Cain, Abel, and the Price of Blood
The Blood of the Lamb: Life, Death, Sin, and Salvation in Human Existence
Editorial Note: This is one of a series of essays in which the writer intends to trawl the depths of typology, symbolism, and meaning found between the Old and New Testaments. These explorations are meant to foster a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the significance of Jesus Christ and salvation made possible through Him.
A tale as old as time is the account of God's generating the world, of the forming of Adam and Eve, and of their disobedience to their Creator. Almost as well-known is the biblical account that follows soon after about the rivalry between brothers Cain and Abel. However, it's a story important enough to revisit because it reveals more to us than the lengths to which jealousy can take us. It helps set the stage for the tragedy and redemption that is the story of salvation.
Let's examine a chunk of the relevant passage from Scripture:
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. The the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?” And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand (Genesis 4:2b-11; italicized emphasis is my own).
These verses are brimming with symbolism that would go on to have long-lasting effects on how God went to work redeeming the fallen human race. It documents the earliest example of actual sin, that is, a vice committed by and condoned through the wills of the offspring of Adam and Eve – our first parents who committed original sin. This incident also represents the earliest biblical event showcasing bloodshed among humans.
The Weight of Sin, God's Loving Care, and His Promise of a Savior
God's first conversation with Cain in this passage shows that God, even though He may seem distant and appear to be disregarding our prayers and sufferings, is actually vigilant and merciful. In fact, as the monologue shows, God constantly endeavors to approach us.
The phrasing of God's second address to Cain is at once visceral and evocative of the mortality, physical as well as spiritual, that has entered into the fallen human condition. The language used is jarring. The blood of Cain's brother cries out from the injustice that has befallen mankind: the presence of sin now inherent to our existence. (As the Old Testament alludes, the great evils of mankind are often traced back to the line of Cain including the bloodshed and loss of life in numerous ancient wars.)
Behold what sin looks like. See what it deprives us of. It cost Abel his temporal being; and it has the potential to steal from us life everlasting, the relationship we pine after which unites us with the triune God. It is at this point in salvation history as recorded in Scripture, the human race was in need of a Savior. And God, Who continually reveals to His creatures His gracious and merciful nature, gave all of us hope. While we were yet mired in sin, He loved us.
Right after Adam and Eve rejected Him, God gave them opportunity for confession, for relief from the guilt that accompanies sin. He showed His desire for caregiving for His creatures as exhibited in making clothes to protect them, cover their shame, and remove temptation. But above all, God promised to Adam and Eve, and therefore to their descendants, a Savior. The Lord says to the serpent:
“...I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).
In other words, God promises doom to the serpent – here symbolic of satan, who is, from his earliest interaction with humanity, a traitor, murderer, and proponent of death. This terrible blow which will be struck against the wicked demons comes once and for all through the humiliating sacrifice of God made man, when Jesus Christ is made the bloody Victim for our offenses. This ultimate sacrifice is made possible through the Incarnation in which the “seed” of the woman (Mary) – and not of a man (since the procreative act was initiated by the love of the Holy Spirit) – comes into the world and crushes the head of the ancient serpent. From some of the earliest records we have of man's sinfulness, we immediately are given a glimmer of hope, which is fulfilled in the Lord Jesus.
The Blood Imagery in the Story of Cain and Abel
Even as early as the story of Cain and Abel, it's already clear how detrimental sin is to the human condition. Some of the first offspring of our first parents kill one another. Humanity was not off to a great start.
The Cain and Abel incident illustrates early on several key themes that blood can and will play in the story of salvation. The first element isn't stated explicitly but rather implied. That is that the sacrifice acceptable to God is Abel's, which is an offering of a creature of flesh and blood as opposed to any of the bounty from the flora cultivated by Cain. The killing of a bodily creature, or a “bloody sacrifice,” is here seen by God as the appropriate sacrifice.
Secondly, in a stark and harrowing manner, it's made clear that blood is associated with one's mortal life. Once Abel's blood is no longer with him (it has been swallowed up by the earth), he no longer has life within him. Hence, in Jewish consciousness, as it developed over the many years that followed, blood was identifiable as the life-source, the quintessential component, of beasts as well as of the rational animals – human beings. Thus, it carried with it a somewhat sacred dimension.
Lastly, the staining quality of blood stands out as a consequence of the Fall and subsequent actual sins. Sin leads to death – spiritually and physically.
Bloodshed points to the severity of sin, of refusing God's love. Humanity's engagement in sin, down through history, has left a long trail of blood in its wake. Due to the Fall, sin, death, internal temptation, and suffering have become ever-present realities affixed to human existence. However, it's just these qualities that God the Son, Jesus Christ, came to overturn and redeem. As we will see, it's the very life and blood of humanity that Jesus renewed in His own sacrifice.
The Continuing Types of Shepherd and Lamb
When we speak of types, the theological term applies to those persons, places, or events occurring in the Old Testament that foreshadow their fulfillment in the New – predominantly in the Person of Jesus, whose salvific identity is prophesized throughout the OT Scriptures.
Several of the typological images foreshadowing Jesus in the OT include the shepherd and the lamb and the shepherd. The sacrificial lamb, an inclusion most significantly appearing in Abraham's sacrifice on Moriah (cf. Genesis 22:9-14) and later in the Egyptian Passover (cf. Exodus 12:3-13), is a precursor to Christ's sacrificial role.
Even in the story of Cain and Abel, it's important to keep in mind the notion of sheep as an essential sacerdotal element of worship. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger states, “From Abel to the Apocalypse the sacrificed lamb is a type of the Redeemer, of his pure self-giving.” There is no more perfect example of total self-gift than Jesus giving His life on the Cross and, furthermore, continually giving Himself to us in the Eucharist.
Additionally, the shepherd is seen in several important and relatively virtuous characters from the OT. The aforementioned Abel was a shepherd, and he is shown to be a just man. In Abel, the types of shepherd and sacrificial lamb are linked. Likewise, it is the humble shepherd boy David who will become perhaps the greatest king of Israel. And it's from the Davidic line that Jesus Himself is descended (see either of the Lord's genealogies as set down in Matthew 1 and Luke 3).
The shepherd role is one that can be seen as both kingly and priestly. Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, leads us (a kingly/ruling function) and also intercedes for our benefit (a priestly attribute). In Jesus, we find the intersection of these types in the fullness of His divinity and His humanity. Christ is both God and Man, Shepherd and Lamb.
The Ritualistic Heritage of Blood in Judaism
By the time of Jesus, during the era of Second Temple Judaism, there already existed a deeply-seeded aversion to the consumption of a creature's blood, let alone that of a person. Caught up with this notion is the sanctity of life associated with blood. This “blood taboo” had been supported for centuries by a number of passages throughout Jewish Scripture (cf. Genesis 9:3-4; Leviticus 17:10-11; Deuteronomy 12:16).
As Dr. Brant Pitre explains:
People were not to consume blood because “the life” or “the soul” (Hebrew nephesh) of the animal is in the blood. As Leviticus states, “It is the blood that makes atonement, by the power of its life.” While scholars continue to debate exactly what this means, one thing is clear: in the ancient world, the Jewish people were known for their refusal to consume blood.
This abstinence from drinking blood noticeably set the Jews apart from the rest of the world as various pagan religious rites actually included the consumption of blood. Some cults believed drinking blood in their rituals allowed them communion with the false gods they aligned themselves with. Devout Jews wanted nothing to do with such practices associated with faux worship. When Jesus entered His creation, He sanctified and renewed it. This included elevating those fragments of truth found both in Jewish and Gentile practices.
The Kashrut laws, which are rooted in Scripture and are still observed by some Jews to this day, provide the rubrics for meats that are permissible to eat as well as the rule to abstain from consuming blood. Foods that are approved for eating according to these laws are now referred to as “kosher.” This understanding was already firmly fixed in the Jewish mentality of Jesus' day and age, which made His revelation of the Holy Eucharist a particularly hard saying to the Jews, God's chosen people.
The Passion of Jesus Christ and the Fulfillment of Old Testament Types
The bloody nature of their sacrifices characterized the Israelites' worship throughout the OT and into the NT. Animal sacrifice was as much a part of Second Temple Judaism as it had been to earlier iterations of Semitic religion. The Passover, still celebrated since the time of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, retained much of what had been practiced by its inaugural observers. This included the execution of a Paschal lamb which was then to be shared as a sacral meal.
Moreover, in recalling the original directions given by God to the enslaved Israelites (see Exodus 12), it's understood that the blood of the lamb that is spread across the “two doorposts and the lintel” of their homes is a symbol of obedience promising salvation, of being spared from the declaration of death God intended for “the firstborn in the land of Egypt.” And hence, the Spirit of God would pass over those who spread the blood accordingly. In other words, the blood of the lamb was a necessary sign to bring about God's personal protection. As it turns out, Jesus fulfills all of the intricacies of the Passover sacrifice, Himself filling the role of the true Paschal Lamb, the Lamb of God.
Nearing the end of His public ministry as throughout His entire earthly life, Jesus knew exactly what He was doing. He knew from before all time when His hour would come. God the Son had ordained that the hour for His ultimate sacrifice would coincide with a Passover celebration. At the Last Supper, our Lord Jesus initiates a new Passover feast.
It is then that Jesus makes Himself the “main course” of this sacred meal in the lamb's stead. Here He says of the bread eaten that “this is my body; ” then Jesus gives thanks (or, as we say in the Greek, eucharisteo), gives the wine to His disciples, and says, “This is my blood of the covenant” (cf. Mark 14: 22-24). In this way, Jesus, who Himself states that He is truly present in the Eucharist He just gifted to the Apostles, becomes the new Lamb – the Lamb of God. He literally becomes the food which is intended to be consumed in the new sacred meal. As Jesus says, His blood ushers in a new covenant. But all these references to blood, covenant, and the sacred meal allude to something very serious: the equal need for sacrifice. If truly the Lamb of God, destined to be eaten by God's people for their salvation, then Jesus is also a Lamb of sacrifice. He is the Lamb led to the slaughter, and in his audacious humility, He submits. Just as the Eucharist He gives is not merely symbolic, neither is His bloody sacrifice. His sacrifice is not a gimmick, an allusion, or an idea. Jesus offers Himself up, dying in order to destroy sin and death, triumphing too over the devil, whose putrid fruits have always been sin and death.
The bloody sacrifice of Christ occurs “once for all” when Jesus gives Himself upon the altar of the Cross. His body is destroyed, His blood shed on our behalf. Like Abel, Christ, Who is just, is killed unjustly. And, also like Abel, God accepts the sacrifice Jesus offers. Through the Crucifixion and subsequent conquering of death through His Resurrection, Jesus paved the way forward for us to enter into new life, a life that turns aside from sin, a life that finds its highest fulfillment in the Kingdom of Heaven. To our spiritual benefit, it is this same sacrifice of the Lamb of God that we enter into and of which we get to partake in the Mass.
The Type of Melchizedek and the New Covenant
The priesthood, the sacrificial role and the specific method which Jesus takes up and establishes – like many things in His ministry – has an OT precursor. The “type” for the priestly role of Christ from former times is Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem (later to become Jerusalem) who met with the patriarch Abraham (cf. Genesis 14:18-20), blessed him, and brought out bread and wine at their meeting. Though brief, this encounter has significant implications in salvation history. It isn't until the author of the Letter to the Hebrews explores the theological and typological significance of Melchizedek many years later:
For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him; and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever (Hebrews 7:1-3).
A lot is summed up here, but the text primarily acts to show how Jesus and His priesthood are comparable and fulfilling of Melchizedek and his. For Jesus is, in fact, the Son of God, the King of peace and of righteousness. But we should also recall another critical element of Melchizedek's function – the sacred meal taken to the meeting with Abraham consisted of bread and wine. In other words, the sacrifice here was, interestingly enough, an unbloody one, making it stand out on its own apart from the normative sacrifices offered to God in the OT, which were bloody.
Nevertheless, both Genesis and Hebrews refer to Melchizedek in a positive light as the “priest of the Most High God.” From this, we can detect that his blessing and his sacred meal would be as valid as his priestly office. It is the method of Melchizedek's sacred meal, one consisting of bread and wine, that Jesus christens. Christ takes the type of the olden days and fulfills it, transforming the bread of the Last Supper into true food and the wine into true drink, that is, His own Body and Blood.
Thus, while the Last Supper and the tremendous, liberating self-gift upon the altar of the Cross are one and the same sacrifice – at the center of which rests the presence and self-giving of God enfleshed in Man, we are visually presented with an unbloody sacrifice. Like the Apostles first did on the night before Jesus died, we receive our Lord's Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity under the appearance of bread and wine. It is this miracle, accepted through faith in the realities unseen, around which the self-same sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated.
As we have seen, the coming of Christ carries a great deal of baggage along with it – for it's Jesus who will have to take all of the baggage of humanity's sin and death upon His shoulders, destroying it “once for all” on the Cross. The typology interwoven between the New and Old Testaments shows how momentous a Poet God is in telling the story of our salvation. In becoming man, taking on the frailties of the same flesh Abel inherited, Jesus came to save us from our own brokenness. Whereas Abel had been the first man to taste death, Jesus became the first Man to taste life everlasting, opening up for us the way into Paradise eternal, that life that can't be taken away and in which God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (cf. Revelation 21:4).
Note: All Bible quotes are taken from the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition.
 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2000), 98.
 Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist (New York, NY: Image, 2016), 16.