The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:1-16 shows us the danger we are in when our emotions are not under God’s control. It also tells us something important about God’s character: He is merciful. That is why he always gives us the opportunity to repent and correct our evil ways.
Who were Cain and Abel?
Cain and Abel were the first two sons of Adam and Eve. This means that they were the first babies born in the history of mankind. Genesis chapter 4 begins like this:
The man joined Eve, his wife, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain. And he said, “With the help of the Lord, I have had a son!” She later gave birth to Abel, brother of Cain. Abel dedicated himself to herding sheep, while Cain dedicated himself to working the land.
Cain’s birth brought joy to his parents, especially Eve. They then had another son, Abel. We don’t know how many years passed between one sentence and the next, but we do know that the children grew up and the time came when they were big enough and strong enough to work. Abel worked as a shepherd and Cain as a farmer.
Later, Cain presented the Lord with an offering of the fruit of the land. Abel also presented to the Lord the best of his flock, that is, the firstborn with his fat. And the Lord looked favorably on Abel and on his offering, but he did not look so on Cain and on his offering. That’s why Cain was furious and walked with his head down.
One day Cain and Abel each brought an offering before the Lord. Although the biblical text does not give all the details, from what it says we can think that they knew that on that day they should present their offering to God and where they should take it.
Cain brought as an offering what he harvested on earth. We do not know if he brought the biggest, most colourful and beautiful fruits or if he only brought what he found at the time. However, we know that Abel brought the best that he had in his flock, the firstborn, and that is something that pleased God. When Cain realized that God had been more pleased with Abel’s offering, he was furious.
The fact that it bothered Cain so much gives us a clue about his spiritual state. He did not attempt to ask God what mistake he had made with his offering. Nope! He was immediately furious and allowed his heart to fill with anger.
Why was God displeased with Cain’s offering?
The root of the problem does not seem to have been the offering itself. But the offerings they brought before God reflected what was inside their hearts. The verse says that God looked favourably on Abel and his offering, but he did not look favourably on Cain and his offering.
The real problem was in the attitude of Cain’s heart. With a straight heart before God, Cain would have known how and what to offer before God. God Himself explained this to Cain…
God tried to help Cain understand the source of the problem, the reason why his offering had not been acceptable. Within the heart of Cain, there was sin and Cain was carried away by it. God warned him so that he would be attentive and rectify his attitude towards him. There was time to master sin! Cain could still be victorious!
But Cain ignored God’s warning. He did not allow his heart to be rectified nor did he take the opportunity to amend his way. He could have started to act right, but he didn’t. He became overwhelmed by jealousy and anger, so he went and killed his brother Abel.
Cain spoke with his brother Abel. While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother and killed him.
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What does the Bible say about Abel?
There are three biblical passages that can help us understand what God saw in Abel when he went to present his offering.
1. Hebrews 11:4 – Abel is one of the heroes of faith
By faith Abel offered God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s, for which he received testimony of being righteous, for God accepted his offering. And by faith Abel, despite being dead, still speaks.
Hebrews 11, the chapter on the heroes of faith, mentions Abel. What truly pleased God with Abel was his faith. With his offering he testified to the faith he had already placed in God. And thanks to that faith Abel lives for eternity and his testimony still speaks to our lives reminding us that “without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11: 6).
2. Luke 11:50-51, Abel numbered among the prophet martyrs
Therefore, this generation will be held accountable for the blood of all the prophets shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the one who died between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I assure you that this generation will be held accountable for all this.
Jesus himself counted Abel among the prophets who had died for their faith. This clearly shows us that Abel’s relationship with God was so strong and real that his death was counted as martyrdom. Abel was killed by his brother because he had given his heart to God and lived a life of obedience to him.
3. Hebrews 12:22-24, the blood of Abel’s offering foreshadowed the need for the blood of Jesus
On the contrary, you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. They have come to thousands and thousands of angels, to a joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn registered in heaven. They have drawn near to God, the judge of all; to the spirits of the just who have reached perfection; to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant; and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks louder than Abel’s.
The sheep that Abel sacrificed and brought before God was like an omen of the death that Jesus would suffer on the cross. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, his blood shed out of love for us, marked the new covenant with God: salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
The punishment for Cain
The Lord asked Cain: Where is your brother Abel?
“I don’t know,” he replied. Am I the one who should take care of my brother?
“What have you done!” exclaimed the Lord. From the ground, your brother’s blood demands justice. Therefore, now you will be under the curse of the earth, which has opened its jaws to receive the blood of your brother, which you have shed. When you cultivate the land, it will not give you its fruits, and in the world you will be a wandering fugitive.
After Cain killed Abel, God approached him and used a question to give him a chance to reflect and repent. However, Cain did not. He just got defensive, showing neither shame nor pain for having killed his own brother.
Given the lack of repentance, God went on to explain the punishment he would receive. This would consist of two parts:
- No matter how much he cultivated and worked the land, he would not receive any fruit. Cain was a farmer so basically, he was broke.
- I would wander the earth like a wandering fugitive. He would have no place to call “home” where he could go to rest and renew his strength.
This punishment is more than I can bear,” Cain said to the Lord. Today you condemn me to exile, and I will never be able to be in your presence again. I will wander the world as a fugitive, and anyone who finds me will kill me.
“It will not be so,” replied the Lord. Whoever kills Cain, he will be punished seven times.
Then the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that whoever found him would not kill him. So Cain left the presence of the Lord and went to live in the region called Nod, east of Eden.
That’s where Cain reacted! He jumped to his own defence: “Sir!!! This punishment is very strong!” Cain thought only of himself, another proof of how far God’s heart was from him.
Cain was afraid for his life. All the inhabitants of the earth at that time were a close family. We don’t know how many there were, but Cain knew that any one of them could try to avenge Abel’s murder. However, God showed mercy towards Cain. He put a mark on it that basically stated the following: whoever kills Cain will be punished seven times!
What was the mark that God put on Cain like?
Nobody knows what it was like. It could have been a scar or a tattoo. We do not know. But we do know that his purpose was to protect Cain so that no one would kill him. It can be seen as a symbol of God’s mercy towards the sinner – towards all of us imperfect beings and sinners.
We can summarize the mistakes that Cain made as follows:
- Cain allowed himself to be dominated by emotions and by sin.
- He ignored the instructions given by God and he also ignored the warnings that God gave him in order to get him to reconsider.
- He did not repent or show remorse for killing his brother.
- He kept his heart hard and unfeeling even when he experienced God’s mercy.
Let us not be like Cain! Let us not harden our hearts before the goodness and mercy of God. “If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts as happened in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:15)