Genesis 4:1-2 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, “I have acquired a man from the Lord.” 2 Then she bore again, this time his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.
In Hebrew, the name Cain is Qayin, which is derived from a word that means “possession.” We can see in Eve’s explanation that, to her, Cain was something which she felt that she had acquired, perhaps in her hope that a son would be the Redeemer. Eve did not have a similar statement about her second son, Abel, whose Hebrew name Hebel meant “breath.” These names, perhaps, will help give us deeper understanding into their natures and their actions in the following verses. We can also look at their occupations: Cain, the farmer, and Abel, the shepherd. Cain was in an occupation that reflected the judgment of man given by God in Genesis 3:17. Abel was in an occupation that reflected the salvation of God. Cain was not doing anything wrong by being a farmer, of course, because farming is necessary for sustaining life. But farming is also a prerequisite for civilization, which is a human invention that encourages human-built communities and societies. Farming (by virtue of land ownership) also became one of the earliest ways for a person to generate wealth. During Cain’s time, the acquisition and possession of land would have been the primary indicator of wealth and power.
Cain’s example is very important to us, as we can see from another key passage of Scripture. Jude 11 speaks of the way of Cain, which is connected for us to the greed of Balaam (Numbers 22) and the rebellion of Korah (Numbers 16). Cain, who had started out with the virtue of being a man from the Lord, ultimately became the embodiment of immorality being introduced by man into God’s plan (Jude 4). How did this happen? Adam and Eve, who had sinned and fallen, did believe in God’s promise for a Redeemer. Abel, their son and also a sinner, we will see in the following verses had chosen to worship God in the way that God first demonstrated to his parents. But Cain, by his name (possession), his chosen purpose for himself (tiller of the ground and thereby acquirer of wealth and power), and later what we will see to be his idea of “worship”, embodies man’s attempt to bypass God.
Genesis 4:3-5 And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. 4 Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, 5 but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
The word for offering (minchah) has the following meanings: gift, tribute, offering, present, oblation, sacrifice, meat offering. The same word is used in other passages of scripture in the context of meat offering. Some commentators and teachings propose that this offering was supposed to have been a sin offering. God had demonstrated the shedding of blood through the killing of an animal (thought to be a lamb) when He made skins to cover to Adam’s and Eve’s nakedness. There is some speculation that God would have given actual instructions for Adam and Eve to follow when they would bring their own sacrifices. Scripture has not given this level of detail in order to draw a dogmatic conclusion, but later passages make the relationship between atonement and the shedding of blood clear:
Hebrews 9:22 And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission.
Leviticus 17:11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.’
We read that Abel brought the firstborn of his flock. It wasn’t until later that the Law of the Firstborn would be codified in the Mosaic Law: Exodus 34:19 All that open the womb are Mine, and every male firstborn among your livestock, whether ox or sheep. It does seem that Abel understood this requirement, even if we haven’t been given the story of how he would have known. But if he knew, so did his brother Cain. Cain, in fact, as a firstborn son to Eve, would have also been consecrated for the Lord. What this means to us is that Cain’s life should have been dedicated towards service to God and His purpose through Cain. Perhaps what we are seeing in this unfolding story is the rebellion of Cain against God’s purpose for his life, and we are given a clue in Hebrews 11:4, which presents the contrast between Abel and Cain: By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous. Cain, by implication then, is representative of the witness of unrighteousness, through unbelief. I think when we hear the word unbelief, we think in terms of ignorance of the truth. Ignorance is a possible state of unbelief. However, Hebrews 4 speaks of the Israelites in the wilderness hearing the Word, but not profiting by it (Hebrews 4:2). They did not enter into the Promised Land, and Hebrews 4:6 says why: it was because of disobedience. Cain represents unrighteousness through unbelief expressed in a life of disobedience. We too, must be so careful that we become doers of what we hear, or else we too can be associating our lives with the way of Cain.
For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, 12 not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous.
1 John 3:11-12
Bringing this discussion back full circle then, what can we conclude about the sacrifices offered by Cain and Abel? To answer this we actually need to go deeper into the character of each person. Cain’s life was purposed for God’s plan, but at some point he resisted the call and went his own way. His name in Scripture is associated with murder, greed, and rebellion. Abel lived a righteous life. What this really means in the context of the age in which he lived was that he believed God’s promise and he patterned his life after it. Abel’s life was itself an offering dedicated for the Lord. What he then offered to God in obedience was a reflection of his heart, which by faith in God’s promises, was righteous. While Cain did appear obedient in bringing an offering to the Lord, it was not from a heart obedient to God’s call for his life, and therefore God did not accept his offering. Let’s look at what God really wants from us when we bring Him our offerings:
- Proverbs 15:8 The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord,
But the prayer of the upright is His delight.
- Proverbs 21:27 (NLT) The sacrifice of an evil person is detestable, especially when it is offered with wrong motives
- Amos 5:21-24 “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. 22 Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. 23 Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. 24 But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
- Micah 6:7-8 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?
- The Pharisees asked Jesus why he would eat with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 when he said (Matthew 9:13) Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
As we read in Genesis 4:5, God did not respect Cain or his offering. I think many teachings focus too much on the offering, and not enough on Cain himself. But from what can see from all of Scripture, there was something in Cain’s life that made his offering a moot point. He could have acquired a firstborn lamb from his brother and offered a meat offering as well, and it still would not have been accepted by God. If we want further proof of where Cain’s heart was, his response to a righteous, just, and holy God was to get angry.
Genesis 4:6-7 So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”
God was obviously not searching for an answer as to why Cain was angry. I often do that with my daughter, because in the moment I might not know why she is angry, and so I have to ask so that I can try and figure out the best way to help her. God knew the answer, and so His question is for Cain’s benefit (and ours as well). Often, we read or hear God’s Word and we can hear Him asking us, “Why are you thinking those unrighteous thoughts? Why are you remaining in these dangerous and unrighteous emotions?” If we continue to listen, we can hear Him tell us what He told Cain: “If you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” This is a warning statement, a cautionary bit of God’s advice that goes way beyond the story of Cain and Abel. It actually speaks to our sin nature, and the power it can have over the outcomes of all of our actions. Every choice is a crossroads, with one single path leading to life and multiple paths leading to calamity. Cain’s offering was not acceptable because of his heart, and God addressed that when He asked “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” Our response should always be to return to God’s righteous path, but our sin nature desires to control our emotions and influence our choices for evil. The word for desire here is tĕshuwqah which describes the desire of a beast seeking to devour its prey. This word for desire is the same word God said to Eve in Genesis 3:16 when He told her that should would have an unhealthy desire to control her husband. It is not a nice word, like it would be if I said I desire to draw close to God. Cain was being warned that sin was always nearby, ready to pounce on him and devour him. He was angry, and with no other context and information, we can’t say that his anger was sin. But in this story, his anger was an expression of his sin nature, and if he allowed it to take control, it would lead him to even greater acts of unrighteousness.
This is what the Lord says: “Stop at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it. Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls. But you reply, ‘No, that’s not the road we want!’ 17 I posted watchmen over you who said, ‘Listen for the sound of the alarm.’ But you replied, ‘No! We won’t pay attention!’”
Jeremiah 6: 16-17 (NLT)
The “way of Cain” is the way that ignores the signs at the crossroads and ignores the alarms of the watchmen, and proceeds onward towards self-gratification, living in the flesh, even worshipping God but in a way contrary to what God asks from us. It invites sin, which is always nearby (we have a sinful nature, by-the-way) waiting to pounce like a predator if we open the door to it. But God told Cain, “but you should rule over it,” meaning that Cain had a responsibility to rule over his sinful nature and keep it in subjection. Since God is speaking to Cain’s anger, I think we are safe to conclude that God is saying we have a responsibility to keep our emotions in check. If we don’t, then our sin natures are ready to control them and lead us to outward acts of unrighteousness. Anger leads to unloving acts. If the opposite of love is hate and hate is murder according to Jesus, then how often do we “murder” someone when we get angry with them?
So how do we rule over our sin natures? Look at this passage written by Paul in Romans 6:
Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. 13 Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. 14 Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace. 15 Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! 16 Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. 17 Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. 18 Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living.
Romans 6:12-18 (NLT)
I personally struggle with how I can lead a righteous life and not give in to my sinful nature. How do I stop from having evil thoughts? How do I not let anger and other emotions lead to sin? How do I keep my thoughts in check and my emotions from expressing themselves through my flesh? The key phrase in Paul’s passage that answers my question is that when I choose to obey God, I become a slave to righteous living. I won’t have to worry about “choice” every time something happens to me! I make the choice to obey God, and my heart and inward man will make the choice to respond to every situation with righteous and holy acts. That is true freedom, because my sin nature no longer has any power. I have become a slave of righteousness (the end of verse 18, NKJV)!