Cain’s Anger–and God’s Continual Compassionate Judgment

Cain’s Anger–and God’s Continual Compassionate Judgment

Despite Eve’s succumbing to the serpent’s deception; despite Adam’s disobeying the LORD God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; despite God’s compassionate judgment on both that made their fulfilling the creation mandate more painful, as chapter 4 of Genesis opens we see Adam and Eve nonetheless fulfilling this mandate to be fruitful, increase, and fill the earth.[1] As stated in verses 1–2, “1 Adam made love to his wife Eve,”—sometimes translated as “Adam knew his wife”—“and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, ‘With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.’”As the woman was originally taken from the side of the man,[2] now a man was brought forth from the woman. And “[l]ater she gave birth to his brother Abel.” Now though Eve may have experienced severe pains and labor in childbearing,[3] and both Eve and Adam may have had to struggle with the break in fellowship between them as a result of their disobedience and the LORD God’s subsequent judgment,[4] nonetheless by God’s compassion and help they were enabled to have two sons.

Initially these two sons, too, became a means of fulfilling the creation mandate as they partook in subduing the earth and ruling over every living creature. As we read at the end of verse 2, “Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.” And no doubt again, as a result of his father’s disobedience and the Fall that resulted, Cain’s working the soil was “through painful toil” and by the “sweat of [his] brow” as it produced “thorns and thistles” as it had for his father.[5] Yet Cain worked and farmed the soil all the same. And we see here that the pattern of returning to God a sacrifice, a portion of humanity’s labor, began early for as stated in verse 3, “In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.” As to Abel, Cain’s brother, he fulfilled the creation mandate not by working the soil but by caring for the flock as a herdsman. And as stated in verse 4, “… Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” God never intended our work to be done solely for our own sake or for that of others. He ever intended our work to be done with and for him, in his presence and for his glory. So far, so good for both Cain and Abel brought an offering, a portion of the fruit of their labor, to the LORD their God.

But beginning with the second half of verse 4, we see that God responded in a starkly different manner to each of these offerings for “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.” This gives us pause, leading us to ask, “Why? Why did the LORD look favorably upon Abel and his offering but not on Cain and his offering?” Scholars have offered various explanations—for example, that it was because the LORD was more pleased with animal offerings than produce offerings—but given that we see both types of offerings being acceptable later in the Old Testament[6] I don’t think that’s the reason. I think the reason has to do with the quality of the offerings. Whereas Cain is said to have brought merely “some of the fruits of the soil,” Abel is said to have brought “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” Abel brought the “fat portions.” In other words, he brought the best portions. And he brought them from the firstborn of his flock, from the most prized animals.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that offerings in and of themselves aren’t the only thing that matters. The state of one’s heart also comes into play and God, of course, knows our hearts.[7] Offerings should be given freely and cheerfully, not under obligation. As the apostle Paul years later exhorted the church at Corinth, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”[8] As one commentator notes, “The contrast [between Cain and Abel] is not between an offering of plant life and an offering of animal life, but between a careless, thoughtless offering and a choice, generous offering.”[9] It’s likely that Abel’s offering was a greater or better sacrifice for, unlike Cain, he had given the LORD the best he had to offer and had done so with the proper heart attitude. As read for us earlier from Hebrews 11, “By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.”[10] Abel’s faith in God, expressed through the quality of his offering, demonstrated the content of his heart. This is why his offering was better than Cain’s for he gave of his best to God. This is why he was commended as righteous. This is how he still speaks to us—by the example he provided concerning what our attitude ought to be about the sacrifices we make for God. The offerings we bring to God should never be run of the mill; the offerings we bring to God, like the poor widow Jesus commended for giving out of her poverty rather than her wealth,[11] should be genuine sacrifices, offerings of our best.

Well Cain was not happy with this outcome. He didn’t like it that Abel’s offering was looked upon with favor but his own was not. Therefore, as we read at the end of verse 5, he “was very angry, and his face was downcast.” None of this seemed fair to Cain. Why should God be pleased with his brother but not with himself? It just didn’t seem right to him. Yet despite knowing that Cain hadn’t given him his best offering, God in his compassion reached out to Cain in his distraught state of mind. As we sang earlier in service the chorus,[12] God invites Cain to come and reason with him. As stated in verse 6, “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?’” As our kind LORD had done with his father, Adam, when he asked him where he was after he had attempted to hide when he partook of the forbidden fruit,[13] so now did our kind LORD do with Cain, his son. God reached out to him. He spoke with him. He asked him why he was angry and why his face was downcast. The LORD God knew why, of course, just as he had known why Adam had attempted to hide. Even so, our kind LORD reached out to Cain.

But the LORD did more than merely ask Cain about his response after he had done wrong. As recorded in verse 7, he went on to teach Cain how he might do right, saying to him, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” As he had done with his father, Adam, teaching him that he could eat of any tree in the garden,[14] God now exhorted Cain to do right. If hereon in he did right, all would be well. If Cain wanted to avoid a similar outcome in the future, if he genuinely desired to please God by his offering, all that was necessary was that he “do what is right” and thereby “be accepted.” All he would need do was to bring an offering of the best of the soil, literally a first fruits of the soil. If he did so and did so with the right heart attitude, then his offering, too, would be accepted.

And as the LORD had warned his father, Adam, about the consequences of doing wrong should he partake of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,[15] so now he similarly went on to warn Cain, “But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Again, if Cain obeyed the LORD God, all would be well and righteousness would rule. But if he didn’t, sin would win out. For sin, like a demon, like the serpent in the Garden, is ever at the ready to strike its quarry. Therefore if Cain chose to ignore God’s Word, his teaching, he would be at sin’s mercy. Instead of ruling over sin, sin would rule over him. For apart from God’s Word, the rule of sin becomes the norm.

But tragically, as Cain’s father, Adam, chose to follow the serpent rather than God,[16] so now did Cain choose to follow the inclinations of his sin nature rather than God. The condition of his heart would now be revealed. As stated in the well-known account found in verse 8: “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.” Crouching sin had found its target and pounced. Cain’s sin nature, the result of his father’s disobedience that subsequently fell upon all humanity, had gotten the better of him. He chose to ignore the LORD’s teaching. Instead of following in his Maker’s righteous steps Cain chose to follow in his own sinful steps. Who would have thought that when God had warned Adam that he would certainly die should he eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that that certain death he spoke of would fall upon Adam’s youngest son, Abel? And that that certain death would occur not due to old age but by murder, the calling card of Satan, that ancient serpent?[17] The death about which the LORD had warned Adam had now come to fruition as one of his sons killed his brother out of anger. Is it any wonder that Jesus warned against anger in his Sermon on the Mount, teaching “21 You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[18] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’[19] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” From the beginning we see—as Jesus well understood—that there is often a thin line between anger and murder for we too often act on the wrong inclinations of our heart.

Yet in the midst of this tragedy, we continue to see our kind LORD’s consistency. As he had asked Cain’s mother, Eve, what she had done after she had partaken of the fruit;[20] and as he had asked Cain’s father, Adam, what he had done after he had partaken of the fruit,[21] so now God asked Cain what he had done following his transgression. As stated in verse 9, “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’” The LORD, of course, knew the answer even as he knew the answer when he had questioned his parents. Yet he was providing Cain an opportunity to answer truthfully as his parents had answered truthfully when questioned by him.[22] Sadly, Cain chose not to do what was right in order that he might be accepted. Instead he allowed sin to continue to have its way with him. Having murdered his brother, Abel, Cain now compounded that sin by lying to God about it. As stated in the second half of verse 9, he answered God by saying, “I don’t know…. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Now the right answer to God would have been, “I killed my brother Abel.” And the right answer to Cain’s own rhetorical question would have been, “Yes, I am my brother’s keeper” for we are all our brother’s—and sister’s—keeper. We are all called to love and care for one another. Yet by his response it’s clear that Cain had chosen to follow in the steps of the serpent who masqueraded as an angel of light.[23]

In what follows, that Cain should have been his brother’s keeper is made crystal clear in the LORD’s response to him. As recorded beginning with verse 10, the LORD said to him, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” In the previous chapter, part of the judgment placed upon Adam was that the ground would be cursed because of him and, as we’ve already noted, that through painful toil and by the sweat of his brow he would eat from it all the days of his life as it now would produce thorns and thistles.[24] Here we see that the judgment that was initially placed on Cain’s father had passed down to his son:

The cursed ground that cried out to the LORD due to Abel’s blood;

the cursed ground that received his brother’s blood from his hand;

that very cursed ground had now placed Cain under its curse as he was driven from it and as it no longer would yield its crops.

This curse upon the ground further links Cain to the curse placed upon the serpent in Genesis 3: “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals!”[25] As the apostle John admonished—and then warned using Cain as his example, “11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous.”[26] By his repeated actions Cain demonstrated that he had chosen to follow in the steps of the evil one. Therefore, as his parents had been driven from the Garden of Eden lest they partook of the tree of life, so now Cain was driven from the ground he had worked and from the only home he had known, left to be “a restless wanderer on the earth.”

Recognizing the magnitude of his punishment, “Cain said to the Lord,” as recorded starting in verse 13, “My punishment is more than I can bear. 14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Humans were made for relationship with the LORD God in whose image they were made; and for relationship with each other, their fellow image-bearers; and to steward the earth made by God and upon which God placed them. Yet Cain’s punishment for having killed his brother, Abel, and then lied to God about it was that all of these God-given purposes and privileges would be thwarted and withdrawn for he was driven from the land of his family; he was hidden from God’s presence; and the ground would no longer yield its crops for him. What is more, having lost the protection of God and community, his life would be in danger as a result of the evil he had committed.

Yet our kind LORD’s compassionate judgment was such that he now extended protection to Cain—to Cain who had committed fratricide and then lied to God about it. As the LORD had extended protection to Adam and Eve in making them garments of skin and clothing them even after they had disobeyed him,[27] so he now provided Cain protection. For when he protested that his punishment was more than he could bear, the very God to whom Cain had lied said to him, as stated starting in verse 15, “‘Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.’ Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. 16 So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” Despite Cain having submitted to evil twice by murdering his brother and then lying to God about it, the LORD God’s compassionate judgment was such that he extended him protection. This, too, is an early example of another of Jesus’ teachings in his Sermon on the Mount as he exhorted his disciples, “44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.[28]” Despite Adam and Eve’s disobedience; despite Cain’s disobedience, our Father in heaven didn’t stop caring for his image-bearers for he continued to provide them protection and care. He continued to cause the sun he had made to shine on them despite the evil they had done; he continued to cause the rain he had made to fall upon them despite the evil they had done. Similarly, when we extend kindness to those who act in hateful ways, we demonstrate that we are children of our gracious, compassionate heavenly Father.

Finally, as Adam and Eve had been banished from the Garden of Eden after their transgressions, [29] so now their son, Cain, was banished from the LORD’s presence to live in the land of Nod—a word that means “wandering”—east of Eden after his transgressions.

Dear sisters and brothers, Cain’s anger and the sin that followed—or more to the point, God’s continual, compassionate judgment, is what we celebrate this communion morning. It’s what we should celebrate every morning as soon as we open our eyes. For were it not for God’s compassion upon us, who also go our own ways and turn from him, we would be lost. Yet he doesn’t turn from us. Despite the prodigals that we are,[30] he calls us back to himself. As each Sunday we corporately ask for God’s help and confess our sin as part of our worship, so, too, we do each communion Sunday. For communion is our opportunity to be accountable to and truthful with God, even as Adam and Eve were, when he asks us, “What have you done?”

And how blessed are we who live after the fulfillment of God’s promise to send the Messiah, his Son, Jesus Christ. For God, who owed us nothing, nonetheless chose to provide us his best offering by sending us his firstborn and only begotten Son that all who believe and receive him might similarly be given his eternal life and so become his children.[31] For as read earlier for us in the passage from Hebrews 12,

18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm…. 22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Though by his example righteous Abel still speaks for having given the best offering, the fat portions of the firstborn of his flock, our dear Lord Jesus is the mediator of a new and even better covenant that no longer requires constant sacrifices to cover our sin. For God in Christ has covered all our sins—past, present, and future—by his death and resurrection from death. As Paul teaches, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”[32] By becoming a curse for us, he placed our penalty upon himself in order that we might never have to experience death but instead, as Paul goes on to say, “that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”[33] That by faith we might receive his eternal life. As one commentator notes, “Whereas Abel’s blood cries out for vengeance (Is. 26:21;[34] Matt. 23:35;[35] Rev. 6:10[36]), Christ’s blood cries out for forgiveness (Heb. 12:24[37]).”[38] And all we need do to receive Christ’s forgiveness is to receive his sprinkled blood by confessing our sin—confessing that without him, we, too, would turn from him and follow in our own ways and those of the serpent, doing evil—and receiving the forgiveness and eternal life he so freely and richly provides.

Let us pray.

[1] Genesis 1:28: God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

[2] Genesis 2:18, 20b–22: 18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him….” But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

[3] Genesis 3:16a: To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.”

[4] Genesis 3:16b: Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.

[5] The LORD God’s judgment on Adam is recorded in Genesis 3:17–19: 17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

[6] For a fruit of the ground offering see, e.g., Deuteronomy 26:1–2a: 1 When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket….; for a firstborn offering see, e.g., Deuteronomy 15:19–21: 19 Set apart for the Lord your God every firstborn male of your herds and flocks. Do not put the firstborn of your cows to work, and do not shear the firstborn of your sheep. 20 Each year you and your family are to eat them in the presence of the Lord your God at the place he will choose. 21 If an animal has a defect, is lame or blind, or has any serious flaw, you must not sacrifice it to the Lord your God.

[7] See, e.g., Proverb 21:2: A person may think their own ways are right, but the Lord weighs the heart; Jeremiah 17:10: “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.”; 1 Samuel 16:7: But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”; Matthew 5:8: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

[8] 2 Corinthians 9:7. See the account in Acts 5:1–11 of Ananias and Sapphira who paid a severe penalty when they mutually lied about an offering they had promised, keeping back some of it for themselves.

[9] Note on verses 3–4 in the Zondervan NIV Study Bible.

[10] Hebrews 11:4.

[11] Mark 12:41–44: 41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. 43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”Luke 21:1–4: 1 As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 3 “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4 All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

[12] Come, Let Us Reason based on Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Had Cain followed the LORD, doing as he said, his sins would have been cleansed.

[13] Genesis 3:8–9:Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

[14] Genesis 2:16: And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden;

[15] Genesis 2:17: but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

[16] Genesis 6:b: She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

[17] John 8:44–45: “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!”

[18] Exodus 20:13:

[19] An Aramaic term of contempt

[20] Genesis 3:13a: Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

[21] Genesis 3:11: And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

[22] Genesis 3:13b and 12, respectively: 13b The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate”; 12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

[23] 2 Corinthians 11:14: …Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.

[24] Genesis 3:17–19: 17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

[25] Genesis 3:14a.

[26] 1 John 3:11–12.

[27] Genesis 3:21: The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.

[28] Matthew 5:44–45.

[29] Genesis 3:23–24: 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

[30] The story of the Prodigal Son can be found in Luke 15:11–32. The father’s response in the account represents how God, our heavenly Father, responds whenever we turn from our sins and return to him. See verses 21:24: 21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

[31] See John 3:16–21: 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

[32] Galatians 3:13.

[33] Galatians 3:14.

[34] Isaiah 26:21: See, the Lord is coming out of his dwelling to punish the people of the earth for their sins. The earth will disclose the blood shed on it; the earth will conceal its slain no longer.

[35] Matthew 23:35:And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.

[36] Revelation 6:10: They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”

[37] Hebrews 12:24: (part of our Scripture reading): to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

[38] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Gen. 4:10.