Death, the consequence of eating the forbidden fruit, violently entered Adam and Eve’s lives when Cain, their first born son, murdered his younger sibling, Abel. It would be helpful to have read Genesis 4.
Familiarity with the scriptures can cause us to miss so much. That’s particularly true in Genesis. The story line moves quickly. It’s a concertina of highlights, yet we read it as though it records incidents that happened in quick succession. For example, when we read about the creation, the text moves swiftly to the Garden of Eden and to the incident involving Eve, the serpent and Adam. There’s no mention of how long Adam and Eve were in the garden before this happened. It could very well be that quite a period of time elapsed between being placed in the garden and the incident with the fruit. Could we perhaps read into the text at Genesis 3 v8 that God walking in the garden was a sight and sound with which they were familiar. We don’t know, but it certainly flags up that we might need to read with a little more openness and imagination. Certainly, if they had been there some time, their sense of loss would have been greater.
Cain and Abel.
Many of us are familiar with the text at Genesis 4 v1-2 “Adam made love to 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.” In fact, we are so familiar with it that I suggest we might be in danger of making assumptions.
- Cain was their first son. Eve’s statement “I have brought forth a man” suggests a certain excitement. Perhaps Eve’s excitement is in her hope that she has given birth to the one who would reverse the curse. It certainly makes sense in the context of Genesis 3, where God, speaking to the serpent says of the woman’s offspring “he will crush your head”.
- The excitement of Eve’s exclamation indicates that this is her first born son.
- That Cain is their first born son, however, does not necessarily mean that he is their first born child. Nothing is recorded of the birth of their daughters. It is entirely possible that they had daughters before they had sons. This, too, would give meaning to Eve’s excitement at having a male child.
- Neither should we assume that Abel is, necessarily, their second son. All that we can say with certainty is that Abel was born later than Cain. Nothing can be concluded about the possibility of sons in between. The writer to Genesis is not concerned with those details: the concern is, instead, about the incident that occurs between the two men.
Cain, Abel and their offereing.
Cain was an arable farmer, Abel a herdsman. In the course of time, they both brought offering to God. Genesis is scant on the detail: we must remember that it is highlighting the story.
Many commentators emphasise the difference in acceptability between Cain’s offering and Abel’s offering lies in their nature: Cain’s is a cereal offering while Abel’s requires a blood sacrifice. That may be so, but the biblical text does not tell us so. To make that assertion requires an understanding of the later Biblical narrative where God outlines the sacrificial requirements.
It fits more easily with the text to recognise that the word for offering (minhāh) is a word commonly used for a gift, or tribute, brought to a ruler. On that reading, both gifts are about God’s kingship or Lordship. That reading makes sense to me. It seems reasonable that an arable farmer would bring of a herdsman of his: that they would bring a gift from what God has already provided. That being the case, the problem is not about the nature of the gift but about some other issue. The key to unlocking the problem lies in verse 6 “if you do what is right”. If we make the connections between this statement and Cain’s attitude to his brother we can conclude that he’s a man who suffers from resentment. In that context, a great theme which pervades the rest of the scriptures emerges: true worship is about attitude of heart, not just about the offering. Jesus’ words of commendation for the widow who gave two very small coins (Mark 12 and Luke 21) reinforce that the gift is of lesser importance than the attitude.
Cain, Abel and a murderous dispute and a simmering attitude.
Cain’s response to God’s rejection of his offering led to a warning (v7) that sin was crouching at his door and that he needed to master it. He failed to master that resentment. He invited his younger brother for a walk in the countryside, where he killed him. The text does not state it explicitly, but we can assume that the murder was premediated and linked, in jealousy, with the rejection of Cain’s offering.
Resentment, vengeance and blessing.
God confronted Cain, enquiring about the whereabouts of his brother. Cain’s answer continues to reveal his attitude towards God. First of all he denies knowledge. The he gets’ smart, offering the famous words “am I my brother’s keeper?” His answer reveals the resentment and lack of respect that he has for God. He’s arrogant without sense of remorse. God, therefore, drives him from the land. Even then, Cain’s response has a hint of thinking that God is being unfair to him. The mark that God puts on Cain’s head so that others would not kill him is significant: Abel’s blood was crying out for vengeance, but Gods was making it quite clear that it is God’s responsibility, no one else’s, to seek that vengeance. Yet, when we see the list of Cain’s descendants and the giftings with which God blessed them the message rings clear, God did not forget Cain’s descendants.
Reading between the lines: brothers, sisters, husbands and wives.
Genesis records the highlights, not the detail. To think about some of the gaps helps our understanding and resolves objections that some raise as to the plausibility of the biblical narrative. This is true in the account of Cain and Abel. For example, when Cain is banished to the land of Nod, he is marked so that others would not kill him. That raises the question concerning who these other people are. Of course, if we assume that Adam and Eve only had 3 sons, Cain, Abel and Seth, then the question is, indeed, troublesome. If, however, Genesis only records the highlights, then it is entirely possible that there were other sons who fathered other nations. This makes sense in the context of Genesis 5 v3-5 “When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. After Seth was born, Adam lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Adam lived a total of 930 years, and then he died.” It’s reasonable to assume that in that 130 year period before Seth that he had lots of other sons and daughters.
Of course, the other question raised in objection to the plausibility of the scriptures centres on Genesis 4 v17 “Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch.” The common objection is that this implies that Cain must have slept with his sister as his wife. Of course, the logical answer is that this has to be the case. Indeed since Adam and Eve are the mother and father of all humanity, that has to be the case. It must also be the case with many of Adam and Eve’s sons and daughters. In the perfect gene pool and with the pre flood environment we should not be concerned about this.
All quotations from New International Version.