The Lesson of Cain

ImageThis morning, I began a new segment with my Christian Learning Center class. We’re discussing the philosophical foundations and development of Biblical worldview this semester, so that means were looking extensively at how the Bible answers the four fundamental questions of life: origin, meaning, morality and destiny. This morning marked the beginning of our look at morality. So naturally I started in a really strange place: the story of Cain and Abel.

I read the story from Genesis 4 and then asked the students one simple question: Was God fair to Cain?

Immediately they connected my question with the punishment of Cain, and naturally they said that God was not only fair to Cain, but merciful. I kindly replied that Cain’s punishment wasn’t the action I questioned. I wanted to know if God were fair to Cain before that.

They questioned my question, so I asked them to do me a favor (you can do this too, if you want to play along at home and humor an idiot such as myself): I asked them to go back into Genesis 1-3 and find the place where God laid down the laws regarding sacrifice. Any verse would do. Just find the one where God tells Adam and Eve or Cain or Abel what He expected regarding offerings submitted to Him.

They went silent, searching their cellphones and the random hard copies on hand. One minute ticked by, then two; eventually, after five painful minutes, one of the students looked up and said, “This is a trick question. There’s nothing in here about what sacrifices God wanted.”

And I said, “Bingo. When you read the Scripture, it would appear that the gifts from both Cain and Abel are spontaneous gestures. Cain brings part of his stock and trade; Abel brings part of his. God is pleased with Abel’s, not so pleased with Cain’s. There’s no reason given why He felt that way, despite the fact that many Christians have been taught that Abel gave from a pure heart but Cain didn’t. That’s not in the text here**, so let’s put it aside and consider this story as it’s written, and let me ask you again: was God fair to Cain?”

**I’m patently aware that Hebrews 11:4 acknowledges that Abel’s sacrifice was better than Cain’s, but the writer of Hebrews still doesn’t tell us why that was so – it merely confirms it was. So I submit to you that the notion that Abel’s heart was more in tune with God is something that we read into the text to help create a context for what happens next. I think this is an instance where well-meaning Christians have invented a false “truth” to help ameliorate discomfort over the seeming arbitrariness of God in the passage.

There was a pause. Finally, one of my students said, “No, I don’t think He was. It’s not fair to not give a guy any standards and then tell him he doesn’t meet those standards.”

Other students agreed.

One did not. She still insisted that God had been plenty fair to Cain, and that Cain was a jerk at heart anyway because he got miffed and killed Abel. And murder confirms jerkiness, so Cain probably brought a jerky sacrifice and God merely pointed that out.

Again, I told asked her to put aside the aftermath of Cain’s sacrifice, and just consider the sacrifice itself. I asked her to set aside everything else she knew about the story and just consider, for a moment, if God were fair to Cain in rejecting his sacrifice.

She looked at me, and said brilliantly, “Yes. Because He’s God, and He determines what’s acceptable or not.”

And I pointed at her and said, “Exactly. This is the beginning point of morality for anyone who would profess to be a Christian: God alone determines what is and isn’t acceptable. What is and isn’t right or wrong.”

I wish I could say that this was a deep and profound thought that I’ve been harboring for a long time. I wish I could say that I stole it from someone like John Piper or Tim Keller or Al Mohler or any other wise and deep theologian. Instead, it was the result of me staying awake most of the night with this story on my mind, convinced that it was the place to begin our exploration on morality without really understanding why, other than the fact that this story has ALWAYS bothered me.

Maybe it’s because I’m an older brother myself, but I never could quite shake the idea that Cain got a raw deal. I’ve grown up being taught that he was a jerk, that he was an evil person at heart (as evidenced by his killing Abel), and it never seemed quite fair to me. In fact, it always struck me as retrofitting. I’m probably the only Cain sympathizer in the known universe, so I’ll accept any questions regarding my orthodoxy with the acknowledgement that I deserve such questions.

But walking through this passage this morning, with God leading me ahead of my students, helping us all to see that He alone is the Sovereign King who decides right and wrong on the basis of His perfect, unchanging nature and character…well, that was the most exciting thing that’s happened to me in a long time. It brought sense to a text I’ve wrestled with for years and it opened up my heart to fear and marvel at God once again.

I don’t think God was capricious in His choosing between Cain and Abel. I don’t doubt that any of the explanations we’ve offered in the millennia since this story was written contain truth about Cain, his heart and what God knew about each. To be perfectly honest, this story makes me think about Romans 9, an incredible passage that makes clear God makes vessels of dishonor to use as He sees fit.

I would daresay Cain was one of those vessels.

The students sat stunned at the idea. I won’t say anyone’s paradigm shifted (after all, it’s hard to shift anything at 7:30 in the morning) but there was certainly a look of comprehension on a great many faces. The story of Cain and Abel wasn’t about their righteousness or unrighteousness – it was about the Sovereign God and His established rule.

I’ll probably be castigated for my take on the passage, and I invite and welcome the discussion in the comments below. But even if my interpretation is unorthodox, I stand by the conclusion: that this story shows us, if nothing else, that the root of Biblical and Christian morality lies not within ourselves, or even our understanding of God’s Law. It is found in the essence of God Himself, in His character and authority and His power.

Can’t get more orthodox than that.

18 thoughts on “The Lesson of Cain

  1. Good stuff! Ironic that we often rail against God for not being fair when we can only judge fairness in light of His holiness and righteousness.

    As for Cain and Abel’s sacrifices, it’s interesting to note that this story comes right on the heels of the creation narrative where God has spoken into being all of the things which they are now bringing to Him as gifts. From that perspective, the question isn’t why was Cain’s sacrifice rejected, it’s why was Abel’s offering accepted—it was already His after all.

    All points to grace being a gift, and a gift that is God’s to give.

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    1. Exactly! The whole notion of sacrificing something to God that belonged to Him anyway is an interesting one to consider (especially in our day and age when we want to give it AND get a tax break on it). Man – I could wrestle with this text the rest of the day. Thanks for reading!

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  2. Jason, This is great! I think you have hit upon a somber point that we all must realize. We are not God, we do not see all, we do not know all. God’s acceptance or rejection of the sacrifice on that day was not arbitrary. It was totally within his character and based on knowledge that we may never have or understand. Was it fair? Based on my belief that god is Just and Holy…yes, unequivocally. At the end of the day, he is sovereign, he rules and he is God. When I was younger, I was often disappointed that God did not consult with me when deciding His will, the older I grow, the more I realize that it is a good call on His part. Thank you for bringing this up today!

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and reply, Andy! I’m with you – the older I get, the less of an issue (and more of a comfort) God’s Sovereignty is for me.

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  3. Jason, I don’t claim to be a theologian by ANY stretch of the imagination, but I beleive Genesis 4:3-4 is very telling, at least to this simple Southern girl. The verses make it very clear that Cain brought “some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD…” but Abel brought fat portions from the firstborn of his flock”. I believe that’s the sum of it: Cain brought ‘some’; Abel brought from the ‘firstborn’. Throughout the OT, God’s instructions were to bring the best of the best as the sacrifice or offering. I surmise that Cain brought ‘some’ as an obligatory “here you go, Lord” with a shrug of his shoulders and Abel brought his best of the best (the fat portion from the firstborn) as an humble, true offering of thanks. And I also presume since Scripture is so specific about what they brought that somewhere prior to Genesis 4, God made it perfectly clear what the expectation was. Just because it’s not recorded for us doesn’t mean it wasn’t spoken to them. Either way, I agree 100% with your conclusion…God is sovereign and He alone decides. See also Proverbs 16:4, a verse that has haunted me all my life. I would love to hear your thoughts on that one!

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    1. DH – I agree that the mentioned distinctions between Cain and Abel’s sacrifices has some significance. And I also agree that God goes on to make clear exactly what sacrifices He desired/deserves. I also mentioned to my students that there was the possibility that God had made clear to humanity what His expectations were, but we don’t have them in the text. Either way, we still arrive at the same conclusion: that it was neither Cain nor Abel that determined the appropriate sacrifice (or the appropriate heart when offering a sacrifice), it was God alone.

      For some reason, the sovereignty angle of this story has never stood out to me until today, and it’s like my brain exploded and happy birds flew out…

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  4. Jason – I worship as a Primitive Baptist; our doctrine is based on a sovereign God and that darned “election” in which God chooses His people, we don’t choose him. The story of Cain has long been a problem for me because of this very thing. Seems like he got a totally bad deal in that he didn’t KNOW what was an acceptable sacrifice, so therefore couldn’t provide it. Certainly he reacted out of anger – no denying that – and certainly God was merciful in his punishment. Not to muddy up the water, for SOME clarification came for me in the lesson of Jacob and Esau. In the womb, neither had opportunity to sin, yet God said “Jacob have I loved, yet Esau have I hated.” (Malachi 1 and Hebrews 9).

    Us PB’s use this as one of the proof texts for God’s sovereignty. He chooses. Not us. For some, that doesn’t seem fair, but to me, it is comfort knowing that God, who is more faithful – and a good bit smarter – than this mere human, has this power.

    Let the PB flogging begin ….

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    1. I wouldn’t dream of flogging my PB brothers and sisters, and you raise a great textual comparison in Jacob and Esau. It’s challenging stuff in an age of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Thanks for weighing in, Gail!

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  5. Jason, good “thinking” post. I am in 100% agreement with your final conclusion, but wanted to throw out a thought for the middle of the discussion. The author of Genesis (Moses, or Noah or whoever, it really doesn’t matter) is writing this and is compiled possibliy hundreds of years after the event took place. (most likely during the exodus period) During the time when Israel had already been made aware of the sacrificial system by Yahweh. We know that the Bible doesn’t not record everything, it would be impossible to do so, but I am willing to bet that God gave them instructions for a sacrifice even though we don’t read about them. My one point of evidence would be, how would Able have know to give a a sacrifice in the first place without Yahweh telling him. Perhaps it would have been in his nature could be a possible objection. But the details of the “fat portions” and the “first born” tell me that there were some details here. Jumping back to your final conclusion, I say that Cain’s sacrifice was not good enough, not at God’s standard, that he sets. God Bless brother!

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    1. John – I agree that the historical context is such that the audience would’ve undoubtedly understood the implications of the sacrificial system, so the author wouldn’t necessarily have needed to bring them to bear on the story. But at the same time, there are other places where – when Scripture writers want to emphasize a certain point – they take great pains to highlight the commands of God on a particular issue.

      In the end, I think we still end up where we’re at – God’s sovereign choice and authority to establish morality – but it’s certainly a different trip to just deal with the plain text itself and wrestle with some uncomfortable things.

      As always, brother, thanks for the comment! You keep me sharp…ish. I’m not sure I can ever really be sharp.

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  6. Yes, the only conclusion is that God is the one and He knows all. So, while we may not understand it, we just need to believe that God knows so much more than we do and He rejected Cain’s sacrifice because He is a Holy God. We may not know the reason but know God determines what is acceptable and what is unacceptable and yes God is a fair judge. We may not agree or think we are in the wrong, but God is fair even when we get disciplined by Him and it hurts. He is fair all the time because He is so perfect.

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  7. Jason, thanks for making me think. I’m at work on my break and dont have time to read Gen 1-4 right now. But here is what comes to my mind here.

    Going on the premise that he didnt know that he was supposed to bring his “best” as a sacrifice, how did know that murder was wrong?

    The Bible says that after Adam and Eve took and ate of the forbidden fruit, their eyes were opened. I believe this was referring to their eyes physically, spiritually, emotionally, etc. I believe at that point, man gained a general knowledge of what was good and acceptable to God. And that is how he knew what he should sacrifice and that what he had done was a sin in God’s eyes.

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    1. Tim – like I said, it was an unorthodox approach to the text. I think you raise some valid points, and certainly food for much thought (and probably food closer to kosher in terms of interpretation). I agree that Cain was possessed of the knowledge of good and evil (which answers the murder question you raised) and probably knew that his sacrifice wasn’t acceptable to God. I think that’s highly likely. But the text is not specific in that regard – it’s an inference we make, either from the previous chapter, or from an extended reading of the whole of Scripture (as John suggested). It’s an example of how our hermeneutic shapes/guides our understanding, and how sometimes people can take a text and read it one way without dealing with their snuck-in biases (or presuppositions).

      Thanks for challenging me back! I have a lot more thinking to do on this passage. 🙂

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  8. Really good and insightful thoughts Jason! I can honestly say I’ve never considered the story in that light before, which now that I think about it doesn’t say much for my thinking through the first few chapters of Genesis. Your main point that God is the standard of morality and what is/isn’t acceptable is one I believe we fail to fully realize. So often I try to create God’s morality in my image. God is the only Person who’s “Because I said so,” is enough. Thankfully, He gives us more than that. Thankfully we’re not left with JUST the story of Cain and Abel to figure out who He is, what He requires of us, and that since we can’t meet those standards He met them Himself.

    Here’s a question that came to mind as I was reading. Cain and Abel were not the first to offer sacrifices. God himself was when he slaughtered the animals for Adam and Eve to wear. He provided the covering for their nakedness – physically but also paving the way spiritually. By doing so he set the precedent for what we learn later on, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.” (Heb. 9:22) Could it be that because Adam and Eve had seen God sacrifice with blood on their behalf, they now knew that there was a “better” sacrifice to offer, and that this played into the story of Cain/Abel?

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    1. Great point on the sacrifice God Himself made on behalf of Adam and Eve. Didn’t connect that at all, and it makes perfect sense of the narrative. Thanks, Sarah!

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