Genesis 4 begins on the heels of sin entering the world leading the reader to wonder about the extent of its reach and devastation: how far will these ripple effects flow? Two new characters are introduced and little detail is given as to why Abel’s offering to God is shown favor while Cain’s is not – instead, the narrative slows in order to zoom in on Cain’s angry response to his brother’s success.
You Mad, Bro?
God says 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 rule over it.”
That doesn’t seem too hard, right? I can simply extend my arm and push this crouching-sin-problem down, and all will be well in the world. But this struggle between Cain and his own sin is over before it begins. His anger has tapped into the corruption of his soul, already evolving into a plan. Without a word back to God, he invites his brother out to the field where he attacks him, and in less than a sentence, takes his own brother’s life.
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.”
Two Brothers, Two Covenants
This is not a story about anger management, but a story of two covenants – two brothers embodying two ways of living and relating to God. The first covenant is one of works, demonstrated by Cain working the ground and offering a sacrifice that he literally worked for with his hands. He shows us our inability to assert ourselves over the unseen enemy of our own sin — whose power is often underestimated, operating not only in our behaviors but also at the deeper level of our intentions. Cain’s job description appears simple enough, but in his effort to push down and resist sin, the enemy of his soul had already acted, leaving him worse off than the Knight from Monty Python.
A life lived trusting in our own works will always end in dejection and disappointment, especially when others are shown favor. Success will go to our heads, further deceiving our “Tis merely a flesh wound” tendencies, and failure will destroy our hearts.
The second covenant is one of faith, shown in Abel’s offering of a lamb which he neither worked for nor earned. Faith trusts in the work of God’s hands not our own. Like a sunflower orienting itself to its source of life all day long, faith looks to the Life Giver outside of the “self.” The New Testament looks back on this passage and colors in the whitespace, revealing that God accepts Abel’s offering because it was given by faith.
The Bible goes a step further in helping us make sense of this passage by unpacking the ways that Cain and Abel point ahead typologically to both clarify and contrast the gospel. The blood of Abel speaks to God from the ground, condemning the murderous intentions and actions of his brother. Hebrews 12 calls us back to this account explaining that the blood of Jesus speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Where Abel’s blood shouted to God for the condemnation of the transgressor, the blood of Jesus speaks words of absolution, pardon, and release – condemnation paid in full.
Grace to the Restless Wanderer
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; anyone who kills Cain 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.
Cain illustrates physically, what all of us are spiritually: restless wanderers attempting to be accepted by God by mastering our sin-sick souls in endless pursuit of being better than others. It never works and our punishment is more than we can bear. But the good news of the gospel is not that God says “be less like Cain and more like Abel,” but that God cares for and moves toward restless wanderers. The consequences of Cain’s actions are more than he can bear, but God interrupts the punishment by placing a mark on Cain to protect his physical life for years ahead.
Grace is extended, unexpectedly, to the offender. This grace in Genesis 4 is a single sun ray hidden behind a curtain. Jesus removes this curtain completely letting the light burst into the darkness we’ve willingly let snuff out the former light. The warranted punishment is disrupted by God’s protective mark, pointing ahead to the undeserved “mark” of Jesus’ name put on the foreheads of the redeemed as described allegorically in the book of Revelation. This mark is a seal, proved by the deposit of God’s Spirit who protects transgressors like us from eternal death.
All are physically born into this fallen world, like Cain, under a covenant of works. Everything we do and everything we have ever done gets written down in a book. This book speaks to God about our just punishment and it is more than we can bear. But God disrupts our story of works with an invitation to be born again – an utter transformation out of the first book into the second, which is not a book of deeds, but of nothing more than names. Don’t return to the book of what you have done; instead, rest in the God who writes names down and moves toward restless wanderers to protect and deliver them from harm. He takes our downcast fears of never arriving and buries them in his own grave. He turns our sadness into joy.
Jesus walked into the field fully aware that his brothers were going to take his life. He did this of his own volition so that his blood would speak the better word of peace to you. The story of Cain and Abel bids you to lay your deadly doings down, down at Jesus feet. Stand in him and him alone, gloriously complete.