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Cain and Abel: The Escalation of Evil

January 4th, 2009 by Vic

Genesis 4

There are 2 kinds of people in the world: When trees are waving wildly in the wind, one group of people thinks that it is the wind that moves the trees; the other group thinks that the motion of the trees creates the wind. (G.K. Chesterton) Does the invisible give energy to the visible or does the visible affect the invisible? Does God control the world or can man influence God? My greatest effort does not change God.

The breath of God moved on the waters and spoke words. The Spirit of God continues to create and speak. We receive life and language in the beginning. It is the Spirit that gives life, not the flesh.

The Trinity is in Creation. The essence of Trinity is the centerpiece of Christianity. God is personal, in community not an abstract truth or idea. God is a mystery known in relationship. He is not a commodity, idea or power to use. He is a person and invites us into relationship.

Man was created by the hand of God, in relationship with God.

The Bible begins with 2 creation stories. Genesis 1 gives us time and Genesis 2 gives us a garden. Genesis 2:4-4:26 tells a history of the heaven and earth. The word ‘earth’ occurs 7 times. “Land’ occurs 14 times. ‘God’ occurs 35 times, the same as in Gen 1:1-2:3. The last verse in chapter 4 is the 70th occurrence of God and the 14th for the word ‘call’. In chapter 4, ‘Abel’ and ‘brother’ occur 7 times. ‘Cain’ occurs 14 times. Lamek is the 7th generation from Adam

Does God have a design?

I wanted to consider the story of Cain and Abel. Does God have favorites? Does he show partiality for church attendees over non-attendees? Did God like Abel better than Cain? Does God prefer shepherds to farmers? The Bible tells us that God does not show partiality. So if God does not show partiality, what was the difference between these two brothers and the first two sacrifices in the Bible?

The language in which Scripture tells this second event in history is very simple. Two of the children of Adam and Eve are identified as Cain and Abel. There may have been others, but the story is about these two. The Bible only describes people and events that will help us understand the story of God and the kingdom of God.

Of the two sons of Adam and Eve, Cain was the elder, the first-born of all their children. When Eve called her first-born son Cain (“gotten,” or “acquired”), she said, “I have gotten a man from God.” Apparently she connected the birth of her son with the immediate fulfillment of the promise concerning the Seed, who was to bruise the head of the serpent. This expectation was, if we may be allowed the comparison, as natural on her part as that of the immediate return of our Lord by some of the early Christians. It also showed how deeply this hope was hidden in her heart. It shows her faith in the promise of God, and how much she longed for it. But her hopes were crushed and her heart was broken by the sin of her first born. The other son was named Abel, which is “breath,” or “fading away.”

Said Dr. Carl F. H. Henry, “In one of my last street meetings, during my college years, a heckler kept shouting, “Where did Cain get his wife?”

“When I could ignore the disturber no longer, I replied, “When I get to heaven, I’ll ask him!”

“Suppose he isn’t in heaven?” parried the disrupter.

“I retorted, “Then you can ask him!””

“Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.” They got together and decided to bring an offering to God; Cain “of the fruit of the ground,” and Abel “of the firstlings of his flock, and of the fat thereof.” They chose to give a part of what they had.

Jehovah “had respect unto Abel and his offering, but unto Cain and his offering He had no respect.” How God communicated His acceptance we don’t know. How does God communicate His acceptance to you?

The traditional interpretation says that the difference between Cain and Abel is that one offered a bloody sacrifice and the other did not. Remember Moses is writing this story. What is he telling us? Why didn’t he mention any specific instructions on how to present a sacrifice to God? Why didn’t he describe the why Cain and Abel decided to offer their sacrifices together? Why are both sacrifices referred to throughout this whole narrative with the same Hebrew word that means, a “gift” or “meal offering”? If both sacrifices are the same, what is different?

Was this the first time anyone ever sacrificed anything or had they brought gifts to God regularly? Did God command or request sacrifices? The whole subject of the origins of sacrifice has been debated long but Moses was not writing about sacrifices.

We must be careful about reading back into the times of Adam and Eve the instructions that Moses was later given on sacrifices. The word used to describe “sacrifice” throughout this story of Cain and Abel is the word for gift used in the broadest sense. It can mean any type of gift that any person might bring. Consequently, there is no indication that one gift is any better than another.

The older son was responsible for the younger. The younger offered the choice and first-born. The older did not offer first fruits.


Although there was no real problem with Cain’s “gift”—he was the problem. God sees the heart. To have a good heart is always better than sacrifice. Genesis 4:3 describes how Cain merely brought “some” of the fruits of the field. As a farmer he brought what farmers have to give. But when his offering is contrasted with Abel’s, a flaw immediately shows up.

Abel gave what cost him dearly, the “fat pieces”—in that culture considered the choicest parts—of “the firstborn” of his flock. Abel could very well have rationalized, as we might have done, that he would wait until some of those firstborn animals had matured and had lambs of their own. Certainly at that point it would have been possible to give an even larger gift to God, and Abel would have been further ahead as well. But he gave instead what cost him most, the “firstborn.”

Literally, the Hebrew of verses 4 and 5 says, “And Abel, he brought, indeed, even he, some of the firstlings of his flock and some of the fat portions belonging to him. And the Lord regarded with favor Abel and [then] his offering. But unto Cain and [then] unto his offering, he did not have regard.”

Clearly the focus of this passage is on the men first, not the offerings. There are four emphatic words used to indicate that it was the men, and their hearts’ condition that was the determinative factor in God’s deciding whose sacrifice was to be accepted. The text almost stutters: “And Abel, he, he also, he brought.”

The word for “to regard with favor” is literally ‘to gaze toward’. God’s favor was directed toward the person first and then toward the offering that person brought. If the heart was not found acceptable, the gift was likewise unacceptable. God is still the same today.

Cain’s heart and not his offering was the real problem. The last part of verse 5: “So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast”—literally, “it burned Cain greatly [or, to the core] and his face dropped.” He could not look in God’s eyes.

God’s displeasure with Cain revealed Cain’s heart. Instead of changing his attitude, Cain let a root of bitterness harden into murder. For the moment, however, anger hid itself in Cain’s eyes—he avoided looking anyone in the eye. Averting his own gaze, he kept others from seeing (through the eye gate) what was in his heart.

Sacrifice in the Old Testament is not a formula for earning divine credit. God always inspects the giver and the worshiper before he inspects the gift, service or worship. 1 Samuel 15:22

Instead of repenting for his bad attitude and seeking direction from God, Cain now gave way to feelings of anger and jealousy. God reminded him of his sin, warned him of its danger, and pointed out the way of escape. But Cain had chosen his own way. Meeting his brother in the field led to murder and earth witnessed the first death.

4:7 If you do good, you can look me in the eye. If you do well, there is the honor due to the first-born. If you do not do well, sin crouches for the first-born.

4:9 God knows where Abel is. He invites Cain to acknowledge his responsibility. When Adam was confronted by God, he told the truth. Cain tells a bare-faced lie. He plays with words and asks, “Am I the shepherd’s shepherd?”

God called Cain to account, and again he hardened himself, this time almost disowning the authority of God. Adam committed sin, but Cain committed both sin and crime. As a warning, and yet as a witness to all, Cain, driven from his previous chosen occupation as a tiller of the ground, was sent out as “a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth.” But even this punishment, though “greater” than Cain “can bear,” leads him not to repentance, but only to fear its consequences. And “lest any finding him should kill him,” God set a mark on Cain. He “went out from the presence of God, and dwelt in the land of Nod,” that is, of “wandering” or “unrest.” The last that we read of him “he built a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.” 4:17

To be driven from the land is to have all family relationships broken. Alienation from God leads to fear of other men. Cain rejects God’s authority and then grumbles about the consequences.

The story that began with the attempt by Cain and Abel to draw near to God through sacrifice ends in Cain’s leaving the Lord’s presence from which his parents had been expelled. All aspects of human culture are in some way tainted by Cain’s sin.

4:23-24 Lamek is even more depraved than his forefather Cain. Lamek, the 7th generation is part of the development of technology, the arts, and the growth of violence.

4:25-26 The line of Seth offers hope. All nations are invited to worship God. All nations can pray to God.

There are some obvious lessons in this story. Thus we mark the difference in the sacrifice of the two brothers—the one “of the fruit of the ground,” the other an animal sacrifice. Again, the offering of Cain is described merely in general terms; while Abel’s is said to be “of the firstlings of his flock”—the first being in acknowledgment that all was God’s, “and of the fat thereof,” that is, of the best. Secondly we note, how faithfully God warns, and how kindly He points Cain to the way of escape from the power of sin. Third, bitterness leads to murder. Fourth, no punishment, however terrible, will force man to repent. Fifth, God cares about the death of the innocent. Sixth, innocent blood pollutes the holy land and God cannot be present. Seventh, only those who offer their best are acceptable to God. But what does this story tell you about God?

In the Epistle of Jude (ver. 11) we are warned against going “in the way of Cain.”

After the sin of Adam and Eve the relationship of man towards God was entirely changed. In the garden of Eden man’s relationship with God depended on his perfect obedience. But man disobeyed and fell. God in His infinite grace now opened to man another path. He set before him the hope of faith. The promise which God freely gave to man was that of a Deliverer, who would bruise the head of the serpent, and destroy his works.

Eve was looking for the promise of God that would reverse the consequences of her sin. We know the rest of the story.

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