Murder One: Why Do We Hate Each Other?

Genesis 4:1-16

July 7, 2002 | Ray Pritchard

This is the story of Cain and Abel. It is a story that is so well known that many people who never read the Bible know that Cain killed Abel. It has even entered our language as a synonym for troublemaking—Raising Cain. The phrase is appropriate because this story is dark and tragic from beginning to end.

I think parents will read this story in a special way because we remember what it was like to wait for the birth of our first child. So many hopes and dreams are wrapped up in that little baby who is your firstborn. I am sure Adam and Eve had big dreams for Cain. No doubt they hoped he would make his mark on the world. He certainly made a mark, but as is often the case, things did not work out as they intended. Instead of fulfilling their dreams, the first baby, the first son, the firstborn after the Fall, broke their hearts and left a trail of blood and tears in his wake.

In this passage we have many firsts: the first birth, the first brothers, the first shepherd, the first farmer, the first offerings, the first worship service, the first murder, and the first cover-up. The key to understanding the meaning of this story is found in one word repeated seven times in the first eleven verses. Cain killed Abel his brother. He killed his brother. That point is made in verse 2, twice in verse 8, twice in verse 9, in verse 10, and again in verse 11. The technical term for “brother-killing” is fratricide. It is related to familiar English words such as “fraternity” and “fraternal.” The shock of this story is not simply that Cain killed a man who made him angry. That would be bad enough. No, Cain killed his brother. The word is repeated over and over so that we will never forget it.

A Family Affair

There is much we don’t know that we wish we knew. What is the age difference between Cain and Abel? What were their growing-up years like? Why did one choose to be a farmer and another a shepherd? How did they know to bring an offering to God? How did Cain know Abel’s sacrifice had been accepted and his had not? And what was the “mark” that God placed on him to protect him? For all those things, we must simply say we don’t have enough information to give a definite answer. But there are two things we know for certain from this story:

1) The first murder takes place within the family.

2) The first murder takes place after a worship service.

As we begin, note the progress of sin. In Genesis 3 the serpent has to talk Eve into sin; in Genesis 4 God can’t talk Cain out of sin. What started as deception moves to deliberate sin and now leads to pre-meditated murder. This is Murder One—murder in the first degree. It is a sign of things to come. There is a direct line that stretches from the bloody corpse of Abel to the killings at LAX on the Fourth of July and to every shooting on every street corner in Chicago. Man has now become his own executioner.

And consider this. Cain and Abel appear the same on the outside. If you read the first several verses, you simply can’t tell who will be the killer and who will be the victim. Cain and Abel shared the same parents, the same spiritual background, the same home life, and no doubt both heard the same stories from Adam and Eve about life in paradise and about their expulsion because of sin. Yet as often happens in families today, one boy went in one direction and one boy went in another. One followed God; one followed his own desires. And one man murdered his brother.

If you want this story in modern terms, Cain and Abel went to church one Sunday. Both put something in the offering place. After church Cain invited Abel over to watch some of the Cubs game. Cain killed his brother just before the first pitch.

I. A Tale of Two Brothers

“Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, ‘With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.’ Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Genesis 4:1-5).

As I have already noted, Cain and Abel had much in common. They shared the same parents and the same spiritual influence. They both had good jobs and they both brought an offering to the Lord. The only major difference is this: Abel’s offering was accepted by God; Cain’s was rejected. Why did that happen? The text itself does not offer an absolutely clear answer to that question and Bible commentators differ on this point. There might have been a difference in the quality of the offerings. The Hebrew text seems to say that Cain brought some of the fruit of the ground while Abel offered the best of the best (the fat portions of the firstborn). If so, then it means that Cain was just going through the motions while Abel was generously offering his very best to the Lord.

There may also be an important differing in the kind of offering made—grain versus blood sacrifice. Many older commentators believe that God must have given some instruction on this point and that the brothers both knew (or should have known) that sin requires blood and sacrifice. Certainly that’s how the generation of Moses’ day would have read this text. If that is correct, then Abel’s offering was accepted because it pictured the coming death of Christ; Cain’s was rejected because it was a man-made attempt to bypass the sacrifice. My own feeling is that this may well be correct, but we can’t be certain because the text doesn’t specify what instructions they received from Adam and Eve (or directly from the Lord).

Hebrews 11:4 makes the central issue very clear when it declares, “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.” Whatever we may say about the two offerings, the real difference was in the heart. Abel had faith; Cain did not. Abel believed God and offered the best that he had; Cain lacked faith and apparently just went through the motions. Note that Genesis 4:4 says that God looked with favor on Abel and his offering. The order is crucial: first the man, then the offering. Ditto for Cain. Man looks on the outward and makes his judgments that way. God always looks to the heart first and foremost. When he looked at Abel’s heart, he found faith there, and it was faith that he rewarded. Cain’s absence of faith guaranteed that his offering would be rejected. Sacrifice is acceptable to God only if it is offered in an acceptable spirit. Where there is no faith, even the finest offering cannot make up the difference.

So Cain was angry. Literally, it was “hot to him.” He got all burned up when he saw that his offering had been rejected but his kid brother’s had been accepted. And his face was visibly upset. But this should not have surprised him. His defective offering came from a defective heart. His brother was not the problem. The angry man was his own worst enemy.

II. A Murder Even God Could Not Stop

“Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.’ Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:6-8).

The questions are rhetorical. God knows the answers. He asks simply to force Cain to face his sin. Cain was so angry at Abel that he couldn’t face his own personal failure. God’s offer is genuine. If Cain would do right, and offer the right sacrifice in the right spirit, he too would be accepted. The door was open to both brothers but it must be entered by faith. Going through the motions would not win God’s approval.

The phrase “sin is crouching at your door” pictures sin as a lion waiting to pounce on Cain and destroy him. What started as sibling jealousy led to anger and now veers perilously close to rage. If Cain is not careful, sin will overcome him and will master him. He is on the brink of destruction, and as he teeters over the abyss, God warns him so he can go another direction. There is a battle for his soul, and right now sin has the upper hand. But there is still time to change. What will Cain do? Will he realize his danger and turn from his anger or will it destroy him?

The answer is quick in coming. Cain lures his brother to a field where no one can see them. There he rose up against his brother (the phrase implies a sudden, surprise attack) and killed him. He probably used a rock or a club of some kind to beat him to death. It must have been a bloody murder since Abel’s blood is mentioned twice in the following verses.

But why would Cain kill his brother? Simple, really. He wanted to remove the competition and he wanted to get even with God. The only way to “hurt” God was to kill the man whose offering he accepted. It is a sick, twisted logic but in his rage, Cain was not thinking straight.

How easy it is to hurt those we love. No one can make us angry like members of our own family. The meanest things we say are said to those closest to us. And often we show kindness to people we hardly know while treating our “loved ones” as if they were the scum of the earth. Think of it. One minute you are making an offering to God, the next you are murdering your own flesh and blood. How quickly the heart can turn from worship to mayhem. There is a little Cain in all of us and a lot of Cain in most of us.

III. A Murderer’s Punishment

“Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ The LORD said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’ Cain said to the LORD, ‘My punishment is more than I can bear. 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.’ But the LORD said to him, ‘Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.’ Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the LORD’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Genesis 4:9-16).

The rest of the story unfolds quickly. First, there is a total denial of responsibility (verse 9). Cain lies to God, and then he denies that it should matter. It took awesome callousness to flippantly say, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It was like saying, “Am I the shepherd’s shepherd?” It is a denial of the very purpose of the human family. We have brothers and sisters so that we can watch out for them and they can watch out for us. Just today I visited a friend in the hospital who is battling acute leukemia. There is a distinct possibility that he will need a bone marrow transplant down the road. He has one brother who is 11 years younger and who lives in a distant country. When his brother heard about his illness, he called and his first two words were, “I’m coming.” He said that even before my friend knew who it was. But that’s what brothers do. Today young people will say, “I’ve got your back.” Brothers are supposed to stick together no matter what happens. But somehow that basic family obligation never sunk in with Cain.

Second, God sentences him to restless wandering (verses 10-12). Evidently he buried Abel’s body thinking no one would know what happened. But God saw the whole thing and heard the cry of Abel’s blood as it poured into the ground. Cain’s sentence is two-fold. Although he will continue to work the ground, it will no longer yield its fruit to him. And he will roam the earth, a man who will move restlessly from one place to another, never quite finding a place he can call home.

Third, there is fear and uncertainty (verses 13-14). Note the awesome selfishness of these verses. It’s all about Cain and his fears. “I … me … my … me.” The man who killed his brother cares only for himself. He doesn’t express even the tiniest twinge of doubt, remorse, contrition or repentance. If he feels bad about what happened, he hides it very well. Besides being a brutal murderer, he is a selfish, spoiled, pathetic loser. His only concern is that someone will try to kill him.

The Man Without a Country

Fourth, God promises protection amid punishment (verse 15). No one will be able to touch Cain without facing seven-fold vengeance from the Lord. Whatever the mark was (no one knows for sure), it guaranteed Cain a long life. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that no one will kill him. It is a curse in that he will now live a long, restless, unfulfilled life. He will be in the end like “The Man Without a Country.” But the protection will afford him time to get right with God, even though it does not seem that he ever availed himself of that opportunity.

Fifth, he ends up with a life wholly apart from God (verse 16). Here is one of the ironies of this story. God would have been fully justified in putting him to death. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. But it is the righteous man who dies while the guilty man lives. Thus we see both the mystery and the mercy of God. The word “Nod” literally means, “wandering.” Cain left God’s presence because he showed no desire for repentance. Since sin cannot stay in God’s presence, he now voluntarily departs from the Lord. He is the perfect picture of the secular man who lives under God’s protection even while living in rebellion against him.

If we step back and examine this story, we can clearly see why this sin is so great: 1) He killed his brother, 2) in the context of worship, 3) after rejecting God’s warning, 4) then denying responsibility, and 5) refusing to accept his punishment. There is nothing positive you can say about Cain. He appears to be a man wholly in the grip of sin.

Meanwhile sin itself has taken a deeper hold in the human heart as it passes from one generation to another. What started as a rivulet with Adam and Eve now becomes a tidal wave of death in the next generation. One child is dead; the other roams the world, restless, homeless, hopeless. Seen from Abel’s side, it looks like this: The first man who died, died for his faith, killed by a religious man who hated his righteousness.

As we move into the New Testament, Cain and Abel (who were actual people in history) each become symbols of larger spiritual realities. In Matthew 23:35 Jesus cites Abel as the first in a long line of martyrs who were put to death by those who reject the Lord. In Hebrews 11 he is the first example of those who lived by faith. And Hebrews 12:24 cites the “blood of Abel” that cries out for justice. As for Cain, I John 3:11-15 cites him as an example of one who belonged to the devil and whose life displayed hatred leading to murder. He is the proto-typical unbeliever who does not know God and who does not have eternal life. Finally, Jude 11 speaks of the false teachers who follow the “way of Cain,” meaning they not only reject the truth but persist in following falsehood and leading others to destruction after them.

The Two Humanities

In his book Genesis in Space and Time, Francis Schaeffer has a chapter titled “The Two Humanities” in which he sees Cain and Abel as representing the two great divisions of the human race. Cain is the first unbeliever while Abel is the first true worshiper of God and also the first martyr. Everyone in the world is either in the “line of Cain” or the “line of Abel.” Let’s consider this for just a moment. If we did a character sketch of Cain, we would use words such as these: proud, stubborn, cynical, sullen, defiant, angry, unforgiving, devious, violent, resentful, scheming, self-reliant, clever, and very religious. On the other hand, Abel appears to be humble, honest, a man of faith, a true believer who offered his best to God and was murdered as a result. Seen in that light, the bottom line of this story is all about worldly religion versus the true worship of God. Cain versus Abel is strength versus weakness. It’s all about a humanistic approach to God that rejects the humility of faith in favor of doing things your own way. Cain’s religion is the religion of the world that rejects the way of the Cross. In today’s parlance, the “Way of Cain” is the way of those who wish to downplay the bloody sacrifice of Christ in favor of the “New Trinity” of Tolerance, Diversity and Pluralism. Modern-day Cains want nothing to do with the “narrow-minded” approach of those who believe that there is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ. We hear echoes of Cain in the voices of those who confidently affirm that Jesus and Mohammed are both great prophets and that Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God. And Cain speaks today through those who tell us that the way to heaven is through good works and not through the new birth.

And what is the “weakness” of Abel? It is the “weakness” of those who come to God saying, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy Cross I cling.” It is the weakness of the Cross versus the power of the world, the shame of the Cross versus the glory of the world, and the reproach of the Cross versus the power of those who think they don’t need to be born again.

Cain represents all the self-made men in the world who attempt to come to God on their own terms. But God says to Cain then and now, “No deal. Come my way or don’t come at all.” Abel stands for the humble believers who having rejected the world are rejected by it, and who nevertheless come to God in humble faith, laying hold of the bloody cross of Jesus as their only hope of heaven.

Sin Crouches at the Door

While we are considering this story, let me add three other points of application: First, small sins soon become big. I’m sure Cain didn’t get up that morning intending to murder his brother. Why should he? No doubt he had envied his brother for a long time but that sort of thing normally doesn’t lead to murder. Once his anger took hold, it was only a short step to doing what he would have called unthinkable. Sin is like that. It’s a lion crouching, quietly waiting, biding its time, looking for an opening, and then pouncing when we least expect it.

Second, great sins are never as sudden as they seem. Just as sin crouched at Cain’s door, even so it crouches at your door and at mine. Beware of your anger. Watch out for the temptation to nurse a wounded spirit. Beware of hidden bitterness and the grudges we nurse in secret. Don’t say, “I could never kill anyone.” As James points out, sin starts as a tiny seed that leads to a wrong desire that ends up in death (James 1:15). It’s the same way with all sin. No one ever just “happens” to commit adultery. Sometimes we say, “I saw him fall into sin.” No, you saw him hit the ground. He had been falling for a long time and you just saw the end of the process.

Third, even the worst sinners can be forgiven. There are at least two notes of grace in this story. First, there is the warning God gives in verse 7. Then there is the “mark” that protects Cain and gives him time to repent. As I read the story, it seems that God cares for Cain and wants to see him do right. Even after his murder, he is spared the death penalty and allowed to live many more years. God shows more mercy than Cain deserves. While I see no evidence that Cain ever repented, that does not cancel the truth that he had many chances to do so but apparently never took advantage of them.

Do-it-Yourself vs. Faith in Jesus

I think Francis Schaeffer was right on the money when he spoke about Cain and Abel as the leaders of two great lines of humanity. They represent two seeds, two directions, two value systems, two moralities, and two races of people. They are real people but they also stand as the headwaters of the human race. You are either standing with Cain in unbelief or you are standing in Abel’s line of faith. And the ultimate irony is that the followers of Cain and the followers of Abel are thoroughly mixed. The line that separates the human race cuts through every nation, every tribe, every culture, every city, every town, every village, every neighborhood, every school, every store, every office, and ultimately through every single family. That is why you can have “Cainites” and “Abelites” living together, working together, talking together, eating together, studying together, building together, laughing together, and even sleeping side by side in the same bed. And it is certainly true that you can’t always tell at first who belongs in which group. But God has no trouble making that distinction since he judges the heart, and the thing that matters to him is faith.

Abel represents those sinners who come to God by faith in Jesus Christ and therefore receive salvation. Cain stands for all the proud, self-made people of the world who try to come to God on their own and are rejected. It is the way of religion versus the way of faith, self-righteousness versus God’s righteousness, do-it-yourself religion versus faith in Christ.

Building a Ladder to Heaven

On the basis of this solemn truth, let me offer a word of warning to all who read these words. Your religion will not save you. Even good religion will not save you. Even going to Calvary Memorial Church and being baptized by Pastor Ray cannot save you. But your religion can damn you. Even good religion can send you to hell if you don’t have faith in your heart. Cain would have made an excellent church member except for one fact: He was lost!

Once upon a time a man built a ladder to heaven. He built it out of his own good works, one rung at a time. After many years of effort, he was only two rungs short of heaven. After much effort and many more good works, he finally made it to the top. Suddenly the door to heaven swung open and there stood Jesus Christ who said to him, “I am the Door. If anyone climbs up some other way, he is a thief and a robber.” And the door slammed shut in the man’s face. Friends, there is only one way to heaven—Jesus Christ. And the only way of salvation is through simple faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Many 21st-century Cains are feverishly building their ladders to heaven through their good works and their religious observance. Alas, the door to heaven will be slammed shut when they reach the top. You either enter through Jesus or you don’t enter at all!

Write over this ancient story the words of Jesus Christ: “You Must Be Born Again” (John 3:3). There is no other hope and no other way. If you want to go to heaven, you must step from the line of Cain to the line of Abel by trusting in Jesus Christ and accepting his death as the complete payment for all your sins.

Let me then press the question home to every person who reads my words. Have you ever been born again? What is your answer to that question? If you answer “No” or “I don’t know,” then I urge you to run to the cross and place your faith in the crucified Son of God who loved you and died for you. Lay hold of Jesus. Open your heart to him. If you want to go to heaven, you must enter by way of the cross or you will never enter at all.

There is one final irony in this story. Cain the evil murdered Abel the righteous. The man who believed God died and the guilty man lived. Cain appears to get away with murder. But that is only a temporary judgment. In the end Abel looks good and Cain looks bad. Those who live by faith in this world may not be famous or popular and they may not seem appealing to us. Abel was declared righteous by God even though he was murdered. You can’t always tell whom God approves by how well known or popular they are. And you can’t tell whom God approves simply by how long a person lives. Death is never the last word in the life of a righteous man. Abel was murdered yet he is the one who went to heaven. Hebrews 11:4 says of Abel that although he is dead, yet he still speaks to us. It’s ironic that when he was on earth, his faith could not even convince his brother, yet now that he is dead, his faith speaks to the whole world. And he is more alive today than he was when he lived on the earth. This is what faith does. Though the world hate us, and may even kill us, it cannot destroy us. Not even death itself can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?