The story of Cain and Abel is one of the more tragic stories of the Bible because Abel’s death seems so needless. The story is more than just an intense sibling rivalry however. To view it as just a matter of jealousy or the first murder in the Bible is really missing the point.
The story of Cain and Abel is in Genesis 4, immediately following the fall of man. One way of looking at this story is to see how quickly sin grows and escalates. Yeast is used in the Bible as a picture of sin because of the way it grows and this is definitely what Genesis 4 shows. Even though a number of years pass for Cain and Abel to be born and grow into men, the narrative of Genesis goes from a relatively innocent sin of eating forbidden fruit to murder in the following chapter.
The real story of Cain and Abel is a matter of worship however. And it is a very important matter that I believe the church doesn’t always get. Take a look at verses 2-4 of Genesis 4.
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. 4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.
If this were the first time you read this passage, you might not think that there was anything wrong here. Cain and Abel both brought an offering to the Lord in accordance with their occupation. But there are two things wrong with Cain’s sacrifice.
We’re not told in Genesis 4 why Cain’s sacrifice is wrong, but we know elsewhere in the Bible that sacrifices involve the shedding of blood. This may seem barbaric to our modern sensibilities but all of the blood sacrifices pointed to the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross. It is reasonable to believe that Cain and Abel both knew that an acceptable sacrifice was a blood sacrifice because this is the sacrifice that was established in Genesis 3 after the fall of man.
Adam and Eve’s fig leaves did not cover their spiritual nakedness even though it may have physically covered their bodies. God had to provide the skin of an animal to cover them which meant that blood had to be shed to cover their nakedness. Cain and Abel would have known this story and it is likely that all sacrifices were to involve the shedding of blood. So that being the case, Cain’s sacrifice is not acceptable to God.
We often like to tell God how we’re going to worship Him rather than listen to how He demands to worship. It’s not an audible thing but in our actions and attitudes we tell God that we’re not getting up too early to worship, because Sunday is our only day off. Or maybe we declare that we can only give a certain amount of money because money is tight and bills are due and God understands. Or maybe we tell God that we aren’t going to attend a church that sings boring hymns or we aren’t going to attend a radical one where people raise their hands. We often tell God how we will and won’t worship Him rather than seeking out how He desires to be worshipped.
There is another thing that makes Cain’s sacrifice unacceptable however. It is subtle but the text tells us that Cain gave some of the fruits of the soil. Later on God established a sacrifice known as firstfruits but this is not the case here. This isn’t the first of Cain’s harvest. It’s not said or even implied that it’s the best of the harvest. It’s probably the leftovers. It’s probably whatever would have otherwise gone to waste anyway. It is just some fruit.
Now compare that sacrifice to Abel’s. Abel did bring the firstborn of his flock and it is the best portions, the fat portions. It isn’t a sickly animal that he had no use for, instead it is the best that he had.
Attitude matters as much as what we give. Paul tells us to be cheerful givers. I believe in a ten percent tithe and I believe that God blesses those who do so. But people should give to the Lord because they want to do so and not because I instructed them to do so. If you give ten percent to church because you feel obligated to do so, you’re not going to be blessed as if you gave it freely.
So God confronts Cain about his sacrifice. Picking up in the middle of verse 4 it says:
The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but 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.”
It is implied here that Cain has done wrong with his sacrifice. His sacrifice is not acceptable and he knew it. As I already said, I think that Cain knew that the physical substance of the sacrifice was not what God wanted but I also believe that the attitude towards the sacrifice is not one of thanksgiving. It is a begrudging sacrifice that is probably just given out of a sense of duty.
The story ends unhappily. Cain kills his brother Abel. There is probably jealousy involved and there is undoubtedly anger as well. Cain has no reason to be angry with his brother because Abel gave a proper sacrifice. God didn’t play favorites with Abel so there is no reason to be jealous. If Cain had done as he should have done, he would have been accepted by God as well. But he didn’t and he is cursed and given a mark so that no one kills him.
I’ll very briefly address two areas of controversy in this passage before I close. We have no idea what this mark is. Some people have said that God made Cain black as his mark and therefore dark skinned people are descendents of Cain. I’ll just say that there is no reason to conclude that based on this passage. It would in some way explain the hardships that dark skinned people have endured if they were in fact cursed but that would also somehow excuse the atrocities that they have suffered at the hands of light skinned people as we would say they somehow deserved it. So, I think that to say Cain’s mark is one of skin color is a dangerous assumption that shouldn’t be made.
The other question that people like to ask is “where did Cain get his wife?” Of course the question is valid for all of the early generations that are descended from Adam and Eve. We are only told of three children that Adam and Eve had but they undoubtedly had many. Given their supernaturally long lifespans, God may very well have extended Eve’s child bearing years and it is at least possible that she had hundreds of children. That’s purely speculation on my part. And of course those children would have children and could have started to do so as soon as puberty began. Mathematically there could be a sizeable population in a short number of years.
Genetics is the real issue though. It is immoral, illegal, and disgusting to have sex with a relative today. But in Cain’s day it was a different culture and we see this even later on in Genesis. More importantly though, there is a reason why relatives can’t have children with one another today. Our genetics are too similar and birth defects are likely. Adam and Eve carried the genetics for the entire human race however. One child may be born with blond hair and blue eyes while the next may have a dark complexion with dark hair and brown eyes and the third child may have a fair complexion with red hair and green eyes. Adam and Eve’s children would have been genetically diverse unlike our children today. So even though the thought of marrying a sister or cousin makes us cringe today, it wasn’t immoral then and there wouldn’t have been the harm that we have today.