Whats In a Name?

Genesis 4: 1-16

Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.” Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
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.”
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.


The question that I dread the most is ‘What is your Name?’ When I say Merin, the questioner has an expression that is difficult to understand which is quickly followed by ‘Isn’t that a girl’s name?’ Phew. Every church that I have gone I have had the honour of parents coming to me and saying with a smile “Ente magalude perum Merin aa” (Even our daughter’s name is Merin) I try to smile, but I have not made peace with it, please pray for me, my brethren. My mind then goes to the time when my parents chose a name for me. My mother wanted the name Melvin, but my dad vetoed her to give me this name ‘Merin.’ Since it is dad who gave the name I have not dared to ask him ‘Why, Why?’ So then I Googled ‘Merin’ and in one obscure place where it said “Merin comes from the Hebrew word ‘Mero’ which can mean happiness as well as restlessness.” Well it is true that I am happy and make others restless. So with the name having a meaning I have some consolation. Shakespeare definitely had no idea when he said “What is in a name?” Well a lot buddy, a lot. In today’s passage I will be laying special emphasis on the names of the characters we come across and therefore you had to bear with the personal rant or trivia. Hope my father won’t read this.

Name and its Meaning
The story of Cain and Abel is a very popular one and the narrative has many dimensions, textures and layers. Gen. 4:1 starts with the scene of human procreation where Eve after giving birth to Cain says “I have created man with the help of the Lord.” The word “Qanah” in Hebrew is translated as created and the noun form of “Qanah” is Cain. So here we see the name given by Eve to her first born Cain embodies creation in his name and also he is the seed of the man, formed out of Adamah which means soil in Hebrew. Cain becomes the tiller of the soil like his father as Gen 4:2 b says “…… and Cain worked the soil.” So he is called to carry forward the divine commission given to man in Gen. 2: 15 to and keep the soil. The name Abel comes from the Hebrew word ‘Habel’ which means ‘breath’ or ‘vapor’. Genesis 2:7 says Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. So meaning of Abel signifies the divine breath that God breathed while creating Adam out of Adamah. So we all see the interconnection of names to the process of creation.

How Do We Worship?
In Gen. 4.3 we see Worship being introduced for the first time in the Bible. Abel’s offering as a shepherd is accepted but the produce of the ground of Cain is rejected. Now the question arises why is the offerings of Abel accepted and that of Cain rejected. I remember reading a story where the Sunday School teacher asks the same question “Why was Abel’s offering accepted and Cain’s rejected.” Many attempted to answer. But there was a smarty who raised his hand to declare that he had the answer to the most treasured secret of all times. He blurted, “Teacher the answer is very simple. God is a Non-Vegetarian and therefore he loved the meat given by Abel and Cain was foolish to offer vegetarian stuff to God.” Well that is as far as the child’s logic goes. Worship is not just what you bring in your hand but what you carry in your heart. Look at the construction of the sentence. ‘The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.’ (Genesis 4: 4b-5a) ‘Abel and offering’ and ‘Cain and his offering’. When we go to worship it is we as a person that God is interested in, more than what we have to offer. So why do you go to worship? Is it because out of social pressure, parental pressure, social security, claims of tradition or just because you have no other option? If we see, Cain too participated and offered the offerings but Robin Koshy says “Cain’s sin was religious tokenism. He is doing religious stuff, but his heart is away from the Lord.” This could be our case too. We have become used to the pattern of our worship. We routinely chant, sing songs, make sign of the cross, do our confession, received the Holy bread and Holy wine week after week that the meaning of the worship and its purpose is lost on us. What prophet Isaiah says is applicable to Cain as well as us. The Lord says:
“These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught. (Isaiah 29: 13)

Why Envy?
Because of God’s favor on Abel, we see an introduction of a very common human emotion that Cain emotes. It is called envy. Paul Tripp defines this very beautifully as follows. “Envy is always idolatrous. It attaches spiritual contentment to physical things and experiences rather than to relationship with God. Envy is a false gospel. Envy says you are worthy and deserving. The cross says you’re unworthy but graced with what you don’t deserve. Envy always breaks the two Great Commands. I envy because I love something more than I love God. In envy I fail to love you as I should. As a believer, envy is always vertical; you cannot be envious without questioning the goodness, wisdom and faithfulness of God. Envy is the product of self-righteousness. You think you’re better, so you can’t deal with a person having what you deserve but don’t enjoy.” Like Cain we experience envy in our life where we feel cheated when friends in college or workplace get recognition, better grades or social standing than we have. This envy creates tension in our healthy relationships and friendships. Researchers from Humboldt University and from Darmstadt’s Technical University of Germany did a study to find the ever increasing phenomenon called ‘Facebook envy’. They found that men put self-promotional stuff on their timeline while women portrayed their good looks and displayed their social lives. This has created envy among users who perceive that their so called Facebook friend is having a better life than he/she has. Such things may look trivial to us but God is confronting Cain by saying “……sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (vs 7). Here God shows the hidden nature of envy in particular and sin in general. If you are envious of others like I am, God is warning us that sin is crouching at our door, if we are not careful, it will rule over our lives and ruin it like it did with Cain..

In the Mar Thoma Liturgy of Holy Matrimony, there is a prayer that says ‘May God save you from Lethal Envy’ (Kolunna asuyiya). Envy kills relationships, purpose and the very esence of life. This envy drives Cain to murder his brother with whom he shared the womb. When God asks him he manifests another nature of sin, that is denial. He asks the famous question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (vs 9) As seen earlier he was the tiller ( obed) and keeper( shomer) of the soil( adamah), so that means he is the keeper of all that is a product of the soil. Abel, the seed of Adam, is a product of the soil and therefore protecting and keeping Abel was the divine vocation of Cain. So the question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper” is a denial of this divine vocation. Cain whose name and vocation embodies creation and life paradoxically symbolizes death and destruction. In denial of his Divine vocation, God’s punishment is a sense of poetic justice. Cain is alienated from the soil that defined his being. If he is not the keeper of his brother, a product of the soil, then he is not the keeper of the soil too. He is cursed that his tilling of the ground will bring no yields. This alienation from the soil and embodiment of violence furthers the narrative logic of Yahweh repenting about his creation that He willed and saw “It was good”.

Is there hope?
So the question arises where is the hope in this tragic narrative? Hope is interlaced and subtle. . Gen. 4:16 says that “Cain went from the presence of the Lord.” While in Gen. 6:9 says “Noah walked with God”. Here we see the portrayal of Noah as the anti-type of Cain as intentional. The name Noah means “Out of the soil that the lord has cursed, this one will bring us relief from our work and toil of our hands.” (Gen. 5:29) after Cain was alienated from the soil the next man who established a relationship with soil and celebrated it is Noah, as it is said “Noah, a man of the soil, was first to plant a vineyard” (Gen. 9:20). Noah, whose ark became the symbol of continuity of creation after the destructive flood, was the keeper of every species of bird and animal. He also became the keeper of soil as seen, and he can be seen as an Ecological ideal with whom God makes a covenant, promising the sustenance of life and creation.

Finally we see that two characters ‘Cain’ and ‘Noah’ embodied very positive elements in their name. But how do we evaluate them? Cain lived contrary to his name and calling and Noah embodied all the virtues that his name meant. God has named each one of us and gifted us this life with a purpose and a vocation. Are we living a life furthering creation and salvation or living a life away from the presence of God, deeply indulging in ourselves by compromising our relationship with God, our neighbours and creation? What is in a name? Well, a lot.

Rev Merin Mathew
Bethel Mar Thoma Church
Kolar Road, Bhopalname

One thought on “Whats In a Name?

  1. All wud like to believe that they have been chosen for gr8 things in life… but it’s just that few r highlighted as per societal norms… for a person who gets influenced by these ( and every body does at some point) it’s not easy to come in terms with their own calling or capabilities… if it’s being at a secondary role..

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