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
- See creation.com/offspring-1. Return to text.
- See creation.com/cain-chronology. Return to text.
- See creation.com/biblical-human-population-growth-model. Return to text.
- 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.
- Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Word Books, Waco, TX), p. 110. Return to text.
- Hamilton, ref. 4, p. 238. Return to text.
- Currid, Genesis, vol 1., EP Study commentary (Evangelical Press, 2005), p. 155. Return to text.