Genesis 1 and 2 tell us how the world was created. Genesis 3 shows us how the world was corrupted. Genesis 4, then, shows us the beginning of the “new normal”. After Adam and Eve’s sin, the world is a broken and cursed place, and human beings are sinful and corrupt. At the same time, however, this broken, cursed world is the stage on which the mercy and grace of God are working redemption. We see all of this on display in the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4.
The story itself is fairly well known. Both brothers bring a sacrifice to the Lord – Abel from the firstborn of his flock and Cain from the fruit of the ground. The Lord accepts Abel’s offering but rejects Cain’s offering. As a result of this rejection, Cain grows angry and murders his brother – for which he faces the wrath of God. Cain is exiled and alienated as a fugitive and a wanderer who can no longer work the ground. The chapter ends with a brief genealogy of Cain’s descendants alongside a brief account of God granting Adam and Eve another son – Seth – to replace Abel. Without a doubt this is a tragic story, and yet – like the rest of Scripture – it is written to teach and instruct us even today. So what does it say?
First, it shows that God’s penetrating gaze pierces beyond external appearances and sees our heart. There is no explanation in the text for the acceptance of Abel’s offering and the rejection of Cain’s offering. It is only later that we learn that Abel was accepted because his offering was presented by faith (Heb. 11:4), and Cain was rejected because his deeds were evil (1 John 3:12). The difference between the two brothers was in the state of their hearts, and God could see their hearts the moment they brought their sacrifices. God sees the invisible things of the heart (1 Sam. 16:7), and He was not fooled by Cain’s outward act of piety. God knew what was in Cain – just as He knows what is in us. We cannot fool Him anymore than Cain could, and we need to recognize that we are naked and exposed to the eyes of the One to whom we must give account (Heb. 4:13).
This leads to a second clear lesson from this story: sin is not simply a vague concept – it is actually a power that is seeking to destroy us. God warned Cain that sin’s desire was to rule over him, and He encouraged Cain to rule over it instead (Gen. 4:5). But Cain could do no such thing – sin overpowered him, and Cain willingly allowed it to do so. This is our problem after Genesis 3 – we are all under the power of sin (Rom. 3:9,23). We cannot escape sin on our own, and we do not desire to escape sin. Because we are dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1), we do not submit to God’s law – in fact, we cannot submit to it (Rom. 8:7). And as result, we face the wrath of God – just like Cain did. Cain could not escape God’s judgment, and neither can we. God hates sin, and He will always punish it.
Thankfully, though, judgment is not only message of this chapter. Even though Cain sinned and bore God’s wrath, God showed him mercy by offering a chance to confess as well as granting protection once the judgment fell (Gen. 4:15). In a similar way, even though we are by nature objects of wrath (Eph. 2:3), God offers us salvation. There is hope for sinners – if we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead, then we are saved (Rom. 10:9). The same God who judges sin also offers grace.
You see, that is the ultimate good news of Genesis 4. Even though the seed of the serpent (Cain) tried to destroy the seed of the woman (Abel), God provided another seed (4:25). And God protected that line of promise again and again until the true “seed” came – Jesus Christ (Gen. 3:16). The honest truth is that we all stand in the position of Cain – guilty and deserving punishment, but the good news of the gospel is that Jesus came and took the punishment for us so that we can go free. Mercy truly can triumph over judgment because of the death and resurrection of Christ. Even the old, old story of Cain and Abel points us to Him and whispers His name. I pray that – unlike Cain – you would bow your knee, confess your sins, and trust Christ to rescue you so that you can be delivered from sin’s power and set free to love and serve God as you love and serve others.