Cain & Abel: Two Approaches to God
Genesis 4. In this chapter we have the history of two brothers: Cain and Abel. These two brothers set before us a great moral contrast between two approaches to God, and two ways of life. The first is a life of faith, approaching to God on the ground of death for sin. The second is a life of unbelief, approaching to God on the ground of man’s own works. We find that unbelief persecutes faith, despises the grace and government of God, and lives independently from God. We read of the beginning of the world-system, and of God’s preservation of a remnant according to faith.
The History of Cain & Abel (4:1-8)
1 And Man knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bore Cain [‘acquired’], and said, I have acquired a man with Jehovah. 2 And she further bore his brother Abel [‘vanity’]. And Abel was a shepherd, but Cain was a husbandman. vv.1-2 Adam and Even have two sons, and they could not have been more different. First of all, notice that Eve names her firstborn Cain, saying “I have acquired a man with [the help of] Jehovah”. It would appear that Eve believed the promise by faith, but she assumed it could be fulfilled by nature. She put her hopes in her firstborn son, perhaps reasoning that this was the “seed” mentioned in the serpent’s curse. She names her second son Abel, which means ‘vanity’. This could mean a number of things. First, it could mean that the parents had seen the flesh in the older son, and had given up hopes in their children. Secondly, by mention of the two so close together, it seems that the Spirit is drawing a contrast… that all hope was put in the first-born, and no hope in the second-born. I don’t believe there was anything morally superior about Abel’s keeping sheep, although we cannot help but connect Abel’s occupation with that of the Good Shepherd. In the course of this chapter, Eve learns the lesson of the ages; that the flesh profits nothing. She names her third son Seth, which means ‘appointed’; seeing the sovereign grace of God as the only hope for mankind. Why didn’t the promised seed come in ch.4? Why was the “fullness of time” four-thousand years? Because “that which is spiritual was not first, but that which is natural, then that which is spiritual” (1 Cor. 15:46). In the dispensational ways of God, the first man had to come before the second man, so that the utter ruin of one and the perfection of the other might be manifest.
3 And in process of time it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to Jehovah. 4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock, and of their fat. And Jehovah looked upon Abel, and on his offering; 5 and upon Cain, and on his offering, he did not look. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. vv.3-5 In the garden, the Lord had come down to walk with man in the cool of the day. After the fall, man was to approach God on the basis of sacrifice. Cain offered first, then Abel. Two things at the end of the previous chapter bear on the chosen offerings of Cain and Abel. The ground had been cursed, yet Cain chose to bring fruit out of a cursed earth, by the labor of his own hands, for God. He never took to heart that the ground was cursed.1 God had provided coats of skin for Adam and Eve, which required the death of an innocent animal – a life offered up. Abel chose to bring of the first-lings of his flock “and the fat thereof”. This required the slaying of an animal, and the shedding of its blood. Abel brought a burnt offering, and God accepted it. It wasn’t the sacrifice that made Abel righteous… Hebrews 11:4 says that by his sacrifice Abel “obtained witness that he was righteous”. In different senses, both Abel and his sacrifice are types of Christ. Abel’s sacrifice pictures the atoning work of Christ, and Abel’s death pictures the martyrdom sufferings of Christ. The sacrifices of Cain and Abel represent two approaches to God. All down through human history, there have only been two approaches. The first approach is to come to God seeking acceptance on the ground of our own works; a bloodless sacrifice. Jude speaks of this as “the way of Cain”. The second approach is to come to God on the value of a life offered up in death. Hebrews 11 reveals that this was an act of faith; “by faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” (Heb. 11:4). Abel believed what God had said about the cursed ground and the coming Seed. He acknowledged that he was fallen, and by his sacrifice confessed his guilt. He took to heart the lesson of the animal skins, and offered accordingly. This is faith; hearing the Word of God, taking it to heart, and putting it into practice. Abel’s offering was accepted; “he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts” (Heb. 11:4). It isn’t that Abel was a better person then Cain, but he was “righteous” in the sense that he acted consistently with the revealed mind of God. Cain’s offering was not accepted, because God cannot be pleased with the work of men’s hands. Cain became immediately angry, and his face grew sullen. It was an attitude of rebellion against God. Man’s heart turns against God when his efforts are not received.
The fat thereof. Two thousand years later Jehovah told Israel that “the fat is the Lord’s” as well as the blood. The blood belonged to God because the life is in the blood, and God is the life giver. Fat is stored energy, and speaks of inward energy in devotion to God. Somehow Abel had intelligence beyond his years, and brought “the fat thereof” with his offering to the Lord. How did Abel have this intelligence? “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him” (Psa. 25:14).
6 And Jehovah said to Cain, Why art thou angry, and why is thy countenance fallen? 7 If thou doest well, will not thy countenance look up with confidence? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door; and unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. v.7 In grace, the Lord reaches out to Cain, seeking to show him the error. Cain’s unhappiness was a result of him not doing what was right. The apostle John writes of Cain, even before the murder, “his own works were evil” (1 John 3:12). He could have offered a sacrifice that was acceptable, but he chose to push his own will, and it was rejected. The word “sin” (Strong’s H2403) could be translated “sin offering”.23 It is not entirely clear if “sin” or “sin offering” is meant. If it is “sin”, the thought is that Cain’s way of approaching God in self-will would lead to greater evil, as we see in v.8. However, if it is “sin offering”, the thought is that there was an acceptable offering available to Cain. The last part of the verse brings out the grace of God again; “and unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him”. It is similar to Gen. 3:16, and it presents the thought of natural privilege. Cain was the firstborn son, and God assures him that, in spite of his unacceptable sacrifice, the rights of a firstborn remained intact. Surely God is gracious!
8 And Cain spoke to Abel his brother [‘And Cain said to Abel his brother…’], and it came to pass when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. v.8 In spite of God’s grace, the acceptance of Abel stirred up pride, envy and bitterness in Cain’s heart, which turned to hatred for Abel. The original Hebrew has Cain saying something to Abel which is not recorded, implying that Cain deceived Abel to get him out into the field.4 What Cain said is struck from the Divine record, and forever forgotten. But not so with Abel, for by his sacrifice “he being dead yet speaks” (Heb. 11:4)! In the field, Cain “rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him”. The hatred resulted in murder, as the apostle John wrote; “whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). Hatred is of the same moral character as murder. Murder is a later stage of the same root. John also explains why Cain slew his brother; “and wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12). The root of Cain’s anger was wounded pride; God had accepted Abel’s offering, and rejected his own. Those who approach God on the basis of works will always persecute those who rest on sovereign grace (Gal. 4:29). Think of it… the very first human born in the world murdered the very second human born into the world. This is the flesh. It is incorrigible. Abel is a picture of Christ, who came unto his own, and was hated without a cause. The depth of Cain’s evil would not have been exposed if it were not for Abel’s righteousness. “If I had not come and spoken to them, they had not had sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin… now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father…” (John 15:22-25).
The Government of God over Cain: Cain’s Curse (4:9-15)
9 And Jehovah said to Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: am I my brother’s keeper? v.9 The first question God asks is not “what have you done” but “where is Abel your brother?” The implication is that Cain was responsible to look out for Abel, because he was his brother. Cain was accountable for the well-being of his brother. In a similar way, the “the Comforter… having come, he will bring demonstration to the world, of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe on me, etc.” (John 16:7-9). The Father speaks through the Spirit, “where is my Son?… what have you done with my Son?” Cain outright lies, “I know now”. A murderer remembers where his victim lies. Cain denies responsibility for his brother, saying haughtily; “am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer to Cain’s question is “yes”.
10 And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now be thou cursed from the ground, which hath opened its mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand. 12 When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield thee its strength; a wanderer and fugitive shalt thou be on the earth. vv.10-12 The second question is direct; “what hast thou done?” The voice of Abel’s blood – the life of the flesh being in the blood – cried out to God from the ground, and God heard it. Abel’s blood called out for righteous vengeance! It is a great comfort to know that God sees and hears the evil committed against the innocent down through history and today, and to know that there will be justice. Jesus promised that all the blood shed from nearly the first chapter (Genesis 4) which records the martyrdom of Abel, to nearly the last chapter of the Hebrew Bible (2 Chron. 24) which records the martyrdom of Zacharias, would be avenged. Cain is cursed therefore, by God, for his sin. What a contrast we see in the blood of Jesus, “the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel” (Heb. 12:24). Abel’s blood called for righteous vengeance, but the blood of Jesus calls for pardon and forgiveness (the New Covenant). The very ground that “opened its mouth” to receive Abel’s blood from Cain’s hand, would resist the plow and seed from Cain’s hand. The ground had been cursed for Adam’s sake, but now Cain is cursed relative to the ground. It would seem that this curse was for Cain specifically. There was no government on earth at this time. Government was not instituted until Noah came off the ark (Gen. 9). It was on account of the unrestrained wickedness and violence of man that government and capital punishment were instituted. But without civil government, man was not responsible to punish the evildoer. God punishes Cain instead. His burden would be increased, and he would be shunned by all man. However, considering what Cain had done, his punishment was light… a demonstration of God’s grace which was lost on Cain.
13 And Cain said to Jehovah, My punishment is too great to be borne. 14 Behold, thou hast driven me this day from the face of the ground, and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a wanderer and fugitive on the earth; and it will come to pass, that every one who finds me will slay me. vv.13-14 Rather than repent and submit to the government of God, Cain complains about it. He was unconcerned with his own guilt, and ungrateful for the grace of God. There was not an ounce of sorrow in Cain’s heart, nor a tear of sadness shed by this first murderer. Guilty man can only think of himself. Why was Cain afraid that a stranger might kill him? There was no civil government. Cain had a bad conscience… and he knew that his horrible actions would be repulsive to the consciences of others. Yet his conscience remained dark and un-exercised.
15 And Jehovah said to him, Therefore, whoever slayeth Cain, it shall be revenged sevenfold. And Jehovah set a mark on Cain, lest any finding him should smite him. v.15 Again we see the undeserved grace of God shown toward Cain. Jehovah preserves Cain from retributive violence by placing a mark of some kind on the guilty man, and promising revenge on anyone that would kill him. At this time civil government had not been committed to the hands of men. We see God giving government as the first dispensational principle for man after the flood. Before the flood man was left to his conscience, and the 1700 years of his history show what man is like unrestrained (see vv.23-24). Note: in a sense the state of Cain after he murdered Abel mirrors the state of Israel at the present time. Nationally they are guilty of the blood of Christ, and they have wandered like a fugitive and vagabond for centuries without a homeland. But God has placed a mysterious mark on the Jews, warning the nations not to trifle with the Jews, as evidenced by their history.
The Generations of Cain: The World (4:16-24)
Characteristics of the world. Throughout scripture we find the subject of the world and worldliness; the character of being like the world. The world is set in direct opposition to Christ. Even “the things of the world” should be shunned by the believer (1 John 2:15). Read more… If we trace the subject of “the world”, we will find that the world really begins with Cain. In the generations of Cain we find a number of things that characterize the world.
16 And Cain went out from the presence of Jehovah, and dwelt in the land of Nod [‘fugitive’], toward the east of Eden. v.16 Independence from God. Cain “went out” from the Lord’s presence. Man was created to be in the presence of the Lord, to walk in dependence on Him. But Cain turns his back on God. This is what the world is… that great system set up in opposition to God, which carries on in independence, without reference to God or His claims.
17 And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch [‘initiated’]. And he built a city; and he called the name of the city after the name of his son Enoch. v.17 Self-reliance and pride. Cain built a city; i.e. a large human settlement typically formed by self-organization, supported by self-sufficiency, and maintained by self-government. Those of faith are heavenly-minded, like Abraham, and they “look for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). But those without faith are earthly-minded, and they labor to build a city. This was rebellion against the government of God. Remember God had said, “a wanderer and fugitive shalt thou be on the earth”. Cain immediately rebels against this judgment, and builds himself a city. He did not want to be a fugitive, so he constructs a civilization around himself. As another has said, “Cain sets to work to make the earth as comfortable as he can without God”.5 Cain named this city after his son Enoch, showing that Cain had pride in what he had built. We see this in the world today. Men pride themselves in their institutions, like Nebuchadnezzar who said; “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30). When the Lord returns in judgment, He will cut down these institutions in his fierce anger, and reduce them through judgment as He did Nebuchadnezzar. Enoch means ‘initiated’, which in the context of the city suggests the idea of culture. Enoch was in a “special class” above others. Culture is like the fig leaves of Adam and Eve; it keeps up the outward semblance of refinement, while hiding from man’s view the wreckage of sin.
Where did Cain get his wife? Often people who mock the Bible will ask, “where did Cain get his wife?” to infer there is some fault of logic in the scriptures. The answer is that Cain married his sister, one of Adam and Eve’s daughters (Gen. 5:4). For more details, see notes on Incest and the Gene pool.
18 And to Enoch was born Irad [‘ornament’]; and Irad begot Mehujael [‘God’s grief’]; and Mehujael begot Methushael [‘infirmity from God’]; and Methushael begot Lemech [‘overthrower’]. 19 And Lemech took two wives: the name of the one was Adah [‘beauty’], and the name of the second, Zillah [‘shade’]. vv.18-19 Lust Overturning God’s Order in Creation. Next we have the line of descendants from Enoch to Lamech. The names of these men would suggest that God was not pleased with their path. In these verses we find that Lamech took two wives. This tells us something about his character. His lusts were insatiable. He was not satisfied with one woman. His lusts led him to overturn God’s established order in creation, “at the beginning” God made them male and female, and intended marriage to be between one man and one woman (Matt. 19:4-6). Lamech sets the false precedent of polygamy, which can be traced through scripture and history as a source of sadness and confusion. The principle is important; the world is characterized by overturning God’s order in creation in order to satisfy the lusts of men. We see this today with the legalization of common law marriages and same-sex marriages. The names of Lamech’s wives and daughter give us a sense of what men were seeking for in women; “beauty”, “shade”, and “pleasant”. The world still objectifies women according to their outward attractiveness, but God says “Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised” (Prov. 31:30).
The Seventh from Adam. Lamech turns out to be the seventh descendant from Adam in the line of Cain, and he can be contrasted with “Enoch the seventh from Adam” (Jude 14) in the line of Seth. Lamech celebrated evil, while Enoch preached of the coming of the Lord. Like the Enoch of v.17, the faithful Enoch was ‘initiated’ as well, not into secular culture, but into heavenly communion.
20 And Adah bore Jabal [‘flowing easily’]: he was the father of those who dwell in tents, and breed cattle. 21 And his brother’s name was Jubal [‘a constant stream’]: he was the father of those who handle the harp and pipe. 22 And Zillah, she also bore Tubal-Cain [‘flowing forth from Cain’], the forger of every kind of tool of brass and iron. And the sister of Tubal-Cain was Naamah [‘pleasant’]. vv.20-22 Self-sufficiency in commerce, art, and science. Next we have four of Lamech’s children, and the occupations of the first three. In these various occupations we have the self-sufficiency of the world-system. The world is a vast system set up by men, energized by Satan, in which men may live in independence of God. The world provides manufactured resources to fill the void that exists in every human heart. We see the principle elements here: “those who dwell in tents, and breed cattle” is the commercial world, “those who handle the harp and pipe” is the art or entertainment world, and “the forger of every kind of tool of brass and iron” is the scientific or technological world. Does man have needs or wants? The world seeks to provide those things apart from God. Yet the world can never truly satisfy man. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36).
23 And Lemech said to his wives:
Adah and Zillah, hear my voice,Ye wives of Lemech, listen to my speech.For I have slain a man for my wound,and a youth for my bruise.24 If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold;Lemech seventy and seven fold.
vv.23-24 Violence justified by self-defense. W. Kelly suggests that in these verses we have the first piece of poetry in the Bible. The substance of the poem is Lamech speaking to his wives about something he had done. He had killed a young man. It would appear that Lamech with these words was trying to assure Adah and Zillah that he would be safe from retributive violence. He claims to have killed the young man in self-defense; “for my wound” and “for my bruise”. He reasons that Cain was protected by the Lord after he had murdered Abel in cold blood, and if Cain was to be avenged seven-fold, then he would be avenged seventy-seven-fold. Lamech was a carnal man with a personal vendetta, and he justified his violent deeds by self-defense.
The Generations of Seth: A Remnant Appointed (4:25-26)
25 And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son, and called his name Seth [‘appointed’ or ‘substituted’]: … For God has appointed me another seed instead of Abel, because Cain has slain him. v.25 Adam and Eve have another son. From v.1 it would seem that Eve put all her hopes in Cain, thinking he was the promised seed, but those hopes were disappointed. Abel was killed, by his own brother Cain. When it comes to her third son, Eve seems to have learned something; she calls his name Seth, which means ‘appointed’… and she sees him as a replacement, not for Cain who had disappointed her, but for Abel. She realized that Abel had been righteous, and that faith and obedience are to be desired above nature. She wanted Seth to be like Abel, not like Cain. But also, she sees Seth as ‘appointed’ not ‘acquired’. All blessing can only come through the sovereign grace of God, not through any effort of our own. If Abel is a picture of the Lord gone into death, then Seth is a picture of the Lord in resurrection.
26 And to Seth, to him also was born a son; and he called his name Enosh [‘weak’ or ‘frail’]. Then people began to call on the name of Jehovah. v.26 Seth has a son, and now we see that there is a line of faith beginning. It is a remnant. Cain named his son ‘initiated’ (the idea of status), but Seth names his son ‘weak’. This is the position that we must take by faith; to recognize that the flesh profits nothing, that we are weak in ourselves. The line of Cain went off in rebellion. The line of Abel was cut short in death. But the line of Seth is given by God. “Then people began to call on the name of Jehovah”. What characterized the line of faith is that they had a desire to have the name of the Lord on them. They expressed dependence on the Lord, which is the very opposite of Cain and his city.
Typical meaning. Apart from the historical meaning of this passage, we see also typical meaning with regard to the Jews. Cain represents the nation of Israel in unbelief, carrying on with sacrifices that were not pleasing to God. When Christ came (Abel) to offer an acceptable sacrifice to God, the Jews slew Him in the field (the world). Since that time the Jews have been dispersed, like Cain, to wander among the nations as fugitives and vagabonds. Like Cain, the Jews have tried to get comfortable down here. Like Cain, God has placed a mark on them so that those who harmed them were revenged seven-fold. Meanwhile the Jews justify their crucifixion of the Messiah like Lamech who said it in self-defense, “I have slain a man”. But God has appointed a remnant of the Jews, pictured by Seth, who will be raised up in the Tribulation period and will begin to “call upon the name of the Lord”. God will take that faithful remnant and restore the Nation of Israel in the Millennium.
- Cain was a wicked person; but, as appearance went, he was doing what was right in paying what he owed to God. But really it was bringing the sign of the curse; it was going to God as if nothing had happened; it was the most perfect hardness of heart, because, if I come to God at all, why have I such toil and labour? why give the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul, except I am away from God, and something as happened? — Darby, J.N. Hints on the Book of Genesis.
- Should it be “sin,” or “sin-offering,” lieth at the door? I am disposed to think it a sin-offering; only that the sin-offering is never mentioned historically until we come to Leviticus, under Moses. It is in this kind of way, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and unto thee shall the desire of thy younger brother be, and thou shalt rule over him; but if thou failest to do well, there is a remedy, and therefore thou oughtest not to be wroth,” “Lieth at the door” means crouching. It is not the expression, “It is at your door,” as we say; and therefore I was inclined to take it, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?” (“and if thou doest not well,” there is a remedy, in parenthesis) “and unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” I have no quarrel with the other view, because sin did lie at his door. — Darby, J.N. Hints on the Book of Genesis.
- It was Dr. John Lightfoot who first, as far as I am aware, suggested “sin offering” here rather than “sin,” as preferred in the ancient and most modern versions. Many since that great Hebraist have followed in his wake, notably Abp. Magee in his well-known work on the Atonement, who argues from the admitted and peculiar form of the connected verb (couching) as strongly confirming an animal ready for offering, and not the sin calling for it, which he regards as, to say the least of it, “a bold image.” Then he summons to his aid the grammatical fact of the substantive, which is feminine, with a verb of the masculine, which he follows Parkhurst in thinking perfectly consistent with the supposition of a sin offering, the victim, and not the thing “sin.” This however is a slender proof, for in the passages cited the words stand as subject and predicate, and therefore do not require sameness of gender, as anyone can see by examination not only of Hebrew, but of Greek and Latin and perhaps almost all if not all languages. There is no doubt that, besides the primary sense of sin, the word admits of the secondary meanings of sin suffering (i.e., punishment) and sin offering… It is a question of context, as we may observe in ver. 13 of our chapter, where the Sept. gives aitia, a charge, fault, or crime; as the Auth. and Rev. Versions have “punishment” in the text, “iniquity” in the margin. It is therefore legitimate to conceive that a sin offering may be meant in ver. 7, especially as Jehovah uttered the words, though it was reserved to the law to define and demand them in due time, for by law is full knowledge or acknowledgment of sin… The question is whether Jehovah simply charges home the conviction of sin on the wrong-doer, or intimates a sacrificial means of getting cleared, according to the proposed correction. In this case a burnt offering would not be in place, since it is generally expressive of man’s actual state in approaching God, not a specific bearing away of positive and personal wrong-doing as is here implied. Even if certainly thus, what believer can doubt that the mind of Jehovah has in these words Christ and His cross before Him? What grace in bringing sin to the door! — Kelly, William. In the Beginning. New Edition, Revised 1894.
- Kelly, William. In the Beginning. New Edition, Revised 1894.
- Darby, J.N. Hints on the Book of Genesis.