Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.[i]
Parents have dreams for their children. We want them to be wise, attractive, popular, graceful, and successful. Parents often look to their children to be more successful than we have been, or to overcome our failures. The dad who was a high school baseball star dreams his son will be a major league pitcher. The mother who left a successful business career to work inside the home dreams her daughter will become a Fortune 500 CEO. Every parent has hopes and dreams for their child. We want our children’s lives to be better than ours have been. Every parent craves the pride that they have shaped their child’s life into the perfect resume of parental achievement and Facebook bragging rights. But in the entire history of humanity, no parent has had greater hopes and dreams for any child than did Adam and Eve for Cain.
REDEEMER OR MURDERER? (4:1-2)
We find a clue to the coming tragedy in the way Moses describes the birth of Cain and Abel: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain….”[ii] Abel’s birth is described the same way. But down in verse 25, Moses writes, “And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth….”[iii] Why are Cain and Able not called “sons”? The answer is neither bears a child in the line of the Promised Seed. Righteous Abel is murdered, and Moses mentions no children he fathered. Cursed Cain bears children, but all his descendants are wiped out in the great flood to come. So, the child who starts the lineage of the Promised Seed is Seth. He receives the title of “son.” [iv]
Of course, Adam and Eve have no way of knowing all of their parental longings and expectations for Cain will be destroyed. Initially, they expected to die physically and immediately as a result of their willful breaking of God’s Covenant of Works. Then, they heard God’s good news in 3:15 that the Promised Seed was coming to crush the serpent-dragon’s head. Adam responded to the good news that they would continue to live on the earth and bear children by naming his wife Eve (“life-giver”). She was the woman through whom promised salvation would come. All this happened before Eve became pregnant – proving their trust into God’s promises.
When their first child was born and he was a male, it was natural for them to assume this was the man born to rescue humanity from sin and death. He would lead them past the cherubim with flaming swords and back into God’s garden-temple. Talk about putting pressure on your kid! We know this was their dream for Cain because of how Eve named him. She said (as the ESV translates it), “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.”[v] The name Cain sounds like the Hebrew word qanah (קֶנָה) for “to get” or “to acquire.” So, the sense of Cain’s name probably means “Here he is” or “I’ve gotten him” because she thought the deliverer had been sent by God.[vi]
The Hebrew text doesn’t actually have the phrase “with the help of.” The phrase is an attempt to explain in English what many translators believe the sense of this difficult sentence means. As do several other scholars, Martin Luther translates Eve as saying, “I have gotten the man of the Lord.”[vii] James Boice translates the statement as, “I have brought forth a man, even the deliverer.”[viii]
Of course, Eve had not given birth to the man of Jehovah but to a man like his father the devil (Jn. 8:44). Here is the beginning of the war between the Seed of the Woman and the seed of the devil. Another clue that she sees her first child as Messiah is in the name she gives her second child: Abel. The word heḇel is made famous by Ecclesiastes, “vanity of vanities” (heḇēl heḇālîm, “the greatest vanity”).[ix] As Luther notes:
Cain is called Cain as if he were the one who would restore everything; by contrast, Abel means vanity and something that is worthless or cast aside. …הֶבֶל is of very common occurrence in the Holy Scriptures; for how often is it repeated in Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity”! And in Ps. 78:33 we read: “Their days wasted away in vanity,” that is, they did not obtain the promise of the land of Canaan.
Thus he to whom no hope attached, or only a futile one, is called Abel; but he from whom everything is hoped is called Cain. So the very names reveal clearly enough the thoughts and sentiments of the parents.[x]
TWO OFFERINGS (2b-7)
Moses skips from the births of Cain and Able to their adulthood in the span of a sentence by telling us Cain entered his father’s farming business and Able went into the ranching business. Cain, as the firstborn son, is the new prophet-priest-king with the right to inherit his father’s position. Abel is Nothing – a shepherd. Israelites reading Moses’ book would have understood the importance of the firstborn son in their law and culture. And yet scripture shows that first-born sons disappointed the hope of their parents and that those who were born later assumed their place, rank, and prestige. Abraham was not the first-born son; Haran was. Esau is the first-born son, but the blessing passes to his brother Jacob. David was the youngest among his brothers, and yet he is anointed king. Although by divine right the first-born enjoyed the privilege of rule and priesthood, often God gave brothers born later preference over them.[xi]
Moses shows us the two brothers at worship. Though Adam and Eve were evicted from the garden-temple in Eden where they lived in the special personal presence of God, they and their family were still able to worship God and God still chose to communicate with them. Moses is silent on means by which God communicated outside the garden – though I suspect that he did so through the pre-incarnate Christ. Moses simply writes, “In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”[xii]
Some teachers believe Able’s offering proved acceptable because it was an animal sacrifice involving the shedding of blood. However, the word translated as “offering” (מִנְחָה; minḥá) is not used in the Pentateuch to indicate a sin offering. It’s more of a tribute offering. In the priestly texts of Leviticus, the minḥá is exclusively a grain offering. “It could consist of choice flour (Lev. 2:1–3) or choice grain (Lev. 2:14–16) to which oil and frankincense might be added.”[xiii] Both offerings were made “In the course of time” – a phrase that normally indicates a precise period of time. Moses is likely referring to the end of an agricultural year when thank offerings would be made. Since Adam and Eve lost the outward visible signs of the Covenant of Works in the two sacramental trees (tree of life; tree of the knowledge of good and evil) when they were ejected from the garden, now they are given outward visible signs of the covenant of grace though a system of sacrifices.
Both animal and grain offerings are equally acceptable for a thank offering, and the context of the passage says nothing about the priority of a blood sacrifice. “The difference was that of heart attitude. Cain came to God on Cain’s own self-prescribed terms, but Abel came to God on God’s terms. Cain’s spirit was arrogant, as the subsequent story will reveal.”[xiv] Having been raised to believe he was God’s great gift to the human race, Cain approached God on the basis of his self-presumed inherent goodness as the promised seed. Cain’s offering is his “proof” to God of his worthiness to be messiah. Cain was the captain of his soul and the master of his fate.
But Abel, Nothing, comes to God with an offering acknowledging God’s goodness (not Abel’s goodness). St Author of Hebrews writes, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.”[xv] The prophet Micah gives insight into Abel’s acceptance and Cain’s rejection:
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? [xvi]
Cain’s attitude revealed the state of his heart before God. “So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?” [xvii] Had Cain been walking humbly with his God, he would have repented and offered his sacrifice as token of his trust into God’s salvation, rather than a monument to his own works-righteousness. Trust in our own works as acceptable to God is what Jude called “the way of Cain” in Jude 11. He was referring to false teachers who rejected the authority of God’s word just like Cain. It wasn’t that Cain wasn’t “religious.” Rather, his religion was that he was his own savior.
Although God rejected Cain’s offering, he didn’t reject Cain. He encouraged Cain to change his heart. “7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” [xviii] God saw Cain’s angry heart. Cain didn’t have to be angry. But Cain was certain the fault was outside himself. The fault was with God. The way of Cain involves blaming others for our problems when the true cause is our own sin. Although other people and circumstances are sometimes a factor in our dissatisfaction, the true cause is seldom there. The true cause of our anger and dissatisfaction is within our own hearts. The problem is not outside of you. The problem is inside of you.
God told Cain to do the right thing because Cain knew what the right thing to do was, humble himself before God; bring a thank offering to God rather than a praise offering for himself. So, Cain didn’t reject proper worship for lack of knowledge. He rejected it for lack of humility, trust, and obedience. He considered the confession of his needs to be humiliating. God warned Cain that sin was crouching at the door of Cain’s heart ready to overtake him completely. But there is only one way to master sin. You must admit that you are not your own savior. No circumstance you want to make happen will save you. No thing and no person you desire – other than Christ the Promised Seed – will save you. “If we would master sin, we must first be mastered by him who mastered it. We must be the Master’s.”[xix]
MESSIAH COMPLEX, MURDERER (8-10)
The stark simplicity with which Moses describes the first murder highlights the horror of the act. “Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.”[xx] Some translators have not been pleased with Moses’ simplicity and add the phrase, “Let’s go out into the field” to clarify what Cain may have said to Able. God said the Promised Seed would crush the serpent-dragon’s head. But the man raised to be the promised seed draws his brother away from the rest of their family and kills him in the first religious dispute of human history. To emphasize this was not merely an impersonal murder but a fratricide, Moses uses the word “brother” twice.
Works righteousness hates grace. Arrogance hates humility. The seed of the serpent hates the promised seed and the devil’s offspring hate God’s offspring. Jesus would say to his followers, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”[xxi] Americans love a good crime story. How did the murderer do it? “Did he crush his skull and watch him die like a bug in the dust? Did he cut his throat with Abel’s sacrificial knife and bleed him like a sacrifice? Did he choke Abel with his own hands until his eyes lost their light and there was no breath?”[xxii]
How Cain murdered Able wasn’t a detail God considered important to share. His young brother was a good man, a “righteous” man according to Hebrews 11: 4 (cf. Matthew 23: 35). Jesus would even call him a prophet (cf. Luke 11: 50, 51). But Cain killed him with his own bloody hands because he not only hated his brother, but first and foremost he hated God. “Murder is an act of hatred toward God for making or accepting another who offends us or troubles us or is favored with gifts and honors we do not have or stands in our way.”[xxiii] In one generation, sin has completely overtaken humanity.
Adam and Eve hid from God and blamed others when God confronted them over their rebellion. They still retained some fear of God. But Cain is openly hateful to God, contemptuous in his answer to God’s question on Able’s whereabouts. God asked, “Where is Abel your brother?” Cain said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” [xxiv] Adam and Eve tried to shift the blame, but they didn’t lie. Cain lies to God as if God is somehow stupid, or incapable of seeing and knowing everything. If something has happened to Abel, it’s Abel’s fault. In this world east of Eden, it’s dog-eat-dog and every man for himself.
Jesus says all of our hatred is spiritual homicide ultimately directed at God. The problem is inside of you, not outside of you. However privately we may hold our hatred, God sees our murder just as easily as he saw Cain’s. “21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”[xxv]
The Lord goes on to say that under the Old Testament sacrificial system, no sacrifice at the temple altar could be effective to atone for such spiritual murder. Only reconciling with the conflicting party would render sacrifice acceptable. Under the Old Testament Law, there was no animal sacrifice that could atone for murder. Abel could not go through the motions of making a token sin offering to wipe his fratricide off God’s book of judgment. Neither could King David find any atonement by killing animals when he had one of his soldiers murdered so he could sleep with the man’s wife. Yet, Jesus places all of us in the way of Cain. When I scream at the stupid driver in traffic, I am guilty of murder. When I’m steamed by the clueless person whose cart is blocking the isle in the Costco wasting my valuable time, I’m guilty of murder. There is no work we can do, no sacrifice we can make, no penance to perform that will atone for us when we hate God by hating his image-bearers.
There is only one way those of us who walk in the way of Cain can be made right with God. We can only be right with God by trusting into the person of work of his Promised Seed, the Lord Jesus Christ. St Author of Hebrews warned:
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.[xxvi]
Fortunately for us who live so often as functional atheists like Cain, who strive to control circumstances and people according to our own selfish ends, who murder in our hearts with such surprising regularity we hardly feel any conviction over it – there IS hope and confidence. St Author also promises:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.[xxvii]
[i] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 4:1–10.
[ii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 4:1.
[iii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 4:25. Emphasis added.
[iv] Luther, 241.
[v] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 4:1.
[vi] Boice, 250.
[vii] Luther, op cit.
[viii] Boice, 251.
[ix] Hamilton, 222.
[x] Luther, 243.
[xi] Id., 244.
[xii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 4:3–5.
[xiii] Hamilton, 223.
[xiv] Hughes, 103. Kindle Edition.
[xv] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 11:4.
[xvi] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mic 6:7–8.
[xvii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 4:5–6.
[xviii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 4:7.
[xix] Boice, 253.
[xx] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 4:8.
[xxi] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jn 15:18–19.
[xxii] Hughes, 105. Kindle Edition.
[xxiv] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 4:9.
[xxv] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 5:21–22.
[xxvi] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 10:26–27.
[xxvii] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 10:19–23.