It was interesting for me this week to take a look at our church’s statement of faith and see again how much it draws from these early chapters of Genesis.
Article 7 of our statement of faith says “We believe that the Triune God created everything – both physical and spiritual – out of nothing. We believe God created human beings, male and female, in His own image and likeness and therefore with unique, intrinsic worth from conception to natural death.” That’s all material we’ve seen in Genesis chapters 1 and 2.
Article 8 says “We believe Adam and Eve experienced perfect relationship with their Creator and were appointed stewards of God’s originally good creation. We believe they sinned by choosing to disobey God and thereby brought death to the human race.” That’s material we’ve just been studying in Genesis 3.
And then article 9 opens up by saying, “We believe that all people are sinners by nature and by choice.” When Adam sinned he pulled the whole human race down into sin with him, and if you doubt that, I recommend you spend some more time with little children. You could sign up to help with childcare during the service. And I think you’d find out, very quickly, that we are born sinners. Nobody has to teach children how to sin.
We have three kids and none of them were great eaters when they were young. But our last child in particular would just refuse to eat almost anything that wasn’t on her short list of favourites. Aimee and I always wondered how much of that was just because she were young, and how much was deliberate.
We found out one night, a month shy of her third birthday, when she was sitting at the table by herself as we were coaching her to finish up a very small portion of supper that had been served to her which was not on her favourite list. Her brothers were off playing and we had told her several times “if you finish then you can go play with them.”
And she looks up at her mom and says, “if you put bacon in all my food I would eat it faster.” She was two. And that statement told us that she knew exactly what was going on, and was even trying to barter and manipulate us.
Nobody had to teach her to do that. Nobody has to teach any of us to do that. Because we are Adam’s offspring we are born with a nature that worships ourselves instead of God. We are born inherently sinful. We are born needing redemption.
The story of Cain and Abel demonstrates this truth in spades. Adam and Eve sinned and the sin did not stop with them. And by the time we get to this fourth chapter in Genesis we see their one son, Cain, displaying a whole array of sinful attitudes and behaviour. Not just murder. There’s a lot more here.
This, however, is not what’s really remarkable about this passage. We shouldn’t be surprised to see the son of sinners being a sinner himself. The surprise here is bigger and richer and better than that, and we’re going to see that surprise together as we walk through the passage this morning.
And we’re going to do that together, walking through the passage in seven steps. We’ll start by seeing the brothers in verses 1-2, then the offerings in verses 3-5, then the warning in verses 6-7, the murder in verse 8, the confrontation in verses 9-10, the curse in verses 11-12, and the mercy in verses 13-16.
And for each of these steps we’re going to consider the lessons for us today in the passage. And all of this building up to the real surprise and the really good news at the end.
So let’s jump in and consider the brothers in vv. 1-2. What does verse 1 tell us? “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord’” (Genesis 4:1).
“Cain” sounds like the Hebrew for “gotten.” And so Eve names him in celebration of the fact that she had gotten a man with the help of the Lord.
This moment would have been so exciting for Adam and Eve. Life was going on, despite the curse. Yes, there would have been pain in childbearing but at least there was a child.
And perhaps this was the promised offspring, the serpent crusher? I mean, why not? They had no idea how long things were going to take. Why would their firstborn not be the promised one?
Cain’s birth would have been an incredible moment for them. And then we read verse 2: “And again, she bore his brother Abel.”
Do you notice any differences here? With Cain, we were told what his name meant and why he was named that way. And, in fact, that’s a pretty common pattern in Genesis. But with Abel? We’re told very little. Almost “Oh, ya, and then they had another kid.”
And while we’re not told why he was named this, Abel’s name is actually the Hebrew word for “breath” or “vapour” or “puff of wind,” which basically has the meaning of “worthless.”
So with Cain there’s this big celebration. With Abel, it’s like “meh.” And when we keep reading we see that Cain was a worker of the ground, like his dad. Carrying on the family work. Abel was a shepherd, a keeper of sheep. He’s kind of different.
And so if we were reading the story for the first time, we’d probably be expecting Cain to be the hero of the story. We probably wouldn’t be expecting too much from Abel. And in fact Abel doesn’t get featured a lot in this story. He doesn’t actually even say anything. And then he dies.
But, like we’ll see and we’ve just read, Abel was accepted by God. Cain was not. Abel is held up in the New Testament as an example of faith and righteousness (Matthew 23:35, Hebrews 11:4, 1 John 3:12) whereas Cain is an example of sin.
And this is actually the first lesson for us, right out of the gates. Would you rather be celebrated by people or accepted by God? Would you rather get the spotlight before men or be noticed by God?
Cain and Abel didn’t necessarily have much of a choice in this. Cain couldn’t help but be the celebrated child. Abel probably wouldn’t have chosen to be worthless boy if he could help it.
And maybe there’s a comfort for you. Maybe you feel like the forgotten one in your family. This story reminds us that God sees you and has not forgotten you.
But what about the times where we do have a choice? Like Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount, a choice between impressing people or pleasing the Lord? This story reminds us that the choice should be obvious to us. The pain of being ignored by people can never match the pain of falling under God’s curse.
So that’s our first stop in the passage and the first lesson that flows to us from it. Our second stop is in verse 3 where we’re introduced to the offerings. “In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” (Genesis 3:3-4a).
Apparently, even though Adam and Eve were sent away from the garden, God continued to relate with His people. He continued to speak to them and instruct them. And so they came to know that it was appropriate and expected of them to bring God an offering from what you had grown or produced.
Cain brought an offering from the fruit of the ground—what he had produced. Abel brought “of the firstborn of his flock and of the fat portions”—in other words, the fruit of what he had been producing.
And God accepted Abel and his offering. So far, so good. Until we get to verse 5: “but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”
We weren’t expecting that, were we? If we were reading this for the first time I think this would probably feel like a surprise. A plot twist. God accepts the offering of the un-favourite child, and does not accept the offering of the family favourite.
Why? Why does God accept Abel’s offering and not Cain’s?
The answer is probably not because Abel brought animals and Cain brought plants, because each were just bringing what they had produced. The answer is that God saw their hearts and knew what kind of heart the offering was coming from.
And we know this because the passage does not say “And the Lord had regard for Abel’s offering, but for Cain’s offering he had no regard.” It says that the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering, but not for Cain and his offering.
In other words, it wasn’t just the offering. God saw the person bringing the offering. And if we look at the rest of this passage, it’s hard to miss that there certainly was something not right with Cain’s heart. When he sees that God hasn’t accepted him or his offering, instead of repenting and asking forgiveness, he just gets grumpy.
Here’s what Hebrews 11:4 tells us: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.”
When God accepted Abel’s gifts he was commending or approving Abel himself. And why? Not because he was perfect but because he had faith. He actually believed God as he came to bring Him this offering.
Assumedly, Cain did not have such faith. He brought the offering, and to anybody looking from the outside he might have looked the part of a devout worshipper of God, but God Himself saw that there was no heart of faith behind his actions.
He was just performing an empty religious duty without actively believing in the God he was presenting his offering to.
And so here’s the lesson for us from this part of the story: God does not just see our actions, but He sees our hearts. We might be able to fool other people with our good actions, but we can’t fool God.
And therefore God is not impressed by empty religion. Cain did not get a participation award simply because he was doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. God saw his heart and God was not impressed with his religious actions which were not coming from a heart of faith.
It reminds me of when God spoke about Israel and said “This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” in Isaiah 29:13. And we should notice that God does not say “well, their hearts are far from me, but at least they draw near to me with their lips.”
No, God actually hates empty religion. Like He said to Isarel in Amos 5: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen” (Amos 5:21–24).
You can impress people by looking religious. But you can’t impress God.
So are you a Cain or are you an Abel? Are you going through the motions? Have you fooled everybody else into thinking that you’re a nice religious person?
God sees through it. And He is not impressed. More than not impressed, He hates it. So if there’s a chance that there’s more Cain than Abel in you this morning, please turn to the Lord and repent and ask Him for the faith to truly love and trust Him.
Our third stop in our passage this morning is the warning. Verse 6 tells us that “The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it’” (Genesis 4:6–7).
God sees Cain’s reaction. He sees anger instead of softness. A downcast face instead of a face lifted to heaven in repentance. And God calls him on it.
Notice what He says. He asks him a question: “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?” Just like with Adam, God asks questions which allow the other person to speak for themselves and give an answer.
And yet, by asking this question, God is making a subtle point: Cain had no good reason to be angry and downcast. What happened was his own fault. He brought the bad sacrifice from a bad heart. And even now, in verse 7, He asks him, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” In other words, if you had offered me a proper sacrifice from a heart of faith, I would have accepted it. And even now you have the opportunity to do well and be accepted.
I just want us to pause and notice how God’s words here are so out of step with how we often relate to each other in 2021. If one of us today was talking to Cain, you know what we’d probably say?
“I see that you’re angry and your face has fallen. I guess that when I didn’t accept your sacrifice that must have really offended you. I’m sorry for hurting you. Your sacrifice wasn’t all that bad. I appreciate the effort. Please don’t be angry with me any longer.”
This is how it works in our culture today. If someone feels bad about something we've said or done, we’re expected to apologize whether or not we’ve actually done anything wrong. People’s feelings are more important than the truth.
But what if we haven’t done anything wrong? What if someone gets offended or hurt and it’s their fault? Then we should not apologize but lovingly help them see the truth. Because, according to God's word, the truth is more important than our feelings about the truth.
Now it’s not as if our feelings don’t matter at all. God noticed that Cain was angry and depressed, and he talked to him about it. But the point of the conversation was that Cain’s feelings were out of step with the truth, with reality, and Cain needed to change. If Cain was angry and depressed, it was his fault.
Here’s how we can put it: God did not want Cain to just feel better. God wanted Cain to actually do better. To be better. Cain’s feelings needed to line up behind the truth and not the other way around.
And God goes on to warn Cain about the disaster that’s awaiting him if he continues to listen to his feelings instead of the truth. Look at the rest of verse 7: “And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
God can see that Cain is vulnerable to the temptations that come with anger and feeling low. And God warns him, describing sin as a wild animal, crouched, ready to pounce, wanting to overpower Cain.
Cain is not helpless. He can—he must—rule over this sin. But the warning is that, if he doesn’t fight this beast, it’s going to win.
And we know from the rest of the passage how Cain responded. Cain did not heed God’s warning about the disaster that sin was about to bring his way.
It reminds me of a story I heard about a woman on an African safari. She was in a vehicle that had driven close to some big cats, lions or cheetahs, and they were taking pictures from a safe distance.
And a big warning sign said “do not leave the vehicle under any circumstances.” But she thought she knew better and the animals looked so peaceful and that warning was for other people, not her, right?
So she got out and got closer and took some pictures. And I’m sure the pictures were great. And on her way back to the vehicle one of the cats got up and chased her and mauled her to death in front of everybody else who was watching.
And so that’s our lesson from this part of the passage. When God, in His word, warns you about sin, do you listen? Or, like Cain and so many people, do you think that you know better? Do you think that you’re the one person on planet earth who can play with fire and not be burned? Who can play with lions and not get eaten?
Please, no matter how old you are, do not play games with sin. Do not dally with your destroyer. “For if you live according to the flesh [—according to what your body wants you to do—] you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).
Do you believe that? And will you respond accordingly?
As we move into the next step in the story, the murder, we see that Cain didn’t believe God’s warning. He did not take this seriously. God asks him questions in these verses and he doesn’t say a thing. He totally ignores God.
His next words are to his brother in verse 8. “Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:8).
That is what happens when you don’t take God’s warning seriously. That is what happens when you embrace your feelings and follow your heart. This is what happens when you feed anger and act on it instead of putting it to death.
Cain’s murder of his brother shows what happens when we don’t deal with sin properly.
It also shows us a common human behaviour called scapegoating. When someone makes us feel bad, rather than asking “what can I learn from this?” and dealing with our own problems, and engaging with them as someone made in God’s image, we take it out the person who makes us feel bad. We blame them and we get rid of them.
Abel made Cain feel bad, so Cain had an easy solution: get rid of Abel.
This kind of thing happens all the time today. It happens in what’s sometimes called “cancel culture” which is this internet phenomenon. When someone does or says something that we don’t like, we just “cancel” them. We essentially erase them. It’s like digital murder. And we think that will fix everything.
This kind of thing also happens in abortion clinics around our country every single day. Do you know that abortion is the leading cause of death in this country? 30% of all deaths.
And it’s exactly what Cain did to Abel here. Someone is in an tough situation, and rather than dealing with it properly they shed blood to get rid of the innocent party.
Don’t we all know what this is like, even on a smaller scale? When someone makes us feel guilty or uncomfortable about ourselves, rather than deal with it we just stop talking to them, we ignore them, we go away from them, we try to write them out of our life?
Every single one of us has the capacity to do what Cain has done. And if we’re honest, most of us would admit that, in small ways or big ways, we have each done what Cain did. We’ve let our sinful passions get the better of us. We’ve ignored God’s warnings. We’ve taken it out on the innocent victim.
The next step in the story is the confrontation. We can only imagine the pain of a burning conscience that Cain must have felt when God drew near again and asked,”Where is Abel your brother?” And what did Cain say? “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’” (Genesis 4:9).
Notice again the kind of question that God asks. He’s giving Cain a chance to speak for himself. He’s giving him a chance to repent and confess.
And how does Cain respond? “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
This is Cain’s first recorded speech in Genesis. And what does he do? He lies. “I do not know.” he says. Total lie. Of course he knows where Abel’s body is where he left it.
But he doesn’t just lie. He responds to God with intense sarcasm. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” “Keeper” there is from the same word used for “working and keeping” the garden, or for the seraphim sent to “guard” the way to the garden. “Is it my job to guard my brother?” he’s asking. “Why are you talking to me?”
Wow. Not only did he just murder his brother but he’s talking smack with his Creator who had just warned him about what might happen.
And when we understand just how out of line Cain is here, we should be amazed by what comes next. Actually, let me re-phrase that. We should be amazedly what does not come next.
Because here is what should come next. “And the Lord put Cain to death.” End of story.
That’s what Cain deserved. Just like his parents, who deserved the same thing the day they ate the fruit.
But what we see, again similarly to Adam and Eve, is not instant death but a curse. A curse that affects Cain’s way of life and reminds Cain of his sin and gives Cain a whole lifetime to repent and turn from his sin.
“And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth’” (Genesis 4:10–12).
That’s quite a picture, isn’t it? God is using poetic language here to describe the need for justice. When Cain killed his brother, Abel’s blood soaked into the ground, and God described the ground as if it opened it’s mouth to receive that blood.
And now that blood is crying out to God for justice. Again, this is poetic language. The blood wasn’t actually talking, but this phrase describes the way that what Cain did demands justice. You can’t just let that go.
And so Cain is cursed from the ground. He has polluted that ground with his brother’s blood and he’s not going to get anything back from it the rest of his life.
This is quite a curse. Adam was cursed to work the ground in pain. Cain’s curse goes a step further in that he won’t even be able to do that. “When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength” (v. 12). You’re not going to be able to plant and harvest. You’re not going to be able to farm.
That’s a devastating blow to someone who had been a worker of the ground.
And so what’s Cain going to do? He’s going to have to transition from being a farmer to being a hunter-gatherer. “You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” says the rest of verse 12. You’re going to have to follow the food by hunting and gathering.
Now what should Cain say to this? “Thank you so much for sparing my life.” Instead, what does he say in verses 13-14?
“Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me’” (Genesis 4:13–14).
This is true. He has been driven away from the ground and from God’s presence there, presumably near Eden. He’s going to flee and wander, and if anyone finds him—and at this point, this would be other members of his family—they will kill him out of revenge for killing Abel.
And what could God say to this? “Yes, Cain, you understand things correctly, and this is exactly what you deserve. You deserve death today. If someone kills you a few months or years from now that’s better than you deserve. So stop complaining.”
That’s what God could say. But instead, what does He say? “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him” (Genesis 4:15).
We don’t know what this mark was, but whatever it was, when people saw it it would hold them back from hurting him. And if they did hurt him anyways, God would make sure vengeance was taken on them seven times what was normal.
This is our last stop in the passage, and I’m calling this stop “the mercy.” God is so merciful. He gives Cain so much more than he deserves by protecting his life instead of ending his life.
Verse 16 is sad: “Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16).
At the same time, verse 16 is way better than Cain deserved. Because Cain is alive. Alive to enjoy another day. Alive to experience another chance to reach out to his Creator and repent. Alive to experience the mercy of just being alive.
And I want to suggest that of everything we’ve seen in this passage, God’s mercy to Cain should surprise us the most. This should take our breath away.
It should not surprise us that Adam and Eve had sinful sons. When they fell into sin, everyone who came after them started off as sinners.
It should not surprise us that Cain practiced empty religion. We all know what that’s like.
It should not surprise us that Cain ignored God’s warnings and gave in to the passions of his sinful desires. We all know what that’s like.
It should not even surprise us that Cain went as far as to murder his brother. I think, if each of us were honest, we understand we have that same capacity.
And it shouldn’t surprise us to see Cain’s rudeness and hostility towards God when he’s confronted for his sin. We know this too.
What should surprise is is that Cain is still alive by the time we get to the end. What should blow us away is that this lying murderer is allowed to live another day. What should blow us away is God’s mercy.
And the same goes for you and I today. It should not surprise us when life is hard and things don’t go the way we want it to go. We know what we deserve.
Instead, what should surprise us how well things go. Every sunny day and meal on the table and breath of air is more than we deserve. God’s grace should truly amaze us.
And we know so much more than Cain did. We know so much more than simply being allowed to live. We know that from the line of Seth came a serpent-crushing Saviour, God in the flesh, who, like Abel, was murdered by the religious people of his day.
But like we’ve celebrated this morning, He did that for us, taking our death in our place, and today He lives to offer grace and mercy to all who repent and turn to him in faith.
The story of Cain and Abel reminds us that God’s grace is truly amazing. We should feel amazed by it. We should feel amazed by a grace that did not abandon this sinful people but worked to bring a Saviour who would bring us back to something even better than the garden of Eden.
So as we sing “His Mercy is More” would you look again to your Saviour, and seek from Him the strength to abide in His mercy as we head into another week?