Genesis 4: Cain and Abel

I have two nephews who I love dearly, but the fact they are still alive is a little bit of a wonder.  They hunt each other down frequently in the virtual world of Black Ops or Modern Warfare and blow each other’s brains out.  I have played them both at Halo and other games and it is good to see them come together as a family to blow their Uncle’s brains out.  Ever since I remember they have had a love-hate relationship with each other.  The older brother is a constant negotiator whilst the younger one works in stealth in the background.  They are both smart and they do well at the board games we play at Christmas.  This also becomes a series of ‘Get Uncle Peter’ games, so the two of them form an alliance and take me down.  Family tensions are there in the most well adjusted families.  It was meant to be more harmonious than this, but our families learn to disengage, they learn to fight, in some cases they learn to kill.

The Bible does not shy away from real family drama.  Parents make awful decisions, children are damaged.  In some cases they kill each other.  In lesser cases they are estranged.  In rare cases, we see some harmony, even if a child is adopted into the family or a daughter-in-law refuses to leave after a woman’s son dies.

Today’s story shows how sin spreads, not just through those who make poor choices, but is passed on down through the family.  At the end of chapter 3 of Genesis, mankind is banished from the Garden of Eden.  They leave from an entrance that faces to the East.  This is why in the early stories of Judaism, to travel East is seen as negative and to journey westward is seen as redemptive.  God places angels at the gate to the garden and so the way back into the garden is blocked.  Mankind must be allowed to die and cutting off access to the life-giving tree will ensure that the just punishment occurs.

It is the harsh environment of tilling and alienation that sets the scene for the first birth.  Some discuss whether Eve conceived before the Fall or after. Those who think of sex as something dirty and sinful see the conception of Cain as something that could only have occurred after the Fall.  However, whether Cain was conceived before or after Eve ate the fruit, sex need not be seen as a sinful act.  It is not Cain’s conception that means that he is born into darkening surroundings.  It is the corruption that pervades Creation that now overshadows his birth.

Eve’s response to Cain’s birth in most Bibles is that she says it is with the Lord’s help that she has given birth to a man.  However, the Hebrew language is not so clear.  In the Hebrew she says that she has given birth to a man, the Lord.  The word ‘with’ has been added to make sense.  Some see the literal translation as conveying her belief that she has given birth to the man who would overturn the curse.  This is indeed the seed that would crush Satan’s head.  However, the idea that she would call the Messiah the Lord at this point seems a little spurious.  It is more likely that she believes the Lord has helped her give birth, but the words raise a question.

Cain and Abel both grow up to work the land in different ways.  One grows crops and the other pastors sheep.  There is no real evaluation of which of these occupations is better.  In Jewish life, the food produced from arable farming and the food produced from pastoral farming are equal.  Later, in the sacrificial system, God accepts both grain and animal offerings.  We should not look at what the brothers bring as the source of their disagreement.  What causes issues is the attitude of the heart.  In fact, the lack of detail concerning the offerings should be taken as a lack of importance of what each offering was.  Some have supposed that there was no blood in the grain offering and so there could be no remission of sins.  The Bible would have given details regarding the blood or given us more clues if that was to be the focus.  In this story the emphasis is on the dialogue between God and Cain and so we should find our meaning there, not in the details the author has omitted.

When Cain’s offering is rejected by God, Cain’s response shows the grip of jealousy.  The fact that he offered a sacrifice to God shows that Cain was a believer.  However, he was not above sin clutching at his heart and having its affects.  God sees the seed of sin taking root in Cain’s heart and warns Cain of how sin is crouching at his door.  He must master it.  Notice that Cain is being asked to take ownership of his own stuff and to work on it. The description of sin is like a small demon waiting in ambush at the threshold of the house.  God has warned Cain that it is there, but his own jealousy festers and grows.  It masters him to the point that he kills his brother.  We know that Cain took Abel out into an open field and killed him, but again the death is non-descript in the text. We can imagine rocks being hurled, we can imagine logs being swung as clubs, but the text is silent.  The murder is deemphasized so that we can focus on the heart condition of Cain.

When Cain is confronted by God about his cry, God’s question is very similar to the question that he asked Adam and Eve.  The structure of the passage is very similar to that of chapter 3 so as to connect the two narratives.  The son is walking in the footsteps of the parents.  Cain’s first response is to evade the guilt and to evade God.  He claims that he has no responsibility for his brother. The connections within the family had broken down.  Cain was not protecting or ‘keeping’ his brother, he didn’t think it was his responsibility.

God challenges him and refers to the ground in much the same way that he had referenced the ground in cursing Adam and the serpent.  The ground has swallowed up Abel’s blood and the violated creation speaks loudly to the creator, God.  The curse is repeated in the son as it was on the father, Adam.

We can’t be too sure how Cain responds to God’s clear exposure of his crime and judgment.  Again the Hebrew is open to interpretation.  Does Cain say that his guilt or shame is to great for him to bear?  Does he say that his guilt and shame is too great for God to bear away?  Does he say that his punishment is too great to bear? Has he repented or has he merely become churlish with God?  By God’s response in mercy and grace, the Moody Bible Commentary sensibly concludes that God is responding to a repentant Cain who would rather die than go on living.  God then allows him to live and become a pastoral farmer like his brother had been, however, he will also have to wander the land looking for new pastures in this harsh environment.

I have no brothers or sisters, but I have observed my family have friction between brothers and sisters.  On my father’s side there was intrigue, betrayal, and blame.  On my mother’s side the difficulties were mild but just as real.  Our families are corrupted because of sin and we must do something about that.

The story about Cain and Abel teaches us primarily about sin and its affects.  It also teaches us about God.

Sin affects the family.  The sin of one generation rolls through to the next.  We have guilt and shame in our families, but we deny responsibility, we try to hide, and sometimes we even embrace our sin.  The solution is to seek out our sin, confess our sin and take responsibility for it.

God is gracious.  He longs to forgive and restore.  Like he shows mercy to Cain, he can withhold the affects of our most heinous crimes.  He can show grace.  It is not because we do a perfect job that children grow up and thrive.  The grace of God means that he replaces our sin with nurture and he cares for children that we abuse and neglect.  Sin happens because that is the way of things.  Grace happens because that is the nature of God.  We need to live with less stress and more dependency on God.  In our families we should live with a trust that God works for our good.



About Plymothian

I teach at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. My interests include education, biblical studies, and spiritual formation. I have been married to Kelli since 1998 and we have two children, Daryl and Amelia. For recreation I like to run, play soccer, play board games, read and travel.
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