1 Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD.” 2 And again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. 3 So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. 4 And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; 5 but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. 6 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7 “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” 8 And Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. 9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground. 11 “And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 “When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 And Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is too great to bear! 14 “Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I shall be hidden, and I shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 So the LORD said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD appointed a sign for Cain, lest anyone finding him should slay him. [NASB ’77]
It does not take long for the sin that Adam and Eve ushered into the world to metastasize and show itself in a new and horrific way. The very first son born to them outside the garden turns on the second son born to them and murders him in a fit of resentment and envy. The first son is then exiled by God for his sin. Thus the choices the man and woman made in the garden come back to haunt them not only in the struggles of daily life but in the horrifying loss of both children they looked to for a new start after the fall. Their desire to be like God has resulted in murder just one generation removed from the garden. The story of Cain and Abel shows that the world will never stop reaping the whirlwind of original sin and teaches us that sin is supremely dangerous in any form to those who accept its presence.
Nothing is said in the text about whether or not Adam and Eve had relations in the garden before the fall. We know one of God’s first commands to them was to be fruitful and multiply, and that His commentary after creating the woman was that a man is to cleave to his wife in a one-flesh relationship. We also know that the man and woman were so intimate and trusting that they lived together naked and unashamed. With all that understood, it does not seem out of the question that they consummated their relationship in the garden.
However, if they did “know” each other, they did not conceive any children – and this might argue against the consummation as one would assume that two perfect humans were fertile. On the other hand, God obviously would not have allowed them to conceive before the fall as He knew what was coming, and it would not have worked to have a child unstained by sin living with two fallen parents. So it is possible that they enjoyed consummation without conception, or they fell so quickly after creation that they did not consummate, or they did not become sexually aware until after the fall (which would be odd since God told them to multiply). All this to say – just like with the origin of the serpent and his ability to speak – since Moses apparently did not think any of this was important enough to include, it does not make sense to spend a lot of time trying to figure it out (although there is some fun in conjecture).
Regardless of what did or did not happen in the garden, the man and woman conceive their first child after the fall and name him Cain. The woman says she has gotten a manchild with the help of the Lord (interestingly, she uses the name ‘Yahweh’ for God – a name God will later tell Moses was not understood by those who came before Moses as it means a covenant-keeping God – Ex 6:3). The interpretation of verse 1 is not entirely clear so she could also be calling the son ‘Lord’ – meaning that he is the promised seed from 3:15 (if she means this she will find that she is horribly wrong) – or she could be boasting that she has created life just like God. Any of these translations are possible but both the NASB and ESV interpret that she is thankful versus hopeful or boastful.
They conceive again and have another son and name him Abel. Nothing is said about his name and verse 2 simply tells us that the two boys take on different occupations – Abel as a shepherd and Cain as a farmer.
After some time – no way to know how long other than it is in the first 130 years of Adam’s life before he fathers Seth (5:3) – the boys decide to make offerings to God. We do not know what prompts this. There is nothing in the text about sin or any kind of atonement being required, so apparently these offerings are a form of worship and dedication. The boys (presumably now men) worship God by bringing an offering. Cain as a farmer brings something from the fruit of the ground and Abel as a shepherd brings the firstlings of his flock.
For some reason – and we are not told here why – God has regard for Abel’s offering but does not have regard for Cain’s (there is no reason to think it is because Abel offers animals – the offerings are not for sin so blood does not have be shed). It may have something to do with what is offered. Abel very clearly brings the best of what he has but with Cain the text is not as clear. Perhaps Cain does not bring the best of his crops. Regardless of why, somehow Cain knows his offering is not accepted. Perhaps he sees God’s subsequent blessing on Abel’s life which is absent from his own.
The author of Hebrews will later shed some light on why Cain’s offering is rejected. He says by faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous (Heb 11:4). If the offerings are in fact acts of dedication, perhaps God rejects Cain’s because He knows Cain’s heart. Cain may not bring the best of his crops because he does not truly want to dedicate everything to God. He wants to bring an offering but he does not truly want to give everything to God. Abel does. Thus God accepts Abel’s faithful sacrifice and does not accept Cain’s.
It is worthwhile to consider what this teaches. There is such a thing as a rejected offering. God does not invite all worship. He will later tell the Israelites that He hates their worship and rejects their festivals and sacrifices (Amos 5:21-24) because of how they live. He will tell an even later version of Israel that He wishes they would close the temple rather than come and worship with halfhearted sacrifices and attitudes that dishonor Him (Mal 1:6-11). Bad worship is worse than no worship. And coming to the God of the universe – the Lord of hosts – with less than everything and expressing our dedication is not acceptable.
When Cain realizes his offering has been rejected and Abel’s accepted, he becomes very angry. He hates that God has shown favor to Abel. He does not, however, become contrite. He does not seek to understand why God rejected him. He simply looks at Abel’s outcome and his own and becomes angry. And interestingly, he does not target his anger at God. He targets it at Abel. He sees God’s hand on Abel’s life and hates him for it. He envies what he sees in Abel and thus does not seek to change his own standing before God but rather to destroy the one who has what he does not.
Envy is a nastier sin than mere covetousness. What an envier wants is not, first of all, what another has; what an envier wants is for another not to have it. To covet is to want somebody else’s good so strongly that one is tempted to steal it. To envy is to resent somebody else’s good so much that one is tempted to destroy it. The coveter has empty hands and wants to fill them with somebody else’s goods. The envier has empty hands and therefore wants to empty the hands of the envied. Envy, moreover, carries overtones of personal resentment; an envier resents not only somebody else’s blessing but also the one who has been blessed. The envier is a child of the evil one; if he cannot have heaven, he can at least raise hell in the lives of others. (Cornelius Plantinga Jr, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be; 162, 164.)
Amazingly, God visits Cain after the rejected offering. He does not have to come (just as He did not have to come to the garden after the fall), but He comes even in the midst of Cain’s sinful reaction and burning anger. He asks him why he is angry and downcast. The questions are rhetorical. He wants Cain to realize he does not have to be this way. It is his choice to respond to his rejection and Abel’s acceptance the way he has.
God goes on to make a statement loaded with meaning. He tells Cain that he can reverse his standing before God. “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up?” Or said another way, “…will you not be accepted?” Just because God did not accept his first offering does not mean he will forever miss God’s blessing. He can change his life. He can change his approach to God. He can be accepted if he comes to God differently than before. If he does well – if he truly turns to God with a whole heart – he will be accepted.
God then warns him. He says, “And if you do not do well…” – if you do not change your standing before God and if you continue in your sins of envy and anger and pride – “sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” By doing well God does not mean for Cain to not murder his brother. What He means is that sin is about to do some awful things in his life if he does not control his feelings toward Abel. He still has the chance to change; but if he does not, he is going down a path with a horrible end.
Notice how God characterizes sin. He pictures it as living and active. It is a predator waiting to strike. The sin is crouching at the door – unseen, undetected, leaving its prey completely unaware of its presence or the danger it represents – waiting to consume its target. And sin will pounce and destroy if the lesser sins are not mastered. Right now Cain is only angry and envious. But if he does not turn back he is about to become something much, much worse.
This goes right along with what Peter will say in his first epistle. He says, “Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (I Pet 5:8). Sin in any form is enormously dangerous. It is never benign. It is never safe. It is never so small as to be safely overlooked. Sin never stops progressing and growing. It never stops wanting to feed. And just like it makes no sense to pet a lion or swim with sharks, so it makes no sense to try to peacefully coexist with sin or play with it. The sin Cain accepts as part of his life – it is just anger after all – is about to devour him if he does not master it.
This also goes along with what Jesus will say in the Sermon on the Mount. There He will get to the heart of sin – the thoughts and feelings that precipitate the worst sins. His words at first seem extreme until we compare them to what happens with Cain and Abel. “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into fiery hell” (Matt 5:21-22). Murder starts in the thoughts (as does adultery which Jesus also points out). And Cain’s anger that right now seems fairly typical and human has the potential to destroy him and those around him.
Cain does not take God’s words to heart and does not take God up on His offer to accept a changed approach. He is too far gone in his resentment. He does not care about God’s acceptance. He only cares about taking Abel away from God’s acceptance. He does not want to have what Abel has. He wants to destroy what Abel has and destroy Abel too (see definition of envy above). It is notable that John will later say that Cain is of the evil one (I Jn 3:12). As one committed to and lost in sin he is the seed of the serpent and has no desire to repent. He only wants to destroy the righteous – destroy the seed of the woman (it is perhaps worth consideration that Satan may want to destroy the righteous brother just in case he is the promised seed).
Sin bags its prey. Cain does not listen to God’s warning and does not turn back from his sin. Consequently, his envy and anger fester to the point that he kills his brother in the field. The promise of new life and new beginnings that came with the births of Adam and Eve’s first children is tragically destroyed. Only one generation removed from Eden and murder enters the world.
[How must Adam and Eve feel when they hear about Abel’s murder? The choice they made keeps coming back on their heads over and over and they now suffer the worst ramification since they were expelled from God’s presence. It is hard to imagine what life is like for the couple who brought sin into the world and see reminders of their actions every day in every way. It perhaps is a mark of God’s grace in their lives that they continue to live at all.]
Just as He did after the fall in Eden, God seeks out the sinner. He comes to Cain and asks him about Abel – “Where is Abel your brother?” This is the same approach he took with Adam. He gives Cain the opportunity to confess and repent.
Cain does not repent in any way. And contrary to Adam, he tries to act as if nothing has happened. He asks God a question back – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It is a callous, unremorseful answer. It is full of spite toward both Abel and God.
God now confronts Cain directly and says He hears Abel’s blood crying out to Him from the ground. Then He says that it is that same ground that will now curse Cain (God cursed the ground because of Adam’s sin but here He says the ground will curse Cain). Unlike Adam’s punishment where he will toil his whole life to raise food, for Cain the ground will not yield at all. His days as a farmer are gone forever. And since he will not be able to farm he will wander the earth and never have a home where he can put down roots. He must leave his parents, leave God’s protection, leave the only occupation he has ever known and wander the earth.
Cain suddenly is not so casual. He did not worry about his sin but he is now very worried about his punishment (some commentators see in verse 13 Cain’s repentance – it is possible to translate his exclamation to God as, “My sin is too great to bear!” – but nothing else in the story seems to go along with this and Cain’s words in verse 14 are completely concerned with his fear of the punishment, not a fear of being unforgiven – also, the remainder of the chapter chronicles the sin that remains in Cain’s line). He asks God for mercy because he is now driven from the only occupation he has ever known and will be outside of God’s protection and vulnerable to those who may want to avenge Abel’s death (something to keep in mind is that Adam and Eve very likely have had other children and there has been more than enough time for several generations of humans to exist – also it very well could be that Abel has children who may take a dim view of their uncle).
Just like He did with Adam and Eve in making them coverings before expelling them from the garden, God shows mercy in the midst of punishment. He tells Cain that he will not be killed. Anyone who kills Cain will have God to deal with and God will take vengeance on them sevenfold (the punishment will be seven times worse than what they do to Cain). To make sure of this, God appoints a sign for Cain that will warn anyone who finds him that they are not to kill him (no way to know what this sign is, but notice the sign is not to designate him as a murderer but to protect him). Cain will suffer for his sin but he will not die. God mercifully spares him from the worst of His wrath (at least in this life).
Every time sin rises to tempt or entice it always seeks to express itself in the extreme. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression; and every unbelieving thought would be atheism. It is like the grave that is never satisfied.
In this we see the deceitfulness of sin. It gradually prevails to harden a man’s heart to his ruin (Heb 3:13). Sin’s expression is modest in the beginning but, once it has gained a foothold, it continues to take further ground and presses on to greater heights. This advance of sin keeps the soul from seeing that it is drifting from God. The soul becomes indifferent to the seed of sin as it continues to grow. This growth has no boundaries but utter denial of God and opposition to Him. Sin proceeds higher by degrees; it hardens the heart as it advances. This enables the deceitfulness of sin to drive the soul deeper and deeper into sin.
Always be killing sin or it will be killing you. (John Owen, The Mortification of Sin; 8,5.)
How to Master Crouching Sin
- Never underestimate the risk and danger of sin. Sin hides and crouches so we do not realize its proximity or its power, but sin is never safe regardless of its size or age.
- Never relax and believe the lie of the Enemy that sin has left the building. Sin never sleeps. When sin lets us alone, we may let sin alone; but sin is always active when it seems to be the most quiet, and its waters are often deep when they are calm. We should therefore fight against it and be vigorous at all times and in all conditions, even when there is the least suspicion (John Owen, The Mortification of Sin;7.).
- Never become resigned to sin. We will always be sinful this side of eternity, but that does not mean we should become comfortable or accepting of the sin in our life. We are called to holiness, and pursuit of holiness calls for never-ending warfare against sin.
- Always preach the gospel to yourself. Christ satisfied God’s justice on the cross and paid the price for ALL of our sins. We are completely forgiven in Him. We stand before God totally justified because of Christ’s work. We are not condemned. We are no longer under sin’s dominion or death’s sentence. And nothing we did brought about our salvation – He saved us in spite of who and what we are (Col 1:13-14,21-22). Meditating on these truths should awaken in us a growing love for God and a desire to please Him. And understanding our justification and forgiveness should free us to pursue holiness without becoming discouraged over the sins that the pursuit of holiness brings to the surface. He died so we can live. He died so we are free.
- Always live in the power of the Spirit. But I say, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh (Gal 5:16). We must always fight and work as hard as we can to battle sin, but we must always do it in the Spirit’s strength. If we fight alone we lose alone; if we refuse to fight at all we lose alone; but if we fight in the Spirit’s strength we enjoy victory over the sin – in varying degrees over varying times – that no longer has dominion over us. Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world (I Jn 4:4). For apart from Me you can do nothing (Jn 15:5c)
- Always focus on God’s love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins (I Jn 4:9-10). The greatest sorrow and burden you can lay on the Father, the greatest unkindness you can do to Him is not to believe that He loves you (John Owen, Communion with God).
- Always pray. Prayer is the tangible expression of our dependence. We may assent to the fact that we are dependent on Christ, but if our prayer life is meager or perfunctory, we thereby deny it. We are in effect saying we can handle most of our spiritual life with our own self-discipline and our perceived innate goodness. Or perhaps we are saying we are not even committed to the pursuit of holiness (Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace; 140). Pray without ceasing (I Thess 5:17).
- Always set your mind on things above. If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth (Col 3:1-2). So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God (Rom 14:12).