(This post is part of a series—you can find part one here.)
Cain’s story isn’t an obscure one (Genesis 4:1-15). You’re probably already pretty familiar with it, but let’s do a real quick recap and highlight some important verses along the way:
Adam and Eve have two kids—Cain the firstborn and his younger brother Abel. Cain is a farmer, Abel tends sheep.
The time came for both of them to make an offering. It’s really important to note here, before we go any further, we don’t know what the rules for offerings are at this point in time. Jerusalem doesn’t exist, the tabernacle doesn’t exist, the Levitical priesthood doesn’t exist—humanity is literally fresh out of the garden, and the Bible doesn’t tell us what kinds of rules God had in place for sacrifices and offerings.
But there were rules. Cain brings God an offering of the fruit of the ground; Abel brings an offering of the firstborn of his flock and their fat.
What happens? “The LORD respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering” (Genesis 4:3).
Why? Should Cain have brought sheep instead? Should he have brought the firstfruits of the ground? We don’t know. All we know is that God didn’t respect Cain or his offering.
That’s an important clue. It wasn’t just the offering that was the problem—it was Cain, too.
So what happens next? Cain gets angry. Real angry. And God comes to talk to him, and He says something very important: “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it” (Genesis 4:6).
God says, “Cain, what’s there to be angry about here? You failed, yes, but if you succeed, I will accept you.” And implicit in that statement is the promise that Cain could succeed. It was within his ability to course-correct and do the right thing. God had not given him some impossible task.
And to be clear, this offering wasn’t a contest in some way. Neither brother had to lose. If God had respected Cain’s offering, He wouldn’t have turned His nose up at Abel’s. Cain and Abel were both capable of succeeding here.
But Cain doesn’t course-correct, does he? He gets angry, he stays angry, and he kills Abel in the field.
God asks what happened, and Cain gives his iconic response: “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).
Of course, God knows exactly what happened. He sentences Cain to be a “fugitive and a vagabond” on the earth. Cain complains that it’s not fair: “My punishment is greater than I can bear!” (Genesis 4:13).
You have to appreciate the audacity of that sentence. Cain has just ended the life of his brother—the very first murder in all of human history—and he tells God, “Wait a minute, You’re not being fair.”
Understanding the way of Cain
That’s the recurring theme of Cain’s story.
Think about it. Who does he get angry at initially? Abel. He’s angry at Abel for succeeding. In Cain’s eyes, Abel’s success made him look bad. It wasn’t Cain’s fault for falling short—it was Abel’s fault for getting it right.
When God asks where Abel is, Cain deflects again. “I don’t know. It’s not my job to know. I’m not my brother’s keeper.”
And when Cain is punished, the only thought he expresses is anger over how much he’s going to be affected.
Never once does Cain say, “You’re right, I messed up, how can I fix things?” Never once does he say, “I don’t know what I was thinking, and I am so sorry.”
Cain never accepts the blame for anything. He points the finger at everyone else, anyone else. Never himself.
I believe that’s where the way of Cain begins. The way of Cain begins when we reject responsibility for our actions and continually see ourselves as victims.
Coupled with anger, that’s a road that can lead us to commit something as awful as murder. But even if it doesn’t take us to that specific sin, it’s still a road that takes us away from God.
If we can’t look at ourselves honestly—if we can’t admit when we’ve failed and done wrong—then we can’t repent. If we can’t repent, we can’t be forgiven. And if we can’t be forgiven, what future do we have with God?
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).
Two chapters later, John writes, “For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous.
Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:11-15).
When we make everyone else the villain of our story, we make it easy to hate our brother.
We can’t afford to go down that road.
Choosing a better way
So what’s the alternative? If we want to avoid the way of Cain, whose book should we take a page from?
We should be like Abel.
Abel is an interesting character in the Bible, because we know so little about him. And yet, at the same time, we know everything we need to know about him.
We know that Abel did what was right. Whatever God’s expectations for that sacrifice were, he took the time, he made the effort to do what God wanted him to do, the way God wanted him to do it.
We know that “by faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4).
In the Bible, Abel doesn’t have much to say. But his blood has been delivering a message for thousands of years:
Do what’s right. It won’t always make you popular or well-liked. It might make you enemies with people who want to ruin your life.
Do the right thing anyway. Because the other people don’t matter. Our relationship with God is what matters—and Abel’s was where it needed to be.
Next time, we’ll take a closer look at the error of Balaam.
Until next time,