Lesson 5: “If Thou Doest Well, Thou Shalt Be Accepted” #BCCSundaySchool2018

Learning Outcomes

Have class members learn about and discuss the ways that the scriptural teachings about Zion invite a critical and ongoing encounter with practices like racism that lead us to hate our own blood, as well as the way that the story of Cain teaches the importance of seeing others’ offerings.

Readings

The manual only mentions Moses 5-7; I’m going to supplement that with Genesis 4:1-16 (KJV; NRSV) and the Gospel Topics essay on Race and the Priesthood (which itself needs to be supplemented with Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color). See also my compilation of English versions of Genesis 4, which brings together English translations of the Cain and Abel story from Wycliffe to the present.

Introduction

The juxtaposition of Cain and Enoch is the rhetorical heart of this lesson: Enoch connects us to Zion and the capacious doctrine of a God who weeps when humans hate their own blood, whereas Cain, complexly, provides an example of hating his own blood while also serving as a central scriptural justification for Mormonism’s historical withholding of priesthood and temple blessings from people of African descent. This lesson, then, affords an occasion to discuss some of the work that we still have to do as we strive for Zion—work that needs to be explicitly anti-racist.

I guess the whole point of these posts is to offer alternatives to the manual, but what I’ve put together below might seem, well, extra alternative, at least to some class members. If I were still teaching Gospel Doctrine, I’d try at least some of these things, depending on time and class participation. In my experience, the best way to open the class up for other approaches to scripture is to take a minute at the beginning of class to gloss all of the usual expected things, thereby relieving class members of the need to say them: “Ok, now that we’ve said all of that, let’s see what else there is to talk about in today’s readings.” If things go really south, there’s an occasion for sardonically wishing that the protection of Cain’s mark might be extended to Sunday School teachers.

Cain’s Offering

Discussion question: according to the account in Genesis, how did the Lord respond to Cain’s offering and why?

This question will elicit a range of responses, probably including the idea that Cain should have known to offer animal sacrifice instead of the fruits of the field. Push class members to justify their answers from the text. Notably, Cain doesn’t yet have the Mosaic law, which in any case includes grain offerings. Focus on the word “respect” (in the KJV), which doesn’t mean that God rejected Cain’s offering, but simply that God didn’t see it (spectare in Latin is a verb of seeing). Tyndale’s translation (included in my compilation) makes this clear: “vnto Cain and vnto his offrynge looked he not.”

Someone will likely bring up the version from Moses, in which Cain’s offering originates in a covenant with Satan, thereby legitimating God’s rejection. People will have varying views of this interpretation (corresponding to what they think of the JST); at minimum it shows that Joseph Smith was attentive to the interpretative problem we’ve been wrestling with. You might use it to invite class members to read scripture with the same care and attention that Joseph did.

The lesson gets its title from verse 7, which is notoriously difficult in the Hebrew; a survey of the English translations over time gives a good sense of the possibilities. The central confusion is who rules over whom: Cain over sin, sin over Cain, or Cain over Abel? It’s messy. But the question of what exactly it means for Cain to do well is worth sitting with, especially in the absence of any clear rationale for God’s looking to Abel’s offering instead of his. If your class is willing to go there, it might be interesting to discuss why God seems to look to some people and not to others, for no discernible reason. Does the fact that some people enjoy apparent good fortune while others do not have anything to do with God? What can this story teach us about how to read this feature of our world? Can we understand and relate to Cain’s anger, under these circumstances? Instead of judging his anger, can we recognize its cousin in ourselves, as a cry for justice? What can his story—and, centrally, his question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”—teach us about how (not) to respond to injustice? This could open up an ethically complex conversation.

The Curse of Cain

Discussion questions: putting aside everything you think you know about the Curse of Cain, what does the text actually say? Why is Cain afraid that people will kill him, and why does the Lord intervene to prevent that? If Cain’s angry response to perceived injustice is somewhat predictable, what might God’s protective mark teach us about alternative ways of addressing injustice?

This part of the lesson, obviously, offers a chance to rebut the traditional thinking that uses Cain’s curse as a rationale for the priesthood and temple restriction. The opening pages of Ed Kimball’s article on the 1978 revelation offer a thorough dissection of these rationales; I recommend reviewing them (and especially the footnotes) in advance of the lesson. Read Paul Reeve’s book if you haven’t yet. More importantly, start listening to the voices and experiences of black Mormons: see articles from the Salt Lake Tribune here, here, here, and here for a start, then move on to Diaries of Two Mad Black Mormons and keep going from there. We have work to do on addressing continued racism in the Church, so find the courage to raise the subject, even though it’ll probably be uncomfortable. The questions above are designed to get the class thinking about God’s action as a possible way of offering an alternative to Cain’s model of answering injustice with further injustice: the mark is designed to forestall a cycle of retributive killing, which lends some pretty heavy and honestly sickening irony to the exegetical use of Cain’s mark to authorize cyclical, systemic violence against huge numbers of God’s children. If this part of the lesson goes into full flamethrower territory, it’s probably a good thing. Wear Kevlar just in case.

Enoch and the Weeping God

Discussion questions: In light of Cain’s story, what can we learn from Enoch’s encounter with a God who weeps because people are “without affection and hate their own blood”? How does God’s promise to destroy the wicked via flood (weeping heavens = overwhelming amounts of rain) complicate the popular conception of a weeping God?

Building on the preceding discussion of Cain, this is an opportunity to explore the way that racism, especially “one drop rule” racism, literally depends on white folks denying that they share the same blood as black folks, thereby allowing said white folks to comfort themselves by believing that they aren’t really hating their own blood when they act in racist ways toward black folks. God weeps over this stuff, and the flood threat (which I admittedly don’t like, because a vengeful God makes me uncomfortable) is, by analogy, aimed at the white folks who don’t quit this crap. Arguably, God weeps over the very concept of whiteness, which is foundationally premised on hating our own blood by creating artificial distinctions between people and using them to justify violence and oppression. Again, read Paul Reeve’s book.

I don’t really expect class members to respond favorably to this idea. The only thing possibly saving the comment thread on this post from becoming a dumpster fire is its disguise as an innocuous Sunday School lesson plan. Still, the fundamental problem with Sunday School in its current form is precisely the structural unwillingness to talk about stuff like this—the assumption that we’ll just pass over all of it in the usual catechetical boredom.

One Heart and One Mind

Discussion questions: what, at present, stands between us and a society where people are of one heart and one mind, with no poor among them? Does realizing Zion mean reducing difference into sameness? If so, who gets to be the model of sameness? If not, how can we be different and still of one heart and mind? Can we learn to “respect” the gifts of others, when they don’t look like our own? What are the multiple valences of “poor,” and how might we address them?

If you think that talking about structural racism in Sunday School is hard, I’d argue that talking about this stuff is harder, at least if it’s going to be real talk and not just the rehearsal of familiar truisms or talking points. Without discounting economic poverty as something that Zion by definition excludes (a temptation to be utterly resisted), perhaps another form of poverty we’ll have to reckon with en route is a poverty of respect, the ability to see other people as fully human and to acknowledge their gifts as genuine contributions. We are collectively poor when we refuse their gifts as unworthy. When we start reckoning with all of the ways that we fail on these points, we’ll start to see that we’ve been failing ourselves in the same way: we cannot slight the image of God in others without slighting it in ourselves. Learning to receive love and learning to give it turn out to be deeply interrelated.

Conclusion

This lesson has gone to some pretty hard places. The good news, though, is that Jesus is our faithful companion on journeys like this. If countering racism in the church seems daunting, well, it is, but Jesus said that the mark of his disciples would be that we love one another. That turns out to be serious business; what better place than Sunday School to chip away at it, week after week, by learning how to have the hard conversations that we need to clear the rubble away from our own hearts so that we can finally make room for everybody we now conveniently dismiss as less than human?

Related BCC content

Janan Graham-Russell, “Heavenly Mother is a Black Woman: Exploring a Mormon Womanism”

Stirling, “Curses (on Cain and Ham!), foiled again!”

John C., “Patriarchal Innocence and the Church”

Angela C., “Erasing Race”

J. Stuart, “Patriarchal Blessings, Race, and Lineage: History and a Survey”

Steve Evans, “SBC and LDS vs the Alt-Right”

John Steinbeck (via Adam Miller), “Cain and Abel”

Comments

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you this. There is much to think about, but I am a coward and I do not look good in Kevlar.

  2. I don’t look good in it either, which explains the scars.

  3. Excellently done, Jason.

  4. Jack of Hearts says:

    Wow, this is excellent. Thank you.

  5. Someone will likely bring up the version from Moses, in which Cain’s offering originates in a covenant with Satan, thereby legitimating God’s rejection.

    I’m doing my best to study this lesson as it is apt to be presented in our ward — not the lesson I would like to have taught, but the one I will almost certainly be faced with. Like you, I think it highly likely that someone will bring up the point about Cain’s sacrifice being prompted by Satan. And like you, I can recall many prior lessons that Satan instructed Cain to substitute agricultural produce in place of an animal.

    Thing is, no matter how carefully I read Moses, I can’t find anything to substantiate this assumption. Moses 5:18 says only: “And Cain loved Satan more than God. And Satan commanded him, saying: Make an offering unto the Lord.” There’s not a word there or anywhere in the chapter about what kind of offering Cain should make, or anything else to suggest a perversion of the pattern of sacrifice. Just “make an offering.”

    Perhaps Cain did understand the purpose and requirement of animal sacrifice — the angel had instructed Adam in those matters in verses before 5:18, although the chronology of chapter 5 doesn’t seem so straightforward that I can really be sure of that. But in any case, there’s nothing in Moses 5 to support the lesson manual’s assertion that “The Lord had commanded Adam and Eve and their children to offer the firstlings of their flocks. Abel obeyed, but Cain heeded the words of Satan and offered the fruit of the ground.”

    So, your suggestion that “You might use it to invite class members to read scripture with the same care and attention that Joseph did” seems highly relevant — even without getting into any discussion of what the JST really is, which I think there’s hardly time to do effectively here.

    FWIW, some of the commentators on Genesis suggest why Cain’s sacrifice was rejected while Abel’s was accepted, beyond the animal/produce point: Cain’s offering was not even of the best of his produce. God’s portion was supposed to be the first fruits: Abel brought “of the firstlings of his flock,” while Cain didn’t make his offering until “in process of time it came to pass,” suggesting that what he offered was not the first and best, but perhaps the overripe or overgrown or stale or wilted.

    Apologies for the length of my rambling, and thanks for what your post has contributed to my thoughts (far beyond this single point) as I try to brace myself for Sunday School.

  6. Ardis: as always, I appreciate your careful reading. Your comment has added depth and nuance to my own thinking. Good luck bracing yourself (that phrase captures my feelings, too), and thanks again.

  7. Ardis, I’ve the same speculations about why Cain’s offer was rejected, but they just aren’t there in the text. The text tells us that Cain made a sacrifice, and that God rejected it, it doesn’t say why. And I’m skeptical of explanations that center on speculation that Cain’s offering might have technically violated some of the rules of the ritual. The only textual clue, as to why God rejected Cain’s offering, in my opinion, is in Cain’s motivation, not in Cain’s rigid compliance with rules. The text suggests that Cain made an offering because Satan “commanded” him to. This seems to me to get at the principle Mormon discusses: “a man, being evil, cannot do that which is good” and if he gives a gift “without real intent,” it doesn’t do him any good.

    I’m not saying we should be lax about getting our ordinances right, but the God I worship cares a lot more about the content of our hearts as we go through ordinances than about whether we flub the details of the ritual even though we try and our heart is in the right place.

    The real lesson, IMO, seems to be a warning that Satan will tempt us to do things that outwardly look like good things if he knows it will get in the way of true repentance, faith, and humility.

  8. JKC, you misinterpret me (here, and in earlier threads) by assuming that all that matters to me, and therefore all I think matters to God, is a robotlike compliance with the mechanical steps of ritual. I don’t discount Cain’s motivation, whether Satan whispered specific suggestions for mocking God with a bastardization of ritual sacrifice, or whether Cain was lazy and just didn’t care about getting it right, or whether he substituted his own judgment for what his father may have taught him about the ritual. I am merely endeavoring to read the text carefully, and such a reading doesn’t, in my view, support a specific statement made in the lesson manual and sure to be brought up in Sunday School with sage nods about how much more we know about this episode than the rest of the world does.

    What lesson you take from this event — which in all likelihood is figural rather than literal anyway — is your business. Your views do not conflict with mine to the extent that you seem to think.

  9. Ardis, I thought I was agreeing with you. I don’t read you as advocating robotlike compliance, and I value your contributions both here and on the other threads. Sorry I didn’t convey that.

  10. Well, then, I’m glad we do agree. (I read your comment as “I’ve previously considered your position, Ardis, and reject it in favor of this other idea, because the God-of-motivation I worship is greater than the one-of-obedience you seem to believe in.” I don’t want an argument, but only to explain how I misread you.)

  11. To be clear, Ardis, I didn’t think our views conflicted at all.

  12. Oh, I see how you got that from my comment. Not what I intended. My fault.

  13. I’m pretty sure that in the endowment instruction on sacrifice, it is taught that starting with Adam, the people offered firstlings of the flock AND first-fruits of the field. I think this disproves the argument that God rejected Cain’s sacrifice because it wasn’t an animal. I get more out of the Sunday School lesson by examine my motivations for service, than comparing my offering to someone else’s.

  14. I was wondering why Jason K. thinks that Cain does not yet have the mosaic law and where Mark found where Adam offered firstlings of the flock and first fruits of the field?

  15. Tai: in the biblical chronology, Cain lives before Moses and therefore cannot be in possession of the law delivered to him. Mark is referring to LDS temple liturgy; the scriptural precedent for that moment in Moses 5:5 only refers to the firstlings of the flock, and I don’t remember clearly whether the temple liturgy mentions first fruits of the field or not.

  16. I really enjoyed your comments. Just my opinion, I think Cain sacrifice was unacceptable largely due to the face that he was rejecting the atonement, and all the other reasons mentioned.

  17. Jason, can I ask a question off topic? I would like to know your thoughts.

  18. That depends on the question. Ask, and I’ll decide if I want to answer.

  19. Why do you think Satan tempted Adam & Eve, gaining mortality and the ability to choose, helping them achieve the plan he didn’t want.

  20. Well, I’m the wrong person to ask, because I don’t share some of the assumptions that inform your question, mostly because I prefer to read the story from a historical/critical perspective. But other commenters should feel free to weigh in!

  21. Ok, thanks anyway. How would one go about getting a historical and critical perspective? Any reading suggestions?

  22. I’d start by getting a good study Bible, like HarperCollins or the Jewish Study Bible and start immersing yourself in the notes and essays that they contain. Branch out from there.

  23. I have Harper Collins, thanks for the other suggestions.

  24. Thanks for the post, Jason! I’m teaching this lesson this Sunday and reading your post has convinced me I need to do it in two Sundays, not just one. Cain & Abel and Enoch are just too much for one 35 minute lesson. My Cain & Abel lesson plan involves looking at the story from the perspective of literature, Judaism, some thoughts from an Evangelical pastor, and from the perspective of Moses 5. That’s going to take all the time we have. I think I’ll address the mark of Cain in the context of the Enoch and the weeping God. I’m not worried that my class will get mad about my saying that verse has been used for evil, I’m more worried that I’ll have anything at all useful to say about it. Well, better try than to sweep past it as if it doesn’t exist.

  25. Really thought provoking. Partly in the way intended. But I spend more time puzzling over how to motivate the anti-racism aspects of this preferred alternate lesson. (Especially difficult if you’re trying to move the class from the back row.)

    The best I can come up with is the following strategy:
    1. Push at the “why rejected” problem (Ardis and JKC contributed to the richness of that discussion in comments above).
    2. Refuse to allow an easy resolution, leaving multiple possibilities and no one fully satisfying.
    3. Use that dissatisfaction as a springboard to the “personal” view, i.e., something Cain did or didn’t do. Not some fundamental nature, for which “race” is the obvious stand-in.
    4. Use “personal” to expand on the illogic of any sort of “cursed race’ argument.
    [If we get this far I’ll be a hero to myself.]

    Then when we get to Enoch, what to do with Moses 7:22? (I note that the study guides, student and teacher, skip over or leave out verse 22.) Zion is blessed, the residue of the people are cursed, and then where is the seed of Cain who were black? Not part of the residue. Part of Zion? (One hopes. But I don’t think that’s how it is usually read.) Dare we address the picture of exclusion?

  26. Emily U: your comment delights me. I’ll be praying for your good success.

    Chris: I admire your strategy. I’m feeling the back-row struggle pretty badly these days. It’d take guts to talk about Moses 7:22. Obviously we need to.

  27. Jason, I’m returning to report how my lessons went :)
    I did split this lesson into two weeks. And I did take up Moses 7:22. I told the class it was stressful to me to bring the subject up, but I read 7:22 in combination with 7:33 as an indictment of the posterity of Seth for their rejection of their brothers and sisters. And I said it has implication for us, and how Western society created the concept of whiteness to privilege some people and oppress others…

    To explain what I meant by whiteness as a construction, I said that 5 generations ago I have a great great great grandmother who was born a slave in Tennessee and became the slave of a man named Thomas Church when she was 5 years old. She is on the 1850 Slave Schedule of Hickman, TN as being a female mulatto, no name given. When Thomas Church joined the LDS church in 1877 and went west to Utah he brought her with him as his wife. They had 11 children together. In the 1900 census of Deseret, Utah, she is listed as Harriet Church, and she’s listed as white. Her sons were ordained to the priesthood and daughters allowed to be sealed in the temple either because it was decided that their white blood prevailed or because knowledge of their heritage was suppressed. By declaring that they were white they put themselves in the category of privilege rather than the category of exclusion. That’s what I mean by saying whiteness is a construction for the particular benefit of certain people and the exclusion of others. I said that kind of thing is sometimes less explicit and sometimes lesser in degree in our day and in our Church, but it’s not gone. And I think these verses in Moses are telling us that God weeps over it.

    The class listened carefully. One person commented that this is a tough subject, but he sees how he needs to do better and he wants to do better. I don’t know what everyone else was thinking, but I think the message was heard.

    I used your questions under “One Heart and One Mind” to guide the discussion for the rest of the class. They are great questions.

  28. Thanks for the report, Emily, and thanks even more for your courage as a teacher. That story about your great great great grandmother is a perfect illustration. Brava!

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