Even in a world steeped in science, childbirth is still considered a miracle. Babies bring us joy and delight. They hold open fresh possibilities of new life.
Outside the Garden of Eden, in a world suffering the consequences of sin, the birth of Cain brings joy to Adam and Eve. New life is a reminder of God's original blessing (Genesis 1:26) - a blessing God remains determined to give in spite of human sin.
Eve's joy is communicated in her words, "I have produced a man with the help of the Lord" (Genesis 4:1). There are two possible interpretations of Eve's words about Cain's birth based on how one constructs the underlying Hebrew text. One possible construction is "I have produced a man, the Lord." If this is the case, Eve may be anticipating God's redemptive promise to bring deliverance to the human race through "the seed of the woman" (Genesis 3:15). If this is the case, Eve, like other Hebrew mothers throughout biblical history, prematurely expects the messiah to arrive quickly - in her own lifetime.
This interpretation is possible but unlikely. The more likely interpretation is to construct her saying the following way, "I have produced a man with (the help of) the Lord." This reveals Eve's awareness that God continues the original blessing by aiding her in the conception and birth of Cain. Even though the world stands under God's judgment due to human sin, there is mercy in God's judgment. The blessing of new life through childbirth continues, but it is accompanied by pain, proof that God's original blessing continues in spite of human sin.
It is interesting to note that there is no similar mention of delight at the birth of Abel. Abel's name means "breath" or "vapor." It is also interesting to note that throughout this story, no recorded words of Abel are preserved. Only Abel's actions are recorded. And his actions are righteous. Abel offers worship that is pleasing to God. The New Testament reveals that Abel is considered righteous by God in light of his worshipful actions (see Hebrews 11:4). But like a breath or vapor, he produces no offspring. His bloodline is extinguished through Cain's unrighteous act of murder.
Cain and Abel
Cain and Abel have different vocations. Cain is a farmer. Abel is a shepherd. Both vocations are honorable in light of God's blessing. Cain continues Adam's vocation of "tilling and keeping" the land. Abel stewards the gift of domesticated animals.
The focus of the account is on Cain and Abel's respective offerings to God. We find the first family at worship, presenting offerings to God from their respective vocations. They recognize God's blessings in their vocation and offer God tokens of appreciation and respect.
Although both bring an offering, only one offering is regarded by God to be valid. Why did God regard Abel's offering and reject Cain's offering? Scholars have debated the reason that God has a greater regard for one offering over the other. There is little agreement over this. One thing is clear: God's regard has nothing to do with their respective vocations. Both vocations are honorable. Tilling the soil was Adam's vocation and it is what creation needed. What then is the difference?
Some suggest that the difference is that Abel's offering comes from the choicest parts indicating their high quality while Cain's is merely "an offering of the fruit of the ground." Abel's "fat portions" reveal his high regard for God. This may be the case, but another reason is more likely.
Others suggest that the difference is in the motivation or attitude behind the offerings. Throughout the scriptures, God considers both the offerer and the offering. A consistent theme in scriptures is that "the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). God looks upon the heart - our affections, attitudes, and motives. It may be that Abel's attitude is right while Cain's is not. This interpretation certainly accords with the remainder of the account.
Regardless of the reason behind God's acceptance of Abel's offering and rejection of Cain's offering, the difference between the two offerings is a device to set the stage for the conflict that arises due to God's preference of one over the other. Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim notes how it is ironic that "the first murder arises over a conflict regarding religious practices, between two worshipers of God." The one area of life that is meant to bring people together - worship - is the basis for the first conflict. Tragically, we discover that conflict over worship - in today's parlance, "worship wars" - is nothing new to humanity. Oftentimes, our greatest conflict arises with those who share our faith.
God's Warning to Cain
Cain's response to God is crucial: "Cain was very angry, and his countenance failed" (Genesis 4:5). The Hebrew literally reads, "Cain's nose became hot and his face fell." Cain is the first person to express anger toward God. Cain feels dejected at God's rejection of his offering, revealing that (strangely enough) Cain cares about what God thinks of him and his sacrifice.
Two reasons are given for Cain's anger: His offering is rejected and Abel's offering is accepted. His anger arises over God's rejection of his offering and also over the fact that God accepts Abel's offering. He is bitter and envious. Envy is slightly different than jealousy. Jealousy desires what another person has. Envy resents that the other has received some good and therefore opposes the good the other possesses. Envy does not wish the other to have the blessing they possess, and therefore, seeks to destroy the blessing. Another way to distinguish the two is to recognize that jealousy can be either good or evil. Envy is always evil. In the scriptures, God is jealous but never envious.
God confronts Cain's anger and bitter envy by warning Cain of the dangerous position he has placed himself in. By doing this, God shows concern for Cain. Cain has no reason to be dejected. Cain can put things right - if he so desires.
God's counsel consists of two questions ("Why") and two conditional clauses ("If...). God asks Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?" Cain is not condemned for his inadequate offering. Instead, he is warned of his wrong reaction to God's rejection of his offering. In other words, Cain is overreacting. Cain has no good reason to be angry, especially in light of the following counsel. His situation can be remedied - if he so desires.
God places two possibilities before Cain. "If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it" (Genesis 4:7). God's acceptance is not limited to our past actions. Cain can change his future is he heeds God's warning. And the warning is clear: "Sin is crouching at your door." Sin is portrayed as a ravenous wild beast lurking at the door of Cain's heart, waiting to gain entrance. It is a beast that is ready to pounce at every possible opportunity. "Its desire is for you." Sin has a "desire" for Cain. It "lusts" after Cain with beastly hunger.
But a possibility for redemption awaits Cain if he can learn to "master it." Cain is free to respond positively to the Lord's counsel and set things right. He is free to do what is right, but only if he recognizes the very real threat of sin that overshadows him.
This is the first explicit mention of "sin" in the Bible. It is interesting to note that the first mention of sin does not present sin as guilt or "missing the mark" but rather as a powerful and destructive force that seeks to overpower and rule our lives. Sin does not completely eliminate our freedom or lessen our responsibility to perform God's will. Our freedom is plagued by sin, but not lost. In order to embody God's blessing and subdue the earth, we must first begin by mastering our self, and our potential to sin.
God's warning does not imply that Cain can live a life of sinless perfection. God does not offer Cain an illusory possibility. In spite of the threat of sin we all face, we can make decisions about specific matters regarding that shape our future. The question that Cain must face is this: Will he remain a prisoner of his past? Will he allow his past performance to affect his present and his future? The divine coach has placed before him real options. The ball is now in his court.
Terrence Fretheim provides a helpful summary of Cain's situation:
The reality of temptation is portrayed as something active, close at hand, predatory, eager to make inroads into Cain's life; it can consume his life, take over his thinking, feeling, and acting. Cain must not let it rule his life; he (the "you" is emphatic) can or must master it (see Ps 19:13).
Instead of living in the past with bitterness and envy, Cain must change for the better. He must recognize his problem, admit his guilt, and do all in his power to correct his attitude and actions. If he refuses to face the truth, his soul will be darkened by sin's power. Unfortunately, Cain chooses the latter and tricks his brother in order to kill him.
Cain Murders Abel
Like sin, Cain springs upon Abel in destructive anger. He destroys his prey - and walks away. The first death in the sacred scriptures is not by natural causes but by human hands. The serpent's seed strikes out against the godly seed - a ghastly pattern of what is to come.
But Cain's anger at Abel is misplaced. His murder of Abel is really a direct attack against God. Fretheim points out, "Cain's feelings or actions are not directed toward God, the one who made the decision, but misdirected toward Abel. In effect, Abel becomes a scapegoat, the one who takes the blame for something God did."
God Confronts Cain
If Cain thought his action would be hidden from God, he is completely mistaken. The Lord immediately responds to Cain's action. As with Adam and Eve, God begins his confrontation with Cain with questions. As before, we see the kindness of God. God attempts to bring Cain to confession and repentance.
Cain's response is markedly different from Adam's response. Instead of hiding from God, Cain denies his actions. Cain even has the audacity to turn God's question back upon God: "Am I my brother's keeper?" Throughout the scriptures, God is the one who "keeps" (Numbers 6:24; Psalm 121). We never read that humans "keep" one another. Cain brazenly tells God, in effect, that "if God does not know Abel's whereabouts, God has not been 'keeping' him and should be blamed for his present situation. Cain seeks to relieve himself of any responsibility for Abel by focusing on God's task of 'keeping.'" In other words, Cain argues that God is to blame for Abel's absence.
God calls Cain's bluff and reveals that Cain's actions were not done apart from the divine presence. God witnessed the deed. Abel's blood - unjustly spilled in a sinful act of envious rage - cries out to God from the ground. Though people commit sinful acts, there are no secrets in God's world. Nothing is hidden from the divine presence. Chysostom writes, "Notice how far the voice of this man's blood flies up, reaching from earth to heaven... and taking its place at the royal throne itself."
Seeing that Cain refuses to admit his evil act, God pronounces Cain's punishment: "And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth" (Genesis 4:11-12). The ground mediates the curse to Cain. The ground which he once farmed will now reject his labors and no longer yield fruit. As a consequence, Cain will dwell as a "restless wanderer" upon the earth. He will live a rootless existence away from the support of family. Rather than farming for his living, he will wander to find food. With no hope of agricultural fruitfulness, Cain must survive by hunting and gathering.
Cain's life will be marked by alienation, fear, and guilt - a pervasive anxiety and restlessness. His experience sounds remarkably modern.
Banishment from land and family was a harsh punishment to an ancient people. Cain recognizes the severity of his judgment. Considering the horror before him, he finally speaks a sincere word: "My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me" (Genesis 4:13>-14). Note that he still offers no remorse for his crime. He is only concerned about the consequences to himself. A slave to his own sin, he fears that others will do to him as he has done to his brother. Cain - the murderer - pleads for his life.
And God listens!
In a surprising turn of events that reveals the unspeakable depths of God's mercy, God commits to being "Cain's keeper." If anyone attempts to murder Cain, God will "avenge sevenfold" (an idiom expressing intensity or severity).
As evidence of divine "keeping" "the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him" (Genesis 4:15). This sign is parallel to the adequate clothing God provided for Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21). This act shows God's mercy and care.
Contrary to popular thought that mistakenly equates Cain's mark solely as a public stigma, the mark is also a protective device. It is a mark of shame and safety - a sign of guilt and grace. "The narrator leaves him as one who has been placed under the very special care of God. Hence, the story ought not to be interpreted in basically negative terms, but rather as the activity of one who lives under divine protection and care." Even though Cain is under a curse, divine blessing will follow Cain through all his wanderings. He may wander on this earth, but God's grace will not leave him. This truth makes the final line of the story that much more poignant and heartbreaking: "Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord" (Genesis 3:16). Like Adam and Eve before him, Cain intentionally seeks to hide from the presence of God. The worst aspect of sin is highlighted before us as we see how sin alienates us from God's gracious presence. Sin is seen as "utterly sinful" when it leads us away from God.
The Progression of Sin from Adam to Cain
It is interesting to contrast Adam and Eve's sin with Cain's sin. By doing so, we note a progression in sin's influence and effect.
Adam sins against God. Cain sins against Abel and God. Abel is Cain's convenient scapegoat. Cain blames Abel for God's unfavorable regard of his offering. However, the real object of his anger is God. He projects his problems onto Abel, and strikes out against him. In doing this, he sins both against Abel, and ultimately, against God. Cain's action marks sin's spread from a vertical to a horizontal plane. "Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment" (Psalm 51:4).
Eve was jealous of God and desired to be "like God" without God. Cain is envious of Abel and becomes angry at God as a result. In contrast to Cain, Eve's motives were quasi-noble. She wanted to be like God. Cain's motives are irrational and self-indulgent. Eve was genuinely deceived and desired something seemingly beneficial and advantageous. Cain commits premeditated murder, having been warned beforehand. He seeks no advantage other than his selfish exaltation at the expense of the good of others.
Adam admits he ate the fruit. Cain completely lies about his actions: "I do not know where my brother is." Though Adam reluctantly admitted his sin, Cain attempted to silence God through a blatant lie - a murderer and a liar (see John 8:44).
Adam deflects blame to others. Cain denies any responsibility to anyone but himself: "Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain is hardened - more sarcastic and defiant than Adam. He denies responsibility for his own family's welfare, even though he is directly responsible for his brother's death. He repudiates any obligation to anyone beside himself. John Walton notes, "When we refuse to accept responsibility, we have paved the way for refusing to accept blame." If Cain really rejected responsibility for his brother, what right did he have to take his life?
Perhaps the most devastating difference is this: Adam was driven out of the garden (Genesis 3:24). Cain willingly abandons God (Genesis 4:16). Sin has now passed on to the next generation. Far from being the messiah, the first-born child of Adam and Eve was a murderer and a liar. The hope for new life has been vanquished. The words from Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" ring true: "The child has grown, the dream is gone."
Outside the garden, wickedness has escalated rapidly. Cain is guilty of a heinous crime. Abel had done Cain no wrong. In fact, Abel had done nothing but good. And it was Abel's goodness that provoked Cain's bitter rage and envy. As John notes, the reason Cain slew Abel was "because his deeds were evil, and his brother's were righteous" (1 John 3:11-12). In a fallen world marred by human sin, goodness now arouses the hatred of evildoers - hatred so great it is willing to murder. Sin is exposed as destructive to goodness.
But sin never has the final word. Cain's sin is great. But God's grace is greater. Ultimately, this story is not primarily about the ugliness of sin, but of the unspeakable glory of God's mercy. God's grace and goodness is on display throughout the entire story.
In this story, we learn that God lovingly and patiently counsels the wayward in their waywardness. God is willing to pardon the past if progress is made in the future. God is gracious to the wicked and listens to their cries and complaints. God is determined to bless in the midst of the curse.
How Should We Then Live?
We also learn something about how we should live in a fallen world. We discover that sin is a very real threat to human flourishing. Our freedom is found in obedience to God's counsel. Our struggle against sin is a lifelong challenge. A good society begins with good people. Cain's social injustice is fueled by Cain's personal sin - sin Cain refuses to acknowledge and restrain. The beast lurks at the door of our hearts, awaiting any opportunity to enter and bring destruction - to ourselves and others. We must acknowledge the ravenous beast. We must fight the good fight of faith our entire lives.
We must face and admit our faults if we are to grow. Cain refused to do this. Unlike Cain, we must take responsibility for our attitudes and actions and continuously seek to conform them to God's will. We cannot live in the past, but we must strive to live today in the righteousness of God.
Perhaps we can begin by refusing to compare ourselves to others. This account reveals how this tendency to compare ourselves with others is dangerous. "Whoever compares focuses no longer on God, but squints toward the other, leading either to discontent and discouragement or to presumption and arrogance."
Finally, contrary to Cain's denial, we do have a responsibility to others. At the very least, we must do no harm to others. At the most, we must learn to love others, seeking their good. The good of others is intimately connected to a commitment to acknowledge our own sin and commit to fighting it by faith in God. Failing to listen to God not only brings harm to ourselves, but also to others.
 The Hebrew word, minha, refers to a bloodless grain offering.
 Terence E. Fretheim, Genesis in The New Interpreters Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 377.
 Fretheim, Genesis, 373.
 Fretheim, Genesis, 376.
 Fretheim, Genesis, 374.
 John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 18-45 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1986), 26.
 Fretheim, Genesis, 374-375.
 John H. Walton, Genesis: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2001), 267.
 Breeman, 41.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2008