A lot of folks ask me about my tattoos and I’m happy to share the meanings behind them. If you know someone with tattoos, it’s definitely appropriate to ask about their tattoos. I mean, I didn’t just accidentally get a half-sleeve on my left arm.
One of my major tattoos is a bit odd. The tattoo depicts Cain slaying Abel with a rock. Cain’s face looks wild and is covered in blood while Abel’s face is twisted in pain as he vanishes into vapor (our Hebrew scholars will note that Abel’s name means “vapor” or “mist” in Hebrew. It’s the same word that we get in Ecclesiastes for “vanity.” Basically, it means something fleeting or ephemeral). The point of the tattoo isn’t for shock value. I admit that it’s a bit odd to have a depiction of fratricide on my arm for the rest of my life, but I have it there as a reminder to myself of a great truth that the story of Cain and Abel spoke to God’s people then and speaks to God’s people now.
The story of Cain and Abel isn’t about offerings. It’s not about fruit and vegetables versus animal sacrifice. I know, I know. Paul said that Cain’s offering was better, but that’s not how I read it (that’s the beauty of Scripture, it’s always speaking). The point of the story was that a brother named Cain (strength in Hebrew) killed his brother named Abel (vapor in Hebrew) in the field. God then asks him, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain responds, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” God says, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” This is a rhetorical question to which the implied answer is no. Cain was not Abel’s keeper. We are also not our brother and sister’s keeper. We are more than that. We are our brother’s brother and our sister’s sister. We so often forget that when we undermine people, cause them pain, turn a blind eye to injustice, and fail to speak for those whose voices are silenced and not heard.
Even though Abel never has a speaking role in the story, he does speak in a powerful way. His blood cries out from the ground. His blood speaks. God instructs Cain to listen. In Hebrew, the word for “listen” is not a passive word, it’s a word that implies a change, something that you can’t undo. “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
There is blood crying out to us today from communities that are often unheard or made into caricatures that filter their personhood. Philando Castile was shot and killed by a Minnesota police officer during a traffic stop in front of his girlfriend and a child. Alton Sterling was shot by police officers in Baton Rouge while being held down during an arrest. Five officers were shot and killed (7 officers and 2 civilians were injured) during an ambush shooting at a protest in Dallas.
Their blood cries out to us from the ground. And what does it say? Their blood, same as Abel’s blood, reminds us that we are our brother’s brother. We’re connected through a sacred bond, a bond rooted in having a common Creator. So how do we be our brother’s brother, our sister’s sister? It’s simple, we recognize the thumbprint of our Creator on the forehead of every person we meet. When we do that, when we are our brother’s brother and our sister’s sister, we can’t bear the sound of our neighbor’s blood crying the heartbreaking song of injustice from the streets.
Are we our brother or sister’s keeper? No. We don’t have to be. Our brothers and sisters don’t need keepers when we recognize that we are our brother’s brother and our sister’s sister.
Friends, there is blood crying out from the ground, are we listening?