Dysfunctional families aren’t a modern invention. There never was an ideal time when family life matched Norman Rockwell paintings. Parents fail, and siblings have always squabbled, even to the point of bloodshed — from the very first family on down. It’s a famous story, the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, but what prompted it? And what clues does it offer about human nature and the way God responds to us?
After being sent out of the Garden of Eden, Adam had sexual relations with his wife, and Eve gave birth to two sons. Cain was the oldest, and became a farmer. Abel was the younger brother, and he became a shepherd. At the harvest time, Cain brought an offering from the fruits of the earth he had grown, and presented it as a gift to God. Abel also brought a gift to the Lord: the choice portions from the firstborn from his flocks. The Lord was pleased with Abel and accepted his offering, but he rejected Cain and his offering, and Cain became very angry.
“Why are you so angry? Why do you look so dejected?” God asked Cain. “You will be accepted if you do what is right. If you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is to control you. But you must rule over it.”
Cain could not get over his anger. So one afternoon he suggested, “Abel, let’s go out to the field together.” And while they were out in the field, Cain attacked his brother and killed him.
Later God asked Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” Cain lied. “Am I my brother’s guardian? Am I supposed to keep track of him every minute?”
But God knew what he had done. “You killed your brother,” God said. “His blood cries out to me from the ground where you left him. Now you are cursed, and banished from the ground which has swallowed your brother’s blood. No longer will the earth yield good crops for you, no matter how hard you work. And you will be a restless wanderer on the earth for the rest of your days.”
“This punishment is too great for me to bear,” Cain complained. “You are sending me away from my land, and away from your presence. You have made me homeless and a wanderer. Anyone who sees me will try to kill me!”
“No one will kill you,” the Lord said. “I will punish anyone who does seven times over.” Then God put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who might try to hurt him. So Cain left God’s presence and settled in the land east of Eden.
- Gen 4:9 “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
- Gen 4:7 “Sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
- Mark of Cain • Cain & Abel • East of Eden
Discussion & Life Lessons
- Why did God accept Abel’s sacrifice but reject Cain’s? The clues are there in the text — and no, the story does not suggest that it is because God demanded blood sacrifice and Cain tried to do it his own way. Look at what they offered: “Cain brought some of the fruits … but Abel brought choice portions from the firstborn of his flock.” Cain looks a bit stingy, holding back, maybe even grudgingly giving God a portion of his harvest, while Abel looks more genuine and generous: “Here, Lord, have the best of what I have.” And how does God respond?: “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but not on Cain and his offering.” Note that God looks at the people involved as well as what they bring. This suggests it was their hearts, their attitudes, that were the key to God’s response. (“Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” 1 Sam 16:7)
- Notice Cain’s reaction. How do you react when someone suggests you’ve done something wrong? Do you become angry and reject it, or are you open to correction?
- God gave Cain a second chance to get it right. What does this say about God?
- Cain stubbornly refused, and it altered the course of his life. What do you think about that?
- This is the first time “sin” is referred to directly as a latent power that can entrap us. What is God’s advice to us about it? What does this suggest about ideas like “the devil made me do it”?
Notice the same words are used as in Eve’s curse that she would desire her husband and he would rule over her (Gen 3:16). And although different words are use, the same idea is present in God’s command that humans subdue the earth (Gen 1:28). What do you suppose these similarities suggest?
- Cain’s famous question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” says a lot about human nature. How should we feel about our fellow human beings?
(Compare Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.)
- God punishes Cain, but notice he also protects him. God never cuts us off totally from himself, and even when we feel we have been cast out and lost everything, God is still there, protecting us. Do you sometimes think God is punishing you? How might this detail change the way you view things?
- What does the overall story tell us about the character of God? What does it say about us?