We all know the core of the story of Cain and Abel: Abel’s offering to the Lord was accepted, Cain’s was not, and Cain responded by killing Abel. But if that’s all that the story says to us, it doesn’t say much, does it? So what else is there in this story that might instruct us?
Cain and Abel
Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have obtained a male child with the help of the Lord.” And again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a cultivator of the ground.
So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought an offering, from the firstborn of his flock and from 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 became very angry and his face was gloomy. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why is your face gloomy? If you do well, will your face not be cheerful? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Cain Murders Abel
Cain talked to his brother Abel; and it happened that when they were in the field Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Then He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground. Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a wanderer and a drifter on the earth.”
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to endure! Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and I will be hidden from Your face, and I will be a wanderer and a drifter on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
So the Lord said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him seven times as much.” And the Lord placed a mark on Cain, so that no one finding him would kill him. Then Cain left the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain had relations with his wife and she conceived, and gave birth to Enoch; and Cain built a city, and named the city Enoch, after the name of his son. (Genesis 4:1-17, NASB)
I suppose that anyone who has ever read Scripture would why Cain’s murder of Abel was sinful. We all understand that we don’t kill someone else because their offering to God is “better” than ours, right? So what can we learn from the story of Cain and Abel to help us to grow in our relationship with God?
Both Cain and Abel brought offerings to God. Scripture tells us that God “had regard” for Abel and his offering, but he “had no regard” for Cain and his offering. This “rejection” by God is what seems to have prompted Cain’s anger – and his murder of Abel. But we need to remember some basic facts.
First, the fact that we don’t know why God rejected Cain’s offering does not mean that Cain didn’t know. God had evidently given both Cain and Abel guidance as to what sort of offering would be “acceptable.” Notice God’s response to Cain: “If you do well, will your face not be cheerful?” The question implies that Cain knew what was required to “do well,” and that he had as much opportunity as Abel did to “do well.”
Second, it seems clear that Cain wanted to please God, at least on some level. He “brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the ground” (Genesis 4:3). Cain didn’t say, “No, I’m not interested.” He brought an offering to God, and it seems that he wanted that offering to be accepted. God’s rejection of Cain’s offering upset Cain; that would imply that Cain wanted God to accept him and his offering.
Cain could have pleased God – but it was his choice whether to obey or not. “If you do well, will your face not be cheerful? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:6-7). God would not have told Cain to master sin if Cain did not have the ability to do that. Understanding what God desires is only meaningful if we have the ability to do what God desires. Clearly, Cain had that ability – but he did not exercise it.
Cain’s sin manifested itself in the murder of Abel, but it had its roots in Cain’s refusal to obey God’s direction with regard to the offerings they brought. God’s rejection of Cain’s offering made Cain angry. God recognized that this anger could lead Cain to sin: Sin is lurking at the door…but you must master it.
The aftermath of Abel’s murder is well-known. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a phrase that almost everyone recognizes. But this portion of the story also teaches us important information about God.
Even after Cain’s murder of Abel, God did not give up on Cain. We don’t often think about this, but let’s consider God’s response to Cain. He did not just wipe Cain out. He didn’t tell Cain that he was completely rejected; rather, he was “cursed from the ground” because he had murdered his brother. This curse meant that the earth would no longer yield crops for Cain, and he would be “a wanderer and a drifter on the earth.” But as we will see in tomorrow’s article [Cain’s Banishment: Who Was the “Whoever” Cain Thought Might Kill Him?], God protected Cain from retribution by others by placing a “mark” on Cain – “so that no one finding him would kill him.” God also enabled Cain to have children, and to establish a city.
Also, even after his sin, Cain recognized that it was important for him to be in relationship with God. “My punishment is too great to endure! Behold, you have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and I will be hidden from Your face…” (4.13-14). And God does not say, “Well, too bad.” In fact, most of the rest of chapter 4 tells about Cain and his descendants. Why would we hear anything about them if God had utterly rejected Cain?
What Does It All Mean?
Now, a lot of this is based on assumption and interpretation. That means that you’re free to reject it if you choose to do so. But isn’t it consistent with God’s purposes and his nature? God created us to be in relationship with him. Sin breaks that relationship, but God has provided a way for us to “master it,” through the forgiveness and cleansing that are available through Jesus’ death for us. God won’t ignore our sin, and he won’t allow us to remain in sin because he wants something better for us. His mercy to Cain is a hint of the mercy that would come through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In tomorrow’s article, I’ll reflect more on Cain’s punishment, and what it adds to our understanding of this story.