Genesis 4: Cain and Abel and the Generations that Followed

By Mary Jane Chaignot

It's hard to know if chapter 4 connects to previous chapters and if it does, how it connects. Previously, Adam and Eve had been expelled from the garden, but no further information had been given about them. Nor is it possible to know how much time had passed. We read simply that "Adam 'knew' his wife, Eve…." This kind of "knowing" is intimate, relational, and sexual. And the verse continues by saying that she conceived and gave birth to Cain. In the next verse she exclaimed, "I have gotten a man together with the Lord." This could be translated as "I have created a man together with the Lord;" it would mean that she and the Lord were co-creators. This does not sound like a woman whose spirit has been broken by being tossed out of the garden. Instead Eve becomes a model of incredible strength and spirit against all odds. Right at the moment when she should be groveling, she was singing to God!

Shortly thereafter, she conceived again and gave birth to Cain's brother, Abel. Adam and Eve then disappeared from the story, and the two brothers took center stage. Their tale is a familiar one – two brothers and the rivalry that developed between them. Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil like his father. Their choices were typical of people in ancient times – men were most likely to be either herders or farmers. Scholars have suggested that, by virtue of their occupations, Cain and Abel would have been rivals. Others deny that and suggest that rivalries were more likely to emerge between settled and nomadic people. Not all shepherds would have been nomadic.

With little fanfare or background, both sons approached the Lord for worship. Cain brought fruits of the soil, and Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. It appears that this was a freewill offering to God, showing gratitude for his blessings. Scholars struggle with the next line that states, "The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor." The most common speculation is that Abel's gift of the fat portion was more pleasing to God, as evidenced by later biblical texts. Cain's offering was quite ordinary—no firstfruits, just "fruits of the soil." Abel's offering comprised the fat portion of the firstborn of his flock. One might argue, however, that neither Cain nor Abel would have had any knowledge of later biblical traditions. While these might be logical arguments, the fact is that they each brought a gift appropriate to their occupation.

So why did God accept one and not the other? Some scholars think God was simply free to favor or reject whomever he chooses. Others say simply that life isn't fair, and the sooner we learn that and learn how to cope with it, the better. The text itself does not give any reason. So we may never know why the Lord responded as he did. The result, however, was that Cain was very angry and his face was downcast. Many would say: "understandably so."

Yet, the Lord confronted him: "Why are you so angry? Why is your face downcast?" Some commentaries translate this as "Why are you so depressed?" Well, the answer seems pretty obvious. He was depressed because the Lord had not accepted his offering. But God's question hints that Cain might have had other options for responding. Moreover, the Lord continued, "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it." Not only is this phrase difficult to understand, but it is also difficult to translate. It is, however, the first mention of sin in Genesis. And in this case, sin seems to be lurking, biding its time. The wording at the end of the sentence parallels the woman's desire for the man.

Perhaps the best that can be said about this difficult situation is that for whatever reason, the Lord challenged Cain but not Abel. The interesting thing is that after the challenge, the Lord was still present, talking with Cain, helping him process what had happened. And the choice was pretty clear. If Cain could accept the Lord's decision, he would be "lifted up," which is a better translation than "accepted." So he had a choice. Perhaps the Lord had a reason. Perhaps Cain was being tested. Regardless, he had the option of doing or not doing "right." Doing "right" had positive consequences. Not doing "right" would put him under sin's domain.

Many scholars wax long about how life isn't always fair. And when that moment of injustice comes upon us (which it inevitably will), we all have a choice regarding our response. Character is formed not by the bad things that happen, but by the way one responds to the bad things. Blaming the Lord might have been the easiest response, but finding the lesson might have been the better route.

Cain, however, ignored the Lord's warning. He said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. The earlier manuscripts don't mention anything about a field; they simply say that Cain attacked and killed Abel. Death has come into the world. The repetition of "brother" only highlights the heinous nature of the act. Not surprisingly, the ironies abound. While Adam and Eve strove for immortality, their offspring engaged in fratricide. Although Cain was upset with the Lord, he took his anger out on his brother. But then, perhaps his actions were not supposed to make sense. When sin rules, nothing makes sense.

The Lord's question to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" reminds us of his question to Adam in Genesis 3:9. As before, it's a conversation-starter. Cain, however, replied, "I don't know. Am I my brother's keeper?" The truth is, he does know. So this is a lie and lacks any sense of remorse or responsibility.

The Lord, however, was not put off by the lie. He asked, "What have you done?" This was, of course, a rhetorical question. The Lord already knew what he had done. He continued, "Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground." It is a graphic rendering of the cry of the oppressed, and is especially poignant, since blood represents life in the Old Testament. The Lord spelled out the consequences for Cain. He would now be "under a curse and driven from the ground…When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you." This is actually the first time a person had been cursed. The effect of the curse would be that no matter how hard he tried, the ground that accepted Abel's blood would no longer produce crops for Cain.

In many ways this mimics the consequences for Adam, though it is more explicit. Adam would have to work harder to get results; Cain simply wouldn't get any. The ground that had produced bountifully would no longer do so. They were both expelled – Adam from paradise, Cain from the ground. As a result, Cain would be a "restless wanderer on the earth." It is not at all clear how he was supposed to sustain himself.

Unlike Adam and Eve who did not respond to their punishments, Cain cried out, "My punishment is more than I can bear!" This is akin to an admission of guilt. In being driven out from the land, he would be separated from God's presence. He obviously believed that God was confined to that space. Furthermore, as a lone wanderer he would not have the protection of family, or kin but could easily be killed by anyone who found him. It might be seen as a case of "an eye for an eye." He killed— therefore, he could expect to be killed.

Just as the Lord listened to the cry of Abel's blood, he also listened to the cry of Cain. Even though Cain had made the wrong choice, the Lord did not abandon him – instead, He extended mercy to him. The Lord responded, "No! Anyone who kills Cain will be punished seven times over." As an additional deterrent, the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one would ever kill him. Speculation abounds as to the nature of this "mark," but no one knows anything else about it. Still, it was effective. Perhaps it was a sign of the promise the Lord had made to Cain. From then on, Cain lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden, where he settled and built a city. (Nothing more was said about him being a restless wanderer.) There he took a wife, who bore Enoch. From this follows Cain's genealogy. (Again, the author is not interested in the origin of Cain's wife. Most scholars assume she was his sister, based on Genesis 5:4.)

The chapter ends with a note that Adam and Eve had another son who Eve named Seth. She said, "God has given me another child in place of Abel whom Cain killed." His actions, then, were not secret from his parents. Seth had a son named Enosh.