It doesn’t say in Genesis, but after Adam and Eve were driven out of the garden of Eden, they must have looked at each other and said, “Now what do we do?” How could they not? It was the central question of their life at that point. They’d been created to care for the garden, to walk with God, to live in paradise, and now all that was gone; they had been exiled from paradise, cast out of the garden, and though God hadn’t abandoned them, he would never be present to them in the same way again. Before, they had been cared for, with everything they needed right to hand; now they were left to make their own living in a world they would have to fight each step of the way. How were they to do it?
The text doesn’t go into great detail, but a few things are clear. They continued to worship God; we don’t know whether it was their own idea to offer him sacrifices or God told them to do so, but clearly they understood that as something they needed to do. They also understood that they needed to give him their best, to sacrifice the best of what they had, rather than offering him the leftovers. As well, they carried on as best they could with the work God had given them to do—raising crops, raising animals, raising children. There is one positive sign right in verse 1, where it says, “The man knew his wife Eve,” because the verb “to know” is almost always used to indicate not merely physical intimacy, but real intimacy that includes emotional and spiritual closeness; used here, it indicates that the relationship between Adam and Eve was still good. In this, at least, things were more or less the way they were supposed to be.
The same, unfortunately, can’t be said of their first two children, a fact which is signaled in the first two verses. In verse 1, when Cain is born, Eve boasts, “I have produced a man.” She concedes that it was only with God’s help, but she still gives herself top billing. God had made the man; then God had created her out of the man’s body; now she had created a man, albeit an infant, out of her body. Cain’s life began in a boast, prefiguring his future defiance of God.
With Abel, by contrast, we have only the bare announcement of his birth, and the ominous foreshadowing of his name. You see, the Hebrew word here is hevel, which means a puff of breath, insubstantial and quickly dissipated; it’s the word used at the beginning of Ecclesiastes, where the author of that book declares life meaningless and pointless. With a name like that, this is someone who will not live long. All would not be well with Cain and Abel; as is so often the case, the evil the parents did would poison the lives of their children. This would in fact be just the first of many, many dysfunctional families in the Old Testament; and yet, proving the insight of the early church that God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick, it’s through this succession of badly-fractured families that he would raise up his people, and ultimately give the world his Son, Jesus Christ.
We don’t get anything about Cain and Abel in childhood, any sense of what their relationship with each other was like, how they got along with their parents, any of that; we’re simply introduced to them at work, of an indeterminate age but probably still fairly young. It seems likely that up to this point, their parents have been the only ones offering sacrifices, but now they have their own sacrifices to offer, the result of their own labor; and so they bring them to the Lord. Notice how they’re described. Cain grew crops, and he takes some of his crop and offers it to God. Just some of his crop, nothing special about it. Abel, by contrast, takes the firstborn of the flock—the very first animals born as a result of his hard work in caring for the sheep—and from them he takes the very best portions to offer to God. Cain’s sacrifice is nothing special (he keeps the best for himself), but Abel gives the very best of the very first animals he has to offer; is it any wonder God is pleased with Abel and not with Cain?
Cain, however, is not pleased at all—no surprise; we’re not told how God showed his regard for Abel’s offering or his lack of regard for Cain’s, but Cain responds by growing very angry—and also, I think, by growing depressed. That might seem like an odd combination to you, but anger and depression are often linked; in fact, depression is sometimes defined as anger turned inward. In Cain’s case, if he perceived that God had rejected him, it makes perfect sense that he would be angry at God for doing so, and also at his younger brother, for showing him up; it also makes perfect sense that at the same time he would be depressed, because he felt he had lost face, or perceived that he had failed, or perhaps just thought he’d been done wrong.
Now, it’s important that God doesn’t just leave him to stew; instead, God speaks to him, both to offer comfort and to challenge him, sharply. “Why are you angry? Why are you depressed?” God asks. One might imagine Cain’s response to that, angry and bitter, blaming God for rejecting him, embarrassing him, treating him unfairly; but God, as always, will not be deflected, but drives right to the main point: “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” In other words, if I didn’t accept your offering, it’s because you didn’t do well—you didn’t honor me, you didn’t give me your best. You can do better than that, and if you do, why wouldn’t I accept your offering? Yes, I rejected your offering, but I haven’t rejected you; I simply expect you to give me your best.
And if you won’t? Well, there’s the rub. “If you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door.” In other words, you have two choices: you can turn toward me, you can honor me, you can give me your best, in which case you will be accepted—or you can refuse. I haven’t rejected you, just your offering, but you can choose to hold on to your pride and your wounded ego, and to reject me. What you need to understand, though, is that if you do that, sin is waiting there for you, lurking at the door, ready to pounce on you and take control of you. And at this point, God speaks to Cain in words which echo his words to Eve in Genesis 3:16: “Its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Sin is pictured not as a thing, or even as a force, but as a beast, a predator, much as Peter would later write in 1 Peter 5:8, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour”; it’s a predator which Cain can’t kill off, or even completely defeat, but which he can master, if he will.
However, Cain turns his back on God; he hardens his heart against God’s appeal—which is a new development in human sin—and chooses to go after Abel instead. There’s some uncertainty as to the exact circumstances of the crime. The NIV, like most English translations, inserts the phrase, “Let us go out to the field,” which isn’t there in the Hebrew text; on this reading, it looks like Cain lured his brother out into the field to kill him. However, you don’t need to add anything to the text; I think it’s preferable to take the Hebrew as it is and translate it, “Cain went looking for his brother Abel.” Not only is that more responsible to the text as we have it, I think it fits better with the flow of the passage: God appeals to Cain to do what is right, and Cain walks out of the room, goes hunting for Abel, finds him, and kills him.
At this point, two remarkable things happen. First, the Lord doesn’t just condemn Cain for his action—instead, he comes to Cain and gives him a chance to come clean on his own, just as he had with Adam and Eve when they disobeyed. God knows what happened, but he asks, “Where’s your brother? Where’s Abel?” Second, Cain takes this to mean that God doesn’t know the answer to his question, and thus that he can lie to God and get away with it; and so, unlike his father, who at least tells God part of the truth, Cain denies what he’s done. His response has always seemed rather sulky to me: “Why should I know? My brother’s the shepherd, not me—is it my job to watch over him?” But whatever Cain thinks, God isn’t stupid, and he isn’t going to buy that line; and so he responds, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” The verb here is a powerful one, a desperate, anguished scream for help.
God continues, “And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” It’s the blood in our veins that carries life to every part of our body, that supplies what is needed to keep all of us alive—as Leviticus 17:11 puts it, life is in the blood—and so shed blood was the greatest of all pollutants, a moral as well as a physical pollutant; murders for which no atonement had been made polluted the land so that it was unfit for God. Cain has spilled his brother’s blood on the ground, and as that blood cries from the ground for justice, so too does the curse on Cain arise from the ground. He was a farmer, but he has blighted the land, and so now it will not produce for him. He must leave his home and his parents and wander the earth, to settle someplace far away.
Note Cain’s response. I have to thank Dr. Neil Plantinga of Calvin Seminary for helping me see this. Note this, because this is a snapshot of the agonizing irony of human sin. He says to God, “My punishment is more than I can bear.” And maybe you read that and you think, “What a whiner—at least he’s still alive! What right does he have to complain?” But what is it that he says is too much to take? “Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence.” He goes on to offer other complaints and concerns, but this is the nub of the matter—this is the thing that really weighs on him: “God, I’ll never see you again.” Indeed, even his other complaints tie into this; because he is no longer welcome in the presence of God, he will be a restless wanderer, and because God has cast him out, the only future that remains for him is one of judgment and death. He brought this on himself when he rejected God’s appeal and went after his brother; he made his choice, he chose pride over God, and this is the logical consequence—and yet, he knows what he’s lost, and it’s killing him.
Dr. Plantinga illustrates this with a heartbreaking story I’ve heard him tell a couple times now, of a troubled young man who, in an utterly insane fit of rage, shot and killed his father. His first night in custody, the chaplain went to visit him; from halfway down the hall, as he approached the cell, the chaplain could hear the young man sobbing, over and over, “I want my father. I want my father.” That’s where sin leaves us—we destroy, by our own hands and wills, the very thing we most desire, and the very thing we most need. That’s where Cain stands, in verse 14; that’s where we all stand, but for the grace of God.
And even here, it is with grace that God responds. God puts his mark on Cain, and it’s interesting that this mark has so often been interpreted as punishment, as a sign of God’s judgment; for instance, there have been those throughout history who taught that the mark was black skin, and that his descendants—which is to say, people of African heritage—remained under his curse. This was then used to justify racism and slavery. It’s nonsense, of course, because God’s mark on Cain wasn’t a punishment or a judgment at all. It was, rather, a mark of grace: God placed it on him to keep him from harm, to keep the logical consequences of his evil from coming back to him. It was a sign that despite the evil he had done, God still loved him; and in fact, I think, it was a sign that he was not utterly separated from the presence of God, because God still went with him wherever he went, at least in some fashion. Yes, he left his family and lived in the east, in the land of Nod, which means wandering; but he did not go alone, because he went under the care of God.
And so do we; in truth, we are all the children of Cain. No matter how at home we may make ourselves in this world, this remains for us the land of Nod; we make the best of what we have, but we are wanderers in truth, far from the home for which we were made, and even the most deeply rooted among us can be uprooted at a moment’s notice to someplace new and differently strange. We are fallen; we are sinful, and if we look at ourselves and our lives honestly, we can see that our sin threads its way through everything we do, and is forever tangling us up, tripping us and holding us back. We live in a world from which God sometimes seems absent, as we see murders and torture and natural disasters—the earthquake in Haiti has now been joined by another in Chile, though Chile was both far better prepared and far more lucky—and sometimes it just seems like too much to bear. I was feeling like that earlier this week.
And yet, God goes with us. He has placed his mark on us—not on our bodies, but on our souls: he has given us his mark of grace, and we are his own, now and forever. We are his own, and he goes with us to protect us and to guide us; though we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet he walks beside us. We are his own, and he will give us provision and strength for today—not for tomorrow as well, but for each day as it comes. We are his own, and though we stumble and fall, he will lift us up again. We are his own, and he will bring us through, for he will bring us home. He will not fail.