Genesis 4 includes the story of Cain and Abel, the man who killed his brother. But there is a lot more going on in this passage than meets the eye. For starters, it is where we first start to really see the beginnings of faith in the human race.
Yes, Adam and Eve were supposed to have faith in God’s commands and goodness back in the garden. But they didn’t. We also saw a little of Adam’s faith in the previous chapter when he named his wife Eve, in response to the Promise of God [See: Where do we go from here?].
But in chapter 4, faith is beginning to spring up all over the place:
It is so encouraging to see that Adam and Eve were not “lost causes”. They had learnt, over time, to turn back to God. In fact, they raised their children to follow God, even though they themselves had disobeyed Him.
As Chapter 4 opens, and closes, the faith of Eve is very much on display in the birth of her sons.
“With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man…God has granted me another child in the place of Abel” (vv 1 & 25)
I believe that one of the reasons she thanks God for both Cain and Seth, is because she believes that through one of these children God will provide the Promised One (3:15).
There are many explanations for why Abel’s offering was accepted whilst Cain’s wasn’t. One of the most convincing ones is rooted in Hebrews 11:4: “By faith Abel brought a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings.”
His offering was accepted because of his faith. A faith that still speaks today! (Heb 11:4b)
Cain’s Lack of Faith
Another reason to explain why Cain’s offering was not accepted was because of his lack of faith. We assume this because of the despair that emerges when his offering isn’t accepted.
When we fall short of God’s standards, It is faith that moves us to turn back to God. If however, we don’t live by faith, falling short will result in despair. We will groan that we are not good enough and not valuable to God. (In fact we are not good enough). But faith allows us to put our trust in God and receive His righteousness.
Cain’s lack of faith is seen his response to having his sacrifice rejected. But it is also seen in what happens next. When God punishes him for murdering his brother, Cain again falls into despair. “My punishment is more than I can bear”.
Even despite this, God continues to lavish grace and protection on Cain.
Then later on, we see Cain trying to make a name for himself by building a city (v17). One commentator noted the continuous verb, “Cain was then building a city”. And said that this mirrors the life of someone trying to earn salvation, rather than receiving it by faith.
Faith passed on: Adam and Eve to Abel, to Seth, to society
And yet Adam and Eve continue to have faith in God. And once they give birth to Seth they teach him too to lean on God. And so chapter 4 ends with the hope-filled phrase: “At that time people began to call on the name of the LORD” (v26)
One of the mysterious things about faith is that we can pass it on. This is how commands like the Great Commission are possible. We can go and make disciples of all nations because of our example and teaching of faith.
This is why Paul urges Timothy, ‘do not let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example to all the believers in speech, conduct, faith, love and purity’.
Yes, God does distribute a measure of faith to each of us (Rom 12:3), but we can go and model and encourage others to walk in faith. This is what we see Adam and Eve doing, and later Seth.
May we too seek to model faith well.
A while back whilst I was studying Genesis chapter 2, I came across a little quote that put the story into practical terms for us today. I think it also applies to chapter 4:
“A story rooted within our space and time, but a story which catches us up into itself and confronts us with the truth about ourselves”
It’s important to remember that the story of Cain and Abel, however well known it is, and however distant it feels, is still a story which catches us – “up into itself”. We don’t have to look far to see ourselves in the characters and dilemmas which they face.
It is a story of jealousy, denying responsibility, lying, doubting our self-worth. It is a story of passion, hate and murder. (We might be inclined to think murder is far away from where we are, and then Jesus comes and broadly re-defines it as hate.)
The story of the man who killed his brother. Is a story of warning about the power of anger, jealousy and hate to destroy us.
In this post we’re going to examine Cain’s sin(s) and take lessons we can apply to our own struggle with sin.
1) Sin hi-jacks our Legacy
Again, this isn’t a foreign concept to us 21st century readers. How many church leaders have had their legacy re-defined as one characterised by their greatest moral failures? We are no longer surprised when politicians are accused of abusing women, or when priests are found to have manipulated children in horrible ways.
Sin has the potential to overwrite our entire life’s work. Especially the hidden sins. This is important to remember, especially in light of Jesus’ words in Luke 12:2-3 about hidden things being revealed.
It seems few people appreciate the city Cain built, or the accomplishments of his children also detailed in Chapter 4. Did you know that he also spent his life building a city? No, his sin caught up with him. It overwrites all his other accomplishments. His legacy is the man who killed his brother.
This is real, for me and for you. Let us fight to rule over sin.
I guess this is where the good news of Jesus’ gospel comes in. No matter our past, God completely forgives those who put their trust in Jesus. He is able to use the “worst of sinners” to accomplish His legacy (1 Tim 1:15).
2) Sin is a choice
What we see in Cain’s life are the multiple avenues and choices he makes in order to disobey God. Firstly, in temptation, God plainly explains to Cain: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it’ (verse 7). Cain is here given a choice, does he continue in despair and jealousy, or does he seek to do what is right.
As we know, Cain chooses murder.
But then, even after Cain has killed his brother, he is offered another choice. Either repent and confess his sin, or try to hide it and run away from God? We don’t know what would have happened, if Cain had turned to God and apologised for the murder of his brother.
But we do know, later on in the Bible, that King David would sleep with Bathsheba, kill her husband and get her pregnant. However, in his confession and repentance, God’s grace is shown to be powerful to pass over his sin.
Instead, Cain’s response is famously: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. Inferring blame on God. He chooses to deny responsibility. And in so doing he refuses to accept God’s grace.
Sin is a choice. And our response to our failures is also a choice.
3) The Choice we face
The picture presented in Revelation 3:20 is a counter piece to the picture God gives Cain. In Genesis 4, Cain is told that Sin is crouching at His door. In Revelation, the Church is told that Jesus is standing at the door knocking.
Who do we open the door to?
Do we confess our sins, or do we hide them? Do we turn to Jesus to forgive us, or do we avoid responsibility, and tell ourselves its not that bad.
4) Our Sin affects others
We don’t know an exact reason why Cain’s offering wasn’t accepted, whilst Abel’s was. Although there are several very convincing theories. However, we can see a parallel in Cain and Abel with that of the Pharisees.
Cain’s offering was rejected by God, he couldn’t enter God’s presence on that occasion. And so, in his jealousy, he prevented Abel from ever entering God’s presence.
In the same way, the Pharisees are accused by Jesus: “You have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52).
We need to be very wary, about the impact our lives have on the faith of other believers. This is one of the reasons Paul gives for abstaining from meat altogether, because of the consciences of other believers (1 Cor 8).
In an age, when the promotion of individual freedom is held as one of the highest values. The Bible asks us to limit our personal freedoms for the sake of others. This is love.
Because mankind rebelled against God, and betrayed a Just God, there must be punishment. We see from verse 14 onwards, God’s punishment: first to the snake, then to woman, and finally towards man. However, our God is not only a Just God, He is also a Loving God full of mercy and grace. Therefore, even in the midst of the great curse of Genesis 3, we can see God’s wrath mixed with mercy.
We’ve already considered the anatomy of temptation and the character of the snake. Today we turn our attention to our Righteous and Graceful God. We will explore His response to sin and evil and remind ourselves that God hates sin, but He longs to rescue sinners. In this passage we can see a microcosm of the Gospel.
In reverse order:
‘Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken; for dust you are,
and to dust you will return’ (vv 17-19)
The punishment is severe. The work that Adam once had to do before, is now frustrated, complicated and filled with futility. Tim Keller put’s it like this: “In other words, work, even when it bears fruit, is always painful, often miscarries, and sometimes kills us…in all our work, we will be able to envision far more that we can accomplish, both because of a lack of ability and because of resistance in the environment around us. The experience of work will include, pain, conflict, envy and fatigue…’ (Every Good Endeavour, 89-90). He goes on to explain that this curse also demonstrates that work will become: pointless, selfish and will reveal our idols.
In this curse we see the context of work (ground), the fruit of work (eat the plants) and frustration of work (thorns and thistles) all subjected to punishment.
We also see promised punishment of death – that Adam would return to the ground as dust.
So where is grace?
We see grace in the fact that the man is not cursed himself. It is the ground. A quick look at the snake’s punishment reveals that the serpant was cursed! We are merely ‘put under the curse’. The full wrath of God is withheld against us, and directed instead to the ground. (Hence Romans 8 speaks of creation groaning!) We are punished indirectly.
We also see mercy in that Adam will be able to eat. His work will not be entirely futile. It will provide food for them, in this way we see God’s ongoing provision of man. God could have punished Adam by making him work for fruit that others would eat! This is in fact a blessing elsewhere in the Bible (Psalm 128:2)
One commentator went so far as to say that the promised death, was also a demonstration of God’s grace. Otherwise, man would have to continue living forever in a state of separation from God, from life, from blessing. Instead, God allows death, so that through faith in the Promised One they might be saved and return to the Garden. (More on that in the next post).
In this way we can see wrath mixed with mercy. In Wednesday’s post we will examine the concoction of mercy and wrath served by the rest of the curse.
It is a cause of worship that we come to the same God who in His wrath remembers mercy.