Coveting & Murder: a lesson from Cain & Abel in Genesis 4

This morning I taught about Cain and Abel at our women’s Bible study at Trinity Presbyterian Church. And so during the process of study, I found some intriguing aspects of this story that I’d never seen before. Below is the rough draft of my talk … hope that you’re able to learn something new, too!

We as women are as familiar with jealousy/envy/coveting … the root of it being discontentment. When I was 14, I was jealous of all my friends who had cars and could drive. Then I got a car and I couldn’t wait to just get to college. And then in college, I couldn’t wait to have a real job. Before I was married, I was jealous of my married friends. After getting married, I can easily grow jealous of friends who have a bigger house – or beautiful children – or a nice job. There is never enough. And the marketing industry builds on this idea. In fact, I recently got a coupon in the mail from a store that I try to avoid if I’m sticking to our budget that actually advertises one of their new lines as the “covetables collection.”

And yet to be honest, I rarely think twice about my covetous thoughts. I don’t usually fight them, but rather I indulge them. That’s why I had to buy the silver shoes from Target. I saw someone in a magazine with cute shoes, and this image drove me to purchase them for myself. I could say that my coveting fueled my shopping (and often does). And then I went home and laughed about it with friends – but was reprimanded (mildly) by my husband. The truth is that I just don’t often think that my coveting/envy/jealousy is that big of a deal. Yet the truth is that it’s so serious that it’s the heart of murder. And that’s where our story of Cain & Abel takes us today: right into the heart of a murderer – and you might be surprised at what you see there. It just looks a little too familiar.

What’s this story about? It’s familiar to us and easy to skim over, but I want us to slow down and look at it closely together this morning. You’ll see things you’ve never seen before. I would suggest there are 3 main themes of this story:

(1) how sin brings forth death

(2) how a worship problem becomes a relationship problem

(3) why humanity needs a Savior to master sin

  • (1) how sin brings forth death

This story is a story that takes us deeper into the fall and the consequences of sin. Sin’s ultimate progression and consequence of death and murder is laid out in the first homicide recorded in human history. And it’s a brother killing his own brother. And what’s even more chilling is that it starts with something so subtle and so common to you and me: a bad attitude and an envious thought. It’s sibling rivalry taken to the extreme.

Yet this story begins with the first birth announcement in human history: Eve speaks with joy of Cain’s birth, saying “With the Lord’s help, I have produced a man!” Shortly afterward Abel’s birth is also recorded, with the telling introduction as “his brother” with reference to Cain. As I studied this passage, you’ll notice that “brother” is a key word – used 7 times in these 16 verses!  It is always used for Abel, as Cain’s brother.

And soon after this, we fast forward to Cain and Abel as adults in different professions who are making offerings to God from their livelihood. Cain brings fruit (as a farmer) and Abel brings a sheep (as a shepherd). Although Cain’s offering goes without further description, in Hebrews 11:4 we read that  Abel’s sacrifice is said to be “by faith” and so it is more acceptable than Cain’s. Abel’s heart must have been in it; Cain was merely “going through the motions” of worship and offering. Abel’s is given descriptive words that best answer why his offering was regarded instead of Cain’s: he offers the “firstborn” and “their FAT portions.”  There’s been much debate over why his offering is rejected, and one commentator Bruce Waltke summarized it well: “Cain’s sin is tokenism. He looks religious, but in his heart he is not totally dependent on God, childlike or grateful.”

At this point, Cain’s sin is still rather hidden from view as we read the story. But like any sin, as it grows, it will become more and more obvious – and its fruit will be borne in time. Like good fruit produced by a good heart, Cain’s evil heart will bear bad fruit.

The first major key is that Cain responds to God’s lack of regard for his offering with anger that shows up in his countenance. He’s having a pity party, which exposes his self-righteous tendency. He is jealous and envious that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted and his wasn’t. He feels like he deserves better.

Does this sound familiar? Do you find yourself in this story? The parallel with the older brother in the story of the two lost sons (aka Prodigal sons) begins to show up here. Again, it’s an older brother who feels like he deserves more of God’s favor because of his hard work. Yet Cain is apparently blind to the fact of why his offering was rejected (that he was only giving “just enough to get by”). He, like the Israelites who first heard this story in the desert, was going through the motions of worship without the love for God. Their hearts were far from him.

But as his sin becomes more evident, so does God’s grace toward Cain. He confronts him, but not in an angry way nor an indirect way. He speaks to Cain with truth and love, coming to him with a question and a warning. This metaphor of sin as “crouching at the door” “ready to devour” makes us picture a predator waiting for its prey. And this is an apt picture of sin. James 1 speaks of the progression of our sinful desire – which “lures us away” and “entices us” – yet when its fully grown, it bring forth death. And we see in Cain’s response to God’s warning that this is exactly what happens. Instead of heeding God’s warning and finding hope in the promise that he COULD rule over sin (instead of sin ruling over him), the next verse rather tersely lays out Cain’s inward decision.

Cain murders Abel while they’re out in a field. There is no question of Cain’s sin at this point: he is a murderer and any person (Christian or not) would recognize Cain’s action as evil.

Yet we see God’s pursuing grace even still. God speaks again to Cain, asking him a question that hints of his question to Adam after their first sin: “Where is Abel your brother?” He shows mercy, yet Cain’s response shows how entangling sin can be and how deceptive. Cain must still think he can hide from God. And so not only does he lie about the answer to the question, but he denies all responsibility for his brother through his question as to whether he is his brother’s keeper.

God answers again with three verses saying that although Cain has not been Abel’s keeper, God has heard the cry of Abel’s blood rising to him from the ground. What a poignant picture of God’s concern for those who have been victimized by the powerful! Take great courage from this, that although none else may have seen or known about the worst evils committed against you, there is One who has seen – and who is a God of justice. If you have been abused, He wants to bring justice and also redemption. He has heard your cry.

God holds Cain accountable for Abel’s blood, and works justice for Abel through the judgment on Cain: that he will become a “fugitive and a wanderer” and that his work as a farmer will become even more difficult. Cain’s response to this, instead of being one of humble repentance and confession is one of proud complaint. He says that he’s being punished more than he deserves (he still maintains his self-righteous attitude here). And yet God’s grace still abounds: he listens to Cain and essentially does for Cain what Cain refused to do for his brother Abel: God promises to protect Cain’s life. And so against the background of Cain’s sinfulness, God’s grace abounds even more.

And yet we see the ultimate end of sin: being banished from the Lord’s presence into the land of Nod (literally – the “land of nomadic existence”). What begins with mere jealousy develops into murder and then the ultimate consequence of separation from God.

  • (2) how a worship problem becomes a relationship problem

As we step back to look at the context of this story, we see that it follows a similar pattern to the fall – when Cain’s parents introduced sin into the world (and their family) through breaking God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There is God’s gracious confrontation of Cain – and even more, a warning before he murders Abel. And yet it’s even worse: whereas Eve had to be talked into sin by the serpent, Cain cannot be talked out of sin. Then there follows a curse because of the sin – and Cain’s became even worse than his parents’: the ground will be even more futile, and Cain will be banished not just from Eden but from the Lord’s paradise. He will now essentially be homeless – a wandering fugitive. The story has deepened in the level of sin and judgment.

And in the Fall, part 1 (with Adam & Eve), the relationship with God is broken. Here we see that the broken relationship with God has spilled over into broken relationships with fellow people – even to his own brother! This is the way of sin: it begins by breaking my relationship with God, and then it spills over into the brokenness of my relationships with those around me.

It shows that humanity is not essentially good. People, left to their own devices, do not become better but worse.

The key is to master sin – which God warns Cain that sin is “crouching at his door” – like a predator waiting for its prey – and that Cain must master it (or overcome it). But he does not and he cannot. This is the story of our world, isn’t it? For the next centuries, humanity will try unsuccessfully to master sin. And it proves impossible. We need more than a warning, we need one to rescue us.

  • (3) humanity’s need for a Savior to master sin

This story of Cain and Abel is our story: you and I are Cain. Over and over again, God warns us of the danger of sin, but over and over again I give in. The chocolate is too tempting; the new shoes would be so cute. I must have them. I cannot say no to sin!

And so this story of deepening evil that seems so hopeless actually points to the hope of Jesus Christ – it increases our need for Him. As we see sin’s progression in humanity and in Cain’s own heart, we are reminded of how hopeless we are without a rescuer – and how hopeful the gospel is to us.

We, like Cain, have murdered the innocent. My sin today is enough to condemn an innocent man to die – because Jesus is the only way I could be forgiven. Hebrews 12:24 says that Jesus’ blood “speaks a better word than Abel’s.” This intrigued me! What could that mean?

As Abel’s blood is said to cry out – and it cried out for Cain’s guilt and punishment and banishment away from God – Jesus’ blood (the only truly innocent man because he was God’s very own Son – fully human, fully divine) cries out not that you and I are guilty and deserve to die, but that the guilt and wrath of our sin has been removed. And so now Jesus’ blood does not incriminate us, as Abel’s blood did, but Jesus’ blood cries out “righteous! Holy! Mine!” and it declares this of all those who admit to their own sin and way of seeking to live life apart from God.

And so against the backdrop of the progression of sin in our own hearts, as we express the brokenness of our relationship with God in fellow human relationships, we see that we need rescue. And in this way, the story of Cain and Abel brings you and I who live in the era after the Redeemer great hope. Jesus reverses sin’s progression, restores our brokenness with God and one another, and gives us power through the Spirit to overcome (master) sin as it tempts us through our covetous desires.

We live in a new era, where Christ has mastered sin for those who trust fully in him (not their own effort or goodness), and so the words of Romans 6:12-14 become a hopeful promise for us:

12Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. 14For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.

*SOURCES: I am indebted to the following commentaries that I used in my study, whose ideas have informed my writing: “How to Read Genesis” by Tremper Longman III, “Creation & Blessing” by Allen P. Ross, “Genesis: A Commentary” by Bruce Waltke, “Study of Genesis” guide by Tim Keller

One thought on “Coveting & Murder: a lesson from Cain & Abel in Genesis 4

  1. “For sin shall not be your master…”
    My heart takes a great sigh at this glorious news in Romans. You did a great job teaching this important story. Thank you for sharing with us!

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