We will follow Genesis 3’s “Really Bad Prayer” with Genesis 4’s “Really Sad Prayer.” Cain, fresh off the killing of Abel, is asked by God, “Where is Abel, your brother?” Cain answers, “I don’t know.” I suppose his answer is somewhat true. He’s dead. His blood has drained out. There is a little bit of him here, a little there. His body is somewhere on or under the ground. His spirit/soul is with the Lord. There’s really no easy answer to his whereabouts. Not so easy as if God had asked him, “Where are you?”
Cain’s next reply sounds insolent: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He assumes the answer is “no,” but we realize that it really is “yes.” God had put Adam in the middle of His creation in order to “cultivate and keep” it. We would assume that if you are to be a keeper of creation, then you would also, necessarily be your brother’s keeper, his guardian, his defender. Cain proved to be the opposite.
So we find that Cain, in his prayer/argument with God, actually uses God’s word, “keep,” in his attempt to relieve himself of responsibility. He has rejected his role in God’s creation, and he throws God’s word back in God’s face (and this is the 2nd recorded interaction between God and man!). So let’s have had enough of the notion that the Christian message is to affirm the innate goodness of man. These two prayers, Genesis 3 and 4, argue the opposite. And further, we ought to be somewhat fearful in our prayers, lest we sink to this level, in which we pray as though the only person on God’s green earth that matters is me, and I can make any vapid excuse I want and expect that God should honor it. God punishes Cain, taking away his ability to do that other thing that God had commended to mankind, not only to “keep,” but to “cultivate.” You violate the one; you lose the other.
But we are not done with Cain (and, neither is God). Cain responds to God’s pronouncement: “The punishment is greater than I can bear.” This is the really sad aspect of this prayer, and it is the cry of humankind ever since, to the degree that we actually understand the predicament of our broken relationship with God. This word “punishment” is also translated “iniquity,” and may include both the offense and the punishment that the offense deserves. Both will crush us, drive us into the dirt, so that we will “surely die,” separated forever from God. But it is exactly this prayer, this bad news, that drives us to be ready for the arrival of promised good news.