Why Isn’t There More Detail in Bible Stories?
Sometimes people walk away from the Bible confused. We don’t know why a character did what they did, or what they looked like, or even what the “moral of the story” is. Bible stories often lack the amount of detail and clarity that modern readers are accustomed to. And this is frustrating to us because we like lots of detail.
But what if a glaring lack of detail in a Bible story is there on purpose? The story is so brilliant that it intentionally introduces something confusing to get us to participate more in the reading process. The reader has to think of multiple answers and hold them in tension while reading the rest of the story looking for clarification and testing different possibilities.
It’s a Yoda-master move. The Bible could just teach us what we need to know. But instead it creates an obstacle and by forcing us to deal with this obstacle we learn for ourselves what the Bible wanted to teach us. It’s like when Yoda sent Luke into the cave on Dagobah, or when the Karate Kid has to paint a fence and it turns out he just learned the move that is going to win him the competition.
This is an ancient style of writing known as meditation literature. Meditation literature doesn’t want us to try to pull out an application and move on. It makes us pause and slow down and think about the story over multiple cups of coffee.
Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:2-16 is a classic biblical example of a story that lacks detail. We are given one detail—Cain was a farmer and Abel a shepherd—but then a bigger detail is left out. They both bring an offering, but God favors Abel’s and not Cain’s. But why?! It’s not said! That’s frustrating.
Gaps force the reader to consider multiple ways to fill them. As we read we may think of many different meanings of the story, some of which come to be rejected or accepted or left undecided for now.
What are the possibilities for the Cain and Abel gap? (1) God hates Cain, (2) God hates food sacrifices, (3) God loves Cain and wants to teach him a lesson, (4) etc. We need to hold all those possibilities in mind and keep reading. As we read on, Genesis 4:15 helps us reject ‘God hates Cain’ as one of the choices. Much later on in the Torah we find out that God commands both animal and food sacrifices, so then we can go back and eliminate that possibility in this story.
This gap shows us the focus of the Cain and Abel story isn’t on the difference in offerings, but on Cain and his decision. The story is about how Cain responded to what he perceived as divine neglect or lack of favor, and it asks the reader to sympathize with him. The reader experiences the same lack of knowledge about God’s intentions that Cain experienced. The story invites the reader into Cain’s confusion and emotional state so that we see it in ourselves and wrestle with it. Success as a reader is not finding and memorizing the answer so we can be done, but leaving with something that we must wrestle with for the week.
Genesis 4:7 is the key to the story, “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 master it.” The story takes us back to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, asking Cain (and the reader) to trust God’s goodness and wisdom even in a situation that he doesn’t understand. Everything in the story is built up to a point where a human chooses good or evil. This story is a retelling of the Fall into sin.
And the story concludes with the same results. Adam and Eve were banished from God’s presence and the ground was cursed to produce thorns and thistles for Adam the farmer. And now at the end of the Cain and Abel story we realize the importance of a detail from the beginning—Cain was a farmer. And his punishment was an even worse situation than Adam’s—he was banished from working the ground entirely. Giving in to sin results in greater and greater isolation. But just like Adam and Eve, God loved Cain despite his sin. By grace he protected Cain’s time of grace and preserved his life on earth.
With this story the Fall into sin is made more personal and put into a more realistic setting to our day-to-day life now. The choice is set in the context of family and things going wrong in that family. Even when we don’t know why something bad is happening, we can trust God and do good or give in to sin and let it make us do destructive things. We all know that story personally! And it all begins with a weird absence in the narrative of why God looked on Abel’s offering but not Cain’s.