1 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
I am always intrigued by what people do NOT name their babies in America. You do not, for instance, meet many baby Adolfs here. You do not meet many Benedict Arnolds. You do not meet many Judases. Imagine if, at the child dedication service on Mother’s Day, we went down the line of beautiful little children and read these names: “This is little Charles Manson. And this is little Jezebel. And this is little Mussolini. He weighs 6 lbs and 7 oz.!” Can you imagine? Everybody would be thinking, “What in the world are these parents thinking?!”
No, there are some names that are just too damaged to be used. It is almost like an etymological curse hangs upon them. Most people would find the bestowing of these names on a baby today to be at least bad form and at most cruel.
Here is another name that I have yet to see parents give a child: Cain.I am not suggesting there is nobody named Cain today. For all I know you may know somebody who was named that. But I do not. At the least we can say that it has to be one of the more unpopular names, Cain.
So powerful is the imprint that misdeeds can leave on a name that I would wager many of you immediately had dark thoughts and feelings at the very mention of the name: Cain.
The story of Cain is a tragic story. There is some insinuation that Eve might have realized that Cain was going to be a disappointment in the way she named her second son, Abel. When Eve gave birth to Cain she said, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” The word for man is ish: “I have gotten an ishwith the help of the Lord!” This is not the word that is used of baby boys. It is used here because of Eve’s astonishment and sense of overwhelmed amazement that just as God had created a man, Adam, now she had been privileged to assist in the creation of another ish: “I have gotten an ishwith the help of the Lord!”
Eve begins, then, with jubilation and astonishment! She has high hopes for Cain! However, in the very next verse we read the understated, “And again, she bore his brother Abel.” It is not just that the birth announcement of Abel is much less dramatic than that of Cain. It is also the naming of Abel.
The name Abel means “vanity or weakness” or “vapor,” something temporary, something doomed not to last. Clyde Francisco has observed that some believe the name “Abel” may reflect Eve’s disappointment at realizing that Cain would not be the hero God had spoken of who would crush the head of the serpent when she realized Cain’s “stubborn nature even as a baby.”Remember: she named Abel “Abel” obviously before Cain committed his great crime. This means that there was something in the boy Cain that led her to move from the elation of her initial announcement—“I have gotten an ish!”—to such a situation of despair that she called her second son “vapor.” Was calling Abel “vanity” or “vapor” a self-condemning statement of her own vanity in thinking that Cain could be the promised one or was the idea that of “weakness,” both her own, her children’s, her husband’s, and the whole human race’s, in the light of this frustration?
Even so, Cain falls far from Eve’s initial grand hopes and becomes for us a chilling cautionary tale of what happens when we turn from God.
A heart that is far from God renders useless any worship that is offered to God.
There are many lessons to be learned in this cautionary tale of Cain, but one of the most fundamental is this: a heart that is far from God renders useless any worship that is offered to God. What sets the stage for the great tragedy of Cain and Abel are two acts of worship.
3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.
Cain the farmer brings an offering of produce. Abel the shepherd brings an offering of flesh. God accepts Abel’s offering and rejects Cain’s offering. There is a Jewish tradition that says that God showed his preference for Abel’s offering by sending fire down to consume it on the altar.We do not know that that is what happened, but maybe so. Regardless, Cain’s offering is rejected. The question is “Why?”. It is a question that has intrigued and fascinated readers of scripture for years on end. However, the Bible does give us a series of clues to help us understand what is happening here.
Cain did not bring the best he had.
The first clue is in the description of the offerings that the brothers brought to God.
3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.
Whereas there is a contrast in the naming of Cain and Abel, with Cain’s birth being depicted in dramatic fashion and Abel’s birth very understated, the opposite is the case here. We are told simply that Cain “brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground.” But there is more descriptive force with Abel’s offering: “Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions.” The description of Abel’s offering is more vivid: he brings the firstborn and he bring their fat portions. Old Testament scholar Clyde Francisco writes of the significance of these contrasting descriptions:
A valuable clue is seen in the mention of firstlingsin Abel’s offering. There is a corresponding “firstfruits” used of produce in the Old Testament. Just as the firstlings were the most precious among the animals, so were the firstfruits among the produce. The absence of the corresponding term in reference to Cain is conspicuous…[T]he passage obviously implies that in contrast to Abel’s best, Cain simply brought God something. It was not that it was poor quality; it was not his best.
Cain was grateful to God for a successful year of farming; he wanted to thank him for his help; so he brought him a present. Abel in giving God his best…witnessed to his total dependence upon God, his indebtedness to him. Cain thanked God for serving him. Abel confessed himself to be a servant of God.
Both of these appear to be acts of worship, but there is a difference. Abel brought the best that he had. Cain was just fulfilling a duty. Are we any different? Where is your heart this morning? Have you brought the best that you have to God? Or are you just here? Are you just doing your duty? How are you approaching your worship today: like Cain or like Abel?
Cain did not make his offering with faith.
We are assisted in understanding what is happening in this story by some New Testament references to it. For instance, in Hebrews 11 we read:
4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.
The writer of Hebrews argues that the difference in the offerings was a difference in faith. This harmonizes nicely with the fact that Cain did not bring his best. He lacked faith. He lacked a true spirit of worship. B.H. Carroll, that gloriously long-bearded Baptist commentator of old, wrote that “the way of Cain” is “manifested by hatred of the true religious spirit…”This is so. “The true religious spirit” is a spirit of faith and trust and the sincere giving of oneself to God in worship. Cain did not walk in this path.
Cain did not make a love offering, he made a self-focused offering.
If Cain was not truly focused on the faithful worship of God, who was he focused on? In short, Cain was focused on himself. The clue in this regard is found in Cain’s reaction to God’s rejection of his offering.
5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.
Cain pouts. More than that, he was furious: “Cain was very angry, and his face fell.” Why is this reaction significant? Rabbi Shalom Carmy, commenting on this text, writes that:
…many modern readers have realized that Cain’s response to God’s rejection matters more than the perfection of the sacrifice. I don’t think anyone has expressed this better than [Rabbi Lord Jonathan] Sacks [“the chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth”]. He looks at the offering as a gift. When a gift is rejected, there are two possible reactions: If you, the giver, ask what went wrong and try to do better, “you were genuinely trying to please the other person.” If you become angry with the recipient, “it becomes retrospectively clear that your concern was not with the other but with yourself.”
Yes! Cain’s reaction reveals that, in his mind and heart, it really is all about him! Cain is ultimately in it for Cain. R.R. Reno has offered the interesting statement that “Cain and Abel represent the two diverging trajectories of love.”Abel truly loves God. Cain, ultimately, loves himself.
It is chilling to realize that we can go to church year after year and still have our eyes on us. Worse than that, I believe we can sing songs of worship week in and week out and really be worshiping only our own selves. How about you? Are you here to know more of God and to love and worship Him more fully? Or is this really just about you when you get down to it? For Cain it was really all about Cain.
Cain’s heart was far from God.
Of course, when all was said and done, Cain’s heart was simply far from God. You can see this fact in God’s response to Cain’s anger.
6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
“If you do well, will you not be accepted?” The implication is clear enough: Cain’s offering was not accepted because he did not do well. His heart was far from God. He was living a life of rebellion. At this point we receive further assistance from another New Testament observation about Cain. John, in 1 John 3, writes:
11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 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.
John steps into Cain’s mind and heart and reveals what was going on: “And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” Read rightly, John is saying that Cain’s deeds were evil beforethe murder. He did not become evil because he murdered. He murdered because he was evil. Patrick Henry Reardon puts it nicely:
The key to the discernment of the first murder is the prior moral fissure dividing these two men. Murder was the fruit, not the root, of Cain’s offense. St. John tells us, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). Antecedent to the killing itself, then, the killer was already “of the evil one” (3:12).
Cain’s heart was far from God. R. Kent Hughes captured the moment powerfully when he wrote: “Cain stood at the edge of hell.”So God warns Cain:
7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.
Robert Alter translates verse 7 as, “For whether you offer well, or whether you do not, at the tent flap sin crouches and for you is its longing but you will rule over it.”I love the vivid urgency of that. Sin is crouching just outside of your tent flap! That is so with us, too, no? Even as we come to worship, sin is crouching just outside your tent flap. Beware! Be careful!
This whole examination of Cain’s mind and heart is in service of this frightening truth: a heart that is far from God renders useless any worship that is offered to God. Cain’s worship was rendered useless by Cain’s rebellion against God. Our worship can be as well. This fact is communicated powerfully and jarringly by the prophet Amos inAmos 5:
21 “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
God rejects worship when it is offered by hands that are simultaneously doing evil. In Israel’s case, it was their lack of justice and righteousness. It is the same with us, though that manifests itself in many different ways. If your heart is far from God and you know you have rebelled against God then your songs and offerings are just noise. True worship comes from a heart truly yielded to God!
Does this cause you to despair? It should cause all of us to tremble, for we know the poverty of our own worship. Even so, there is good news!
Jesus makes our worship acceptable, even though it is imperfect, by giving us new hearts that yearn to honor God.
The good news is that Jesus is able to change our hearts so that our worship, even though imperfect, becomes acceptable and pleasing to God. The psalmist prayed for this very thing in Psalm 19:
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
In other words, “God, help me so that my worship and praise of you will be accepted!” When is the last time you or I prayed this before the worship service begins? We are so casual and flippant in our worship at times. We forget that it is an act of divine grace that we can worship at all! Mercifully, the Lord revealed to the prophet Ezekiel that He would indeed give us a heart capable of offering true worship and obedience to God. In Ezekiel 11 we read:
19 And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
Which raises for us the urgent question, “How?!” How can we receive a heart that is not like Cain’s and offer worship that will not be rejected as Cain’s was? In Romans 10, Paul offers the answer in words of beautiful simplicity:
9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
In other words, give your heart to Jesus through faith in Him and His work on the cross and in the empty tomb and He, Jesus, will do what God told Ezekiel He would do: “remove the heart of stone…and give them a heart of flesh.” He does this by taking up residence in our hearts! In 2 Corinthians 4 Paul put it in these terms:
6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Had Cain allowed the light of God’s truth to shine in his heart he would have had a true knowledge of God. He would have had a relationship with God. He would have seen himself as he truly was and cried out to God in repentance. As a result, he would have been able to approach God in a spirit of sincere, God-honoring worship.
So too with us! If we will receive Christ Jesus into our hearts, He will save and change us. We will then be freed to worship as we ought and to approach the throne of God not on the basis of our own righteousness but on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. Our offerings, even though imperfect, will be perfected by the perfect Christ and therefore will be received.
Beware the path of Cain! Take instead the path of Abel, who, the scriptures tell us, approached the Lord with faith and love! Christ can give you that faith and that love.
Clyde T. Francisco, “Genesis.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol. 1, Revised (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969), p.132.
B.H. Carroll, Genesis. An Interpretation of the English Bible. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1942), p.122.
B.H. Carroll, p.120.
R.R. Reno, Genesis. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010), p.98
R. Kent Hughes, Genesis. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), p.104.
Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses. The Hebrew Bible. vol. 1 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), p.19.