Northern Kentucky's Evening Interdenominational
Text of Presentation, Lesson 4, Gen 4-5
Cain and Abel: Attitudes and Reactions to Sin
Last week Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden,
and the land was cursed. Farming became heavy labor.
As chapter 4 opens, Eve becomes pregnant and delivers her first son, Cain. According to Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve spent 7 years in the garden, but the bible records no children in this time. This may mean there were none – or the only children were girls (not normally mentioned in biblical genealogies). Nevertheless, Cain is surely the first son; and since Eve uses an unusual Hebrew verb for the birth and refers to “the help of the LORD” (Gen 4:1), she probably believes Cain is the Messiah promised in 3:15. And why not? God promised restoration through one of her offspring – He just didn’t say it would take thousands of years! In the same way, early Christians expected Jesus’ second within their lifetimes; and they were wrong, too.
“Later” – we don’t know how much later – Eve gives birth to another son, Abel. Much later yet, when the two are adults, they bring offerings to God. Cain is a farmer (like his father), but Abel is a rancher. We all know the age-old conflict between ranchers who want an open range, and farmers who don’t want loose livestock eating their crops. Already, we can see a source of conflict between Cain and Abel.
The bible says: “Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil . . . but Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor” (Gen 4:3-5). People have debated for thousands of years why God rejected Cain’s offering . . . and a related secondary question: “Were these free will offerings, or offerings in response to God’s command?” We’ll try to shed some light on these questions.
The intensity of Cain’s reaction to rejection is significant. The NIV says he “was very angry” (Gen 4:5); the Hebrew implies extreme rage. Why such fervor? Is it farmer-vs-rancher jealousy? . . . fundamental resentment of his brother? . . . resentment of God?
God approaches Cain gently in his anger, to calm him down and steer him in the right direction: “The LORD said to Cain, . . . ‘If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?’” (Gen 4:6-7). God coaches Cain on bringing an acceptable offering; I’m confident Cain knows exactly what God means; but the bible doesn’t spell it out. What did Cain do wrong?
Cain’s fury reveals a rebellious attitude. Some commentators believe God requested a blood sacrifice, and Cain was rebellious by bringing produce. Genesis was written as God was instituting worship in the tabernacle based on animal sacrifice, so it’s possible one of the lessons in this story is to emphasize the sacrificial cult. A contrary view is that, elsewhere in the Pentateuch, God affirms offerings from both farmers and ranchers (cf Deut 8). The issue isn’t produce vs animals; it’s that “Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil” (Gen 4:3), not “first fruits.” Hence Cain’s “rebellion” is being lackadaisical and insincere with his offering; he fails to bring the finest of his produce.
Either interpretation has merit, but both have the same bottom line: Cain’s attitude toward his offering leads to its rejection. He grudgingly brings a token offering, rather than coming with sincere thanks to God. Paul says: “God loves a cheerful giver” (2Cor 9:7).
This story has another facet. God’s admonition to Cain emphasizes his free will. Cain has the choice to “do what is right” or to “not do what is right.” Yet as God emphasizes Cain’s free will, he holds up the specter of what happened when his parents were tempted by Satan: “If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (Gen 4:7). The phrase is colorful; to drive home his point, God draws on pagan imagery of a demon crouching at the door of a building, threatening the people inside. We learned with Adam and Eve that sin has consequences; the effects of sin are not good. We must master temptation, not give ourselves over to it.
God’s words fall on deaf ears . . . as I’m sure He knew they would. Cain can’t rise above envy and jealousy of Abel, and rebellion and unbelief against God. His rage distorts all reason. The bible describes it thus: “Cain said to . . . Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ And (there) Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him” (Gen 4:8). Cain commits the ultimate crime of premeditated murder.
God approaches the sinful Cain much the same way He approached the sinful Adam and Eve. God isn’t accusatory; He asks a question designed to elicit a confession: “Where is your brother Abel?” (Gen 4:9). God knows the answer. But like his parents, Cain is evasive. He tries to hide his sin from God with an arrogant lie: "I don’t know." Then Cain adds a note of sarcasm which shows his bad attitude: "Am I my brother’s keeper?" (Gen 4:9).
But God will have nothing of it: “What have you done?” God says. “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Gen 4:10). Most murderers think they’re clever enough to conceal their deed, and Cain is no exception. But he can’t hide from God; and he overlooks the voice of his dead brother crying out for justice . . . the first suggestion man has a spiritual side which transcends physical death.
God the creator cannot tolerate unjustified murder of His creation. He responds to Cain promptly and decisively: “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” (Gen 4:11-12).
Adam and Eve were not cursed, just banished; but Cain is banished and cursed. Cain the farmer has polluted the ground with his brother’s blood, he will no longer be able to cultivate it. Cain will become a fugitive, moving from place to place.
Now Cain is contrite. Arrogant criminals – BTK comes to mind – are often defiant until convicted . . . then overwhelmed with regret. Yet Cain seems more given to self-pity than remorse: “My punishment is more than I can bear,” Cain says. He doesn’t want to be cut off from farming and “hidden from (God’s) presence”; he doesn’t want to be “a restless wanderer”; but most of all he fears “whoever finds (him) will kill” him (Gen 4:13-14).
Before going any further, let’s ask who might find Cain, and why would they kill him? The bible records only 4 people, and one is dead. Two suggestions have been made. The first is that Cain fears pre-man hominids. This suggestion is pure speculation. A more logical explanation is that – since 5:4 confirms Adam and Eve had “other sons and daughters” – there must be lots more people now than those named in the bible. The bible doesn’t give the ages of Cain and Abel when the murder occurs, but Cain has a wife when he is banished (Gen 4:17). God’s prohibition about marriage with close relatives isn’t made until the Exodus; and even Abraham’s wife Sarah is his half sister (Gen 20:12), so presumably Cain’s wife is his sister. Maybe Abel also has a wife and children! The chart on the web site suggests – by conservative estimates – a population around 355 when Adam was 100, and 1728 when Seth was born. Cain may fear revenge by Abel’s family through the “avenger of blood,” an ancient bounty hunter mentioned elsewhere in the bible as someone with the right and responsibility to hunt down and kill a murderer.
So God proclaims: “If anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over” (Gen 4:15). And God confirms His protection of Cain with a sign. The King James and most modern translations render the Hebrew: “The LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him” (Gen 4:15). People have speculated for thousands of years about the “mark” of Cain: some have suggested it means paralysis; others, the name YHWH on Cain’s forehead; still others, a horn growing out of his forehead. But the problem may be an inaccurate translation of the Hebrew. The Jewish bible reads: “The LORD set a sign for Cain” (Gen 4:15 JPS); and the NAS scholars concur. Hence “the mark of Cain” is more likely a sign God gave to Cain indicating God’s power. Cain is banished but blessed: covered with Gods’ protection.
Why does God – an advocate of capital punishment elsewhere in the bible – protect the first murderer? Psychologists would say this reinforces antisocial behavior and encourages murder. We can’t explain it . . . any more than we can explain why David was allowed to live after he – in effect – committed murder. We can only say it’s God’s plan.
“So Cain went out from the LORD’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Gen 4:16). “Nod” means “wandering, flight, or exile,” so this is probably not a specific area. Nevertheless, no longer able to be a farmer, Cain becomes a nomadic gatherer – not a hunter-gatherer, since man doesn’t eat meat at this time.
Later – according to most translations – Cain builds a city and names it after his son. One problem with biblical Hebrew is determining the antecedents of pronouns, and there is an alternate translation that Cain’s son Enoch built a city and named it after his son Irad; if this is correct, it would match up with the ancient city of Iradu. Nevertheless, increasing population may make it more difficult for people to be gatherers – and/or they feel the need for the protection offered by a fortified village (or city), in addition to the protection promised by God. Cain’s urban family become musicians and craftsmen . . . like Cain’s descendant “Tubal-Cain, who forged . . . tools out of bronze and iron” (Gen 4:22). The Bronze Age in the Middle East began around 3000 BC; and iron implements like spear points were forged from meteorites as early as 4000 BC.
Cain’s descendants display increasing wickedness. Lamech may be the first to take two wives (Gen 4:19) . . . but he does much worse. In his own words: “I have killed . . . a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Gen 4:23-24). This remark seems to claim Lamech doesn’t need God’s protection: he’s able to render 10 times more retribution himself than God promised Cain. And if Lamech’s spirit of vindictiveness is typical – an injury avenged with a murder – it shows the world is a brutal and scary place. This also answers the question some commentators raise about whether God punishes Cain and his offspring for their sin. Cain and his family are punished in the way modern man is often punished: not with a bolt of lighting, but with stress and anxiety and compromised relationships. This is suffering!
As a sidebar, Jesus’ promise of 77-fold forgiveness (Matt 18:21-22) may be a deliberate contrast with Lamech’s promise of 77-fold retribution.
Genesis 4 ends like this: “Adam lay with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth. . . . Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time men began to call on the name of the LORD” (Gen 4:25-26).
Note the contrast between the increasing sinfulness of Cain’s descendants, and the beginning through Seth of a new line that “call(s) on the name of the LORD.” In the Hebrew, Eve refers to Seth as her “seed,” the noun used to describe the Messiah in 3:15; Eve may think Seth is the Messiah, since Cain didn’t work out. Seth is an ancestor of Jesus the Messiah (Luke 3:38), and although Seth’s descendants are not uniformly godly, that they “call on the name of the LORD” (Gen 4:26), shows they are much moreso than Cain’s evil descendants, who openly rebel against God.
Chapter 5 is the genealogy from Adam and Seth to Noah. A chart on the web page includes dates and ages (assuming no gaps). Seth’s wife is presumably one of his unnamed sisters (5:4) – or even one of Abel’s daughters.
We won’t discuss the details of the genealogy, but will note Genesis was written for the Hebrews no earlier than the time of Moses, and Genesis 5 appears to be careful documentation of the genealogical line of the Hebrews. The men mentioned by name are not necessarily the oldest sons; they are ancestors of the Jews. It is made clear in every case there are “other sons and daughters.” Furthermore, the Hebrew allows for gaps, since it is not as precise as English. For instance, 5:6 might be rendered: “By the time Seth had lived 105 years, he had become the father of a family line which included Enosh.” (Ge 5:6)
Other people are mentioned in Chapters 4 and 5 only when they are part of the story . . . or when they make a point, such as the increasing wickedness of Cain’s descendants. Hence Cain’s genealogy in chapter 4 lacks the detail typical of Seth’s line in chapter 5.
I’m not going to comment on the one topic most hotly discussed about Genesis 5: the astronomical ages of the patriarchs. Are they years as we measure years? There is no evidence they are not – nor that the rotation of earth and moon and sun were substantially different long ago. Theologians often argue that being closer to God made man live longer – which may be true, but is grasping at straws. Another argument is that man is vegetarian at this time – which does contribute to longevity because it adds lower concentrations of heavy elements to the body than a diet including meat; nevertheless, I have not heard of any modern vegetarians living to be 900 or more!
Next week we’ll learn in 6:3 that God resets man’s lifespan from about 900 years to 120. How did God do it? A cell phenomena called “apoptosis” limits our lifespan by shutting down our cells after a certain number of regenerations (which curbs the development of cancer). According to this argument, God “reset” man’s cell apoptosis. Also, scientists estimate that around 9000 BC the Vela supernova damaged the ozone layer, increasing UV radiation on earth by 2-10 times. This additional radiation could have decreased man’s lifespan . . . or God “reset” man’s cell apoptosis to inhibit widespread cancer caused by this UV radiation. However, all this is speculation!
Chapters 6 and 7 also fast forwards over 1000 years after the birth of Seth – a millennium of increasing wickedness – and begins the story of Seth’s descendant Noah.