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Creation 42(1):42–45, January 2020

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Cain: The ultimate cautionary tale



Cain was the first human born on this planet. He was also the first human to only know a fallen world. Eve seemed very hopeful when she named him, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord” (Genesis 4:1). She may have been looking forward to the fulfillment of God’s promise that one of her offspring would defeat the serpent (Genesis 3:14–15).1

Because he was the first child, and because he conversed directly with God (see below), Cain had privileges that few other people in history have had. He could have been a role model, a paragon of virtue, and he could have been a great patriarch of humanity to look up to. Instead, he chose to indulge his envy and hatred, and became the ultimate cautionary tale.

The rejected sacrifice

At a certain time, Cain and his brother Abel offered sacrifices to God—both of which were related to their trades.2 As a shepherd, Abel brought the best of the fat portions of his flock—the biblical account emphasizes the quality of Abel’s sacrifice. Cain brought some of the produce of the ground, but the account does not give the same statement regarding quality. Perhaps Cain kept back the best for himself, or perhaps God was displeased with the fact that Cain’s sacrifice did not involve the shedding of blood. Either way, Abel’s offering was accepted, but Cain’s was not. The true reason for the rejection of the offering is seen in Cain’s reaction: he is angry that his sacrifice has been rejected.

God spoke to Cain regarding the sacrifice and his anger over its rejection—this sort of personal conversation is a privilege that most people never receive. He gives Cain counsel—“If you do well, will you not be accepted?” It is implied that Cain knows how he has fallen short, and thus it is unreasonable for Cain to be angry and dejected about his rejection (the story suddenly sounds very personal). God’s counsel is accompanied by a warning: “ And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

The murder and its aftermath

If Cain had repented at this point, he could have been a great example. Other important people in the Bible sinned and were forgiven, like King David, Paul, and Peter. But the counsel Cain received only intensified his hatred. He found his brother and murdered him. The isolated setting (“in the field”, Genesis 4:8) indicates that Cain’s action was deliberate and premeditated.

God again came to Cain. He asked Cain where his brother was, not because He didn’t know, but possibly to give Cain a chance to confess his sin. Even Adam and Eve, when confronted by God, told the truth (Genesis 3:9–13), but Cain goes a step further and actually lies to God. He claimed he didn’t know where his brother was, and adds a deflecting comment that it wasn’t his responsibility to know.

God tells him that Abel’s blood, which Cain spilled, was crying out to the Lord. In an interesting parallel, when Adam sinned, the ground was cursed (Genesis 3:17–19). Now Cain is cursed from the ground (Genesis 4:11–13). Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden and into the world, but now Cain is cursed to wander the world forever. This is more severe, because God never cursed Adam and Eve as Cain is now cursed.

Being made to wander forever means that Cain will be cut off from his family—which at this time is the whole human race consisting perhaps of hundreds of people already—and from God’s presence.3 One commentator notes:

“In some ways it is a fate worse than death. It is to lose all sense of belonging and identification with a community. It is to become rootless and detached.”4

When Cain expressed fear that he would be killed for his crime, God put a mark on him. We do not know what that entailed, but it indicated that he was protected: God Himself would exact vengeance sevenfold on anyone who tried to avenge Abel.

Multiple commentators have drawn a comparison between the mark given to Cain and the clothes given to his parents.5 Both were given in response to sin in light of the judgment passed, but also expressed a measure of mercy.

The first city and Cain’s descendants

Though God sentenced Cain to wander, the very next verses tell about him settling in the land of Nod with his wife. He then builds a ‘city’ (Genesis 4:17), which meant a walled town. It is possible that this is an act of defiance against God, or simply an attempt to provide security that he does not trust God to provide.6

He named this city after his son, Enoch, and Enoch’s descendants would be innovative. The first innovation is polygamy. Cain’s great-great-great grandson Lamech was the first man said to have had more than one wife. This is a departure from the created ideal of ‘one man and one woman’ for life. Lamech also displayed sinful pride and anger. As Currid says, “Lamech is a man of fierce and cruel disposition. He gives no mercy or forgiveness. He will destroy all that gets in his way. And he composes a poem that glorifies his serpent-like manner!”7

Lamech’s sons, however, were known for their ingenuity. Jabal was known for his nomadic lifestyle. His living in tents and keeping livestock would be very similar to Israel a thousand years later. Jubal was the first musician. Tubal-Cain was a blacksmith who made instruments of bronze and iron. This could include useful tools, but also instruments of war.

The ultimate cautionary tale

Cain does not show up again in the Old Testament. He is mentioned, however, multiple times in the New Testament. Jesus references the murdered Abel as the first martyr (Matthew 23:35; Luke 11:51). Jesus excoriates the Jewish leaders who have rejected Him and were plotting to kill Him. He tells them that in so doing, they are bringing on their heads the guilt for all the righteous blood shed through history, from the first murder victim, Abel, onwards.

Cain is negatively contrasted with Abel in Hebrews (11:4). Abel’s sacrifice was accepted because he had faith, so logically, Cain’s sacrifice was inferior because he lacked faith.

The Apostle John tells us that “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12). Cain was jealous that Abel was accepted when he was not. Rather than repent of his evil deeds and emulate his brother, Cain chose to eliminate Abel.

Jude tells us that the false teachers of his day “walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion” (Jude 1:11). He piles up example after example to show that the false teachers of the day are following in the footsteps of some of the Old Testament’s most notorious figures.

The lesson of Cain

Cain is the ultimate cautionary tale. He is a tragic figure, but he is also solely to blame for his predicament. While Abel gained a lasting reputation in Scripture as a righteous man and the first martyr of history, Cain is the archetypal murderer. Anyone who kills another because that person appears righteous, or anyone who hates his brother, is walking in Cain’s footsteps.

Yet there were bright spots even in Cain’s lineage. Music, metallurgy, and nomadic herding were innovations of Cain’s line, showing that a man’s descendants aren’t doomed to fruitlessness because of the sins of their forefather.

This can serve as a good lesson for us today. Our ancestors, all the way back to Adam, were sinful people. We have murderers, adulterers, and thieves at different places in our family tree. We ourselves are sinful people and it is really only the grace of God that keeps us from being as bad as we can be. We all deserve death. But Jesus died in our stead. Since we have been freed from the curse of death, we are now free to live as redeemed, transformed people in Christ.

References and notes

  1. See creation.com/offspring-1. Return to text.
  2. See creation.com/cain-chronology. Return to text.
  3. See creation.com/biblical-human-population-growth-model. Return to text.
  4. Hamilton, V.P., The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans), p. 232, 1990. Return to text.
  5. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Word Books, Waco, TX), p. 110. Return to text.
  6. Hamilton, ref. 4, p. 238. Return to text.
  7. Currid, Genesis, vol 1., EP Study commentary (Evangelical Press, 2005), p. 155. Return to text.

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by Lita Cosner
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Readers’ comments

Corey B.
The reason that God refused Cain's sacrifice was that his offering was the fruit of his own hands, he gave what he thought was right even though God told him how to give proper offering. Abel gave his offering to how God wanted him to. Cain was jealous and upset because he thought he gave of his best, even though it wasnt what God wanted him to give. It was a matter of of what God wanted him to do and he wanted to do it his own way.
Benjamin H.
You are right. Both a blood sacrifice or quality is cause for rejection. You cannot approach a king any way you want. To be accepted you must come His way. Isa 59:1  Behold, the LORD'S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: 2  But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear. And again: Psa 66:18  If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me: The Old Testament remedy was a blood sacrifice to cover sins: Heb 9:22  And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. So Cain's sacrifice was rejected because it wasn't a blood sacrifice. The quality wasn't relevant. In the N.T. Christ's blood cleansed sins, not covered them. Still we have only one approach to God: Mat 26:28  For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. 1Jn 5:12  He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. As for quality, if a person wouldn't accept your sacrifice, why would you think God would? If Abel had offered a diseased, deformed lamb, God wouldn't have accepted it. Mal.1:7,8
Jimmy C.
You say "...but now Cain is cursed to wander the world forever" and also "Being made to wander forever means that Cain will be cut off from his family—". Forever is a long time so does this imply that Cain has lived through all the ages of the earth? If this is the case the could it be possible Cain will be the antichrist and those taking his mark will get the same mark as God put on him.
Some writers have used the theme of a person living an immortal life, and it is because of something they need to atone for so they can eventually die.
Just a thought. Great article and very informative. God bless you.

Jimmy Carter
Lita Cosner
'Forever' was not in Scripture, but I used it to rather emphasize the permanent, lifelong nature of the curse.
Alan B.
Biblical creationists may logically derive additional nuance from this story. Abel’s profession as a shepherd was not the same as the modern, post-Flood profession of shepherd because Abel was not raising them for food. We know this because of God’s directions in Genesis 1:29. Therefore, why was Abel raising sheep? The only use for sheep that is implied in the surrounding text is for clothing and sacrifice—which were intertwined concepts at that time. In Genesis 3:21, God made clothing from skin to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness, which was the direct evidence of their sin; and thus God covered their sin. And this skin must have come from an animal, let’s say a sheep. But over time, Adam and Eve’s sheepskin clothing must have worn out, and additional population would have required additional sheepskin clothing to be made in any case. And therefore it would have been logical to have one person tend all the sheep that were necessary for everyone else’s clothing/sacrifice (the beginnings of the division of labor), and Abel was that man. But then what did Abel eat day after day? He couldn’t eat freely of the fruit of the trees from the Garden of Eden; food came only from working the thorny ground. Therefore, presumably everyone else worked the ground and traded some of their food with Abel in exchange for the sheep that they needed for their clothing/sacrifice (the beginnings of a barter economy). This, then, is the backdrop for the Cain & Abel story: Cain didn’t want to spend any of his food to buy Abel’s sheep. It wasn’t Abel’s fault that God required them, but Cain, in his selfish sin, blamed Abel and was bitter towards him anyway. Note that Abel must have had faith in God, that God would provide for his daily needs as he tended the sheep that God required (Hebrews 11:4).
Lita Cosner
This theory relies a little too much on speculation to state it as fact, but it is interesting nonetheless!
Lester V.
I agree that Eve may have thought Cain was the promised offspring who would defeat the serpent's offspring, but that does not mean that he was her "firstborn" child. It simply means he was her first MALE child, and was the first of her offspring to be named in the Bible. None of her other children (except Abel and Seth) are named, although Genesis 5:4 says Adam "begat sons and daughters". Obviously, Adam and Eve had daughters by the time Cain killed Abel, since Cain took his wife - one of his sisters - with him to "the land of Nod" (Genesis 4:16). She would have been one of Adam's daughters who may have been born before Cain. Since words are important to God, I find it interesting that the Bible clearly states that various people were "firstborn" (doing so 117 times, including daughters, as with Lot's girls in Genesis 19), but does not do so with Cain or any of the other Patriarchs listed in Genesis 5. The first person to be declared to be "firstborn" is Sidon, Canaan's firstborn, after the Flood (see Genesis 10:15). It is possible that the people listed in the chronogenealogies of Genesis 5 and 10 were so listed due to their importance in the ongoing revelation of God's plan of salvation, and not because they were born in any particular order. It is an interesting, but not necessarily critical, idea.
Michael B.
I've wondered about the dynamic of the household Cain was raised in. In the garden we see that rather than confessing their sin they shifted the blame. Adam states "that woman you gave me" places his actions on God and his wife. What if Adam had said "Yes Lord, and not only did I eat but I failed to protect my wife" That would be a godly confession.
So Cain and his siblings were being raised by parents who tended to blame others for their own actions and we see today that this type of environment breeds bitterness.
I'm of the opinion that the deep problem with Cain's poor sacrifice was that it was given while having a bitter heart toward his brother and God warned him about it and that he needed to guard his heart. So the murder wasn't a spur of the moment thing but had been building. (I know that's injecting a bit but we definitely see this dynamic in the world today)
While teaching on the dangers of anger toward our brother Jesus tells us that if we bring our offering to the altar and remember there is something between us and our brother we need to leave it and first be reconciled then come back and offer your gift. Matthew 5:22-24
Indeed the behaviors of our first families are worth studying to understand and take heed because they still impact us today.
Thank you for your faithful ministry to God's Word.
Your Brother in Christ,
Lita Cosner
I don't think we can make such assumptions about Adam and Eve's family life from that one episode. While one son was wicked, the other was righteous, and Seth was Abel's righteous replacement. What we can say is that the sin introduced by Adam's sin infected his offspring and affected them in various ways, down to us today.
Ben L.
For those who may not be aware, there is most probably* a connection between Genesis 4:24 (Lamech's vengeance) and Matthew 18:22 (Christ's forgiveness). The Greek rendered in the Seputagint is “seventy times seven,” using a Greek construction nearly identical to that in Matthew's Gospel. *some scholars minimise the connection.
Philip P.
Very thoughtful article Lita. Thank you. Fills in the gaps very well.
Phil M.
The reason God rejected Cain and his offering is because Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground. God had cursed the ground (chapter 3:17), which means Cain brought an offering of the fruit of what God had cursed. How could God accept the fruit of what He had cursed. God could only ever accept a substitutionary offering, which Abel’s was.

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