Genesis has often been described as the book of beginnings. The early chapters recount the story of creation, Adam and Eve in the garden, the fall and God’s promise of redemption. These events teach us key lessons about sin, our nature and the current state of the world. In the account of Cain and Abel we have an incident which dramatically demonstrates the realities of the conflict between flesh and spirit.

God’s promise of the seed of the woman and the removal of the curse of sin and death was still fresh in Eve’s mind when she named her firstborn son, Cain. His name means ‘acquired’ and clearly the parents had high hopes for this child. They saw in Cain a child acquired from God who would become the channel of blessing for the world.

Eve’s second son was called Abel and his name in the Hebrew means ‘breath or vapour’. It was a word Solomon later used repeatedly in Ecclesiastes to describe the vanity of life. The monotony and tedious nature of life outside the garden is now reflected in their naming of this child.

The first thing we learn about Abel is that he is Cain’s brother. This is repeated six times (v8,8,9,9,10,11). Despite being brothers, they could not be more contrasting in character and the Scripture wants us to see this contrast:

Abel was a keeper of sheep… Cain was a tiller of the ground

Cain brought of the fruit of the ground

Abel… he also brought the firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof

Yahweh had respect unto Abel and his offering …unto Cain and to his offering He had not respect

The Offering of Faith

How is it that, although brothers, Cain and Abel were totally different men? What differentiates Cain as the seed of the serpent from Abel, who was the seed of the woman? The answer can be seen in their attitude and in their offering. We read in Hebrews 11:4: “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous”.

Abel acknowledged himself as a sinner deserving of death. He also believed in God’s promise of redemption from sin and death through the offering of the seed of the woman and his offering of faith recognised all these things. As a result he was declared righteous and acceptable by God.

Cain’s true disposition, on the other hand, is revealed when he and his offering were rejected. He was furious; the record says that he was “very wrath and his countenance fell”. In turn, this hot fury was soon to transform itself into bitterness, jealously and resentment. He could not stand the fact that Abel’s works were judged righteous and his own wicked (1 John 3:12). This quote tells us that he knew he was in the wrong but he just couldn’t accept the fact that his brother’s works were righteous.

Here lies the problem with Cain’s attitude. He had turned his rejection from God into personal competitive rivalry with his brother. Cain’s sacrifice should have been between himself and God alone, not a competition in outdoing his brother. Nor should Cain’s anger and sulking be directed at his brother because of his own failings. A mature response from Cain would have been to seek to understand why he and his offering had been rejected and seek to make amends.

The Offering of Pride

The Elohim recognised the dangerous path that Cain was on and in mercy revealed themselves to him. They asked him to examine himself: “Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?” They didn’t leave it there, however. They continued: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen 4:7 ESV).

Sin is personified as a wild beast lying in wait, ready to crouch and consume Cain. If he did not arrest his bitter thoughts, further sin would prevail, until he would be completely dominated by the carnal mind. Christ recognised this in his teachings on the mount. Uncontrolled anger and bitterness towards your brother can lead to murder (Matt 5:21-22). God was asking Cain to have dominion over his thinking.

His pleas, however, were ignored by Cain, who continued to allow his anger and resentment to fester. He invited Abel out into the field (this feature of the narrative is added by the Samaritan, Syriac and LXX manuscripts) and once they were alone, he deliberately and violently murdered his brother.

Once again, God approached Cain seeking repentance: “Where is Abel thy brother?” Cain’s cynical lie is bursting with sarcasm: “I know not, am I my brother’s keeper” (v9). “I’m not a shepherd,” he was virtually saying; but in actual fact he was Abel’s keeper. He was the firstborn of the family and had a responsibility to care for his younger sibling. But that’s the problem – he doesn’t care for anyone but himself.

God continues to probe: “What hast thou done?” He wants Cain to own up to his sin. Adam and Eve confessed their disobedience but Cain is stubbornly silent. All God can hear are the cries of Abel’s blood seeking for justice.

Cain’s Curse

Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous. (1 John 3:12)

Cain’s defiant silence is now answered: “And now art thou cursed from the earth, which has opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand. When thou tillest the ground it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength…” (v11-12).

The record emphasises the phrase ‘the ground/earth’. It occurs in verses 2, 3, 10, 11, 12 and 14. Cain’s actions were symbolically linked with the ground. His motivation was the ‘earthly lusts’ of the flesh. His wicked, angry and bitter spirit culminated in the work of spilling his brother’s blood onto the ground. Cain was ruled by the flesh, and the works of his hands were the works of the flesh.

Every day Cain worked fruitlessly in the ground he would be reminded of his murderous actions. His curse sprang from the soil which had received his brother’s blood and in turn this would reinforce the connection that the works of the flesh would produce no fruit or profit. In addition to this, Cain was banished to become a “fugitive and a wanderer” (ESV ). He would always be on the move, an outcast and never at peace or rest. Sin results in exile without peace.

He who had deprived the family of a brother and rejected the counsel of God was now to be removed from the presence of God and from the care and nurture of his parents. But, still, he refused to confess and instead protested his punishment as being too severe: “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold thou hast driven me out this day” (v13-14). He has murdered his brother but now plays the role of the victim! Cain placed the blame on God, not on himself. Selfishly, his main concern was that others would find him and then slay him. There was no remorse, only a thought that others might also be driven by the same motives of hatred and revenge he had exhibited. Once more God acted out of mercy and this time marked him to protect him.

Adam and Eve would have been deeply shocked and grief-stricken by the murder of Abel their son. It is ironic that they aspired for Cain to be the one to slay the serpent, yet instead the serpent mind within Cain ended up slaying his own brother. He is sent away eastward from the presence of God with his wife. His firstborn was called Enoch (v17) and after building a city he named it after his son. A city is built for protection and safety. Perhaps Cain still feared retribution for his sin, and trusted the safety of the walls around himself, rather than in the assurance of God. Did Cain later repent and turn back to God? The record is silent, but it is likely that he lived the average age of his contemporaries (around 900 years) and oversaw the advancement of his seed; the seed of the serpent.

Two Manner of People

The battle between the two seeds and indeed between two types of thinking is a major theme throughout the Bible. John’s first epistle declares simple black and white spiritual truths and in the third chapter says that we are either sons of God or sons of the devil – the Greek word, ‘diabolos’, refers to the unlawful desires that emanate from our natural makeup. The children of God do not live as instruments to commit sin, because they have God’s incorruptible seed planted within them (1 John 3:9, 1 Pet 1:23). They are readily recognised because they do “righteousness… even as he is righteous” (1 John 3:7). Cain however, was the first man to be exposed as a child of the devil. He did no righteousness, did not love his brother and allowed himself to be led by his own passions and desires. He clearly was “of that wicked one, and slew his brother” (1 John 3:12).

Likewise in Jude’s epistle, we learn that the spirit of Cain was alive and well in his day. He wrote to his readers to encourage them to “earnestly contend for the faith” and to warn them of “ungodly men” who had become embedded within the ecclesia. These corrupt men followed the pattern of Korah and Balaam, walking after their own lusts, having “gone in the way of Cain” (Jude v11).

The warning for us today is clear. The way of Cain is seen in a life of willful disobedience, of selfish disregard for our brother’s welfare, of proud resistance to the wholesome words of God. It reveals itself in those who have a form of godliness but who lack an understanding of what God really requires. It is a spirit that refuses to yield to the rebuke of the Scriptures and is indignant when brought to account. Envy, animosity, lies, unrighteousness and hatred are the hallmarks of Cain’s life. We need to be different. We need to crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts (Gal 5:24) and live as instruments of righteousness unto God (Rom 6:13). By following the way of Abel we will truly be seen as the sons and daughters of the living God.