las Vegas. They are sometimes called “Mole People,” though the term can also refer to those living in subways or other post-apocalyptic holes in New York City. Altogether, some half a million Americans camp on streets, under bridges or in woods: addicts, mentally ill, those without anyone to take them in.

Jesus echoed the Creator by bringing order out of chaos.

Tens of millions of children have in one way fallen further than Cain and Abel, having lost fathers or mothers to divorce. Those kids are more vulnerable to a panoply of social ills: drug addiction, school drop-out, teenage pregnancy, suicide. Now even basic biological sense about male and female is slipping from our grip.

“Don’t we just need God’s grace?” Shouldn’t being “filled with the Spirit,” as Paul put it, be our emphasis, instead of “striving” after “works”? Some Christians talk as if prayer miraculously knocks out all the “sin” centers in our brains (lust, addiction, laziness, despair, pride). Having been “born again,” we no longer need “good works” to please the Lord.

But in the same passage, Paul tells his correspondents, “Do not be drunk with wine.” I am guessing he would have warned his disciples away from meth, fentanyl, and weed, too. He knew how hard it is to overcome addictions: “Oh wretched man that I am! Who can free me from this body of sin and death?”

Mastery Brings Freedom, Not Slavery

God told Cain to master himself. “Master” here implies freedom, not slavery. A “master craftsman” skillfully molds beauty, as a creator made in God’s image. Even non-Christians are capable of remarkable feats of self-mastery. The medical missionary and scientist Paul Brand was amazed by the ability of Hindus to control pain. While China was racked by opium addiction early in the 20th Century, drug addiction is now far rarer in East Asia than in post-Christian America.

G.K. Chesterton compared Christianity to a lion-tamer. The Gospel sets many powerful ideas in one cage, which if loosened from the bonds of Christian teaching as a whole, wreak havoc. The danger of “grace without works” is that it may encourage a culture to lose its sense of shame and public disincentives. Cain lived in a society without prisons, walls, truancy officers, or school suspensions.

So he killed his brother. When asked where Abel was, he claimed, “I do not know.” (Perhaps honestly mystified by human death.) Then he asked a question that could have received a great answer, if only he stopped to listen:

“Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Yes, Jesus would later reply, you are. That was what you were put on Earth to do: tend gardens, and love your Creator and your neighbor made in His image, even if you are a West Bank Palestinian (“Samaritan”) who encounters a Jewish terror victim beaten and bloody by the side of the road.

Glimmers of Divine Grace

But God is also your keeper. So he put a “mark of Cain” on you. This was an act of grace, to protect you from retribution. Of course that mark might also serve as “social reinforcement.” Early American literature tells of a woman who committed adultery and was made to wear a “Scarlet Letter” on her clothing.

Such “shaming” shocks us today. But the Puritans might be more horrified that millions of their descendants barely know their fathers. And among the drug-addicted who shuffle across our bridges, and young men in gangs and women on welfare, many were raised by single mothers.

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Jesus saved a woman caught in adultery by publicly shaming those who planned to stone her to death. Then he told her, “Go and sin no more.” He did not promise a miraculous change of inclinations (though that sometimes happens), nor provision in case she had been getting by on bed money. But he put a saving mark on her heart: “This man protected me from a painful public death. Now he calls me to change my manner of living.”

Jesus thus protected that woman from retribution (as God protected Cain), from VD, and from raising a child alone. He also protected her children from the many drawbacks and dangers of being raised in a single-family household.

Sin lies in wait for us. “Stigmas,” “shaming” and other forms of social pressure have gained negative connotations, and can be cruel. But at their best, they help stifle bad impulses. Divine grace often comes through others, who help motivate us.

The Second Adam was more than Tom Bombadil, who could not be mastered by the Ring of Power, or Gandalf, who feared its mastery. Jesus showed universal mastery in part to help us “get a grip” as well.

Jesus and his disciples were walking by a lake, not river, when he met a man possessed by a “legion” of demons. The man’s shirt was off, too, and his hair a mess. He scared people, and lived alone.

Jesus did a miracle for that man.

Jesus Brings Order Out of Chaos

Skeptics often take miracles as arbitrary and senseless acts, as if God Himself were undisciplined, casually setting his own rules aside, without rhyme or reason. But “God is not a God of disorder,” says Paul. If people run naked, drool, or bark like dogs, such “signs” and “wonders” are not from the Holy Spirit. “The spirit of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.”

And because all spirits were subject to Jesus, he freed the madman from those who haunted him. Villagers came and found him “dressed and in his right mind.” (While like followers of Jim Jones, the demons entered a herd of swine and committed mass, revolutionary suicide, winning the devil’s own Darwin Award.)

Genesis says the world began “formless and empty.” Then God separated light from darkness — mastered elements, before calling us to master ourselves, and our world.

Jesus echoed the Creator by bringing order out of chaos. Like a farmer or fisherman, he multiplied food for the hungry. Like a doctor, he set bodies in order. As a teacher, he organized minds to truth. When political schemers asked, “Should we stone this adulteress?” or “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus revealed mastery by recombining mercy and justice, rule and freedom, in words that reordered society: “He who is without sin, throw the first stone!” “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God, what is God’s.”

Without the Master, We Are Like Sheep Without a Shepherd

But Jesus first mastered himself, by fasting in the wilderness. When latter-day Cains yelled “Crucify!” as a Second Abel, Jesus did not call a legion of angels to save himself. His restraint was also a miracle of self-mastery. His disciple Peter told Christians to “make every effort” to gain knowledge, and to that, “add self-control,” making self-discipline sound at least as rigorous a program as gaining, say, a “Master’s” degree in Marine Biology.

Drug and screen addictions, homelessness, and violence are only the most obvious signs that having left our Master, we have become like sheep without a shepherd.

We need loving social pressure, along with God’s grace, to regain grip. Women from the other side of the mountains spoke in church last Sunday, about how they had been freed of addictions at a Teen Challenge center. “God is still creating,” as I once heard someone say by a volcano in Hawaii. He creates through us, as we practice the self-mastery that Cain neglected.

But Cain and Abel were not just brothers. They also represented quarreling tribes: “the farmer and the cowman,” as Rogers and Hammerstein would put it. We’ll see next what Genesis has to say to Red States and Blue States and other quarreling tribes.


David Marshall, an educator and writer, has a doctoral degree in Christian thought and Chinese tradition. His most recent book is The Case for Aslan: Evidence for Jesus in the Land of Narnia. 

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