Perhaps like me, you might have had the feeling that Cain made an honest mistake, was rebuked by God, went a bit crazy and then killed his brother Abel from jealousy. I have often felt rather sorry for Cain in this story, and perhaps it is because we tend to sympathise with his experience… we try hard to please God, but fail, and this story resonates with our suspicion that we are not quite doing it right. Even though Cain was rightly punished for the murder of his brother, I felt it was sad that he was left to wander the earth alone.
But when we look at the actual text of the dialogue between God and Cain, things are not at all the way they might first appear.
The story ends with a note of redemption that I initially missed…
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. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.
So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.
The text tells us (using a Hebrew word that means “look” or “regard”) that God was happier with Abel’s offering than Cain’s. However, it’s important to note that there is no rebuke here at all – simply that God is letting the guys know that one sacrifice is better than the other. Yet Cain gets offended and angry.
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 for you, but you must rule over it.”
Again, there is NO REBUKE here from God – we even see compassion, and fatherly encouragement that he can deal well with the anger that he had fallen into. God makes Cain aware of his choices, and encourages him to choose well – “You can do it, son!”
But Cain did not hear that good advice, and instead let his anger and jealousy get the better of him. He had believed that God was not pleased with him as a person, and that He prefered Abel. This was an incorrect assumption, and a misunderstanding about God’s intentions towards him. God was displeased with the sacrifice, not with Cain. God loved Cain, and was rooting for him to succeed. But Cain did not see that. Instead of mastering the temptation, Cain allowed offense and anger to control him. Anger was crouching at Cain’s door, and Cain welcomed it in.
Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”
He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Here again, God has not expressed either anger, nor rejection. He is almost begging Cain to come clean, by offering him a chance to confess. Cain remains angry and sullen.
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.”
Now comes the punishment, but the crime was murder. God was not angry with a substandard sacrifice, he only wanted to make a point. But he took action when Cain’s sinful anger degenerated to fratricide. God commits Cain to wander the earth and struggle to work the ground. But yet again, Cain hears something that God did not say! Look at his response:
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.”
God has said nothing about hiding His face from Cain – nor about certain death. Graciously, God corrects him and reassures him.
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.
Even at this low point, God is still the caring father to Cain – not the angry punisher that Cain assumed. How often do we slip into assuming that God is angry and wants to punish us? Throughout this whole dialogue, Cain had wrongly believed that God had got it in for him. His assumption was not that God was good, loving, and tender towards him, but the opposite. He leaps to negative conclusions about what God is saying and meaning.
What did God really say?
We see this too in the Garden of Eden; the snake – and Eve – report wrongly what God had actually said. The snake tellingly convinces Adam and Eve that God is trying to hide information and knowledge from them out of fear and insecurity, as if He was afraid of humans knowing too much… as if God could be threatened by anyone! This was, of course, a lie. The story of Cain and Abel in fact shows us how very wrong the snake was. God is going out of his way to teach Cain and Abel about acceptable sacrifices – about the need for blood to be spilled. There was an enormous amount of information about salvation and how it would be acquired through the blood sacrifice of Yeshua the Messiah, but at this stage, God is just wanting to start teaching them a few basics. Sacrifices for beginners. His desire was indeed to impart knowledge to humanity – not to keep it from us! But He knew it would be too complex and overwhelming to do it all at once. As He took this small step in trying to educate Cain and Abel, Cain got offended and it all went wrong.
However, there is hope in the next verses:
Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch.
The name Enoch means “education” or “training”. Perhaps by the end of the saga, Cain understood that he had not been rejected by God, but educated by a loving Father, who only was seeking his good.
Satan lies about God’s intentions towards us, and we can be far too quick to believe him and to be hurt or offended by God. But if we believe the Bible, even as this story shows us, God’s heart towards us is only good, all the time. Even when we don’t understand His ways, we can be sure that He loves us!