Cain and Abel: A Story of Rebellion, Judgment, and Grace

ZA Blog on September 13th, 2018. Tagged under ,.

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The story of Cain and Abel is one of sibling rivalry and murder. It’s shocking to realize that there is only one generation between the Bible’s story of creation and the first homicide. Mankind’s descent into sinfulness was fast and severe.

Cain and Abel each bring God a sacrifice. When God shows disappointment in Cain’s sacrifice and pleasure in Abel’s, Cain kills Abel with a stone.

God confronts Cain about murdering his brother. Cain lies about it. And God exiles him to the land of Nod, east of Eden.

This brief account in the Bible is just 16 verses long, but it paints a powerful picture of sin, judgment, and surprisingly, grace. Renowned Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman III explores this famous passage in his online course on Genesis.

The following post is adapted from Longman’s course.

But first, let’s look at the passage itself.

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The Story of Cain and Abel

Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.” Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 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.”

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. —Genesis 4:1–16

A story of rebellion, judgment, and grace

The story of Cain and Abel falls fast on the heels of the account of the first human rebellion against God. That story told of Adam and Eve’s sin, which was followed by a judgment speech in which God announced his punishment on the sinners. The end of the chapter narrates the execution of the punishment, but before that happens, God extends to them a token of grace in the form of clothing to cover their nakedness that for the first time caused them shame.

Interestingly, the story of Cain and Abel presents the very same structure. That is, after Cain sins by killing his brother (4:8), God announces his judgment against him (4:11–12), but before the judgment takes place (4:16), God extends grace to Cain as well (4:15).

A conflict between two professions?

Some scholars see the Sumerian story of Dumuzid and Enkimdu as the background to the Cain and Abel story. Like Cain, Enkimdu is a farmer, and, like Abel, Dumuzid is a shepherd. Utu, the sun god, is trying to convince his sister to marry the shepherd, but she wants to marry the farmer. This disagreement leads to a debate over the respective benefits of both professions. The composition ends, however, with the shepherd and the farmer collaborating with each other.

No substantial connection can be shown between the Sumerian and the biblical story, but it has misled some to think that our biblical story is really about a conflict between the two professions. Cain was a farmer and Abel a shepherd. But the better explanation for why Scripture tells us their professions is that it informs the readers why each one brings the type of offering that they do.

Cain the farmer naturally brings some of his crops, while Abel brings an animal sacrifice. God is pleased with Abel’s sacrifice, but rejects Cain’s. Why?

Why is God disappointed with Cain’s sacrifice?

The narrator does not describe God’s motivation, but such reticence is typical of biblical narration. Rather than an explicit statement, the narrator tells the story in such a way that the reader can enter into the story and understand the motivation.

The NIV nicely captures the nuance of the Hebrew when it describes Cain’s sacrifice as “some of the fruits of the soil.” Abel’s sacrifice comes from “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” In a word, Cain offered the ordinary and Abel the best, and of course the quality of their offering reflects the condition of their hearts. Abel is enthusiastic in his worship, while Cain is basically uninterested.

The sacrifice was not about God’s taste in food

In the broader ancient Near East, sacrifices were thought to provide food for the gods. In the Gilgamesh Epic, for example, the god Ea knows that Enlil is making a big mistake by attempting to destroy humanity by virtue of the flood because by doing so he is cutting the gods off from their food supply. Indeed, right after the flood waters receded and Utnapishtim, the Babylonian equivalent of Noah, steps out of the ark to offer a sacrifice, the gods “crowded around the sacrificer like flies” because they were so hungry.

The biblical God does not need sacrifices for food. The psalmist in an oracle in which God tells the Israelites, “If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” (Psalms 50:12–13).

So God was not disappointed in Cain because he failed to provide the proper legumes to go along with his main course provided by Abel, but rather because the quality of his sacrifice revealed the insincerity of his worship.

The author of Hebrews contrasts the two sacrifices, “By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead” (Hebrews 11:4; see also 1 John 3:12; Jude 11).

Outward expressions of an inward reality

The biblical witness is consistent in its condemnation of the mere outward exercise of religion. Sacrifice alone does not bring forgiveness, but only a repentant heart. Deuteronomy (10:16; 30:6) and Jeremiah (9:25) both blast those who are circumcised in their body, but not in their heart.

God does not dislike religious ritual, far from it. He commanded the sacrificial system and told Abraham that he and his offspring should be circumcised, but the physical act itself does nothing unless it is an outward sign of an inward reality.

The point is that God wants us to love him “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37). Unlike Cain, we should not just go through the motions of worship.

The heart behind our worship

Now this observation has nothing to do with worship style. God was not troubled that Cain brought vegetables rather than meat. If Cain had brought the firstfruits, the very best of his produce, then God would have accepted that offering.

Worship can take many forms today. In some churches, worship is very orderly. Prayer is offered with folded hands and closed eyes. In other churches, prayers are offered with hands stretched toward heaven, songs are shouted, and people dance in the aisles. In either case, worship can be sincere or insincere. A person with folded hands and closed eyes may be deeply engaged in worshiping God, while another person dancing in the aisles, while looking engaged on the outside, might just enjoy dancing and shouting, getting an emotional high from the experience. That said, one can also have closed eyes and folded hands and be thinking about the next week’s tasks, while the people dancing in the aisles have their heart full of thanks and praise of God.

Cain’s response to God’s disappointment

Notice too how Cain responds to God’s displeasure with his offering. Rather than wanting to do the right thing, he grows angry and sullen. Even so, God encourages him to change his attitude and his actions. He tells him to “do what is right,” that is to worship him with a full heart that manifests itself in a proper offering.

But he also warns Cain what will happen if he does not change. Sin will dominate him.

It would have been easy for Cain to rectify the matter. God challenged Cain’s emotional reaction and asked him a rhetorical question, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” In other words, “try again Cain. Get your heart right and offer me a suitable and acceptable sacrifice that shows me that you love me for all I have done for you.”

Besides showing Cain the right road to having a good relationship with him, he also warned Cain of the danger of continuing to be insincere in his relationship with him. Sin is waiting to take control of him, but Cain needs to take control of his life and keep sin out.

“Sin is crouching at your door”

There is a distinct parallel between God’s words here and in his judgment speech against Eve in chapter 3 (v. 16). Here there is no question that sin’s desire for Cain is to control him, and here God tells him to “rule over” (mshl, compare 3:16) sin.

After this divine warning, the narrator shows Cain’s reaction by narrating his actions. Rather than repenting, he sinks deeper into sin by luring his brother out into the field and then killing him. He thus commits the first murder, an act made more heinous by the fact that the victim was his brother.

But what did Abel do to him? Abel simply offered his heartfelt sacrifice to God; he did not attack Cain or try to show him up. Why did Cain kill Abel?

Cain kills Abel because he can’t kill God, so he kills the one that pleased God. Unrighteous anger results from an interference with satisfaction, a hatred of vulnerability, and a love of control. Unrighteous anger seeks to gain independence from God and others. Cain resists the controls that he perceives God trying to put on him. Unrighteous anger delivers us from trusting God who does not comply with what we want.

Cain is judged for his sin

As in Genesis 3 (v. 9, God asks Adam “Where are you?”), God introduces his judgment speech with a question, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain lies to God and also dismissively asks “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In the same way that Adam did not guard (shmr) the garden so Cain does not keep (shmr) his brother.

God is not ignorant of Abel’s murder. The earth, which took in Abel’s blood, will take his side and make Cain’s efforts frustrating and difficult. Cain’s punishment is basically an intensification of the punishment levied on Adam (work becomes even more frustrating) as well as that levied on both of them, their expulsion from Eden. They were expelled to the east from Eden and now Cain will be “a restless wanderer on the earth” (v. 12).

God shows Cain grace

The end of the chapter narrates the execution of the judgment as God expels him to the land of Nod, a place name derived from the Hebrew verb “to wander.” However, immediately preceding the judgment, God extends to Cain a token of grace.

Cain is fearful that he will be the prey of hostile people once God expels him further from Eden and from his presence. On the one hand, the principle of retribution would lead one to think that Cain would only get what he deserved. He ruthlessly murdered Abel, so he would be killed by others.

But God is merciful to Cain and protects him. He promises severe retribution (“seven times over”) on any who would harm Cain, and places a mark on him to warn those who encountered Cain not to kill him. The mark of Cain has been the source of long-standing speculation, but the truth is that we do not know the exact nature of the mark. Whatever the mark was, it protected Cain from the hostility of whoever finds him (v. 15).

Where did the other people come from?

The story clearly assumes that there are a number of people beside Adam, Eve, and Cain, and this has mystified many readers who want to take the story as a precise and literal historical narration.

While some want to explain the presence of what appears to be a significant number of “others” in the text by appealing to the long lives of the characters in the narrative and the possibility of a passing of many generations by the time this story is set, it is more likely that this is a signal that we should not take the text as a precise literal historical account.

Learn more about the Book of Genesis

Believed to have been written by Moses, Genesis contains numerous famous passages, including the Judeo-Christian account of creation, the story of Abraham, and the origins of God’s chosen people.

In his insightful online course, Bible scholar Tremper Longman delves into Genesis, drawing from other ancient near-eastern sources and the best in Old Testament scholarship to help you understand this important book.

Learn more in Tremper Longman’s online course on the book of Genesis ›